Until the Day Breaks


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


Non-combatants are also buried here.


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.



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.


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.



Canary Girls

A couple of weeks ago I visited the latest exhibition showing at Manchester City Art Gallery – The Sensory War 1914-2014

This major group exhibition marking the Centenary of the First World War explores how artists have communicated the impact of military conflict on the body, mind, environment and human senses between 1914 and 2014.

Included in the exhibition were a number of pictures illustrating the role of women on the “Home Front”. Due to sending many hundreds of thousands of young men to the trenches in Europe there was a shortage of workers to man the production lines in the munitions factories. The solution was to recruit women.

This lithograph by Archibald Standish Hartrick, who worked as a war artist, shows a young woman filling shells with TNT explosive.


Women’s Work: On Munitions – Dangerous Work (Packing T.N.T.) c.1917

The “munitionettes” were referred to as the “Canary Girls” as many of them developed yellow skin due to their exposure to the chemicals they were handling.

TNT (2,4,6-Trinitrotoluene) as well as being highly explosive presents a number of serious health effects such as anemia (reduced number of red blood cells and reduced hemoglobin and hematocrit), liver function abnormalities, respiratory complications, and possibly aplastic anaemia (ASTDR).

TNT can interact with haemoglobin to form methaemoglobin, reducing the capacity of the blood to carry oxygen and causing cyanosis – so it’s a chemical asphyxiant. It can also damage the liver, leading to jaundice and the yellow colour of the skin.

Exposure can occur by inhalation of dust and also by skin absorption – both potentially significant for the worker portrayed in the picture. The control measures leave a lot to be desired with what appears to be direct hand contact and only the use of a primitive mask to control inhalation exposure with no evidence of any engineering controls.

Conditions in munitions factories have improved considerably since the First World War and stringent control measures are implemented when TNT is handled to minimise exposure by both inhalation and skin contact.

For King and Country (1916) by Edward F Skinner Source: Imperial War Museum – used under the terms of the IWM Non Commercial Licence.

Another aspect of the work of the munitionettes was that the women were paid considerably lower wages than the men they had replaced. But they didn’t take it sitting down!

The trade union leader, Mary Macarthur, led the campaign to protect the women forced to work in the munitions industry. She pointed out that women in the industry received on average less that half of what the men were paid. After much discussion it was agreed to increase women’s wage-rates in the munitions industry. However, by 1918, whereas the average male wage in the munitions industry was £4 6s. 6d. for women it was only £2 2s. 4d. (Spartacus Educational website)

Heaven in a Hell of War

On Thursdays Manchester City Art Gallery is open until 9 o’clock in the evening. So last Thursday I finished work a little early and we caught a train into Manchester (making sure we were on board before 4 o’clock when cheap day returns aren’t valid on the wonderful comfortable modern trains (sic) run by Northern Rail). We had a look round the shops for a short while and then stopped for a brew in the “Proper Tea” tea shop across from Manchester Cathedral.


Afterwards we made our way over to the Art Gallery via the Arndale and Piccadilly.

The main exhibition showing at the Gallery, covering most of two floors in the modern extension is titled The Sensory War 1914-2014

This major group exhibition marking the Centenary of the First World War explores how artists have communicated the impact of military conflict on the body, mind, environment and human senses between 1914 and 2014. (Gallery website)

There were some interesting and very moving works in this exhibition, and I’ll have to return to it in a later post, I guess, but the highlight of the visit was a smaller room in the older part of the gallery which was showing a series of paintings by the British artist Stanley Spencer on loan from the National Trust’s Sandham Memorial Chapel.

The Chapel was commissioned in 1923 by Mr and Mrs J.L Behrend of Burghclere, to commemorate the life of her brother, Lieutenant Harry Willoughby Sandham, who died in 1920 as a result of an illness he had contracted during the Macedonian campaign in the First World War.

Spencer was commissioned to decorate the chapel and took his inspiration from Giotto’s frescos in the Scrovegni chapel in Padua. Like Giotto’s cycle, Spencer’s paintings cover the walls of the chapel and show people in contemporary clothing carrying out ordinary everyday tasks (well as ordinary as they get during a savage world war) rather than scenes of combat and destruction.

At the start of the war Spencer enlisted in the Army Medical Corps and was sent to the Beaufort Hospital in Bristol, where he served as an orderly. In 1916 he was sent out to Macedonia, with the 68th Field Ambulance unit. In 1917, while there, he volunteered to be transferred to an infantry regiment, the 7th Battalion, the Berkshire Regiment. His series of paintings are based directly on his experiences in Bristol and Macedonia.

The works had a particular resonance for me. One of my Great Grandfathers was a career soldier in the Field Artillery and when the war broke out he was sent to France. Somehow he managed to survive the slaughter and returned to Britain in March 1916. He wasn’t there long before he was sent out to Macedonia  in June that year as a member of the Army Service Corps – the same month as Spencer. I wonder whether they ever met?

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British troops halted on the roadside outside Salonika, 1916. (Source: Imperial War Museum)

Macedonia was ‘the forgotten front of the forgotten war”. A joint Anglo French force was sent out to Salonika in Greek Macedonia in 1915 in an attempt to provide support to Serbia who were fighting German, Austrian and Bulgarian troops (remember that the war started as a result of the Austrian Crown Prince being assassinated by Serbian nationalists)

The expedition came too late and in insufficient force to prevent the fall of Serbia, and was complicated by the internal political crisis in Greece (the “National Schism“). Eventually, a stable front was established, running from the Albanian Adriatic coast to the Struma River, pitting a multinational Allied force against the Bulgarian Army, which was at various times bolstered with smaller units from the remaining Central Powers. The Macedonian Front remained quite stable, despite local actions, until the great Allied offensive in September 1918, which resulted in the capitulation of Bulgaria and the liberation of Serbia (Wikipedia)

For most of the war there was relatively little fighting in Macedonia and the troops were perceived as doing little more than digging and manning trenches. “Let them be known as the Gardeners of Salonika,” mocked the French Premier, Georges Clemenceau.

File:World War I - Saloniki Front - British Troops at Kilkis, Greece.jpg

Picture source: Wikipedia

But life was far from easy. There were a vast number of casualties, and malaria was the biggest killer.

In total the British forces suffered 162,517 cases of the disease and in total 505,024 non-battle casualties. (Source)

Spencer himself contracted Malaria, but fortunately survived. My Great Grandfather didn’t return, he died in August 1918 and is buried in the Commonwealth Cemetery in Salonika. His army record gives his cause of death as “died”. I suspect that he was one of the victims of the disease.

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Troops in Macedonia taking their daily dose of quinine, July 1916 (Source: Imperial War Museum)

So, what of the paintings? The Gallery are showing 16 of the 19 paintings from the chapel. Two long scenes, set on the Greek front line, which run right across the long walls on either side of the chapel nave and the altarpiece are directly attached to the chapel walls. But the paintings, together with with a large scale photograph of the altarpiece, have been hung in the same arrangement as in the chapel, to give a sense of how they look in situ.

The 16 panels don’t show any blood or gore, or the horrors of war, but depict everyday activities in the hospital and in Macedonia. He concentrates on the dedication of the medical staff in the hospital and the comradeship of the troops. And my personal connection made viewing them something of an emotional experience. One of the men depicted could have been my Great Grandfather (probably not, but who knows?).

Sandham Memorial Chapel © National Trust Images\ John Hammond

Convoy arriving with Wounded (Source; National Trust)

Sandham Memorial Chapel © National Trust Images\ John Hammond

Kit Inspection (Source National Trust)

The altarpiece picture is entitled The Resurrection of the Soldiers – and depicts dead soldiers rise from their graves. It’s similar to another well known work of Spencer The Resurrection, Cookham 1924–7

This is Spencer’s vision of the end of war, in which heaven has emerged from hell. Each cross amongst the astonishing and brave tumble across the canvas serves as an object of devotion (some of which are handed to Christ, who has been unconventionally placed in the mid-background); or marks a grave from which a soldier emerges; or serves to frame a bewildered face. The central motif is a pair of fallen mules, still harnessed to their timber wagon. (Source: National Trust)

Sandham Memorial Chapel © National Trust Images\ John Hammond

Prior to the visit I would have said that I wasn’t particularly fond of Spencer’s work. I guess that I’ve been put off by the religious themes of many of them. But the chapel paintings certainly made an impression on me and looking again at some of his works on t’Internet I’m starting to reappraise and reconsider my view.

The National Trust tell us that

(the) murals are considered one of the most remarkable artistic achievements of English painting

Having seen them, I think I have to agree. But to really appreciate Spencer’s work a visit to the chapel is definitely on my list of “must dos”.