Macedonian Ramble: the Forgotten Peaks of Monastir and Dobro Polje

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A French military cemetery in Bitola, North Macedonia, where during World War I the Allies (the Serbs and French) broke through the German (largely Bulgarian) lines in 1918, which was decisive in ending the war in the East. The heaviest fighting took place on the mountains in the background. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

This is the sixth part in a series about a journey across what used to be called Macedonia, which is now divided among Albania, North Macedonia, Greece, and Turkey.

I had come to Bitola to inspect the landscape of the 1918 battle that might well have determined the outcome of World War I. Although now it is forgotten, Monastir (now Bitola) was once at the center of the Allied attacks aiming to break the Axis grip on Southeast Europe.

To see the contours of this Verdun of the Balkans, I had reserved the services of professional guide and historian, who was waiting in his car outside the Hotel Theatre just before 8 a.m.

Throughout the day we rode around in his car and talked freely about how the fighting here was decisive in World War I and also about how the present state of North Macedonia has become an orphan of European politics.

At Early Start

Jove Pargovski wanted to be sure that we got an early start, as he said it would begin to get dark around 4 p.m. and the size of the battlefield was enormous, stretching along the mountain peaks that rise to the south of Bitola town.

To get ready for my travels, I had re-read some sections of Alan Palmer’s The Gardeners of Salonika, which is one of the few books in English about the campaign to dislodge Germany and its allies from the Balkans.

I first read the book in summer 2001, on a family vacation in Thessalonika and the Greek islands, and Palmer’s thesis had stayed with me. He maintains that the Serbian breakthrough at Dobro Polje and the British breakout at Lake Doiran (both now on the Greece-North Macedonia border) reshaped modern European politics. But what those peaks and Monastir looked like had eluded me, until I got into Jove’s car and we began our day-long inspection tour of the key battle sites.

At the Front

Jove separated the battle into two phases—the fighting on the high alpine peaks around Monastir and the close-in trench warfare that consumed numerous Allied and German lives in and around the strategic town.

Jove is a great teacher and historian, and we started our day in a field outside Bitola, where trenches and German bunkers (not unlike those in Enver Hoxha’s in Albania) are still visible in the farmland.

The French army lost so many men at Monastir that today the cemeteries in the city (often where the fighting took place) look like many along the Western Front in France.

One particular monument spoke of the dedication of the Poilus d’Orient (soldiers of the east) “à leurs camarades enterrés en Macédonie” (“to their comrades buried in Macedonia”).

As we walked among the rows of markers (most are metal crosses with a nameplate bearing the French flag and the words “Mort Pour La France”), Jove pointed out that many who fought here “for France” were Arab colonials pressed into military service from places such as Tunisia and Algeria.

The German City of the Dead

Some 3,000 German soldiers are buried in Bitola, in what the Germans named “the city of the dead.” Behind an imposing arched gate, the Tottenberg is located on a spare hillside that now has an ugly radio tower on the top.

Unlike the French headstones, the German markers are untended and many have fallen over, giving the sloping field the random look of a battle still in progress—as if the soldiers were stick figures.

The cemetery prompted a violent outburst from Rebecca West when she saw it in the late 1930s. In Black Lamb and Grey Falcon she writes:

The German war memorial at Bitolj is one of the most monstrous indecencies that has ever been perpetuated. They invaded Serbia and looted and burned their way through it and then planted themselves on these hills and murdered Macedonia with their guns, till they were beaten out by the superior merit of the Allies. It has seemed good to them to bury their dead on the top of a hill where their guns were mounted for the martyrdom of the city, and to build a wall round it which gives it the likeness of a fortress.

After Gallipoli

In front of the German cemetery gate (which was locked), Jove spoke at length about the politics of the campaign that chronologically and emotionally followed the disastrous Gallipoli campaign.

He explained that after the Allied defeat at Gallipoli (for which the French blamed the English), about the only offensive on which all the Allies could agree would start from Salonika (aka Thessaloniki, Thessalonica, Salonica, Thessalonika, and Saloniki), which would have several advantages.

Once across the wall of mountains in northern Macedonia, there would be open space through which to maneuver across Eastern Europe, with the hope of dividing the Ottoman Empire from the Central Powers (Austria and Germany).

Secondly, the Allies hoped that their troops in the lines around Salonika would bolster the wobbly Greek government, in which the king, Constantine, was at odds with his prime minister, Eleftherios Venizelos. The king favored an alliance with the Central Powers, as his wife was partly German, while his prime minister supported the Allies.

Finally, landing troops in Salonika, with the intention of throwing the Germans out of Serbia, would reinforce the Allied commitment to the Serbs, for whom (ostensibly) the war was being fought and who in 1915 (without any Allied support to speak off) had been routed from their country and forced into exile.

The Gardeners of Salonika

The Allied soldiers arrived in late 1915, in sufficient time and strength to threaten the Central Powers so that the Serbs (in retreat from the Austrians attacking Belgrade) managed to get across Albania and on to the Greek island of Corfu.

In 1916, the Allies began their offensive inland from Salonika. At first they had some success although—as happened often in World War I—after that both sides took to their shovels and burrowed into trenches.

It prompted the Clemenceau remark about “the gardeners of Salonika,” the title Alan Palmer gave to his history. The front remained static, give or take some failed offensives, for the next two years.

For the most part the German side used Bulgarian soldiers in the line after Bulgaria joined the Central Powers in 1915, succumbing to promises of territorial aggrandizement in Thrace and Macedonia. Palmer writes:

The Germans, on the other hand, while counseling friendship with Turkey, could promise Bulgaria everything that she wanted from Serbia. Not unnaturally, Bulgaria’s ruler—that wily fox King Ferdinand—determined to stay out of the war until he could see which of his neighbors, Serbia or Turkey, would end up on the losing side.

The Breakthrough at Dobro Polje

From the cemeteries closer to Bitola, Jove and I drove to a hill outside the city, where we parked the car at the base and hiked twenty minutes to the summit.

Still visible on the hill, through which the front lines had once stretched, were barbed wire entanglements and some detritus of war (shell casings mainly) from the artillery casements that were lodged in hillside caves. As these relics dated to 1916-18, the front seemed frozen in time.

Palmer writes of the static front:

The enemy was already making propaganda capital out of the French and British divisions enclosed within a wire cage of their construction—‘‘the greatest internment camp in the world,’’ as German commentators called it, with heavy-handed sarcasm—and to keep the troops immobile would merely heighten the scorn in which the expedition was held by Western and neutral observers.

The breakthrough, led by French and Serbian soldiers, came on a lonely peak well above 2000 meters at Dobro Polje.

Artillery preceded the attack, but mostly Serbian bayonets and French machine guns cleared the breakthrough. Once the first Bulgarian trench lines were breached on the summit, the surrounding Axis lines broke, and in a few days the entire Bulgarian army was in retreat. In two weeks, in late September 1918, Bulgaria was out of the war. It was a stunning development.

Jove and I didn’t make the drive up to Dobro Polje, which is only accessible in summer. Jove mentioned something about taking an off-road vehicle to get there, but one can hike in good weather.

In the valley below we drove to a spot that looks up to Dobro Polje, which reminded me of a peak in the French or Swiss alps (those that are covered with snow, even in summer).

After the breakthrough, the German high command fumed about “losing the war to 62,000 Serbs.”

War’s End 1918

By the armistice in November 1918, the Allied Army of the Orient had pushed into Hungary. The political consequences of its campaign remain to this day.

After the victory in Macedonia, Yugoslavia rose from the ashes of the Great War, forming the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, which included such spoils as Macedonia, Kosovo, and Bosnia-Hercegovina.

The victory also left Greece on the winning side, although the Greeks squandered their Allied inheritance on a postwar (1919-1922) Turkish invasion, the loss of which continues, a century later, to sour relations between the two countries.

In Ionian Vision: Greece in Asia Minor 1919-1922, the historian Michael Llewellyn Smith writes of the burning of Smyrna that ended the war:

With horrific appropriateness, the fire expressed in symbolic terms the rooting out and destruction of the Greek and Armenian Smyrna. Hellenic Smyrna was dead. Christian Smyrna, too, one of the great ancient Christian foundations in Asia Minor, was dead. The phoenix to rise from these ashes was a Turkish Izmir purged of two thousand and more years of history.

Hundreds of thousands of Greeks fled from Greek lands in Asia Minor and around the Black Sea.

The defeat of Bulgaria allowed the British to march on Constantinople and, via the 1919 Treaty of Sèvres (near Versailles), to partition the Ottoman Empire (and much of the Middle East) into the fragmentary states that, in a modern context, are one reason that wars continue to wash over those regions.

No one today has ever heard of Dobro Polje, or Monastir for that matter, but they cast long shadows over the 20th-century.

What If in Macedonia

By noon Jove and I had inspected cemeteries and trenches, looked up at the mountain peaks above Bitola, and walked around any number of moss-covered concrete slit trenches, which had the look of Visigoths still laying siege to the desolate farmland.

For lunch Jove proposed that we make a sweeping drive along the old front lines below the mountains and end up in his father’s village, Mariovo. Along the way we could see some stone villages that the world (literally) has passed by and cross some of the river beds that the Germans had tied into their fortifications.

By now the sun was shining through the morning fog, and it seemed to me a good plan for the rest of the day. In the car Jove could speak about the strategies that helped win the war for the Allies, and he could answer my endless questions about the war and North Macedonia today—a proud country living on a European fault line.

It took about two hours to reach Mariovo, but the landscape through which we drove was breathtaking. To the south were the high peaks, Dobro Polje among them.

In the distance Jove pointed toward Kaimakchalan, another peak in this sector contested between Serbs and Bulgarians.

Turning slightly to the north, we plunged down and up many gorges on narrow, twisting agricultural roads, on which the Serbian army made its headlong rush after the breakthrough on Dobro Polje.

Later, in Alan Palmer’s history of Macedonian front, I discovered a long passage that raises the question of whether, instead of landing at Gallipoli, the Allies might have broken through earlier in Macedonia, perhaps shortening the war:

Yet there remains one unresolved question about the whole campaign: if it was possible to break through so decisively in 1918, would not a determined offensive earlier in the war under a resolute joint commander, backed by London and Paris, have had the same result? Milne argued two years before the final victory that once the Bulgarians were dislodged from the positions they were then holding, they would lose their will to wage war, and he was right. Had the Allies occupied strategic points in Bulgaria at any time up to the summer of 1917, Rumania would have stayed a belligerent and a route would have been opened up to southern Russia. With Turkey isolated and Austria-Hungary under Emperor Karl already favoring peace, there is no reason why the props should not then have been knocked away from under the German war machine, before Hindenburg could transport enough divisions to southeastern Europe to stabilize the front. But it was not to be. Macedonia was outside the compass of established military thought. Men of little imagination see only what touches their eyes. The beckoning indentations of the Vardar and the Morava lay beyond their range of vision.

The Lost Villages

On the drive to Mariovo and his father’s house, Jove drove me through a number of what I now think of as “lost villages,” hamlets of stone houses that in some cases have as few as seven residents.

Some of the villages had the remains of World War I trenches and clumps of barbed wire. Others had crumbling war memorials and tombs of soldiers, known and unknown. The sagging, often abandoned stone houses, while beautiful in the bright winter sun, were, nevertheless, reminders that not all civilizations are on the rise.

In one village, Zovik, we walked down to a stone bridge that crosses the Gradeska River. Such is the beauty of the arched bridge spanning the deep gorge below that a film was shot in the village. Today, despite the fame of the bridge, the village is a ghost town—with stone houses, farm yards, and fences, but almost no residents.

The village of Mariovo at least had citizens. We parked in the main square and walked up to Jove’s father’s farm house, which was on a side street in the center of the village.

We sat in the unheated living room and drank glasses of plum brandy, which reminded me of earlier family visits that I had made around Yugoslavia. In the corner of the room there was a small television and an old radio, as if it was 1969, but once we were warmed with the father’s home-made brandy the conversation took modern twists and turns.

Driving back to the Hotel Theatre, Jove and I passed again through the lost villages, and I had the thought that, with so many displaced persons in Europe, perhaps the government of North Macedonia could invite Syrian, Afghan, or Iraqi refugees to settle in these houses, which are as lovely as any in the hill towns of southern Italy.

I later looked up the statistics and found that North Macedonia has 150 abandoned villages and some 500 villages with less than 100 residents (who tend to be elderly).

Then it occurred to me that the last thing a North Macedonian politician would do is invite Muslim refugees to settle these vacant towns on the European frontier, when the centuries of Turkish rule in these lands remains so fresh in so many minds, and when so much opposition to the government comes from Albanians living in the northwestern quadrant of the country.

A Balkan South Bronx

Closer to Bitola, we started to pass through suburbs, many of which contained the ruins of defunct Yugoslav industrial factories (and many houses) that were missing roofs and window glass.

North Macedonia, at least around Bitola, struck me as a nether world, an impoverished country with poor relations with nearly all of its surrounding neighbors—Albania, Kosovo, Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey. Only with Serbia does it get along.

Economically, Greece and Bulgaria have the European Union while Turkey is the region’s superpower, happy to spread its wealth into Albania and Kosovo, its former vilayets (administrative districts).

Left out in the cold are North Macedonia and Serbia, which explains the industrial shells on the edge of Bitola—a Balkan South Bronx.

And so it came as no surprise that on our drive when Jove was describing a new hydroelectric project across one of the many river gorges that we passed and I asked who would pay for it, his answer was: “China.”

Next: The train to Thessaloniki. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, and The Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent book, about traveling in France and the Franco-Prussian wars, is entitled Biking with Bismarck.