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Alan Wakefield: British Strategy and Balkan Victory 1918

Alan Wakefield

British Strategy and Balkan Victory 1918

In this current year we have witnessed the centenary of the defeat of the Central Powers and end of the First World War. In Britain much effort was expended on national, regional and local commemorative events over the four years from 2014. Perhaps unsurprisingly, national commemorations focussed on the two battles that have shaped British understanding of the First World War for decades, namely the Somme and Passchendaele. Gallipoli and the great, yet indecisive, naval clash, the Battle of Jutland, were also commemorated. These events have one thing in common, all sit in the British popular imagination as costly failures. It was only due to pressure from a group of academics led by Professor Gary Sheffield that the Battle of Amiens, Ludendorff’s ‘Black day of the German army’, which began the 100 days advance to victory on the Western Front, was also commemorated. More widely, academics, broadcasters and the visual arts brought ‘forgotten’ stories of Indian and African involvement in the war to a wide public audience. However, we learnt little of the campaigns in East Africa, Palestine and Mesopotamia where these colonial forces played a crucial role. Likewise, mention of the Salonika Campaign was also largely missing from mainstream commemorations and media in the UK. Just as 100 years ago, events in the Balkans were overshadowed by a focus on France and Flanders. Yet, the chain of events that ended with victory against Germany on 11 November 1918 began with a successful offensive in the Balkans by Allied forces under General Louis Franchet d’Esperey.

Salonika viewed from the deck of a British battleship (Imperial War Museum).

The dramatic collapse of Bulgaria on 29 September 1918, owed much to the fighting abilities of French and Serbian troops in breeching the Bulgarian front line in mountainous terrain and the ability to maintain forward momentum, which gave German and Bulgarian forces little opportunity to establish a secure line of defence after 17 September. The British Salonika Force also played a role in d’Esperey’s offensive, attacking the strongly entrenched positions at Doiran and then pursuing retreating Bulgarian forces until the signing of an armistice. This breakthrough and decisive advance came as something of a surprise to British war leaders as a large-scale Allied offensive in the Balkans was not part of their strategic plan for 1918.

After the failure of General Maurice Sarrail’s spring 1917 offensive, which included costly attacks by the BSF at Doiran, even committed Easterners such as Prime Minister David Lloyd George gave up on Salonika as a place to secure a decisive victory against one of Germany’s allies. Instead, Easterners focussed on Palestine and the defeat of Turkey as a way of securing their strategic goal. To help provide manpower for a major offensive aimed at capturing Jerusalem, General Milne’s BSF lost two infantry divisions to the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in the summer of 1917. This sent a clear message, that little was now expected from the BSF other than simply holding the line in Macedonia.

First photograph of General Sarrail and General Milne, the New British Salonika Army Commander.

Even prior to 1917, British interest in the Salonika Campaign was limited. When the Balkans were the centre of attention, as during attempts to entice Romania into the war during 1916, British war leaders expected French and Serbian forces to lead any military action in support of their new ally. Milne received little in the way of reinforcements, munitions or heavy artillery that would have allowed the BSF to play a significant role in any large-scale active operations. Indeed, committed Westerners including Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Sir William Robertson, and General Sir Douglas Haig, commanding British forces on the Western Front, had called for the redeployment of the BSF to France and Flanders ever since the defeat of Serbia in the winter of 1915. 

Come 1918 the BSF faced renewed pressure to give up its manpower for the good of Britain’s main effort on the Western Front. The collapse of Russia into the chaos of the Bolshevik Revolution and the resulting peace treaty signed by Lenin’s government with the Central Powers at Brest Litovsk on 3 March 1918 allowed Germany to move one million men west for a major offensive. The resulting attacks against sectors of the British and French line between 21 March and 18 July 1918 were increasingly desperate attempts by the Germans to score a decisive victory and bring the war to an end before overwhelming numbers of American troops reinforced the Allies and shifted the military balance permanently against Germany. In the Balkans, on 30 December 1917, Milne met with the new Allied commander, General Adolphe Guillaumat, who had replaced Sarrail eight days earlier. Guillaumat came with instructions from General Ferdinand Foch, French military representative on the Allied Supreme War Council in Paris. These stated that the primary mission of Allied forces in the Balkans was to prevent the conquest of Greece by the Central Powers. The forces were to maintain their present positions but if that proved impossible then the defence of ‘old Greece’ rather than Salonika was the priority. Only once this goal had been achieved and defensive preparations along the front completed could any potential offensive action be considered.

The defensive plans drawn up by Guillaumat and outlined in detail to Milne on 13 March 1918 were formulated to meet the perceived threat of an offensive by the Bulgarians in support of the anticipated German attack on the Western Front. Of the three defence areas outlined in the plan Milne and the BSF were to be responsible for the eastern sector running from the Aegean Sea to the River Axios. This equated to the frontline held by the BSF from early 1917 and included responsibility for the defence of Salonika. Ensuring Milne had sufficient troops for the task he was to be assigned one French and three Greek divisions. Guillaumat stressed that the defence must be active and aggressive. In response, Milne drew up a detailed appreciation of the British position and pushed forward with the construction of defenses. It is interesting to note that in his defensive scheme Guillaumat made no provision for the possible abandonment of Salonika inspite of his original instructions from the Supreme War Council.

Field Marshal George Francis Milne, 1st Baron Milne, GCB, GCMG, DSO, Commander of the British Salonika Army.

Allied Balkan strategy began shifting towards offensive operations soon after the appointment of Foch as Allied Gereralisimo on 26 March 1918. On 4 April, Guillaumat received a letter from Foch that called for the forces under his command to increase activity such as artillery bombardments and local attacks to tie down enemy forces. Such operations would limit Bulgarian freedom of action at a time when Allied war leaders feared a Bulgarian attack in support of the continuing German offensives in France. Going further than simply calling for limited operations, Guillaumat requested information from Milne on the offensive possibilities open to the BSF. Replying on 11 April, the British commander gave an assessment of three possible areas of operation.

1. The mouth of the River Strimon

2. The Strimon Valley between Seres and Demir Hisar

3. The Doiran – Axios Front

Of these options Milne favoured the mouth of the Strimon as operations here could be supported by Royal Navy warships and his forces would be attacking weaker Bulgarian positions. Guillaumat however favoured an attack on the Doiran – Axios Front and requested Milne make preparations for a possible offensive within six to eight weeks. In reply, Milne stated it was impossible for the BSF to undertake offensive operations within such a short timescale as British troops had yet to redeploy from the Strimon Valley as this was dependent on Greek forces being ready to take over that sector and these troops were not yet available.

British troops engaged in road building during late 1917.

The idea of an offensive in the Balkans was discussed by Allied diplomatic and military representatives of the Supreme War Council between 2-4 July 1918. The British, headed by Major-General Sackville-West, argued that, rather than military action, diplomacy was the most effective way to draw war weary Bulgaria away from her allies. A week later a further meeting of the Council was attended by Guillaumat, recently appointed as Military Governor of Paris and replaced at Salonika by d’Esperey. With Guillaumat declaring his belief that any offensive in the Balkans would be successful, those present, including the British representatives, took the decision to study the question of launching a general offensive against Bulgaria. One proviso was that any such effort would not be launched until the results would be of more than purely local importance. Eight days later, Guillaumat supplied the Council’s military representatives with details of the offensive preparations he’d made before returning from Salonika. At this point, US representative, General Tasker Bliss requested the War Office ask for Milne’s views on the viability of an offensive. Up to this point the BSF’s commander had not been consulted on the matter. On 22 July, Milne’s reply was received by the Council. The British commander supported the belief that with Bulgaria increasingly war weary and Germany and Austria-Hungary fully occupied elsewhere, the time was ripe for an offensive. He also outlined his preference for an attack towards Kavalla and Drama rather than an attack at Doiran for which he had neither adequate troops or artillery. He concluded by stating his belief that the Bulgarians would fight hard in their current positions but, once the line was broken, their resistance would quickly collapse.

Three days later Milne contacted the War Office to report that he’d been instructed by d’Esperey to prepare for an offensive in the second half of September. He explained that his part of the operation, an attack at Doiran, would only be successful if the BSF was brought up to strength in terms of reinforcements and additional supplies of ammunition. However, continuing British reluctance to become involved with large-scale offensive operations in the Balkans was highlighted that same day as CIGS Sir Henry Wilson wrote an appreciation of the overall military situation for the War Cabinet. In this he declared his opposition to an offensive and outlined his plan to ‘Indianise’ the BSF, allowing the majoritry of British infantry battalions to be transferred to the Western Front. Following Wilson’s argument the War Cabinet replied to Milne stated that an offensive in the Balkans was not desirable until such time as Germany was unable to militarily assist Bulgaria. It was the belief of British war leaders that such a situation would not exist in September 1918. Milne was also warned that he was unlikely to receive any reinforcements or ammunition above the BSF’s standard allotment.

British troops in Salonika taking daily dose of Quinine (Imperial War Museum).

Yet, despite the British government’s reservations, on 3 August the Allies took another step towards just such an offensive. On that date the Supreme War Council unanimously passed a resolution declaring the desireability of preparing for an offensive, to be launched by 1 October 1918 at the latest. The only proviso being that no men, material or shipping necessary for the execution of operations on the Western Front be diverted to support d’Esperey’s attack. In reporting back to the War Cabinet in London, Sackville-West stated he had only signed the resolution as he’d been given to understand that an offensive was needed to maintain the morale of the recently mobilised Greek army. In addition, he reported how the representatives at the Council had been informed that Foch wished the offensive to go ahead. Knowing that such a decision was not favoured by London, Sackville-West went on to conclude, somewhat in mitigation for his action in signing the resolution, with an assessment that, as no additional troops, material or shipping would be available, the scope of any such offensive would in all likelihood be limited.

The next development from a British standpoint occurred on 4 September when an Anglo-French conference was held at 10 Downing Street. Those present included Lloyd George, Viscount Milner (Secretary of State for War), Lord Cecil (Foreign Secretary), Sir Henry Wilson, Paul Cambon (French Ambassador to London) and General Guillaumat. In a repeat of the Rome Conference (5-7 January 1917) Lloyd George was won over by a French general. This time, it was Guillaumat’s assurance that only a limited offensive was planned and any grand schemes for marching on Sofia were for the future. In discussion with the other British attendees, the Prime Minister declared that Guillaumat had convinced him of the need for a Balkan offensive. The hope was for this resumption of active operations to be coordinated with attacks on the Italian Front and in Palestine.

This decision by the British government committed Milne and the BSF to an Allied offensive whilst maintaining the stance that the BSF could expect little, if any, reinforcement in terms of manpower or artillery. Indeed, by the time Lloyd George pledged support for the attack, the BSF had lost twelve infantry battalions to the Western Front, where troops were needed to make good heavy losses suffered during the German spring offensives. All Milne could do in mitigation was to continue combing out fit men from rear area functions such as drivers from the Army Service Corps and orderlies from the Royal Army Medical Corps. Even this expedient could do little to bring many of the British infantry units up to strength as that summer, soldiers already weakened by malaria, had to face the beginnings of the Spanish influenza epidemic. In 65th Brigade of 22nd Division the rates of sickness were so serious as to cause the whole formation to be taken out of the line and be placed in isolation camps. To bring the division, which was to play a lead role in the attack at Doiran, back up to strength, 77th Brigade were temporarily transferred from 26th Division. Even so, the British force available to Milne in September 1918 looked good only on paper. In reality, the average strength of infantry battalions in XII Corps was just 450 officers and men.

Realising the weakness of Milne’s force, d’Esperey assigned the Crete and Seres Divisions of the Greek National Defence Corps to the BSF for the Doiran attack. Knowing he was to be reinforced by Greek troops, Milne requested elements of I Corps, which had served alongside the British XVI Corps in the Strimon Vallery earlier in the year. However, d’Esperey did not fully trust the new Greek army and preferred to rely on the battle experienced Venizelist volunteers, although they had no experience of operating with British troops.

Group photo of British Army officers taken at General Headquarters, Salonika (Salonica, Thessaloniki, Greece) during the First World War. Standing, left to right, are: Major Henderson, Colonel Payne, Major General Travers Clark, Major General Filman, and Colonel Dowell. Seated, left to right, are: Brigadier General Long, an unidentified Major General, another unidentified officer, General Milne, and Colonel Essie. Date: early 1917

If Milne’s infantry force was barely adequate for the tough task ahead, likewise the available artillery support left much to be desired. As a gunner himself, Milne realised the shortcomings of this element of the BSF. Prior to the First Battle of Doiran in April 1917, a request had gone to the War Office for 8-inch howitzers, the lightest artillery piece that could destroy the many concrete gun positions, bunkers and dugouts constructed by the Bulgarians on the Doiran battlefield. All that was received was a single four gun battery in January 1918. Modest requests for a further battery, the return of two 6-inch guns previously sent to Egypt and the substitution of a 6-inch howitzer battery with one of 8-inch howitzers fell on deaf ears. This lack of provision highlights the continued low priority of the Salonika Front to British war leaders. That the position did not change after the decision was taken to involve British forces in active operations left the BSF with little chance that operations at Doiran would be successful.

Unable to secure additional guns, Milne, in a final attempt to provide his infantry with anything near adequate artillery fire, requested additional stocks of ammunition. This would permit the artillery plan, which included two days of wire cutting, counter battery fire, destruction of key strongpoints and a creeping barrage to protect the infantry advance. Knowing he lacked heavy guns capable of knocking out emplaced Bulgarian artillery, Milne requested large numbers of gas shells. The plan was to neutralise enemy batteries through the saturation of known positions with gas, thus causing Bulgarian gunners to operate wearing respirators, which would degrade their combat capabilities. Repeated requests for ammunition from Milne during July and August, supported by d’Esperey, whose involvement led to an intervention by Clemenceau, appeared to have succeeded as the War Office promised to meet the BSF’s requirements, even in terms of 15,000 gas shells for 6-inch howitzers. The provision of these shells in particular was vital for Milne’s counter battery plan given the range and accuracy of these artillery pieces. However, promises from London proved illusory as by 15 September, only 3,000 of the shells had arrived. This threw artillery plans for Second Doiran out of sync. Too few gas shells were available for truly effecitve counter battery work and where ammunition of all types was plentiful the actual number of guns was not really sufficient to produce the required weight of fire across the frontage of attack.

Seriously let down by the War Office the BSF fought the Second Battle of Doiran to the best of its ability. In the main assault by XII Corps the Greek Serres Division distinguished itself by capturing and holding a number of key Bulgarian positions. However, the weak British battalions made little headway against determined resistance from the 9th (Pleven) Division. Units within 65th, 66th and 77th Brigades suffered over fifty per cent casualties. After the two days of fighting Anglo-Greek casualties stood at 7,103 officers and men. As Milne had predicted a victory at Doiran was beyond the capabilities of his underresourced force.

Doiran Memorial.

Knowing this to be the case, should he have refused giving battle? Crucially, the failure of the War Office to inform Milne of their inability to supply the necessary ammunition left the BSF’s commander with no time to replan his operations or scale down his involvement in the offensive without appearing to commit a serious breech of faith with his Allies. His government had committed the BSF to an offensive and to have failed to take part would have seriously affected British prestiege, placing his country, himself and his army in an intolerable position. Milne realised that the attack at Doiran was an integral part of a wider operation and had to be carried out. In addition, he saw a spark of genius in the plan put togtether by d’Esperey and Misic and believed the Allies were finally on the verge of achieving a decisive victory. That the British attack was launched on 18 September, one day after the Franco-Serbian breakthrough was secured, left Milne and others in the BSF with the thought, no doubt, that the Bulgarians facing them already had one eye on the route home.

The September 1918 Breakthrough on the Macedonian Front.

For the British and Greek troops fighting at Doiran in September 1918 this proved not to be the case. Yet the attack prevented the movement of any Bulgarian troops west of the Axios to reinforce against the main Allied advance. In addition, on 21 September, when the entire Bulgarian army was found to be in retreat, Milne quickly reorganised his forces and sent them in pursiut. Spearheaded by the Royal Air Force, whose aircraft bombed Bulgarian troop and transport columns, elements of the BSF were the first Allied troops to cross into Bulgaria. This achievement owes little to British war leaders in London who starved the BSF of resources throughout the war and everything to the abilities of Milne and his subordinate commanders to keep their increasingly threadbear army in the field and to the determination of the men of the BSF, none of whom wanted to miss out on playing a part in final victory.

Salonika – Away from the Western Front


Alan Wakefield is Chairman of the Salonika Campaign Society and is a member of the British Commission for Military History. For the past five years he has held the position of Section Head – Photographs, being responsible for the curatorial team managing the IWM Photograph Archive.