French_Machine_Gunner_1916

03 April 1916 – Greek Frontier

As seen in the above photo of a French chasseur alpin manning a Hotchkiss machine gun, the Greek port city of Salonika (now Thessaloniki) lies on flat, open land that is nearly devoid of trees, with scrub vegetation that offers no shade in the heat of the day. But this inhospitable landscape is also the best place where the Serbian Army, now recuperating from the loss of their country at the island of Corfu, might once again come to grips with their enemies.

The Entente powers have pressed Greece to let the Serbs travel again overland, by rail, through the still-neutral country, thus avoiding the German submarines at loose in the Mediterranean. But today, Prime Minister Stephanos Skouloudis denies their request in the most humble diplomatic language. The Central Powers, he asserts, will surely see such an arrangement as a hostile act and stop recognizing Greek neutrality. Not entirely without reason, Skouloudis also worries that the increased rail traffic will overload the system and annoy locals, while the hungry soldiers will put further stress on the Greek nation’s tenuous food security.

With a century’s hindsight, the problem in Greece seems simple enough to solve. King Constantine I is solely responsible for the enduring political crisis that put Skouloudis in office, and keeping Greece out of the Great War at His Majesty’s behest will almost entirely consume the prime minister’s short tenure. Frustrated by the pro-German sympathies of Constantine’s court and Army, London and Paris have still not entirely given up on the Greek monarch and remain unwilling to countenance a coup. While a flotilla ferries the Serbs to Salonika without incident, their unease with Constantine continues to grow.

Still flush with the success of overrunning their Serb rivals, Bulgarian occupation authorities have begun replacing the Cyrillic script on street and road signs in Macedonia with the Latin alphabet, deporting ethnic Greeks from newly-Bulgarian territory, and imposing Bolğar language in offices and schools. Aspiring to be the seventh power in Europe, Tsar Ferdinand I is pressing forward with modernization efforts; he has just converted his country to the Gregorian calendar, skipping from the 18th of March to April 1st in the transition. Although the German Kaiser has offered his brother-in-law Constantine personal guarantees that Bulgaria will not invade Greece, Ferdinand remains aggressive; much of his army is deployed along the Greek border, nearly overlooking the Entente allies but unable to attack them.

Today, Skouloudis receives diplomatic reassurance from Sofia that where Bulgarian troops have crossed the Greek frontier, they have now been ordered to withdraw, respecting the two-kilometer wide neutral zone on either side of the border as privately agreed with Germany. But Prime Minister Vasil Radoslavov is once again playing his dishonest games, for Bulgarian ambitions in Greek Macedonia remain unfulfilled. In the weeks to come, Bulgarian troops will repeatedly encroach on the allies, ignoring Greek sovereignty — all while the Greek sovereign turns a blind eye.

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A map showing the Greek territory swept up by the Bulgarian Army during 1915. Click to embiggen

It is not an exaggeration to say that Constantine is actively assisting the Central Powers. Charges will later emerge that the royal palace and the General Staff have been keeping tabs on allied troop movements and reporting them to Berlin, where the information is shared with Sofia. Not all of these tales are credible. There are also sensational stories that a former ambassador to the United States has allowed his home to be used as a u-boat refueling base, for example; another rumor has fishing smacks supplying cans of fuel to u-boats surfacing in the night off Hebreos, in the Gulf of Corinth. But at least one affair this month demonstrates royal duplicity beyond doubt.

It is the arrest of one Lieutenant Avdis, an officer in the Greek Army, caught in the act of tapping the telephone lines from General Maurice Sarrail’s headquarters. Expecting the red-handed spy to be punished for a clear violation of neutrality, Sarrail turns him over to his military superiors, whereupon Constantine promptly awards Avdis the Order of the Savior instead. It is a sure sign of deteriorating relations — and a hint of what measures the allies will eventually find necessary in order to secure their foothold in the Balkans.

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Bulgarian soldiers in a front line trench. Note the traditional footgear; also, the sniper’s rest, a Western Front innovation probably imported from Germany. The bedrolls and packs on their shoulders are a commander’s touch