From Belfast to Belgrade: tales from antique territories.

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Irish forces cycling along the struma valley, 1917. (Courtesy: National Army Museum.)

I.

As I was recently perusing through a number of World War 1 books, a thought of schoolboy proportions struck me like a cat lashing out while I initially mistook it to be friendly. Unable to prevent my conscience from looking for details on Race, Nationality, and Empire relating to British Imperialism, wouldn’t it be the case that the contribution of July 1 massacre of the Ulster Protestants of Belfast in fueling the sectarian conflict that engulfed the same city after the war, the influence of Gallipoli and the Somme on the emergence of Australian self-determinism, or of the Vimy Ridge fighting on the formation of Canadian nationalism in themselves could constitute a book on empire? The subject had left an ineradicable impression on my mind, but the scale of it had discouraged me from taking it up any further as these, and other incidents such as Delville Wood and the swathes of Indian regiments recruited to fight the allied cause could themselves constitute a book on empire, under the rubric of today’s ‘post-colonial studies.’ Such a discharge from myself is nothing more than a greeting from our age of plenty to an age of jackboots, regimentation, militarism and uniformity. But our curiosities can be naggingly persistent – just as persistent as the comfort from atrophy and routine, and I’m glad to say that it had eventually won through. Thus, here I’ll present my foray into this area that had led me to chronicle the story of a subsection of the 10th Irish Division who went to fight in the war.

When the Irish playwright, Sean O’Casey wrote The Silver Tassie, the famous Irish poet W. B. Yeats happened to take a particular dislike of it. Yeats remarked about O’Casey:

You [O’Casey] are not interested in the great war, you never stood on its battlefields or walked its hospitals, and so write out of your opinion.

Noting further that the dramatic narration of the play ought to take precedence over didactic proration, the poet continues:

Among the things that dramatic action must burn up are the author’s opinions; while he is writing he has no business to know anything that is not a portion of the action.

Yeats was writing this at a time where Ireland had endured upto a decade of political turmoil. The issue of ‘Home Rule’ had been a heated topic amongst the Irish nationalist for decades, involving a degree of autonomy from the British government. This would enable them to legislate their own problems while still remaining within the auspices of the ‘United Kingdom,’ but a catholic majority parliament with ties to Britain was a bit too much for the Irish Unionists, who were predominantly located in the region of Ulster. They began forming a force set to resist this declaration promised by Britain in 1914 – known as the Ulster Volunteers. They were ready with smuggled weapons for an armed resistance. With two large opposing forces, Ireland was at the brink of Civil War, but the menacing winds of the Great War was to soon sweep away the acute political squabbles between the nationalists and unionists, temporarily shedding decades of exhaustive disagreements and instead joining the British army under the banner of fierce Irish national pride with a dewdrop of internationalism to it (which is to say that other nations under the empire should follow their lead and show their character and demand for self-rule.) To this end, a subsection of the 10th Irish Division initially intended to the Gallipoli peninsula was paramount in embodying the qualities that I’ve sketched above. They were included as part of the British Salonika Army and were intended to capture Belgrade. And it is to this that I shall burn up my own narrative capabilities, presenting a tale of squalor and futility as well as awe and wonderment experienced by these soldiers, doubtless owing to the shimmer and dazzle of the live giving blue-green Mediterranean air of the Macedonian province of Greece that had bewitched many other noted travelers of the region for centuries past.

The 10th Irish Division was formed as early recruits of Kitchener’s Army Division in the infancy of the outbreak of British hostilities. Within a fortnight of the outbreak of the War, Lord Kitchner’s First New Army (or ‘K1’) was formed through appeals for a hundred thousand new recruits throughout the empire. Trained predominantly at Basingstoke in the south of England, their formation was unique in the sense that the recruits were from all Irish backgrounds and all four provinces, thus foregoing the need for ‘reconciliation’ between nationalists and unionists that had hampered the making of the 16th and 36th Divisions.  Their task pertained to the Dardanelles naval operations and the landings at Suvla Bay, and the division featured companies from as famed quarters as the Larkinites, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, and the Connaught Rangers. Needless to say that the campaign at Suvla was a disaster by all accounts – the battle for Chocolate Hill alone, which overlooked the beaches, had men trudging over rocks and bushes as opposed to the fine grain of the beaches of their initial landing. Trying to capture a ridge just north of the landing inflicted more than half the casualties on the ‘D’ Company in a single day – from a strength of 239 reduced to the lower 100s due to heavy Turkish gunfire, obscene weather, and antiquated British strategy. Bryan Cooper, the Division’s initial commander and historian reflected after that ‘the 10th Division had been shattered, the work of a year had been destroyed in a week, and nothing material had been gained.’ But he still keeps his chin up and adds:

Yet all was not in vain. It is no new thing for the sons of Ireland to perish in a forlorn hope and a fruitless struggle; they go forth to battle only to fall, yet there springs from their graves a glorious memory for the example of future generations.

Yet, partly owing to the Division’s unique creation, it could be argued that such a ‘glorious memory’ amounting to not more than restitution and atonement (along with other future attempts such as erecting a ‘Peace Tower’ in Messines) doesn’t belong to the psyche of the Division whom, after a retreat from Gallipoli, retrenched with new additions chiefly from the British and French and were subsequently dispatched towards Belgrade to save the Serbs from the Bulgarians (the Bulgarians had recently then joined the central powers.) This is owing to their inevitable estrangement in a region plagued with a catacomb of conflicts that by the mid 1920s, saw the  disintegration of three empires – the Ottoman, Romanov, and Hapsburg, who were in any case the initial seeds of the the First World War. There’s also the added element of fierce arguments over nationalities in that South East region of Europe with dreams of expansion in an area that included Greece, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Turkey, and Serbia with a hodgepodge of interwoven ethnicities to be found at the 10th Division’s arrival in Salonika. With little amounts of digging and perusing, I plan to stitch together a narrative of this estrangement involving just as much waste as the Western Front with an odd mixture of a sense of history, pertaining to the remnants of an ancient civilization as well as the posterior hindsight of the effects of other forces that shaped the terrain, to which hecatomb this Division most certainly belongs.

II.

Dispatched to Salonika in the hopes of repelling the ‘Bulgars’ from Serbia, the diaries of these soldiers show much evidence of degradation in trenches mired with damp and squalor, with faint inducing summer spells and spine shivering winter days resembling the worst excesses of the Western Front. Alan Palmer notes in his book, The Gardeners of Salonika that in the push towards Struma Valley, soldiers were ordered to march for miles in temperatures peaking at 110° F in the summer months of 1915. The authorities had scant idea of the implication of such spells, asking the soldiers instead to carry out their orders in a valley so wide that the enemy is nowhere to be seen! Lt. Col. F. W. E. Johnson of the 5th Battalion notes the dampness and the ‘sea of mud’ wrought in by the heavy Mediterranean low-pressure area and the mountains of Salonika waiting to block it. The country was almost trackless with steep hills and ridges, whereon ‘scant scrub or a few dwarf oaks found an almost miraculous sustenance amid huge outcrops of rock.’ Such extremes of weather as suggested were commonplace, and the sudden changes proved to be far more deadlier than the enemy. On retreat from the Battle of Kosturino, the troops had to face a frost and high winds, the effect of which froze their clothing and soaked their skins. The effect of this is that any attempts made to remove the clothes would split it like boards, and the men were forced to stay awake during the coldest of nights in fear of a sleep from which they may not awake. Either that, or a condition of near coma as a bargain of sorts.

However distraught the weather proved, it’s the combination of noted imbecility of the authorities and Bulgarian counterattacks amongst this acute blizzard that added to the drowning in woes amongst this sublime landscape that had once been the setting of Horace’s odes. The historian Tom Johnstone had observed that amongst the dead and taken alive as prisoners counted to more than a 1000 in 1915 alone. Many were French and British troops, but the plight of the Irishmen was nonetheless similar to those on the Somme. Luckily, not all were aware of the indifference of the high command, thus relieving them from a mental anguish that they could scant afford. But for the omniscient observer, the battle does resemble a sadistic game of fox hunting, except the foxes here are the troops whilst the high command sit with maps on table and telescopes to direct the fox to their unwitting end.

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The 10th Irish Division along the Kosturino Ridge. (Courtesy: Imperial War Museum.)

One wonders at this moment, how much of any “Irishness” and national pride really counted amongst this highly interwoven complex web of ethnicities and nationalities that had by now been through a shared experience but yet had deeply bound distrusts. The Division returning to Salonika would for instance find a whole range of nationalities and ethnicities other than Greeks, possibly including Turks, Jews, Serbs, Italians, alongside the French and British battalion contributions. The soldiers had their wounds attended to by nurses from far distant continents, such as the Australian Army Nursing Service and the Canadian Base Hospital No. 4 in Salonika. Once the ordeal of the battle was over, a whole range of ‘falling out’ recuperation had been underwent that provided only a scant notion of relief.

William D. Mather (another historian) dubs the atmosphere as “Muckydonia,” observing in his book a whole spectrum of palliation the soldiers took to in the coastline of Salonika, such as visits to cafes and brothels. Others took to the more immediate and comforting flights of faith and alcohol. The War time diaries of John McIlwaine reveal the surplus availability of a local ‘konic,’ the consumption of which had terrible repercussions but made sure that sobriety had drained down the gutter amongst most of the men. Added to this is that the men replicated the attitude of the commanders to their Greek hosts, fostering the previously noted mutual distrust. Derogatory remarks such as ‘cutthroats’ and ‘ruffians’ were often used by the soldiers to describe the sodden ‘Orientals.’ To add to this soup of fluctuating allegiances was the belated welcome the Serbs received from the Irish Division, contributing to the atmosphere of fear and loathing. But when the Bulgarians were once again knocking at the doorstep of Greece by late 1916, the local population were grateful of the presence of foreign troops.

Naturally, weariness took its eventual toll on the soldiers in this primeval swamp of ethnicities. The province of Macedonia might officially have been Greek, but the soldiers often noted a sizable population of Turkish descent. If the old Belfast joke of declaring your faith as an ‘Atheist’ in that crossroads city makes you wonder with astonishment at the “Protestant or Catholic Atheist?” reply that it can garner, then this extract from a war correspondent on the hotpot of people in Salonika and noted by Philip Orr must take the icing:

The Essad Pasha whom the Entente recognised as President of Albania, is living at Salonika, with his flag, a black star on a red ground, flying over his house as the residence of the President of Albania.’

ImageA mix of British, Serbian and French soldiers occupy the table with the Hotel Angleterre in the background. (Courtesy: Imperial War Museum.)

But the blue-green splendor of the region does indeed have its own charm and sublime attractiveness. Some amongst the 10th division had an enduring impression of making head or tails of the magnanimous mystery of the region. Others, depending on temperament, thought it their duty to discipline the Oriental thereby stabilizing the region for their own good. William Knot, a young clerk in the Salvation Army observes:

What a heart-rending sight it was, thin, half-clad, starved women and children dragging their weary many sore bare-feet not daring to stay lest they felt the lash of the soldier’s whip. Their probable husbands drove little skeletons of donkeys loaded with all their belongings, consisting of a few old tins and spare clothing almost pushing some, in fact, some lay down and died (18 November 1915.)

In contrast, the same diary also makes other observations on the grandeur of the landscape with its shepherd-esque countryside and the towering figure of Mount Olympus only a 100 km distance from Salonika. And all around it were its imposing cousins with their peaks of white dazzle, spiraling out with laconic splendor, and as far as the setting sun…The poet Francis Ledwidge serving with the 5th Inniskilling Battalion composed his poem “When Love and Beauty Wander Away,” at the very site of this nature’s towering chiaroscuros:

When Love and Beauty wander away,
And there’s no more hearts to be sought and won,
When the old earth limps thro’ the dreary day,
And the work of the Seasons cry undone:
Ah! what shall we do for a song to sing,
Who have known Beauty, and Love, and Spring?

And ruminates on it with a sublime air of resignation:

…written by Lake Dorian one awful night of thunder and rain…thinking of the end of the world as the Bible predicts it and tried to imagine Love and Beauty leaving the world hand in hand, and we who could not yet die standing on the edge of a great precipice with no song, no love, no memory.’

It’s rather curious as to how detached the tone is. Clearly, thunder in the black mountains has made him rather creative, but the seasonal cue could very well indicate Ireland, or could have been written from the countryside of France like many of the western poets. There is hardly any mention of the starved and overworked women observed previously (and Ledwidge was certainly aware, as well as kind to them), the swarms of Serbian refugees making their way along the rugged landscape from Belgrade, nor any connection and rumination over the problems of Irish and Serbian nationalism. It is detached, resigned and with an air of mysticism about. The town of Doiran with its Serbian and Bulgarian tit-for-tat cannot even be traced in these lines.

An intelligent observer of this severed landscape would have learnt to pick up patterns of discord that could very well apply to their home country. This poem also goes to show the limits of thinking amongst the Irish Division in the Balkans, whose own fierce home-grown loyalties can produce a distancing process in a conflicted zone where zealous nationalism between rival states could very well have instructed the Irish on their own discords which the Home Rule crisis had wrought, and one which is soon to disintegrate into a bloody turmoil.

Others had a sense of historic precedence, quite aware of an Ancient Civilization that used to exist, noting with traces of irony that Alexander had fought his battles in this antiquated land whilst they (the Division), under the pretense of adventure, instead ended up with the glories of cold, disease, and overwork. (As a sidebar, it’s interesting to note that the most ardent nationalists are often found in the periphery: Alexander of Macedon, Hitler of Austria. Or the fact that Boston and New York produced some of the most extreme Irish republicans.) If arriving at the cradle of civilization meant being thrown into a jungle of intervening claims and counterclaims over an unstable landmass, then a small piece of reflection is due on the nature of the expedient force and if at all a sense of “closure” could be attained.

It’s quite clear that the Irish in the Eastern European theatre hadn’t witnessed the complete abjectness and pointlessness that their countrymen underwent in France or Gallipoli under the auspices of mechanized slaughter and stricter regimentation. The Balkan theatre in a way had its own attractive qualities as I’ve briefly outlined. But these soldiers did face squalor and hardships that seems almost similar in their resemblances to the main theatre of the war. What was initially a region that had sparked the war culminated by the end of the century in another Irish participation, but this time against the Serbs and the pathological irredentism of Slobodan Milosevic, whose attempts to annex Kosovo in 1999 finally managed to kill off any idea of a unified Yugoslavia. Other ideologies have had their say as well, with Bolshevik chauvinism by 1917 evicting the Russian-Greek population from that state, a general Nazi sweep and the rounding up of the region’s Jews to the concentration camps – Salonika, that had once been home to Jews dating back to their arrival from Alexandria in 140 BCE to as strong as 56,000 before the Holocaust were almost nearly annihilated in Auswitz-Birkenau. And clearly, if not just political ideology, the forces of religion play their part as well, with the Serbian military defeat dating back to 1389 against Islamic Ottoman influencing the Kingdom of Serbia just before the outbreak of the war to annex a piece of Ottoman territory in the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913.

These Irish soldiers who landed in Salonika with a sense of adventure belong to a conflict much greater than the one between 1914-1918. They entered a region with rampant political ideologies with shifting allegiances and aggressive ‘national’ interests. The 10th Irish Division cannot thus be easily reconciled by any platitudes on ‘healing’ or avoidance. Nor does the raising of new memorials or quasi-politico speeches by politicians cover it either. The real forgetfulness that is required in the building of nations was once expressed rather beautifully (albeit dangerously paradoxical) by Ernest Renan in his celebrated essay, ‘What is a nation?’ in which he says:

Forgetting, I would even say historical error, is an essential factor in the creation of a nation and it is for this reason that the progress of historical studies often poses a threat to nationality. Historical inquiry, in effect, throws light on the violent acts that have taken place at the origin of every political formation, even those that have been the most benevolent in their consequence. Unity is always brutally established.

But this might pose another contradiction, which is that by recording the violence of the past, history in essence serves the struggle of man against power – by remembering the struggles of the past but with an educated memory, it is made possible to intelligently forget by making distinctions amongst one’s former antagonists – a moral decision between guilt and responsibility. Just plainly forgetting can quickly become an ally of forgiveness, which in turn leaves room for the demagogues to rise again in that part of Europe. This function of the memory has a real connection to the theme of this evening – which I suppose in the latter section, is reconciliation. The renewed recovering of certain past events is a lively problem in Eastern Europe, with accusations and antagonisms springing up all the time from its sanguinary past. And unless one learns to nullify certain events in his or her memory – in effect, training it to be selective, just as the conscious part must be trained to discriminate, there will always continue to exist conflicts propagated by demagogues parading under the patronage of ‘pundits’ or ‘saviours’ with a notion to ‘set things right.’ And I believe that it is to this centuries old ongoing legacy that the 10th Division got sucked into and as long as the problems do exist, one would do very well to not forget this sidetracked portion of the war. ‘Closure’ as an option, is still only possible in the far distance.

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