Thu, Mar 19, 2015 - Page 6 News List

FEATURE: The Balkan peaks where World War I was really won


A woman stands among the graves at Zeitelnik, the World War I Allied Military Cemetery and memorial park, during the inauguration of the museum of the French section of the site in Thessaloniki, Greece, on Monday last week.

Photo: AFP

It was the front where the war which seemed to have no end finally turned, where the world’s first truly global military force was assembled and where air power’s deadly potential was first demonstrated, but only now, a century after World War I began in the Balkans with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 in Sarajevo, is it being slowly rescued from the footnotes of history.

This month, French Junior Minister of Defense Jean-Marc Todeschini flew to Greece “to repair the injustice” by opening the first museum dedicated to the Salonica Front.

The fact that it consists of only two small rooms in the gatehouse of the vast Allied cemetery at Zeitenlick is not likely to mollify its veterans’ ghosts.

“They saw themselves as the ‘Forgotten Army’ even as they were fighting,” British historian Alan Wakefield said, their story “just too strange” for the usual Great War narrative.

You only have to walk through graves of the long-haired Moroccan spahi cavalry, Senegalese riflemen, Berber zouaves, Vietnamese Buddhists and Malagasy animists who fell for France — all incongruously marked by crosses — to realize this was not the same war you read about at school.

If few historians today stress how the Allies’ Macedonia campaign hastened the end of the slaughter, German commander General Erich Ludendorff was in no doubt at the time.

As his memoirs make clear that the stunning breakthrough Serb and French troops made on the top of 2,000m Macedonian mountains in September 1918 convinced him the war was lost.

“In this situation I felt incumbent upon me the heavy responsibility of hastening the end of the war,” he wrote.

Yet for decades the soldiers who won that victory were dismissed as slackers, the “Gardeners of Salonica,” tending their grapes in the Mediterranean sun while their comrades died in the mud of Flanders.

It is true, Wakefield said, that Allied soldiers in Salonica — now called Thessaloniki — were 20 times more likely to fall victim to malaria, dysentery or venereal disease than a bullet, bayonet or bombardment, but life inside its barbed wire defenses, known as the “Birdcage,” was not the endless of round of cafe, music hall and brothel visits that many back home imagined.

The region had already been ravaged by two Balkans wars and had trouble feeding its own people when Allied troops landed in neutral Greece in 1915, too late to save the valiant Serbs from defeat.

The Serbs’ retreat with terrible losses through the snows of Albania was another of the war’s great, rarely told stories.

“Serbs were then the heroes of the free, progressive world,” Serbian Consul Sinsia Pavic said, standing outside an ossuary that holds the bones of 6,000 of his countrymen. “People forget we lost one in three of our male population in World War I.”

Salonica was already a Babel — capital of what was then the mostly ethnically and religiously diverse corner of Europe, Thessaloniki Mayor Yiannis Boutaris said — before the arrival of troops and laborers from all over the world.

They came from France, Britain, Russia, Italy, India, north, west and central Africa, Japan, China, Vietnam and Madagascar, not to mention a Czech legion and the broken remnants of the Serb army.

Then a majority-Jewish city, it had a sizeable Greek and Turkish population that included the Donme, descendants of Jews who had converted to Islam, but its cosmopolitan exoticism was not to everyone’s taste.

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