The decision to join the French troops in Greece was taken by Kitchener & the British Government in 1915 after the failure to break through the Turkish lines at Gallipoli. The 10th (Irish) Division (GOC Mahon) arrived at Salonika to support Serbia against Bulgaria as part of a French led mission commanded by General Serrail. The Bulgarian troops were more experienced in modern warfare (having fought in the Second Balkan War of 1913) than either the French or British troops opposing them. The 10th Division, having lost men in Gallipoli, had a large fraction of inexperienced fresh troops when they were put into action in the winter of 1915 to block the Bulgarian advance. Many men became casualties from frostbite as the troops had been moved forward without adequate winter clothing. In December the Bulgarian attack was successful and the Allied armies withdrew to Salonika where their defensive line, constructed of layers of barbed wire, took on the nickname ‘the Birdcage’. The expected Bulgarian invasion of Greece never took place as the Kaiser wished to keep Greece neutral and any invasion would have played into the hands of the Allies.
The Allies, re-enforced by Serbian, Italian & Russian troops, established a line from the Albanian coast to the Aegean. In May 1916, Mahon was replaced by Lt-General Milne. The British Salonika Force was eventually to comprise six division in two Corps with troops on two fronts, the Struma valley to the east and trenches around Lake Doiran to the west. But artillery support was poor as the Western Front always took priority over Salonika when allocations were made. As the summers were too hot for fighting, troop movements always took place at night, and reconnaissance was carried out by cyclists and cavalry. This was not a healthy part of the world. Malaria alone was to cause over 160, 000 casualties. Troop movements to the UK avoided the Mediterranean due to U-boat activity. Any troops returning to the UK took 3-4 weeks to reach the Channel ports via Greece and Italy before using French railways.
Salonika had been part of the Ottoman Empire for about 300 years before Greece took possession during the Balkan War of 1912, in fact negotiating its surrender about 24 hours before a Bulgarian army made the same request. As observed by the Irish troops who arrived in 1915, Salonika looked wonderful from the troop ship as it approached the harbour but the town itself was a series of hovels. There was never a problem with the purchases – Salonika was a town of traders and the troops were a captive market. When Lt-General Milne assumed command, each division was instructed to start gardening – vast gardens were dug and maintained to ensure a constant supply of fresh fruit and vegetables. This ultimately led to the title ‘Gardeners of Salonika’ for the troops awaiting the call to go into action. The medical fraternity soon found that gardening was one of the best ways of shortening the convalescence of sick troops. Other than gardening, sport, especially football and cricket, tortoise racing, and amateur dramatics all proved to be excellent ways of enhancing morale of the troops. During the mosquito season, the wearing of anti-malarial headgear became compulsory. Eventually troops moving forward, even at night, resembled beekeepers more than soldiers on active service. The troops remarked on the similarity to tramps and scarecrows after donning the correct gear.
The British patrolled the Struma River valley throughout 1916 until the heat and malaria forced an element of withdrawal during the day. The diet of the soldiers was similar to that on the Western Front – cans of bully beef. When opened the contents were molten and attracted flies. Many soldiers commented on the number of flies which covered the food within minutes of opening the can. The bivouac camps were initially set up in ravines but this proved to be a poor choice as the ravines were prone to flooding after heavy rain. Wheeled transport became unmovable on the cart tracks and footpaths so mules were commandeered to ensure some provisions could be moved up to troops in the front line. Quinine parades proved very unpopular due to the taste. Each section would parade to take their medicine in front of an NCO or junior officer to prevent them from spitting the quinine out before being dismissed.
In the spring of 1917, General Serrail’s Allied force had increased to 24 divisions, which included six French and seven British divisions. Politics in Greece was very turbulent with forces loyal to the Prime Minister Venizelos at odds with royalist troops. Eventually the King, Constantine, would abdicate and be succeeded by his son Alexander. Venizelos assumed control of the government and Greece declared war on the Central Powers.
In 1918 with the arrival of General Franchet d’Espèrey as Commander of the Salonika Force, preparations were put in place for an offensive to end the war in the Balkans in September 1918. The French and Serbian Armies attacked at Dobro Pole with great success forcing the Bulgarians back. The British attacked, together with the Greek Army, at Lake Doiran but this was a failure. XII Corps attacked the Pip Ridge, part of the Bulgarian defences known as the Grand Couronne (the fortress which overlooked the battle field was also known as the ‘Devil’s Eye’). After initially taking the Bulgarian lines, the British were forced to withdraw after suffering heavy casualties. The French offensive forced the Bulgarian Army back and eventually an Armistice was negotiated for September 29 1918.