Le Grand Parc Aéronautique des Armées d’Orient – The Great Aeronautical Park of the Salonika Armies

“La façade des multiples hangars a la majesté d’un palais de Versailles. Des magasins, des ateliers, des forges couvrent je ne sais combien d’hectares. Sur le terrain de manœuvre, atterrissent, courent, s’envolent sans arrêt les avions qui, venus des quatre coins du ciel, vont rejoindre leurs escadrilles réparties tout autour du camp retranché. Chaque jour, les grandes caisses, arrivées de France, dégorgent de nouveaux appareils…Un peuple d’ouvriers, de mécaniciens, circule et travaille.. L’état-major du parc réside là ; les caisses qu’il a choisies pour demeures sont aménagées avec goût et confort. Le commandant de l’Aéronautique loge dans une villa blanche, au bord de l’eau, et d’un coup d’oeil embrasse son domaine, et la rade, et les montagnes derrière…”. This is how René Milan alias Maurice Larrouy describes in his book “Les Vagabonds de la Gloire” the visit he paid in February 1916. Why Grand Parc Aéronautique? Because it was not just an airfield. It was a kind of small factory where one could do quite complex technical operations and repairs. It was the place where the planes used to be assembled from the various parts and components brought there by ship.

The Park was located about a mile farther than the area of French hospitals, right where lies today the modern Calamaria district. The old photo below presents a panorama of the Aeronautical Park. On the left side with green dots is marked the area of the French Temporary hospitals. On the extreme left was the No 4 hospital and next to it the SWH G&N unit. In A is the Allatini Mill and in B the Allatini villa. In this villa Sultan Abdul Hamid II was confined as prisoner between 1909 and 1911. During the Salonika campaign the villa was transformed into a hospital. In C, close to the gardens of the villa, was the 1st Temporary French Hospital. In D was the white villa – called often Chateau des Aviateurs – where Commander Victor Denain, the chief of the Armée d’Orient aviation, had his residence. In the right lower quarter of the photo was the proper airfield.

Calamaria park Then

This photo presents the map of the same area as it is today. For easier orientation I marked in yellow the same three buildings of the G&N story

Calamaria park Now

A French Plan of the Aviation Park. Camp Allatini is the area of the French Temporary hospitals.

Camp d'aviation Kalamaria

Another panoramic photo taken from the airfield. In the background Thessaloniki city with the very visible White Tower. Next to the airfield the Chateau des Aviateurs, the residence of commander Denain and farther back the Allatini mill with the high chimney.

Calamaria airport

Arrival of components for assembling

Chateau des aviateurs


The Scottish Women’s Hospitals – The Girton and Newnham Unit in Salonika

While the British War office did not accept Dr Inglis’s offer, other allied governments did. France was one of them. Following the positive experience with the first SWH in France (Abbaye de Royaumont), the French government requested an additional hospital which was installed in May 1916 in the town of Troyes, in Champagne, with Dr Louise McIlroy as Chief Medical Officer. It was called the Girton and Newnham (G&N) Unit because most of the funding came from the alumni of the two women’s colleges in the University of Cambridge. When the decision was made to send French troops to Salonika, G&N accompanied them: first in Guevgueli, in October 1915, when the French tried to assist the Serbian army in the Vardar valley and in December of the same year, in Thessaloniki. This unit stayed always under the French medical authorities of Thassaloniki. The designated site was east of the city, in a vast area with many French field hospitals near the Allatini Mills. A French croquis of the area indicates that the G&N was close to the sea, next to the 4th French hospital.

Two photos with the distance of a century. French Temporary hospital No 4 near the sea, next to it the SWH G&N unit and beyond the main road (now Queen Olga avenue) the French Temporary hospitals No2 and No 5. In yellow important buildings of that period which stand still today. The building on the left was the headquarters of Venizelos government from early October 1916 to mid June 1917.


Μαρτίου ΤΩΡΑ2.resized

Doctors and nurses of the hospital in Salonika

Screenshot from 2016-03-19 22-31-10.resized

According to the C.M.O, in the summer of 1916 the heat in Macedonia was excessive, and the armies suffered a lot from malaria and dysentery. The hospitals of the area were full to overflowing, and the Scottish Hospital, extended its beds to 300. During June, July, and August, patients were pouring in, while others were being evacuated on to the hospital ships to be taken to France.

The entrance to the hospital


Dr McIlroy in an article published in 1917 wrote: “Much credit is due to the French and British Army Medical Services in Salonica for the magnificent way in which they handled the unexpected epidemic of sickness which spread through the troops in Macedonia. Those at home were not given the opportunity of knowing how great was the strain, and how colossal were the difficulties which had to be contended with”.

Sunbathing of patients (photo taken by Joseph Pigassou medical officer of the nearby No 4 French Temporary hospital)


In autumn 1916 an advance of allied troops took place across the front, and wounded began to pour into the hospital. During winter and spring of the following year the hospital was full of surgical cases of “very great interest”. Dr McIlroy modestly wrote: “The main success of the hospital has been due to the work of the assistant surgeons, Dr. Honoria Kerr, Dr. Barbara Macgregor, Dr. Mary Alexander, Dr. Mary M’Neill ; to Dr. Isobel Emslie, bacteriologist ; and to Miss Edith Stoney, radiologist. Much is due to the nursing staff for their skill and care in looking after the sick and wounded so whole-heartedly entrusted to us by the French War Office”.

The Scottish Women’s Hospitals – The American Unit

Volunteer medical groups played a significant role in taking care of sick and wounded during WWI. One very important group was the Scottish women doctors. Everything started when Elsie Maude Inglis (1864-1917) asked the British authorities in the beginning of the war to serve as a doctor – her profession – in the front. The reply, famous now, was “go home and sit still woman”. Fortunately, Elsie was not the kind of person who could sit still at home. She took the initiative to found the Scottish Women’s Hospitals (SWH), an organization of patriotism and feminism. Supported by the National Union of the Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), the new organization had its headquarters in the Scottish Federation of the Women’s Suffrage Sosieties.

The aim of the organization was to create hospitals near the front line composed exclusively of women. The financing was ensured through sponsorship and fundraising. Although many were cautious in the beginning about the chances of success, the result was spectacular: seven hospitals were set up in a relatively short period of time attracting women not only from Scotland or the UK but also from USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In total, about 50% of the staff were women outside Scotland.

Three Scottish hospitals were set up in Macedonia. The first was established in Thessaloniki near Allatini Mill. The second, known as the American Unit, was fixed somewhere in Arnissa (Άρνισσα then Ostrovo) very close to the front line. The latter took its name from the fact that it was totally financed by funds raised in America. The location of the third hospital is still unknown.

A year ago I tried to locate the precise site of the American Unit. With some old photos in my bag I visited the Vegoritis region and started comparing the various landscapes. Et voilà! After some hours of driving and walking up and down the hills of the region I spotted the place. And guess what: the site is exactly as it was a century ago…minus some old trees which are not anymore.

Comparing the two photos below we can observe that even the stones, shrubs and bushes are in the same place

1aSWH staff photo

1bSite of SWH staff photo

Surrounded by hills the site was well protected from the north winds. In red line the site of the hospital. The direction of the photos here is towards SE

2aSWH camp from NW1

2bSite of SWH camp from NW_

The direction of the photos below is towards SW. A century ago the lake was larger and visible from the camp. I marked in blue line the approximate old border of the lake in the modern photo

3aSWH camp from NE13bSWH camp from NW2

In red below is the precise location of the American Unit. In blue line the old border of Vegoritis (Βεγορίτις then Ostrovo) lake. About two miles NW is Arnissa (Άρνισσα then Ostrovo) village

SWH Location.resized

The establishment in Ostrovo

Early August 1916 the unit embarked on the Dunluce Castle, a hospital ship, together with the No 41 British General Hospital from Southampton to Salonika.Dunluce Castle

There were about sixty women of various origins. Three of the doctor’s staff came from Australia and New Zealand, Dr Agnes Benett, the Chief Medical Officer and Drs. Cooper and Scott; Dr. Lewis from England and Dr. Muncaster from Scotland. The administrator of the unit, Miss Jack, and Miss Gordon, sanitary officer, from Scotland; Miss Bedford, in charge of the cars, from Australia. The chief nurse, Miss Tate, from England, and Miss Kerr, chief of the culinary department and her assistant Miss Ross, from Scotland.

The American Unit at the departure from Southampton

SWH America Unit

Early September they moved to their designated site in Arnissa (then Ostrovo). “The site of the camp was perfect. Set in a cup among the lower hills, with the higher peaks soon to be covered with snow, before and behind us, protected from the winds on every side, and surrounded by large trees with a spring of fresh water beside us, we felt we had reached our ideal camping ground” Dr Benett noted in her report.

The entrance of the camp

Entrance of Ostrovo Camp

“On our first evening in camp, star shells were being sent up over the enemy’s lines, and it was known that great preparations were being made for a big advance”. The unit had arrived just in time. The battle of Gornichevo (now Kelli – Κέλλη) and the storming of Kaymakchalan mountain were about to start. “What a day this has been, the bombardment has begun. The guns started at 5 a.m. this morning and have gone steadily ever since. The noise is quite deafening…They say that the bombardment will continue for four or five days. What noise! Some of us went on the top of the hill tonight and saw the flashes from the guns. What a gorgeous night too, with the moon shining and the hills looking so lovely. The thought of so much killing and chaos so near to all this beauty made me very sad” wrote Ishobel Ross in her diary. The ambulances started going up and down the big mountain.

Convoy of ambulances in Ostrovo


The hospital was often the target of enemy planes.

After an air raid

“The girls’ presence of mind and courage during air raids and bombardments have been a source of amazement and admiration to me. No one ever wanted to go to the shelters when the whistle used to blow. It was really quite hard work to get them out of the wards” wrote Agnes Benett in a report before her departure due to malaria. Following her departure, another Australian doctor Mary De Garis took the position of Chief Medical Officer. During that last period writer Miles Franklin worked as volunteer in the American Unit.

The French airfield in Mavrovouni

In memoirs of French officers and diaries of soldiers there was often mention of a military airport close to Skydra (Σκύδρα then Vertekop). My father, who was 10 years old in 1916, was aware of the existence of a military airfield down in the plain of Edessa, but could not tell the exact location. He was, however, greatly impressed as a young child by the huge anti-aircraft searchlights located in Skydra (then Vertekop) which blinded him when the lights were directed towards Edessa (then Vodena) turning night into day. Some research last year, however, bore fruit. The airport was, in fact, located just behind the hill of Mavrovouni village, not visible from Edessa, but very close to 36 and 37 British General Hospitals at a distance of about a mile from the Skydra RR Station.

By comparing the landscape of an old and a new photo it was easy to deduce the location of the airfield

α-523_Verterkop_GPβ-Airport ?avrovouni TORA

With letter A the “Vertekop” airfield. West of Mavrovouni hill were located the 37 and 36 British general hospitals

δ-Mavrovouni airport

An aerial photo of the airfield showing the east side of the Mavrovouni hill. On the west side of the hill were located the 36 and 37 hospitals. In the background one can hardly distinguish Skydra (then Vertekop) village and in straight line the road and railway from Skydra to Edessa. Next to the railway we can perceive the depot of the 2nd Serbian Army. On the right lower corner of the photo we can see the Decauville railway line and the road lead to Almopia and the Voras (Moglena) mountain range 

γ-Vertekop airfield

The airfield was the base of French squadron N387 (escadrille N387). Squadron N387 was created at the end of 1915, originally as N87, before joining the French Army in Thessaloniki under General Maurice Sarrail (Armée Française d’Orient-AFO). It arrived at Thessaloniki on November 20, 1915 with the cruiser “Sinai” and was fixed initially at Thermi (Θέρμη then Sedes) airfield. In June 1916 it was placed with four other squadrons at the disposal of the Serbian Army integrating at the same time Serbian pilots and engineers. All squadrons with the Serbian Army received the additional number 3 to be distinguished from the other French squadrons, so N87 became N387. These units formed an autonomous aviation section under the French commander Roger Vitrat, a veteran pilot with the Serbs in autumn 1915 and the Great Retreat. On 2 August 1916 squadron N387 was established in an airfield near Skydra (then Vertekop) village, a central position for the Serbian army, where it stayed most of the time up to the end of the war.

Airplane graveyard – the source of spare parts for repairs

1Aeroplane graveyard

Prince Alexander of Serbia in a visit

2-27 dec 1917 Alexander in Skydra

The planes in stand-by


Commander Denain decorating pilots

4-Denain in Skydra

Under commander Vitrat the integration of Serbian pilots and engineers into the French squadron was very successful. However, the lack of clear directives concerning the relations of his autonomous section and the rest of the French aviation under commander Victor Denain created strong frictions between Vitrat on one hand and Denain and Sarrail on the other. In June 1917 Vitrat gave new names in his squadrons. N387 became N523. General Sarrail, considering that Vitrat’s views were too pro-Serb, succeeded eventually in sending him back to France in September 1917 to the big consternation of the Serbian high command. Following Vitrat’s departure, Commander Denain reorganized the whole aviation of the Armée d’Orient under his supervision (Serbian, French and British – the Royal Flying Corps). One can say, however, that the five Vitrat’s squadrons of the Salonika capmaign formed the core of the future Serbian aviation.

The bombardment of 37 and 36 General Hospitals

In a previous post there was mention of frequent bombings of 36 and 37 general hospitals by enemy aircraft. Hospital No 37, in particular, was struck on August 10, 1916 by two bombs falling in the hospital grounds, destroying a large tent and injuring two men. On August 19, 1916 – the second day of the big Bulgarian attack north and west of Vegoritis (then Ostrovo) lake – twenty four bombs were dropped on the hospital injuring three men and destroying several tents. But the most murderous one took place on 12 March 1917. The bombardment of the hospitals was considered a barbarian act.

A scene from the 37 general hospital

37 hospital

From French aviation sources we know that on February 15, 1917 the German squadron Kagohll 1 of twin-engine heavy bombers moved to the Hudova airbase north of Guevgueli. These bombers were quick to spread the panic in the Vardar area and in the city of Thessaloniki. They were also targeting the French army in the plain of Monastir and the rear of the Serbian area in the center of their deployment. On March 12, 1917 a raid against the ammunition depot of the 2nd Serbian Army near the RR Station at Skydra (then Vertekop) took place. It was a huge ammunition depot located close to the Station in the direction of Mavrovouni.

Creating the ammunition depot in Skydra (1)

Σκυδρα Réserve d'obus

Creating the ammunition depot in Skydra (2)

Σκυδρα Train de troupes et de munitions

Only two of the French Nieuport fighter planes of the nearby detachment were able to take off but could do nothing to counter the raid. The ammunition depot of the 2nd Serbian Army was very severely damaged but not completely destroyed.

A large part of the ammunition depot was destroyed

Vertekop Depot

French officers looking at the damage standing on the decauville line


The bombing also affected the hospitals nearby. Would it be a collateral damage as the Central powers put forward? Following the public emotion and the controversy, the Allied governments asked for an independent expert assessment to be made on the circumstances of the hospital bombing. Hence, Dr Reiss, a Swiss independent criminologist and professor at the University of Lausanne, was asked by the Serbian headquarters to conduct an inquiry. The Swiss expert first noticed that the explosion of the ammunition depot did not produce any damage to the RR Station at a distance of about 100 to 150 meters. It was then impossible that fragments of the explosion damaged the hospitals lying at a distance of 2 kilometers. He then examined the hospital camp where he was received by the Colonel commanding the 37 hospital. The Colonel informed him that the bombardment took place on March 12th between 8.15 and 8.30 in the morning by planes coming from Skydra. Two English nurses and four hospital orderlies were killed and six Serbian orderlies and three patients were injured.

The operating theater in front of which a bomb fell killing a nurse

37 salle d'operation

In the 36 hospital three men were injured and one killed. At the moment of the bombardment a train was passing on the line east of the hospitals. Would then the moving train next to the hospitals be the target of the bombing?

The railway from Skydra to Edessa was passing just next to the two hospitals (here the 36 GH)

Railway next to 36

According to the expert the pilots knew from the display on the ground of the big red cross canvasses that they were above hospitals. If they had the intention to attack the train, they could only wait a few minutes until the train had quitted the zone of the hospitals.

Twelve red crosses were lying on the ground of the two hospitals. Here one from the 36 hospital.

36 Red Cross

The expert noticed also that to attack a train it would be necessary to drop large bombs intended for the destruction of massive objects and not bombs against personnel. Overall, 23 bombs fell in a widespread area. Taking into account the number and the spots where the bombs fell, the expert concluded that the bombing of the hospitals was a deliberate action by at least four planes which came after the bombardment of the ammunition depot. He finally drew the following conclusions:

“(1) That the explosion of the ammunition dump at Vertekop station had nothing to do with the bombardment of Hospitals No 36 and 37.

(2) That the bombardment of Hospital No 37 at least was carried out by three distinct enemy airplanes.

(3) That as the visibility of the distinguishing Crosses was perfect at the height of 3,000 metres, the enemy airmen knew that they were above hospitals.

(4) That the bombs employed were not the large bombs usually employed for the destruction of massive objects, but bombs intended for attacking human beings.

(5) That the bombardment was aimed at the Hospitals No 36 and 37 and not at the train which was passing at the time”.



British Hospitals with the Serbs (4 and final)

No 33 Stationary Hospital went to Amyntaion (Αμύνταιον then Sorovitch) near the south-west end of Lake Vegoritis (Βεγορίτις then Ostrovo), on the Monastir railway line, where it opened in November 1916. Its accommodation was expanded to 600 beds. Its personnel carried out much work in bathing and disinfecting the Serbian divisions concentrated about Amyntaion in 1916 and 1917. Another hospital for the Serbian Army was the Scottish Women’s Hospital (SWH) in Arnissa (Άρνισσα then Ostrovo) known as the American Unit. For the latter there will be a specific new post.

Positions of 36 and 37 GH (I), 33 stationary hospital (II) and the SWH in Ostrovo (III)

36 37 33 swh.resized

According to RAMC reports, the Salonika front had three casualties of disease to every one casualty of enemy action. The great dominating factor throughout the occupation of Macedonia by the British Salonika Army was malaria. Malaria proved to be a serious drain on manpower during the campaign. In total, the British forces suffered 162,517 cases of the disease and in total 505,024 non-battle casualties.

Dr. Copinaris, the Greek Medical Officer of Health for Macedonia gave valuable information regarding the villages where malaria was most prevalent, as well as information regarding epidemic diseases, such as cholera, typhus and plague. Many actions have been undertaken against malaria. Draining of 1,500 acres of swamps south of the Monastir road was commenced in February and completed in May 1916. Similar drainage operations were carried out in marshy areas along the Galliko river and in the vicinity of Lembet village, on the Exochi (Εξοχή Hortakioi) plateau, and elsewhere in the area of the entrenched camp. When the troops moved forward, constant work was carried out for canalizing streams in the areas occupied by the divisions. In the final operations (1918) a very large number of cases of influenza and broncho-pneumonia were admitted.

Overall, the British authorities provided around 50,000 hospital beds in the Macedonian Front.

British Hospitals with the Serbs (3)

No 38 General Hospital went on arrival to a site selected by the French medical authorities at Thermi (Θέρμη then Sedhes), but shortly afterwards was moved to a site near Pylaia (Πυλαία then Kapudzilar) village. It received sick from the Serbian depots at Mikra Bay. No 41 General Hospital was established at Shamli (Σιαμλή) on the right bank of the Galliko (the ancient Εχέδωρος – Echedoros) river on the Monastir road near the railway and road bridges. Shamli was an abandoned old Turkish estate (ciftlik).

The positions of 38 (right) and 41 (left) General Hospitals in an old and a modern map

38 and 41

38 and 41 Now.resized

Photos from the visit of French Minister of Health Justin Godart at 41 Hospital (Sept 1917)

41 British Hospital in Samli

41 in Samli

41 Samli



British Hospitals with the Serbs (2)

No 36 General Hospital (GH) was established close to Mavrovouni (Μαυροβούνι) village, near Skydra (Σκύδρα then Vertekop) on 10th July 1916. The accommodation, originally for 1,040 beds, was increased to 1,540 at the beginning of August. No 37 General Hospital, of an equivalent size, was opened a few days later right next to No 36.

The exact location of 36 and 37 General Hospitals was derived by comparing the landscape of an old photo with a modern one.




During the whole period of their work with the Serbians, these hospitals had many difficulties to contend with as regards rations, sanitation, transport, and evacuation of casualties. They were constantly subject to bombing by enemy aircrafts, and have been used for the reception not only of Serbian sick and wounded, but also for prisoners of war as well as French, Italian and Russian soldiers.

Photos of 37 Hospital (front) and 36 (back) taken from the railway line



In one of the air raids, on 12th March 1917, two of the staff nurses on duty in the 37 GH (Dewar and Marshall) and four orderlies (Cozens, Filkin, Sarfaty and Sowrey) were killed and much damage was done to the hospital tentage and equipment.

Raising the flag in 36 British General Hospital36 hospital



British Hospitals with the Serbs (1)


The arrival of hundreds of thousands of Entente soldiers during World War I in the Macedonian Front required an unprecedented program of logistical support as well as the construction of important infrastructure such as depots, thousands of miles of roads, quite a few decauville railway lines, communication centers etc. Very important, however, was the availability of sufficient hospitals to treat the wounded and the sick soldiers. French and British authorities decided to transfer numerous field hospitals and other medical facilities by ship to Macedonia. Most of the hospitals were established within the entrenched camp in Thessaloniki (Salonika), the city of the Inter-Allied Headquarters and the safest place.

In autumn 1915 the Royal Serbian Army, in order to avoid the deadly pincer between Germans and Austrians from the north and Bulgarians from the south, moved westwards and crossed Albania to the Adriatic sea (the Great Retreat). Then French and Italian ships transferred them to Corfu for a short period of rest. When the Royal Serbian Army was reconstituted and landed at Mikra Bay, east of Thessaloniki, in May 1916, the British Government agreed to provide hospitals for it. According to the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), on the 14th May 1916, Colonel Sondermeyer, the Serbian Director of Medical Services, asked the British authorities whether 7,000 hospital beds could be provided to the Serbian Army. Following this demand, three British general hospitals, Nos 36, 37 and 38, were sent from England to Salonika to be attached to the Serbian Army. The first of these arrived on the 25th June 1916. A fourth general hospital, No 41, came later in August 1916, and a stationary hospital, No 33, in October 1916.

French General Maurice Sarrail, commander of the Allied Forces, decided to deploy the Serbian Army – for evident reasons – along the old Greek-Serbian border, which then had become the border between Greece and the Central powers. Early summer of 1916, the Serbian Army was deployed in the west part of the Macedonian Front, starting from Pàïko – Πάικο mountain and along the Voras mountain to the western Greek town of Florina (Φλώρινα) just south of Monastir (now Bitola). In the latter, German General Von Mackensen had his headquarters. As the newly arrived hospitals were destined to take care essentially of the Serbian Army they were placed close to the Serbian section of the front-line.