Feature Articles - The Eastern Expedition to Salonika

Cover of "The Long Shadow" by Loretta Proctor Author Loretta Proctor on the genesis of The Long Shadow.

In the foreword to my book The Long Shadow I explain how the idea of writing this book began to take shape in my mind as far back as 1973.

I was always interested in history and in particular the period of the First World War.  It was a cataclysmic period of human history; a time when the world seemed to be turned on its head and rattled about so that people all over the globe were being dispersed and dispatched to places that had till then been mere names on a map.

As we all know too well, this dispersal and disturbance continues even to this day.

The background of The Long Shadow is Salonika, now modern Thessaloniki, in Macedonian Greece.  It is a place I know well and love as a vibrant and modern city, yet with something of the Oriental about it still.  At that time, I vaguely knew that the Allies had sent an Eastern Expedition over there in WW1 and that barbed wire defences had been set up around the city which subsequently led to its being called "The Birdcage".

I knew too that the area had been marshy, unhealthy and malarial and many soldiers had died of this nasty disease.  These marshes were later drained by the Americans and are now tobacco fields or vineyards.

One always heard tales and memories and documentaries about Ypres, the Somme, Passchendaele and all the other haunting names of the Western Front.  We could conjure up pictures of slithering mud, cold trenches, stunted trees and other harrowing scenes of Western battle zones.

But who knew much about Macedonia and the freezing Vardar winds, the barren but beautiful mountains, the treacherous ravines and raging summer heat filled with malarial mosquitoes?  Curious to know more, I began to explore the subject.

Salonika during the Allies' occupation: view along the Quay (GW)The more I read diaries, memoirs, letters of those who loved, fought, suffered together there, the more I felt I wanted to record the bravery and courage of these forgotten and unsung heroes.  Over here in Britain, they were mocked at that time as "The Gardeners of Salonika" because they did not fight as many battles as the men in France and Belgium.

According to the newspapers the men seemed to do nothing but dig roads and tend their tomatoes.  That this was totally unfair soon became clear.  To get around an army need roads as the Romans well knew.  And there were mainly ancient dirt-tracks in those mountains, used by goats, bullocks and old carts.  The British contributed greatly by building very good roads across these impassable mountains.

Though there were fewer major battles, due to the terrain, more men died in these battles and if there had been any more, there would have been no army left to fight.  These incredibly brave men assailed steep, dangerous mountain tops and ridges looked down upon and constantly under shellfire from the enemy comfortably seated up above with easy supplies and ammunition at hand.  As my character, Dorothy Clarke, says in her war diary... "It is all very well dying for your country but not for a country that refuses to recognise your valour..."

Thus the notion came to me to write about Salonika at the period of the Great War.  It was such an interesting and unexplored background and era.  My heroine could be an Englishwoman who went over with the Red Cross as a nurse and meets perhaps a Greek officer with whom she falls in love.  This could bring in the women's war effort too.  Here was a strong core to the plot.  So far so good.

I began by writing to the British Red Cross Society to ask for information and help in research.  A reply came from a lovely lady called Joy Fawcett, sadly now deceased, who kindly lent me several copies of war-time Red Cross Magazines and the Nursing Mirror to look at.  These proved an invaluable and interesting source of information.

Salonika from the sea (NW)I then asked her if she could find anyone still alive who had some memories of their service with the V.A.D. units and a Mrs. Haire Foster kindly filled in a questionnaire for me.  Mrs. Fawcett said that the old lady "rather enjoyed remembering the past".  Mrs. Haire Foster has since died but I was amused and surprised too to find that my letter, her reply and her anecdotes are still on file in the Red Cross Archives and the Imperial War Museum also.

I then decided that my heroine was going to have a child by this Greek officer and that their boy would want some day to return to Greece to find his roots and his relations.  However, despite collecting a good many notes and ideas together, I eventually had to abandon the project as I was expecting my second child by then and just didn't feel I had the time and energy to devote to my children and a book that required a good deal of research.  I didn't want to be like Enid Blyton whose children were so neglected by her that they buried her typewriter in the garden in desperation!

So The Long Shadow remained in a folder, tucked away in the back of a cupboard along with many other ideas for novels-to-be.  But it was impossible to stop it from coming back to my mind over and over again.  It is a theme close to my soul, dear to my heart.  The Long Shadow is a story of displacement and parental loss and being myself half Greek and half English like my hero, it felt very much a part of my own inner story too.

My mother is a Greek born in Constantinople in the 1920's and she also lived in Salonika and then Athens before the Second World War when she met my father, who was in the RAF.  They married and escaped from Greece literally with the Germans on their heels.  The German forces were entering Salonika that very day and my father was taken away suddenly from their wedding reception and told to report back to base.  My mother, now a British Citizen, made her own way to Crete and was evacuated from there to Egypt where I was born later.

In a way then this is my mother's story too.  She has helped me tremendously with her memories of Salonika which she knew in the 1930's which makes up the latter half of the story.

Allied camp at Salonika as seen from an aeroplaneThe story seems to me to be relevant to our times although it is set in the period of the First War and the 1930's, because this whole theme of displacement seems to have begun then and still continues.

Europe was, till the time of the Great War, full of its own internecine quarrels and wars; it was like a big, bickering family.  Europeans sallied forth over the globe, here there and everywhere, convinced in their superiority as the centre of the world.  They were civilised, they had art, history, philosophy, science.  As far as Europe was concerned the rest of the world was full of dark, shadowy, tribal and uncivilised savages; places to be conquered and put into some semblance of European order and religious belief.

The Balkans were under the rule of the Ottoman Empire for 200 years.  And the central sway of Constantinople held this heterogeneous collection of nations together in comparative peace.  Jews, Muslims, Christians all lived together in a neighbourly harmony and these religions were allowed to be practised for the Turks considered both Jews and Christians to be People of the Book.  Plus they taxed the infidels which was a lucrative source of income.  Some Jews did convert to Islam but secretly retained Jewish customs and religious practice, forming a strange sect called the Donmeh.

During the period at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century there was much unrest in the Balkans as the central power of the Turks from Constantinople grew weaker.  Many countries, including Greece, gained their Independence.  Salonika fell to the Greeks in November 1912 when Crown Prince Constantine rode into the liberated city amidst the wild cheering of the Greeks.

The Jewish population was still in the majority but this was to change dramatically after the Second World War (when 50,000 Jews were taken away to Auswitzch) and after Smyrna was re-conquered by the Turks and a forcible exchange of populations was made between Greece and Turkey.

The Balkans as we know was, perhaps always will be, a hotbed of unrest, intrigue, nations, languages and crazy patriots though this arena seems to have shifted to the Middle East now.  This was the tinderbox that set the world alight with war in 1914.  Empires were collapsing and struggling to hold on to their power.

Archduke Franz Ferdiand photographed on the day of his assassinationThe death of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo led to the entry of Austro-Hungary into the Balkan conflict, later joined by Bulgaria, ancient enemies of the Greeks.  Salonika was the great and flourishing port of Macedonia, holding a strategic place since the times of the Byzantine Empire.  It was a prize to be captured and everyone wanted it.  The Allies were determined not to let them have it and despite the supposed neutrality of the Greeks (whose King was related to the Kaiser) they sent a force over to "protect" Salonika from the enemy.

An Expeditionary force of British soldiers were sent out, landing there on October 5th 1915 as part of the Allied Movement against the Austrians and Bulgarians who at that point held the Struma Heights.

The fact is few British soldiers had much clue about the Balkan area, the politicians hadn't much clue either, even the Balkan people were confused!  Salonika was a mere name on a map to a British soldier and no-one dreamt they'd ever see such a place.

As for the Balkan people, they had no idea about the British either, no clue as to the supposed might and power of this remote lot of islands in the Northern seas.  The Brits of course, considered themselves very important, we had an Empire and all that!  So when the two met it was an interesting thing to behold.

The village people were poor, backward, lacking in even rudimentary hygiene, downtrodden by years of warfare, brigandage and perpetual upheavals and dangers.  They were sullen and suspicious at first.  The rather stiff, quiet British exterior also disconcerted the natives who saw this as dull, heavy and stupid.  The Salonikans understood better the flamboyant and extravagant gestures and attitudes of the French, Italians and Serbs.

However as time went on they were surprised and glad to find that the Tommy was not there to steal from them or rape their women and by the end of our time there, the Jews even admitted they would have preferred Salonika to be ceded to the British who would be just and fair rather than the Greeks who they knew would soon take over the commerce and push the Jews into a ghetto which did in fact occur.

French transports and cavalry horses after arrival at Salonika (NW)The great battles that began the end of the Great War took place in 1917 and names like Doiran, the Grand Couronné and Struma should take their place alongside Passchendaele and Ypres.  By then the Greeks and Serbs had also joined the Forces and a concerted effort on the part of the Allies helped to route the Bulgarians who simply fled from their long held heights.

Like a pack of dominoes, Bulgaria then Austria fell and the whole Central Axis began to crumble.  The war began in the Balkans and in my opinion also ended there thanks to the supreme, daring and brave efforts of our men and women who gave up all to go and serve in this harsh and beautiful place where so many now lie buried in a corner of that foreign field.

Loretta Proctor's book The Long Shadow, ISBN 1-4241-0109-3 Publish America, Ohio is available direct from the publishers at Publish America or on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk, Borders, Gardners and Bertrams, Ingrams and other major online booksellers.

"I'm immensely impressed by the novel, especially the Greek scenes.  It's a marvellously accomplished book and certainly deserves to be issued in the UK... many congratulations on an impressive achievement."

Colin Wilson (author of The Outsider, The Occult, Mysteries and many more)

An Armlet was a cloth band worn around the arm to identify a particular duty or function.

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