Remembrance: The Scots-style memorial on a Greek hillside

The immaculately kept cemetery for and monuments to those lost in the first world war’s Salonika Campaign was designed by Sir Robert Lorimer – also responsible for the Scottish National War Memorial at Edinburgh Castle

A scene reminiscent of Edinburgh is not what you might expect to experience when standing atop a Greek hillside.

In November 2022, my wife and I took our usual trip to visit my in-laws in Gevgelija, in the Republic of Macedonia. After a day of good food and drink, my father-in-law Vito (and personal tour guide extraordinaire) suggested we take in the British war graves in Doirani, Greece.

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I am blessed to have a family with unique insight into both world wars in Macedonia. My 86-year-old grandfather-in-law, Boris, once told me he had “something of an heirloom”, which turned out to be a brass artillery shell case now used as a plant pot. His mother before him had a bedframe which, on closer inspection, was adorned with painted hand grenades long made safe because there was a shortage of metal.

The British war graves in Doirani, Greece. Picture: Alastair StewartThe British war graves in Doirani, Greece. Picture: Alastair Stewart
The British war graves in Doirani, Greece. Picture: Alastair Stewart

Gevgelija has roads and rail lines constructed during the First World War by Bulgarian and Austro-Hungarian armies. Ordnance recently exploded during a forest fire in the lakeside town of Doiran, Macedonia, where the family have a holiday home.

The Macedonia Front (21 October 1915-30 September 1918), also known as the Salonika Campaign, was an attempt by the Allied Powers, including the British Salonika Army, France, Italy, Greece and Russia, to aid Serbia against the combined attack of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria in the autumn of 1915.

Today, the shores of Doiran Lake share a border with Greece, which a century before would have been the border between Greece and the Kingdom of Serbia, into which Macedonia was annexed after the Balkan Wars (8 October 1912-10 August 1913).

Driving up a dirt road on a clear November day, the Doiran Memorial, a battlefield memorial which honours the British Salonika Force (BSF) and their 2,175 missing dead, is the most remarkable of juxtapositions against the Greek landscape. The vision is innately Scottish in its stonemasonry and craftsmanship.

The memorial stands in the centre of the line occupied for two years by the Allies in Macedonia. Four square plinths form a square pattern around a 40-foot central tower with dedicatory inscriptions, and there are two carved lions and stone wreaths. Many inscriptions and dedications were to those who hailed from Scots regiments and battalions.

Looking out from that hill, it was an awesomely moving thought to imagine Scots, far away from home, fighting for their lives and my right to enjoy burek and raki on holiday.

The Doiran Millitary Cemetery, just down the hill, is almost entirely those of officers and men of the British 22nd and 26th Divisions and primarily reflects the fighting of April and May 1917 and the Battle of Doiran. It contains 1,338 Commonwealth burials of the First World War, 449 unidentified. There are also one French and 45 Greek war graves.

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The BSF aimed to stop Bulgarian forces from joining the German and Austro-Hungarian attacks on Serbia. With early Allied failures and German successes, Bulgaria saw a real possibility that the Central Powers would win the war, so they joined them and declared war on Serbia on 13 October 1915.

The Salonika Campaign was fought along a 250-mile front, running from Albania to the mouth of the River Struma in Greece. The BSF covered 90 miles of the front line, including the town of Doiran, where the British fought their two significant campaign battles, and the expansive Struma Valley, where small-scale operations were a daily difficulty.

What was overwhelming on the day of our visit was not only the immaculately maintained grounds of both the memorial and the cemetery but also the recent wreaths laid on Remembrance Day. If there was an intense feeling of Scotland on this walled-off Greek hill as we pushed open a wrought iron gate, it was because the site was designed by Sir Robert Lorimer (1864-1929)

Lorimer had also designed the Scottish National War Memorial at Edinburgh Castle (commissioned in 1919 and opened in 1927) and many more worldwide. We had visited Kellie Castle & Garden in Fife, the ancestral home of the Lorimers, only a few months before. Walter Gilbert created the sculptures in Doiran, and the cost of the memorial was primarily paid for by subscriptions raised by the officers and men who served in the campaign.

The Doiran Front, Seen from Sal Grec de Popovo (1918) by William T Wood, encapsulates the beauty but severe limitations of the terrain. The weather, landscape, and infrastructure all played their part in making the Macedonian Front one of the most uncomfortable theatres of conflict. Winter and summer brought extremes in climate and disease, notably malaria and heatstroke. The BSF endured 481,000 non-battle causalities, 162,000 of whom were victims of malaria. There were 26,207 battle casualties.

By late 1916, the Allied force comprised 600,000 men in six national contingents, including colonial soldiers from India, Indo-China and North and West Africa. The British also employed volunteer units such as the incredible Macedonian Mule Corps to tackle the hills and ravines, which made wheeled transport impossible.

At its height, Lieutenant-General George Milne, hailing from Aberdeen, commanded over 200,000 soldiers following General Sir Bryan Mahon's posting to Egypt on 9 May 1916. The voluntary Scottish Women's Hospitals for Foreign Service had units attached to the Serbian Army.

By September 1918, several significant battles were fought in the area, resulting in many casualties and the near destruction of the town of Doiran. Almost the entire population was forced to relocate. The current schoolhouse today was once a barracks.

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On 15 September 1918, Allied forces, directed by French General Louis Franchet d'Esperey, attacked Doiran, helping French and Serbian troops to break the Bulgarian defences. On 29 September, Bulgaria signed an armistice, and fighting ceased the following day. The Salonika campaign ended with the defeat of Bulgaria, the liberation of Serbia and the strategic exposure of Austria and Turkey.

Much of Macedonian history is unfairly thrown under the umbrella of "the Balkans", and the people's history is forgotten.

Thankfully, organisations such as the United Macedonian Diaspora, the Salonika Campaign Society, dedicated tours, and informative books like Under the Devil's Eye: the British Military Experience in Macedonia 1915-18 exist to preserve and remember the incalculable debt we owe those who fought for our freedom.

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