Battlefield Archaeology: 100 years since the forgotten battles of the Macedonian Front

By Pierre Kosmidis

Photos: Giannis Karageorgiou

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Giannis Karageorgiou from Greece has extensively researched the forgotten battlefields of the Macedonian Front, also known as Salonika Front, the area which witnessed bitter fighting with many casualties during WW1.

Obscured by the epic battles of the western front during WW1, relatively few are aware of the ferocity in the battlefields of Macedonia, Greece.

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Giannis Karageorgiou revisited the WW1 battlefields in northern Greece, such as the one fought in Skra, which is north-west of Thessaloniki, on May 29–30, 1918. The battle was the first large-scale employment of Greek troops of the newly established Army of National Defence on the front, and resulted in the capture of the heavily fortified Bulgarian position.

“Many have forgotten about those World War One battles fought by the Greeks, the French, the British and the Serbs, against Bulgarians who were on the side of the Germans. Many relics are still being found on those battlefields, reminding us that every inch of soil was bitterly contested.” 

History of the Macedonian Front

In October 1915 a combined Franco-British force of some two large brigades was landed at Salonika (Thessaloniki) at the request of the Greek Prime Minister.

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The objective was to help the Serbs in their fight against Bulgarian aggression. But the expedition arrived too late, the Serbs having been beaten before they landed. It was decided to keep the force in place for future operations, even against Greek opposition. The Greek Chief of the General Staff in Athens had told them ” You will be driven into the sea, and you will not have time even to cry for mercy” (Some Greek factions, including King Constantine, were pro-German).

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The outcome of the Gallipoli campaign was in the balance and most shipping in the area was involved so they really had no choice. In December 1915 the British element fought a battle at Kosturino, north of Lake Doiran, after withdrawing from Serbia. After this there was little action except for occasional air-raids on Salonika.

The Salonika Force dug-in until the summer of 1916, by which time the international force had been reinforced and joined by Serbian, Russian and Italian units.

The Bulgarian attempt at invasion of Greece in July was repulsed near Lake Doiran. At the beginning of Oct 1916, the British in co-operation with her allies on other parts of the front, began operations on the River Struma towards Serres. The campaign was successful with the capture of the Rupell Pass and advances to within a few miles of Serres.

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During 1917 there was comparatively little activity on the British part of the front in Macedonia, due in part to complex political changes in Greece throughout the year. The main fighting took place around Lake Doiran, where the line was adjusted several times by each side early in the year. In April 1917, the British attacked, gained a considerable amount of ground and resisted strong counter-attacks.

In May, the Bulgarians attacked the British positions, but were firmly repulsed. The British action in May triggered a series of attacks elsewhere on the front by the other Allies, known as the Battle of Vardar.

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At the beginning of 1918 the Allied troops in Salonika were prepared for a major offensive intended to end the war in the Balkans. The Greek Army had been reorganised and joined the Allied force. The offensive began in July 1918 but the British contingent did not play a significant part until early September.

Then the British attacked a series of fortified hills. The final assault began along the whole front on 15 September 1918; the British being engaged in the Lake Doiran area. This battle was really on the 18 and 19 September 1918 and was a disaster for the British Divisions.

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They had to frontally assault ‘Pip Ridge’ which was a 2000 foot high heavily defended mountain ridge with fortresses built on some of the higher mountains, notably Grand Couronne. (This was what the Bulgarians had been working on in the first months of 1916 and early 1917.) They sustained very heavy casualties.

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