On the Monastir Road
By Herbert Corey
[The National Geographic Magazine, May 1917]
The story of Macedonia today is the story of the Monastir road. Along this highway Alexander and Xerxes and Galeritis once tramped with their legions. It has been the link between the Adriatic and the Aegean seas ever since history was written.
For centuries it has carried its ox-carts with their solid wooden wheels, and long trains of donkeys and peasant women bowed under packs. Serb and Bulgarian raiders have descended on Saloniki along it. For thirty centuries fighting men and peasants and thieves and slaves have marched through its bottomless mud.
Today it is kaleidoscopic as it could never have been in the worst days of its bad history. To the ox-carts and donkeys have been added great camions and whirling cars filled with officers in furs and gold. Natty Frenchmen in horizon blue, Englishmen in khaki, Italians in gray green, Russians in brown, Serbian soldiers in weather-washed gray, bead its surface. Fezzed Turks are there and Albanians in white embroidered with black, and Cretans in kilts and tights and tasseled shoes.
COLOR AND MOVEMENT FILL THE ROAD TODAY
Airmen, so wrapped in furs that they remind one of toy bears, dash by in cars that are always straining for the limit of speed. Arabs, perched high on their little gray horses, direct trains of the blue carts of the French army. Gaudy Sicilian carts with Biblical scenes painted on their sideboards are dragged through the mire.
Senegalese soldiers, incredibly black, watch with an air of comical bewilderment the erratic ventures of donkeys that seem to have been put under pack for the first time. Indo-Chinese soldiers in pagoda-shaped hats, tipped with brass, putter about at mysterious tasks. Blackish-brown men from Madagascar carry burdens. Moroccans in yellowish brown swing by under shrapnel helmets.
SOLDIERS OF ALLIES TREAD HISTORIC GROUND
New levies marching toward the front, the sweat beads standing out on their pale foreheads as they struggle under their 60-pound packs, give the road to the veterans of six months service—hard, capable, tireless. Overhead the fliers purr on the lookout for the enemy. Big guns lumber along behind caterpillar tractors. Ammunition dumps line the road and hospitals dot it. Girl nurses from France and the United States and all the British Empire ride over it.
Always the ambulances are there. They are always given the road. The men who turn out for them anticipate the day when, in their turn, they will be riding in a Red Cross car toward Saloniki and home.
At the farther end of the road is Monastir, taken last winter by the Allied forces in a battle that in any other war would have been set down as great. At the sea end of the road is Saloniki, the Allied base, where Cicero lived for a time and St. Paul shook the dust from off his feet as a testimony against the Thessalonians of his day, and where Suleiman the Magnificent built the White Tower, in whose oubliettes bones still moulder of the victims of 500 years of Turkish rule.
At right angles to that road, as though they were the bent bow of which the road is the arrow, are half a million fighting men of the Allied forces. Not many in this conflict, perhaps. Macedonia is rarely mentioned in the communiqués. Yet the British did not employ so many men in South Africa during the whole Boer War. In one day I have counted the uniforms of twenty fighting peoples on the road.
Campaigning in Macedonia differs for the correspondent from campaigning elsewhere. In the greater armies in the greater fields a correspondent is cared for, guarded, watched, night herded. Everything is provided for him except his uniform and his wrist watch. He rides out in fast cars; he is taken to high hills from which to watch the distant action; he sleeps in hotels of differing degrees of excellence.
In Macedonia he first secures credentials permitting him to visit the Allied armies; then he buys an outfit—tent, cooking pots, blankets, water bucket—all complete; headquarters gives him an orderly, and he takes to the road. Things begin to happen.
WANDERING IN MACEDONIA HAS A SPORTING FLAVOR
I found myself occupying a position somewhere between that of an honored guest and a hobo. Although permission was given me to visit the other units, I was formally attached to the Serbian army. The Serbs would be the most generous hosts in the world if they could be, but they have so little. They are the poor relations of the Allies. They are armed with the old St. Etienne rifle which the French discarded. The artillery in support has been cast from other fronts. Their surgeons are borrowed surgeons, for the most part.
They are uniformed and fed by the French and Great Britain loans them money. They never have enough cars, even for staff use. Sometimes they have not enough food. But they always have enough ammunition and they find enough fighting for themselves. Doubtless I am influenced by my affection for the Serbs. Later I shall tell why I think this army is today—what little there is left of it—the most efficient fighting force in the war.
There were moments when I found myself at the right hand of a general, dazed by the earnestness with which some officer was responding to the toast "America." That same night I might be traveling by freight train to another point of the front. If I was very lucky the orderly found an empty box car. In it he would erect the camp cot and provide canned food and candles and reaping matter and then go away to tell his mates in the next car of the eccentricities of the foreign Guspodin.
HEROISM OF SERBS IN 1916 CAMPAIGN
If it was raining—it usually was raining—it ordinarily fell to my lot to ride on a flat car. Sometimes I crouched under a canvassed gun on its way to the front. It was no drier under that gun. It did not even seem drier. But the silent guardsmen gave me the place as the place of honor. It was the one courtesy in their power to show.
Last winter's campaign of the Serbian army was one of the most heroic on any front in this war. I do not mean to compare the Serb with his allies to the disadvantage of the latter. He was at all times loyally supported. If it was the generalship of Voivode Mischitch and the incomparable courage and endurance of his men that directly resulted in the capture of Monastir, this could not have been accomplished except for the frontal attack by the French through the plains of Monastir or the bulldogging by the British of Turk and Bulgarian in the swamps of the Struma and the wet trenches of the Vardar. But it is only fitting that what the Serb has done should be made known. Let us go back a little.
The Serbian army began the great retreat of 1915 250,000 strong. Not more than 150,000 reached asylum on the island of Corfu after the winter's fight through the snow-filled passes of Albania and Montenegro. In the confusion of those days some one had forgotten. There was not sufficient food or clothing or medicines or nursing waiting them. Men who had struggled through the winter died on the open beaches of the island of Vido.
Dying men dug their own graves and then dug the graves of the men already dead. Not more than half were fit to serve again when the fall campaign of 1916 began.
AN ARMY OF OLD MEN IN THE FIGHTING LINE
It was a sad army—a bitter army—but not a despairing army that I accompanied last winter. Many of these men were, "cheechas," in the Serb phrase. When a man reaches the age of forty he becomes "uncle" to his neighbors. Some of these men were in the fourth line before the war.
Serbia to the Serb peasant means the little white cottage, the plum orchard, the ten acres of ground. Few of them had been fifty miles away from home when war began five years ago in the Balkans. Fewer have seen their homes since. They have received no news from their wives and families, for the Austro-Bulgarian censorship has been extremely severe. They had seen their comrades die. Most of them—three men out of five in some units—had been wounded at some time during the war.
There were no songs upon the march except during those vivid days when the Bulgarians were being forced out of Monastir. There was no light-hearted talk about the camp fires. There was no music, except that now and then one heard the weird and complaining tones of a one-stringed fiddle which some patient soldier had made out of the material at hand. They kept to themselves or in little groups, of twos and threes. At night scores of tiny fires would sparkle in the open land on either side of the Monastir road, where the paired comrades were cooking their evening meal. They marched badly, slowly, slouching, their old shoulders bowed under their packs, their grizzled faces deeply lined. Yet these men were the cutting edge of the weapon that bent back the Bulgarian lines.
One division—the Morava—remained in the aggressive for 95 days without rest. During that period they had but one trench—the front trench. They had no second line, no reserve, no rest camp.
One regiment of the Choumadia division lost 1,100 out of 1,400 men in taking Vetternik Mountain, and then held that mountain under fire from the Rock of Blood, which, dominated the summit, for 20 days until relief came. Even then the men of the regiment which had been so nearly wiped out did not go to rest. They stayed on Vetternik.
In the taking of Kaymakchalan half of some organizations were killed outright. They were enabled to do these things partly because of the experience gained in five years of almost constant fighting. Another factor was the spirit of the men. They no longer hoped for anything for themselves. They expected to die. Those who still remain expect to be killed in action. But they intend that the bill of Serbia shall be paid.
If one could forget the foreground, a Macedonian winter landscape would remind one of Wyoming or Montana. There are the same brown, shallow swells with patches of scrubby brush. There are the same washed-out ravines, the same distant hills clothed with dark wood, while here and there a great bare eminence thrusts upward. Shepherds herd their sheep within sound of the guns. Women wash their clothes at the river side, and do not even look up when the infantry tramp by on the Monastir road. Little black, galloping figures might be cowboys if the glasses did not prove them to be uniformed men.
But there is always something at hand which marks this land as of the east. It may be a Turkish drinking fountain through whose old pipes the water still trickles. Perhaps it is a Turkish graveyard—neglected, weed-grown—among whose tumbled stones the cattle graze. It may be a cynical and discontented peasant in one of the towns that has escaped injury.
"Neither Bulgar nor Serb," said one such old woman, defiantly, when we left the Monastir road at Dobraveni. "I am Macedonian only and I am sick of war." MASTERLESS DOGS ROAM THE BARREN HILLS
And everywhere are the dogs. In this country of shepherds every peasant's cottage has a moving fringe of dogs. In the East the dog is neither fed nor petted, so that he feels himself outcast and despised. During this war first one army and then the other has swept over northern Macedonia, driving the peasants before them. The dogs have been left behind. At night one hears them howling on the desolate hills.
The tainted breeze that comes down the valley hints at the ghastly food on which they live. By day every man shoots at every dog save the few that cling close to an inhabited cottage. They slink, coyote fashion, behind rocks. At night one hears their feet padding behind him on the lonely roads. Their eyes shine in the flare of the electric torch. Every one carries arms in Macedonia at night, not against man, but as a protection, against the dogs.
The fighting here has been of an oddly personal character. On the western, front war is confusing in its immensity. Hundreds of guns roar. Thousands of men advance over a front miles long. One as completely fails to comprehend in detail what is going on as though he were caught in an earthquake. Here operations are watched in the open. One crouches in an artillery observation post on the tip of a hill and watches the little gray figures go forward to the charge on the slope opposite. Sometimes they are broken, and one sees them run down hill again, dodging from rock to rock, hiding in the crevices of the surface.
Occasionally the drama takes on an intimate—almost a neighborly—touch. Five cold men of the Choumadia division became aware last winter that in the Bulgarian dugout just opposite their post—not 50 feet away—three fur-coated officers often met.
"Let us get the fur coats," said the five cold Serbs.
The story of the getting is too long to be told here. But during the two weeks in which the fivefold men intrigued and maneuvered for those three fur coats their entire regiment became aware of the play and watched it as one might a particularly entertaining movie. In the end the five cold men succeeded. Lives were lost on both sides; but that is beside the point. From the colonel down the men of that regiment rejoiced over the strategy of the five cold men. For the remainder of the winter they luxuriated in fur. The bitter winds of Dobrapolyi Mountain had no terrors for them.
There was the old woman of Polok, too. Polok is hardly a hamlet. It is just a huddle of stone huts, stained by the ages, each crowned with a blackened and disheveled thatch. For weeks the Serbs attacked Chuke Mountain, in a dimple of whose shoulder Polok rests. Each day the village had been under bombardment. The artillery observers from their high posts could see the lone old woman going about her business. No other peasants were seen in Polok; but she milked her cows and drove them to water, as though peace reigned in the land. Once she was seen chasing a group of Bulgarian soldiers with a stick, as though they were a parcel of mischievous boys.
Twice the hamlet was taken in hand-to-hand fighting and lost again. The third time the Serbs held it. The old woman picked her way down the cluttered hillside, past the dead men and the wounded, and through the shell holes and amid the ruins of the other huts, until she found the officer commanding:
"And who is to pay me for my cow," she asked. "What have I to do with your war? I want pay for my cow that is dead."
GERMAN FLIERS WATCH THE ALLIED PLANS
Sometimes the enemy fliers visit the Monastir road. On many a pleasant day they fly over Saloniki, 100 miles distant from their lines, on missions of reconnaissance. It is desirable to know how many ships there are in the harbor, for in this way they can keep an eye upon the Allied plans.
It is not often that they drop bombs. Usually they come at the noon hour, when all leisured Saloniki is taking its coffee in front of its favorite cafe. No one goes to shelter; it isn't worth while. Perhaps no bombs will be dropped, and if bombs are dropped experience has told those beneath that running and dodging are futile ways in which to attempt to escape.
It is not this conviction of futility, but real indifference, however, which keeps most men and women in their seats. They are "fed up" on aeroplanes, as the British say.
Sometimes this indifference is carried to an extreme. One day I visited for the first time a hospital on the Monastir road. There were pretty girl nurses there—several of them. Next door was an ammunition dump. Further on were hangars for the war fliers. On a recent visit an enemy plane, no doubt intending to bomb the ammunition depot, had dropped bombs instead in the midst of the hospital tents.
The surgeon in charge was a practical man of forethought and reason. He had funk-holes dug all over the place—many funk-holes. No matter how unexpectedly a flier appeared, one had but to dive for the entrance of a funk-hole. It was somewhat rabbity, perhaps, but the plan was sound and safe.
"Boche coming," trilled one of the pretty nurses.
"To the funk-holes, girls; hurry," said the doctor.
He stood at the mouth of his individual funk-hole and waited. Like a captain whose duty it is to stand by his ship, he felt that he must see his nurses secure. They had but to get into the bottom of the funk-holes and take a half turn to the left and there they were safe—at least as safe as could be expected.
NO ONE WORRIES ABOUT BOMB DROPPERS
The girls ran. But instead of running to the funk-holes they ran to their tents and produced minute cameras, each having a possible range of about 40 feet. They stood there in the open and snap-shotted the flier and uttered small, excited squeaks of satisfaction. The doctor did not go down into his funk-hole. He showed a regrettable lack of moral courage. I could not go either, for I was talking to the doctor.
Always the Monastir road is lined with road-menders. Some wear the dirty brown uniform and the Russian cap of the Bulgarian army. They are not particularly happy, but they are frankly at ease. Broadly speaking, the Bulgarian does not. seem to know what the war is all about. If it were only to fight the Serb, he would not mind. He has always fought the Serb. He dislikes the Serb quite as cordially as the Serb detests him. But he remembers that only a little while ago he was at work, having just returned to his farm from the last war, in which he fought the Serb to his heart's content.
This time he was called out to fight Great Britain and Russia, countries which have always been known to the Bulgarian as his country's friends. He is puzzled and says so. Very often he is so puzzled that he deserts.
GERMANS BOSS THE ROAD MENDER OF THE MONASTIR ROAD
If there are helmeted Germans on the road, they are the gang bosses. The German is an excellent gang boss. His Bulgarian underlings are made to work much harder than when a Serbian soldier is bossing them, for it must be admitted that the Serbian sympathizes with people who do not like to work.
Driving along the roads, one finds Bulgarians asleep under bushes, stretched face down on the sand, examining their foot-gear, doing, anything but work. In that case one is very apt to see a complaisant Serbian sentry sitting under a rock not far away, smoking a cigarette and quite at peace with the world. He would cheerfully kill that one of his charges who sought to escape, but he is open-minded in regard to industry.
"He just got in today," one such sentry told me, nodding at a particular contented Bulgarian who was actively killing time. "He came in from the front, thirty-five kilometers away."
The prisoner explained that he had deserted, hidden his rifle, and started out to give himself up. The whole countryside is crawling with Bulgarian prisoners, so that no one paid the least attention to him. He walked on and walked on, examining gang after gang, until he found one in which the dignity of labor was respected.
His only complaint was that after he had properly surrendered he was obliged to walk three kilometers farther, until he found an officer at Vertekopp who would receipt for him properly. He thought this formality might have been attended to by mail.
PEASANTS ARE SOURLY PHILOSOPHIC
Along with the prisoners one also finds press gangs of the peasants of the vicinity. They are heartily discontented, although they are paid for their work. One cannot wonder at their attitude. Throughout the centuries there have been wars in Macedonia, and with each war the overlordship of the peasant changed. But a little while ago he owned allegiance to the Turk. Then the Greeks took Macedonia and began to tax him. Then the Bulgars established themselves, and right on the retreating heels of his new masters came the Serbs, accompanied by a swarm of strange men wearing many uniforms and speaking in many tongues. The peasant takes refuge from his confusion in a sour philosophy.
"One year the crops fail," he says, "and the next year there is war. It is all one to the poor man."
Along the Monastir road there is a continuous, dribbling stream of refugees—not many at a time. Sometimes half a dozen will trudge by in the course of a day. Sometimes an entire village has been evacuated farther up the line, and the fifty or so who have held on to the bitter end tramp stolidly and unwillingly to safety. These poor folk never leave their homes until they have been compelled to. The outer world is a strange and hostile place to them. Perhaps not one in an hundred has ever been twenty miles away from his hamlet.
WOMEN RETURN AT NIGHT TO THEIR ABANDONED HOMES
They pile their poor effects on donkeys, put the babies on top, and load the women with what there is left. If there is a spare donkey, the man of the house always rides. If there are two spare donkeys, the eldest sons ride. The women always walk. Only once did I see a man walking while his wife rode the donkey. The road buzzed with the gossip of it.
They have suffered greatly, these poor folk. Yet candor compels me to say that at first sight the difference between a Macedonian peasant evicted and a Macedonian peasant at home is so slight that it fails to arouse much sympathy. These poor folk seem to a westerner always on the edge of starvation. The principal item of their diet is maize, so poorly ground by crude water-turned wheels that their bodies are repulsively swollen from the resultant indigestion.
A man with a yoke of oxen and forty sheep is rich.
Their homes are mere inclosures of stone, topped with a blackened thatch, without windows and sometimes without other door than a blanket or a bit of flapping skin. Often the fire is lighted in the middle of the dirt floor and the smoke seeps out through the crevices of the walls and the holes in the roof. Baths seem unknown and vermin are a commonplace of their existence.
Yet they cling blindly to these hovels. When they hide themselves from an invader they always choose some nook in the hills from which they may watch their black roofs. They cache foodstuffs in secret places, from which they take a handful of corn or a cheese of ewe milk at night.
When they are driven out the men go silently. Sometimes they are sullen; Sometimes they smile at the soldiers in a sort of twisted, sidewise fashion, in a poor attempt at propitiation. The women follow at their heels patiently. After the first outcry against the order of eviction they never openly defy the soldiery. 'Yet it is the women who most flagrantly disobey. They return at night to the abandoned homestead, taking their children with them. To do so they must evade the guards and tramp across a desolate country in the darkness, in continual danger from the prowling dogs or from the rifles of the sentries. Somehow they manage to do it. Humanity requires that these little villages in the war zone be emptied to the last human, for in the rear is food and shelter, while at the front is only starvation and danger.
Yet little by little the inhabitants trickle back. At first they are unobtrusive. Although fifty may be living in a hamlet, one sees no more than four or five at a time. Eventually they resume their former mode of life, so far as that is possible. Sometimes they live on the hidden stores of food. Sometimes it is quite impossible to discover how they live at all.
Some such thing happened at Brod. This is a fair-sized town for the northern Macedonian country. There are perhaps 150 houses scattered on the slopes of a rocky hill or sunk in the abominable mud of the Cerna Valley. Here the Bulgarians behaved "fairly well," the peasants said. Some of the men were beaten, and some were taken away to dig trenches, and some ran away to the hills; but the town was not burned and the women were not abused. The peasants were grateful.
AMERICAN NURSE FED THE STARVING AT BROD
When the Serbians took the town they found several hundred of the people still there. There was no food. The village was under constant bombardment. Each Macedonian peasant is a potential spy, for lineage and allegiance are too mixed for either side to place reliance in his loyalty. The people of Brod were moved out to the last man and baby. The Serbs searched the houses one by one, and looked under the caving bank of the Cerner and hunted over the bare hillside. There was none left. The village headman swore it.
Yet a little later, when the Serbs had given place to the Italians, the mired and filthy streets of Brood suddenly became alive with children. Children were everywhere; starving children, impossibly dirty children, children that were verminous and pallid and so ragged that the snow struck against bare flesh through the holes in their garments. No men and few women were seen at this time. The Italian soldiers fed these little outcasts with the scraps of their rations. A military ration is scientifically adjusted to the needs of the soldier. There is no excess to be devoted to charity.
Miss Emily Simmonds, of the American Red Cross, relieved this situation. Miss Simmonds secured an assignment as nurse in a near-by hospital and while there learned of the children's famine at Brod. She moved in one night without a pass, without a guard, and equipped only with a small tent that was so imperfect a shelter that the constant rains rotted the mattress of her bed. She took a census of the starving ones.
By this time there were 40 women and 200 children, and there was not a bite to eat, nor a stick of fuel nor a blanket. They lived in that defiance of natural law which seems the rule of the destitute in the Balkans. Most of the time they were starving. They slept in heaps, like animals, in order to keep from freezing.
"Send food," Miss Simmonds telegraphed, "especially beans."
PEASANT WOMEN TRIED TO CHURN CONDENSED MILK
The beans came, but nothing else. There was no salt, no meat, no anything but beans. Boiled beans become singularly unpalatable after one has lived a few days on bean au naturel. Yet the nurse and the refugees were thankful for beans that week. They were kept from starvation. Later on other supplies arrived. The poor women, faithful to that domestic instinct implanted in every woman's breast, made a pathetic attempt to resume housekeeping along familiar lines. But soon they came to the nurse indignant and complaining. The delegates placed before her bowls of the prepared condensed milk she had issued:
"A devil has entered it," they said with conviction. "For hours upon hours we have churned it and yet the butter will not come."
It was at Slivitska that I began to suspect that these poor devils have a sense of humor. I had gone to the townlet with a Serbian officer who was inquiring into the recent behavior of the Bulgarians. We held court in a cow stable during a pouring rain.
Outside a German prisoner wandered, asking an unintelligible question. He had lost his wits completely during the battle. He fumbled about aimlessly. Sometimes he stood opposite the open door of our cow stable, the tears on his cheeks mingling with the rain. Wounded men lay on the sopping straw.
A dozen or so compact, sturdy, cheerful little French soldiers dried their clothing at the fire which smoked on the dirt floor. A notably sullen priest stood by. A peasant told the village story.
"The Bulgarians were unkind to our father here," said he, indicating the pope. "Also they were cruel to us." The pope sneered ostentatiously. I have never seen a pope who seemed on such bad terms with his parishioners. He half turned to go away. Then he turned back, as though to listen to the story.
"The Bulgarians said they would hang our pope at noon if we did not give them 200 dinars," said the peasant, impressively. It seemed to me that he did not meet the eye of the pope.
"What did you do?" asked the Serbian officer who was conducting the examination. The peasant explained that they were poor folk at Slivitska. They did not have 200 dinars. Furthermore, most of the people of Slivitska had hidden in the hills when the Bulgarians came.
"So the only thing we could do for our father," said the peasant, suavely, "was to ask the Bulgarians to postpone the event until 4 o'clock. That would give our people time to come in from the hills and see our father hanged."
Macedonian mud coupled with the Monastir road is a formidable opponent of the Allied-forces here. The Monastir road, in spite of its centuries of use, is of an incredible badness. It has no bottom in wet weather. In dry weather it is but a dust-bin, so that one can trace the course of a moving column for miles by the pillar-like cloud that rises.
MAKING A BAD ROAD BEHAVE
The Allies have done what they could to make the road behave itself. But the Saloniki base is, at an average distance of 100 miles from the front line, and those goods which cannot be carried upon the two single-track railroads must go by the Monastir road. The railroads are generally in an acute state of congestion.
At all times the native ox-cart is the last line of transportation defense. In bad weather the railroad bridges wash out. The little De Cauville railroads that net the hills go completely to pieces after each downpour. Their tiny tracks slip sidewise on the slopes or the soft dirt ballasting oozes out from beneath the ties.
On the big road the great motor lorries slip and strain and beat the surface into huge ruts. When a car is stranded it is pushed into the ditch by the side. The men attached to it paddle about barefooted, hopelessly, doing little things they know will do no good. They must wait for the road to come to its senses. The pack-trains abandon the road completely and strike across the open country.
OX-CARTS THE FINAL RELIANCE OF TRANSPORT DEPARTMENT
But the ox-carts groan and creak and waggle on. The little oxen sway and grunt under the goad. Progress is infinitely slow, but there is progress. In the end they reach the place appointed.
The Allied forces have built 2,000 miles of main and branch roads in Macedonia during the occupancy and dry weather conditions are slightly improved. But the loose Macedonian soil and the sandy Macedonian rock is not good road metal. When the Allies leave Macedonia and the people come back to these poor villages that are scattered through the hills, the big road will go back to that state in which Alexander put it, perhaps, or Darius found it. Until it is bettered and the roads that lead from it are made sound for traffic, there can be no permanent improvement in the internal conditions of northern Macedonia. Where Macedonia is not hilly it is a swamp. During the winter Macedonian hills defy nature and become swamps.
If the road is an irritation as well as a necessity, the malaria-bearing mosquito is a really dangerous enemy. Last year the Allied troops did not realize what the Macedonian mosquito can do, apparently. They were not prepared. In consequence fully one-half of their strength was out of action because of malaria.
During one period more men were invalided home than arrived on ships. I heard of battalions with 75 per cent of their men on their backs, and of companies in which only five men were fit for duty. The well men watched the trench while the invalids groaned in their dugouts, but the sick men responded to call when an attack was made. Even in the midst of winter one saw yellow-faced men faltering along the Monastir road toward some near-by hospital. It often took them a day to cover five miles. At night they sometimes slept in the mud, wrapped in blankets that had been soaked by the day's rain. They did not complain. What was the use?
MALARIA-BEARING MOSQUITO IS THE MOST DANGEROUS ENEMY
Conditions have improved for future campaigns. The Allies are on higher ground, for one thing. They have cut their way through the Bulgarian lines until they have reached the hills. There will be malaria, of course. There will always be malaria here until Macedonia is drained and oiled, Panama fashion. But the doctors are learning how to treat it and the equipment of prevention has become almost formidable. Men now wear mosquito gloves and masks and neck covers and sleep in nets inside tents that have been made mosquito-safe.
The difficulty is to make the men make use of these safeguards. They become irritable during the Macedonian heats, in which their strength is fairly drained from them. They tear off the head covers to get a breath, of air and draw the gloves from hands that have been bleached and thinned by the flow of perspiration. Then the mosquito does his perfect work.
Today the road ends at Monastir. True, a branch wanders north to Nish and Uskub and Prilip, and another branch crosses the hills to the Adriatic Sea. But across these branches the Bulgarian line is thrown. Monastir is a town of 40,000 people, pretty clean by eastern standards, well built; with wide streets arid a tinkling river running through its handsome boulevard. It was captured by the Allies in November, 1916, but the Bulgarians held the hills from which it is commanded. They shelled it every day until the middle of April, and they may be shelling it now for aught I know.
It was even a contemptuous sort of shelling they gave it. Although they had a sufficiency of big guns, and sometimes dropped a 210 shell in the middle of a promenade to prove it, most of the firing on the town was from the field pieces of 77 caliber. They were so near at hand, you see—only four or five kilometers away. At night the tapping of the mitrailleuse seemed in the very edge of town.
It was too large a town to be hurriedly evacuated. There are few asylums for refugees in this land of ruined villages and minute farms. So that only the very poor—perhaps ten thousand in all—who had no food and no money and no hope, were sent away to Saloniki and elsewhere at the start. The richer ones trembled at home.
One by one they were permitted to leave; but when I saw Monastir for the last time, in January, fully one-half of its population were still hiding in the cellars and hoping that the Bulgarians might be driven on. The streets were empty. The one cafe that remained open was tenanted only by French soldiers, singing a rousing Gallic chorus; and in the single restaurant the only guests beside myself were the Italian officers. At night there is never a light in the city. I have never felt so absolutely alone as in wandering through these broad, white, moonlighted streets. When a regiment of tired men shuffled by, their hobnails scraping on the cobbles, I sat down on the curb to watch them. They took the curse of emptiness off the town. Then an English officer came up and asked the sort of a question one learns to expect from an Englishman and from no other man on earth.
"Where," said he, "can I find a piano? We want to have a sort of a sing-song tonight."
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald