This book presents an uneven account of one of the more obscure campaigns of the first world war. As the book makes clear, the campaign in Greece was driven mostly by political considerations rather than by military considerations or even common sense. The author generally presents the story correctly but in his analysis often draws foolish conclusions, shifts all the blame away from the British to the French and minimizes telling any stories which tend to cast the British or French in a bad light. The book's coverage of events on the other side (Bulgaria, Austria and Germany) is mostly summary and minimal.
The initial operation made no particular sense. The French and British forced neutral greece to hand over the port of Salonika as part of hairbrained scheme to somehow help Serbia. The problem with that being that Salonika was on the side of the mountains from Serbia and the landing was taking place as winter approached. The landing did nothing at all to help the Serbs. In spite of the troops serving no particular purpose, they were kept in Greece and Salonika was turned into a fortress at enormous expense.
The French then sent out general Maurice Sarrail. Sarrail was well connected in French politics and carried himself like a republican general out of the French Revolution. With political considerations being equal to military ones in his mind. Sarrail spent much of his time working for the overthrow of the Greek government. After throwing the Greek government out of Salonika. he permitted a charmingly French "committee of public safety" to be formed as a rival government for Greece in Salonika. In one of the author's stranger interpretations of events, he describes the British/French drawing of a line in northern greece which the government of greece was not to go beyond an an attempt to prevent civil war.
Eventually, the former Greek prime minister (Venizelos) is coaxed into coming to Salonika to form a true rival government to the one in Athens. Venizelos was a fanatical believer ub a "greater greece" to be formed from the territory of its neighbors. The British and French then sent a fleet led by ten battleships to Athens to demand the surrender of the Greek Navy. The implicit threat being that the greek capital would be shelled if they did not obey. The next demanded control of the entire greek transportation system. Then then sent troops into Athens for no particular reason. The author tries to blame the Greeks and hide behind a fog of war argument, but when you have a French Minister begging the Greek King to "spare" Athens from a general naval bombardment, that kind of says it all. While the author tries to blame everything on the French, the British authorities up to the level of King George V were complicit. The King claiming in the aftermath that the British and French had "confined their demands upon Greece to the observence of a benevolent neutrality". A short while after, the British and French recognized the government under their control in Salonika as the government of Greece.
The fighting itself was both sad and rather foolish. The British and French made attempt after attempt to attack prepared positions in mountain passes to the north of Greece with no success to speak of. Malarial lowlands were also held at great cost to the troops involved with no particular military benefit. The author however gushes his affection for the remnants of the Serbian Army fighting in Greece. He repeatedly (very foolishly) refers to the danger that the Serbian Government might seek a separate peace as if that would be something of great political or military consequence.
Sarrail continued to plot. He had a French-allied provisional government all prepared to be put into place in Albania. That the Italians had their designs on Albania did not register at all with him. Seemingly beyond any control in Greece for years, Sarrail was finally brought down by political scandal and political change in France that removed his protectors. He was removed at a time of great crisis. The Russians had left the war, the Italians had collapsed at Caporetto and Passchendaele had ended in failure. One would assume that the general crisis would have put an end to the operations in Salonika. But they did not.
In the fall of 1918, a successful offensive was finally launched. But contrary to the author, it was not successful because the ideas behind the Salonika operations were good ones, but rather because of the desperate state of Bulgaria and Austria-Hungary at that moment. The author does a bad job of explaining the reasons for the Bulgarian collapse in 1918 and tends rather to attribute it to the special fighting qualities of the Serbs and the strength of the Royal Air Force. The author also makes the great mistake of assuming that the conditions of late fall 1918 also existed in 1917, 1916 or even 1915. But it seems more likely that limited offensive success in the area in those years would simply have led to the other side taking up new defensive positions (one after the other) in the mountain passes. Bulgarian or Austrian collapse as happened in the fall of 1918 would not have automatically happened in earlier years. The Author is also just a wee bit delusional in assuming that a campaign against Dresden could have been supplied from Greece in the event of anything other than a general collapse by the central powers.
In the end, though the author doesn't say it, I got the impression that the entire operation in Salonika had other reasoning behind it, but not reasoning to do with the fighting of the war. Salonika was about having a base from which British and French postwar ambitions in the Balkans and in Turkey could be realized. Without Salonika, French ambitions in the Balkans were constrained by the good will of Italy and the promises made of territory to Italy. Salonika put them in a position to help create Yugoslavia and to redeem war promises made by giving part of Hungary to Romania. Both the French and British governments (in particular Lloyd-George in Britain) favored the idea of a "greater greece" with a large greek obedient greek army to serve their military needs. After the Bulgarian collapse, the British didn't care about the Balkans. They cared about the military occupation of Constantinople and the straits by the British.
It was also an operation about compromises. The French were willing to let General Sarrail run wild in Greece if it kept him away from the war in France. The British were willing to let the French have their way in Greece (and even be under French command) whereas they were not going to put the BEF in France under French command or give the French a role in other theaters (like the middle east).
The author gives a short summary of what happened after the war. Sarrail made a comeback in 1925. He was sent to Syria and later departed after shelling Damascus in an attempt to put down an irregular revolt. Venizelos led Greece into a disaster of a war in central Turkey and the political wounds of the first world war lingered on for decades in Greece. Lloyd-George's adventures in Turkey eventually led to him being pushed out of office. The less said about what ultimately happened in Yugoslavia, the better.
For all his faults, Palmer does a good job telling the story of the operation. He probably makes it at times more dramatic that it actually was. He tells the whole story (good and bad) of events while clearly favoring and supporting the British side in a rather overt way. Calling the Serbian Army "the hardiest troops in Europe" (p. 219) and generally over-praising them is one of the worst things he does. But he does well capturing the toxic political culture of France during the war and he manages to make a remarkably readable book out of an account of an army that did very little in the war until the fall of 1918.
- Paperback: 304 pages
- Publisher: Faber Finds; Main edition (1 May 2011)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0571255124
- ISBN-13: 978-0571255122
- Product Dimensions: 15.6 x 1.9 x 24 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 558 g
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