Until the Day Breaks

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Until the day breaks and the shadows flee, turn, my beloved, and be like a gazelle or like a young stag on the rugged hills. (From the Song of Solomon)

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My main motivation for our trip to Thessaloniki was to visit the Mikra British Cemetery, as it’s there that my Great Grandfather is buried. He died on 19 August 1918 while in Greece as part of the British Salonika Force (BSF). So our visit was 100 years after his death (although we were a few weeks late).

Until I started researching my family history I didn’t really know that there were British troops in Greece. But they were there as part of a French led campaign between 1915 and 1918, initially sent in to assist the Serbs who were being attacked by the Bulgarians, supported by the Germans and Austrians.

Greece was a neutral country but the Entente force was “invited” in by the Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos, who was pro-Entente. The Greek King, Constantine I, however, was pro-German, so the political situation was tense to say the least. An internal struggle in Greece led to the King being deposed and replaced by his son in 1917, and Greece joined the war supporting the Franco-British led force which also included Russian, Italian, and Serbian contingents as well as British and French colonial troops from the Indian subcontinent, Africa, and Indochina.

By the time the Salonika Force arrived, the Serbs had already been defeated and after an initial offensive the front stabilised. The Allied armies entrenched around Thessaloniki, which became a huge fortified camp, leading the French Premier Georges Clemenceau to mock them as “the Gardeners of Salonika”. There was a final push in late 1918 when the Bulgarians were defeated.

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Over 10,000 British members of the Salonika Force died, more than half of them from malaria, dysentery and other diseases. Initially, the Commonwealth dead were buried in the local Protestant and Roman Catholic cemeteries. The Anglo-French Lembet Road Military Cemetery was used from November 1915 to October 1918. The British cemetery at Mikra, Kalamaria, was opened in April 1917, remaining in use until 1920.

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My Great Grandfather, Arthur, was a regular soldier in the Royal Field Artillery when the Great War broke out and he was off to France with the British Expeditionary Force on 18 August 1914, so he was one of the first to be sent out to the war. Somehow he survived (he was a driver and I suspect he was ferrying officers around) and was discharged at the end of his service period in March 1916. Surprisingly, this was normal practice for Regular soldiers. He wasn’t home for long, though, as on 9 June 1916 he was sailing out of Preston to Greece having been called up into the Army Service Corps. As someone who could drive (a relatively rare skill in those early days of motoring) he was assigned to a Mechanical Supply Company.

Like many of the British troops out in Greece, it would appear that he died of disease. His death record states that he died in No. 29 Hospital and his cause of death is recorded as “died”. Well that’s pretty obvious. I guess that was to disguise how he died as the authorities probably didn’t want the public to know how many troops were dying from disease.

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Mikra cemetery is next to the Greek cemetery in Kalamaria, which in 1918 was were the British force was based and on the outskirts of the city. Today it’s been absorbed into the urban sprawl. We got a taxi out there from the city centre – at a cost of 8 Euros each way.

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The cemetery is like those that we’d visited in France, very well looked after with pristine headstones – not the usual Portland Limestone but local stone – mainly marble. There are 1,810 Commonwealth dead buried here and 147 other nationalities, including Russians, Serbs, Greeks and even some Bulgarians. It’s a peaceful spot and a beautiful (if that’s the right word) memorial.

It was easy to locate Arthur’s grave. The Cemetery records are accessible online and provided details of exactly where he was buried – the headstones are numbered and laid out in neat rows. There’s a copy of the record in a cupboard in wall by the cemetery gates too.

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We soon spotted that the headstones of non-Commonwealth dead had a slightly different design of headstone.

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Non-combatants are also buried here.

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At the top of the cemetery, next to the cross, there are memorials to Troops and nurses who died on ships sunk on the way to Salonika, including the Britannic, the sister ship of the Titanic.

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I’ve no doubt we were the first visitors to Arthur’s grave. It was a moving experience for me to stand beside it. We left a small bouquet of flowers, including red roses for Lancashire, which I’d bought at the flower market that morning.

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Afterwards we spent some time looking round the cemetery and also chatted with three members of a family who were visiting the grave of a relative. After spending about an hour and a half in the cemetery we left and caught a taxi from the rank across the road and headed back into the city centre. I was glad that I’d been able to fulfil my ambition to visit my Great Grandfather and pay my respects on behalf of the family. He’d survived the first two years of the war on the Western Front only to die of disease in a forgotten front far from home, only a few months before the madness ended. Rest in Peace Arthur.

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Impressions of Thessaloniki

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Last week we had a short break in Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city, in the north of the country in the province of Macedonia. I had a particular reason for wanting to go there, it’s been on my bucket list for a while, and this was our first ever trip to Greece. I don’t think it will be our last!

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The city, formerly known as Salonica, has a fascinating history – founded by the ancient Macedonians (although after the death of Alexander the Great) it’s been ruled by the Romans, the Byzantine Empire, the Ottomans and, finally the modern Greek State. Under the Ottomans it became a cosmopolitan city, populated by Christians, Muslims and Jews, the latter emigrating here when exiled from Spain and Portugal and becoming the largest ethnic group until they were deported and murdered by the Nazis.

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Flying out from Manchester we spent 4 days in the city staying in the Bahar Boutique – a small, chic, boutique style hotel in a very buzzing area of bars, cafes and restaurants not far from the sea front. The room was small but very nicely done up in a contemporary style.

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As usual, we kept ourselves busy, so lots to write up. As a start, here’s my overall impressions.

The City
It’s not particularly pretty. In the past it was famous for a picturesque skyline of domes and minarets, but most of the old city was destroyed in a devastating fire in 1917. Since then it has undergone a modernisation and Europeanisation with a plan devised by the French architect Ernest Hébrard after the fire, and Hellenisation also saw the removal of most traces of the Ottomans, with almost all the minarets removed as churches that had been converted to mosques reconverted to churches. Some Ottoman era buildings can be seen, scattered around the city centre, though.

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There was a massive influx of Greek refugees in the 1920’s from the territories if the former Ottoman Empire, with Muslims moving in the opposite direction, during a period of what today we would call “ethnic cleansing”. This put additional pressures on the city which spread out with sprawling suburbs.

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The city centre is compact and walkable, but transport, buses and taxis, are relatively cheap if you want to get out a bit further afield (as we did on one day)

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There’s a lot of graffiti all over the city. Not street art (although there is some of that) but true graffiti. Probably much of it political but it was difficult to tell as most is in the Greek alphabet.

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The People

Very friendly indeed, hospitable and helpful. What more can I say? Oh, they clearly enjoy sitting drinking coffee and enjoying their food!

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And they certainly have plenty of opportunities to do just that. It seemed like almost every other building was a café or restaurant! The food was excellent and I’ve now become addicted to the favourite Greek way of serving coffee – Freddo Espresso.

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One rather unique aspect of Thessaloniki are the “bar boats”. There’s a number of boats dressed up as triremes, pirate ships and the like which provide “free” half hour trips around the bay. The deal is that you buy a drink for around 5 or 6 Euros, with subsequent drinks usually 3 Euros cheaper. This means the trip costs about 3 Euros which we felt was quite a good deal.

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Architecture

Today it’s a low rise city, 8-10 storeys high, of mainly anonymous concrete blocks with glazed balconies. There are, however some gems in amongst the generally bland architecture, including some attractive Modernist buildings

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and old churches and other buildings from the Byzantine and Ottoman (and some Roman) periods.

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And not everything was destroyed by the fire. The upper town avoided the conflagration (although the majority of the houses in the old town have been rebuilt in approximations of the original designs) and we stayed in Ladadike, an area of the old Jewish quarter that was relatively untouched by the inferno and where some older buildings survive.

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Museums and Galleries

For once, we didn’t spend much time visiting galleries and museums, but there is a good selection to choose from, not all of them in the city centre.