“Nobody seemed to have heard of” Salonika, 100 years on

100 years ago, British and French troops landed in Salonika, creating a periphery front which, according to one soldier, “nobody seemed to have heard of.”[1] You’d be forgiven for never having heard of it, either, unless you a reader of this blog, or one of my friends, or (let’s face it, is most likely), both.

100 years ago Salonika (now Thessaloniki) was a multicultural meltingpot (or a salade macédoine if you prefer) but British first impressions were almost alarmingly uniform.

View of Salonika harbour © IWM (Q 36288)
View of Salonika harbour © IWM (Q 36288)

“The view from afar was alluring, the reality less so, yet fascinating because of its vivid, colourful street life. Venizelos Street, the narrow principle artery, and the embankment following the wide sweep of the bay were full of a noisy stream,” Isabel Emslie wrote in her memoir. [2] H. Collinson Owen, a journalist who spent most of the war in Salonika editing the small daily paper, The Balkan News, made this observation: “Everyone who comes first into the city by sea says instinctively, ‘How beautiful!’ An hour afterwards, if they have landed, they exclaim, ‘Heavens! What a place!'”[3]

A section from my thesis makes this point (again and again and again):

NCO Bazley wrote, “our first view of the towns and minarets of the East was quite pleasing.” But, he continued, “The town proved to be a dirty looking place and quite disappointing.”[4] RAMC dental assistant Haines thought that Salonika, viewed from the harbour, was “a very pretty place.”[5] Lieutenant Preece described Salonika as “white and blazing in the sunshine” and with “so many sights new and interesting.”[6] Echoing their sentiments, Private Brooks wrote, “Salonika looked a fine town from the harbour, dotted with white minarets.”[7] Relief worker Kathleen Courtney emphasized the beautiful view of minarets from the harbour, adding that her “impression on landing is a sea of mud and an extraordinary medley of nationalities crowding the streets.”[8]

Salonika was alluring and exotic from a distance, but why did it turn out to be so disappointing? It wasn’t just the mud, the crowds, the smell. The Allied landings in Salonika were the beginning of a three year campaign that was derided by the British public during the war and afterwards immediately became obscure. On Saturday I’ll be talking about this lack of appreciation let to a major difference of experience between men and women in the Balkans. In the meantime thanks for remembering this forgotten front.

[1]C R Hennessey, “Papers,” IWM 03/31/1, 103

[2] Isabel Galloway Emslie Hutton, Memories of a Doctor in War and Peace (London: Heinemann, 1960), 141.

[3]H. Collinson Owen, Salonica and After: The Sideshow That Ended the War. (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1919), 78.

[4] G W Bazley, “Notes from War Diary Covering France, Greece, Macedonia, Egypt & Palestine,” in S Pounds, “Papers,” IWM 76/146/1, 29 Nov 1916.

[5] O C M Haines, “Letters,” IWM Con Shelf 3245, 27 Apr 1916, 174.

[6] H R Preece, “Diary,” IWM 04/4/1, 11 Aug 1917.

[7] H E Brooks, “Papers,” IWM 03/30/1, 26 Nov 1915.

[8] Kathleen Courtney, “Papers,” IWM PP/MCR/C3 & P96, 2 Jan 1915. See also H Birkett Barker, “Papers,” IWM 73/140/1, 20 Aug and 27 Sept 1916; W Knott, “Papers, ” IWM P305, 11 and 13 Oct 1915;  Charles Packer, Return to Salonika (London: Cassell, 1964), 14.


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