Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 253rd installment in the series.

October 18, 1916: Greece Splits Into Rival Factions

Like a growing vortex, the First World War sucked in more and more countries as the conflict spiraled ever further out of control. From 1915-1916 first Italy then Bulgaria, Portugal, and Romania abandoned neutrality to throw in their lot with one of the two opposing coalitions – and this was only the beginning.

After refusing to help its erstwhile ally Serbia when hostilities broke out, as the fighting dragged on Greece – one of the last neutral states in the Balkan Peninsula – gradually edged closer to war, motivated in part by irredentist claims to ethnically Greek areas of Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire, and even more by unrelenting pressure from the Allies. 

The pressure became literally overpowering in October 1915, when the French and British occupied the northern Greek port city of Salonika in a belated attempt to aid Serbia, doomed by the Central Powers’ autumn offensive. Their arrival in violation of Greek neutrality (nobody seemed to worry about respecting the neutrality of small states anymore) precipitated a dramatic falling out between the country’s pro-German King Constantine and its most powerful politician, the pro-Allied Prime Minister Eleutherios Venizelos, a popular elder statesman who invited the Allies to occupy Salonika (top, the view from a British battleship in Salonika harbor).

After being forced to resign for overstepping his authority, Venizelos went into open opposition and began plotting with his powerful foreign patrons to bring Greece into the war. Meanwhile, after their conquest of Serbia the Central Powers invaded northern Greece in May 1916, citing the Allied presence in Salonika. For their part the Allies reinforced their position with troops withdrawn from Gallipoli, despite British misgivings (in diplomatic terms the occupation of Salonika was always a French project, reflecting France’s senior role in the alliance as well as the political connections of General Maurice Sarrail, the French commander in Salonika, who had the support of the powerful socialist bloc in Parliament; above, Allied troops in Salonika).

For the Allied troops their time in the ancient polyglot city, which also played host to the provisional governments of Serbia and Albania, was a colorful experience to say the least. One observer, the British war correspondent Vincent O’Connor, described the scene in the marketplace: “Frenchmen, Englishmen, Canadians, Australians, Servians, Greeks, Jews, Turks, all are here in bewildering variety, and there are others to come. Generals, colonels, subalterns, corporals, rank and file; little boys and girls who go to and fro selling papers and furtively collecting those left behind sell again…”

A Forgotten Front

Greece somehow maintained a precarious neutrality through the mounting tension, but in May 1916 the Greeks surrendered the key fortress of Rupel to the Bulgarians without a shot, spurring Allied suspicions that the Greeks might be about to go over to the enemy. They responded by ratcheting up the pressure with a naval blockade of the country, followed by an ultimatum to King Constantine demanding that he demobilize the Greek Army in June 1916. The following month the Allies expanded their occupation of northern Greece with the arrival of the Serbian Army, revived after its disastrous retreat through Albania with six months of rest and resupply on the Greek island of Corfu. 

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In August 1916 the Central Powers clashed with Allied forces in northern Greece, where the Bulgarians captured Florina and forced Sarrail’s French Armée d'Orient back in the Vardar River Valley, before the Allies eventually halted the offensive; the Bulgarians were also briefly distracted by the entry of Romania into the war on the side of the Allies. Then in September the Allies launched a counteroffensive in a futile attempt to help the beleaguered Romanians, pushing the Bulgarians and German Eleventh Army back and threatening the Central Powers’ control of Monastir (now Bitola, Macedonia).

While the fighting in this region is often viewed as a sideshow or “forgotten front” of the First World War, it certainly didn’t seem that way to the ordinary soldiers stationed in the mountainous foothills and plateaus of southern Macedonia, and indeed the Monastir Offensive from September 12-December 11, 1916, was no less bloody than other theatres, with hardships amplified by primitive terrain, disease and harsh weather. As elsewhere, misery was general. Ruth Farnam, an American woman volunteering as a nurse in the Allied armies, visited a recently captured area just behind the Serbian-held portion of the front near Florina:

Everywhere were rolls of cruel barbed-wire, neatly stacked shell cases and the baskets in which they are handled, broken rifles, scraps of metal and all the various debris of battle. The earth looked like rudely plowed land, so pitted and torn with shell holes was it, and everywhere were the rude earthworks which had been thrown up by Serb and Bulgar. Sometimes these were a long line of mud embankments behind which many men could shelter; but more often the earth was scooped out in a tiny nest like a hare’s “form.” Some of these faced North and some South. There were many into which the earth had been roughly shoveled back and we knew that these held Bulgarian dead.

A correspondent, G. Ward Price, recorded similar impressions of the Bulgarian retreat:

All the rubbish that a hastily retreating army leaves behind were scattered right and left. Bullet-pierced caps and helmets, greatcoats, broken rifles, ammunition pouches, marked the trail of the retreating enemy, and from the top of the hill at Banitza, where the roads steeply down to the plain, you could see the Serbian infantry spread out on the green turf, each in his little individual shelter-trench, while the enemy shrapnel burst above and among them; and beyond, right away in the distance, loomed faintly the white minarets and walls of Monastir, their goal on the threshold of Serbia, gleaming faintly through the haze, like the towers of an unreal fairy city.

The stark beauty of the natural surroundings only highlighted the horrors of the battlefield, also described by Price:

You came upon little piles of dead in every gully; behind every clump of rocks you found them, not half-buried in mud or partly covered by the ruins of a blown-in trench or shattered dugout, but lying like men asleep on the clean, hard stones… Not only for days but for weeks after dead Bulgars lay there, preserved in the semblance of life by the cold mountain air, looking with calm, unseeing eyes across the battleground…

An Open Split

As the fighting intensified along the frontier between Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria, the Allies once again sought to bring their host country into the war on their side, with the increasingly aggressive French taking the lead. After landing on the island of Crete and announcing the formation of a provisional government in September 1916, on October 9 Venizelos returned to Salonika from Crete with his supporters on Allied ships, proclaiming that they were taking over the duty of national defense from the passive monarchy.

On October 18, 1916 Venizelos formally installed his new provisional government in Salonika, completing the split with King Constantine in Athens. The Allies also forced Constantine’s new prime minister, Nikolaos Kalogeropoulos, to resign while issuing fresh demands that Constantine withdraw the portion of the Greek Army which remained mobilized south to Thessaly, thus reducing the threat to their own troops. In the crowning humiliation, French marines surrounded the Royal Palace in Athens, and the Allies demanded that Constantine give up the ships of the Greek Navy, which he duly turned over to French control.

By November 1916 the Allies were effectively in control of northern Greece, while the new government organized by Venizelos was drawing support away from King Constantine. But the country remained divided, with two governments ruling in parallel from their respective capitals, in a chaotic period that became known as the “National Schism” or “Greek Vespers” (referring to a dark time in the nation’s history). It would have to endure several more upheavals before unity could be restored.

See the previous installment or all entries.