The Salonika Campaign was perhaps the most diverse of the First World War. By 1917, the Allies fielded 600,000 men in six national contingents: British, French, Greek, Italian, Russian and Serbian. Within the British and French forces were units from India, Indo-China, North and West Africa. At peak strength the British Salonika Force (BSF) numbered more than 228,000 officers and men. The British employed volunteer units such as a Mule Corps and the Maltese Labour Corps. Australian, Canadian and New Zealand medical personnel were also part of the BSF and the volunteer Scottish Women’s Hospital had units attached to the Serbian army.

Background

The Salonika Campaign began on 5 October 1915 with the landing of the 10th (Irish) Division and French 156th Division at the port of Salonika in Greece. The Allies hoped to deter Bulgaria from joining Germany and Austria-Hungary, but only days later Bulgaria declared war and mobilised to attack Serbia. Attempts by the Anglo-French force to support the Serbian army ended in failure and by 14 December the troops were back on Greek territory and retreating towards Salonika.

Stalemate

From January 1916 Allied forces were placed under the command of General Maurice Sarrail, reflecting the primacy of French forces. The Allied army lacked sufficient manpower, ammunition, equipment and supplies to fight a sustained campaign along a 250 mile front against Bulgarian forces and their allies, numbering almost 500,000 men, often including Austro-Hungarian, German and Turkish units.

Allied offensives led by French and Serbian troops were launched during late 1916 and spring of 1917. As part of these operations the BSF fought the First Battle of Doiran (24 April – 9 May 1917) suffering more than 5,000 casualties, killed and wounded. Failure by the Allies to break Bulgarian resistance resulted in stalemate along the Salonika Front.

Conditions

Soldiers on both sides faced each other for three years across challenging terrain, through extremes of climate in summer and winter. Accommodation for the front line soldier usually comprised little more than a bivouac tent or dugout. Much effort was expended on improving the local road network and in constructing light railways. Even so, many parts of the front could only be reached by pack mules.

Disease, in particular malaria, proved endemic throughout the campaign. The BSF alone suffered more than 160,000 cases of malaria, particularly in the Struma Valley. At the time, the region was one of the worst malarial areas in Europe. Rates of infection were such a problem that both sides withdrew to the hills during summer months.

1918

In 1918 a new Allied commander, General Louis Franchet d’Esperey, planned an ambitious offensive. On 15 September, French and Serbian divisions attacked Bulgarian positions in mountains east of Monastir. Within three days they broke through the defences and continued to advance northward. In support of this operation the BSF again attacked the strong Bulgarian defences at Doiran on 18 September.

Weakened by malaria, influenza and the withdrawal of units to the Western Front, the BSF had been strengthened by the arrival of the Greek ‘Crete’ and ‘Serres’ Divisions. These formations played a lead role in two days of hard fighting at Doiran. Suffering more than 7,000 casualties, the British and Greek troops failed to dislodge the Bulgarians despite determined efforts and the capture of front line trenches. However, the attack achieved its main objective of preventing Bulgarian troops from leaving to help their comrades attempting to halt the advance of French and Serbian forces.

On 20 September, with their lines of communication threatened, the Bulgarian Army was forced into retreat along the entire front. Pursued by Allied troops and bombed in mountain passes by the Royal Air Force, the retreat became a rout. With foreign troops on Bulgarian soil, peace negotiations began and an Armistice came into effect on 30 September 1918.

Related Cemeteries & Memorials

Doiran Military Cemetery contains the graves and memorials of more than 1,340 servicemen of the British Empire of whom nearly 460 remain unidentified. Close to the cemetery stands the Doiran Memorial which bears the names of some 2,170 servicemen of the United Kingdom who died in Greece and have no known grave.

Mikra British Cemetery contains the graves and memorials of more than 1,800 servicemen of the British Empire, of whom more than 10 remain unidentified. Within the cemetery stands the Mikra Memorial which bears the names of nearly 480 servicemen and women of the British Empire who died at Sea and have no known grave.

Salonika Lembet Road Military Cemetery contains the graves and memorials of more than 1,640 servicemen of the British Empire, of whom more than 10 remain unidentified.