Despite its role in destabilizing Bulgaria and Austria-Hungary, the Macedonian front is often overlooked. Established in 1915, following Bulgaria’s declaration of war and the resulting collapse of the Serbian front, the Salonica front—alternatively referred to as the Macedonian Front—was established around the Greek city of Thessalonica. The multinational army of English, French, Greek, Italian, Serbian, and even a few Russian contingents stationed in the tiny enclave around the city battled not only against the Austria-Hungarians, Bulgarians, and Germans, but also against continuous resource shortages, civil unrest and civil war, harsh environmental conditions, and rampant disease. None of this was new to war. The use of airplanes and their frequent bombing raids against the rear and the city, however, were entirely novel.
Sergeant Herbert Harvey Jones arrived at Thessalonica on December 14th, 1915 as part of the CAMC staff attached to No. 5 Canadian General Hospital. Two weeks after arriving, Jones and the rest of No. 5 completed setting up a hospital in time to get their first taste of the latest implement of industrialised warfare:
On the 30th [of December 1915] about 10.15 a.m. we had our first experience of being under fire, only it happened to be from the naval guns. Some German Aeroplanes had arrived in the air & commenced dropping bombs. The Battleship guns soon got the range, & compelled them to retire. However they returned about 12, were driven off again & chased by French airmen. It was exciting while it lasted, & was certainly fascenating [sic] to watch the shells bursting all around the machines. 3 bombs dropped within 1/2 a mile of our camp, exploding with terrible force a shepherd & 12 sheep was killed. You could easily have buried a taxi-cab in the hole one of the bombs made.
These air raids served as a campaign of terror against the citizens of Thessalonica. Unfortunately for the Central Powers, the terror of the planes was somewhat offset by the effectiveness of the French airmen and British naval guns that frequently chased them away. Whatever terror remained was often turned into rage against the Germans for their perceived cruelty.
More exciting than the airplanes was the hulking Zeppelin that periodically impressed itself upon the city. Its first appearance, in February of 1916, surprised a fresh contingent of nurses:
TUESADAY, [sic] February 1
This morning at 3 o’clock there was a raid by a Zeppelin, which several of us night duty fellows saw quite distinctly. It passed right over our camp, & the engines could be heard very plainly. As soon as it got over the harbour it commenced dropping bombs, apparently at some ammunition ships which were then laying in the harbour. None hit their mark, but the ship the nurses were on had porthole windows smashed from the explosions. The naval ships had had warning there was a Zepp. about, & soon opened fire on it, & compelled it to make tracks for home. […] Unfortuneately [sic] it got away as far as we know, without being hit. The nurses had a fine reception to Salonica.
As terrifying as the Zeppelin was to Jones and the people around him, its size kept it from making regular appearances. Where the airship was deployed, it was often under cover of darkness and quickly forced to retreat before the guns of the ships docked at Thessalonica’s harbour.
Despite the Zeppelin’s relative inefficiency and the inaccuracy of the bombing raids, the Central powers managed to score a few hits. During the Zeppelin raid above, a food store was hit which, was a particularly devastating blow given Thessalonica’s relative bareness and the lack of supply-lines to the front. Making things more precarious, Austrian and German submarines stalked the islands of the Aegean and sank several ships. The Central Powers’ greatest raid occurred in March of 1916. Jones recounts:
MONDAY, MARCH 27
Woke 5.30 am., feeling easier after good sleep. Dawn was just breaking & just before 6, the heaviest bombardment we had yet experienced, commenced. 9 German aeroplanes had arrived on another raid, & had already begun dropping bombs quite recklessly all around. The ships guns at once got busy & gave them a warm welcome. I did not feel strong enough to get up & watch it, but with the nearness of the explosions of the bombs all around, it seemed as if any minute bombs or shrapnel would be falling on us. I was told afterwards it was a wonderful sight to see the shells bursting right around the machines & was a wonder how any of them were not hit, although one was noticed to be apparently in trouble. On their way home, they continued dropping bombs.
Unfortuneately [sic] a little more domage [sic] was done this time. 2 bombs dropped on to an ammunition store, blowing the whole thing up with a most sickening explosion. The French had 120 casualties. A bomb dropped clean through a bell tent in a French camp, scattering tent & its occupants to bits.”
Even in the moment of their greatest triumph, the air raids sent by the Central Powers achieved little more than incurring the resentment and fury of those civilians they sought to intimidate. Jones notes in the same entry, “The bitter feeling of the people was so strong, that a protest was sent to Germany, who promised that the city should not again be touched. This of course did not include the camps outside.”
The ending of this air-raid campaign arrived in May when the Entente forces managed to shoot down the Zeppelin. Jones was sick during this attack, but he couldn’t resist getting up to watch the spectacle of a downed Zeppelin.
FRIDAY, MAY 5
2 o’clock this morning, Zepp visited here & got warm reception. Everything was ready for its arrival, & at a given signal 10 or 12 searchlights glared out, & soon picked out the airship. Then the guns began roaring away at it. After about 5 mins. we saw her hit, but she must have recovered as we thought she had got safely away, but next shot went bang into her, & she dropped. She dropped in the water only about 15 yds from land. The crew set her on fire & there was a tremendous flare for a time. Some of the crew burnt to death. some escaped inland & about 15 were caught. It was all a wonderful time, & when she dropped to the ground there was tremendous cheering from all who were out:
Shot fired from H.M.S.”AGAMMENON” [AGAMEMNON]
The destruction of the Zeppelin was a hit amongst the people that had been its prey for six months. Jones went to visit the wreckage the next day, and a few nurses even took pictures with the hulking wreck.
The Salonica front often goes ignored in Great War narratives, even though, in many ways, it serves as a distillation of many of the key themes of the war—in this case, the rise of aviation and strategic bombing. Following the destruction of the Zeppelin, there were fewer air-raids against Thessalonica. Unable to intimidate the civilians with outright physical attacks, there would be a shift towards more psychological ones—dropped propaganda pamphlets and other attempts to undermine morale. Neither direct offensives nor attempts at demoralising the rear would cause the front to collapse. Thessalonica served as a persistent ulcer for both Bulgaria and Austria-Hungary, draining crucial resources from both nations and contributing greatly to their eventual surrender.
Cain Doerper is an honours history undergraduate student at Concordia University. His studies focus on European modern history.