The Almopia Decauville train

For the Greek version here

Inefficient communication networks were one of the major problems that Entente army faced in Macedonia during the 1915-1918 campaign. The area had just been incorporated into the Greek State after the Balkan wars of 1912-13. Roads for automobiles were simply non-existent as there were simply no cars at the time. The roads were mostly narrow paths and the means of transport were horses, donkeys, mules and ox-drawn carts. The only known road axis, Via Egnatia, built in the 2nd BC century by the Romans, was still the main link between Thessaloniki (Salonika) and western Macedonia, poorly maintained for centuries. The sudden arrival of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, thousands of cars and lorries and thousands of canons called for an urgent improvement of the existing transport networks. It is estimated that 900 km of new roads were built and 300 km of existing roads were improved during that period.

The three single track railways linking Thessaloniki with Belgrade to the north, Monastir (Bitola) to the west and Constantinople to the east had a limited capacity for the needs of the army. Gordon Smith, correspondent of the New York Tribune in Thessaloniki, describes his experience of a short trip by train in the autumn of 1916.
“I left Salonica by the Monastir railway, my destination being Vertekop (Skydra), a station about 40 miles from Salonica as the crow flies but about 70 by rail on account of the extraordinary detour made by this line, which first runs southwest to Veria and then turns at an acute angle due north toward Vodena (Edessa). The first difficulty was to find the train at the Salonica station. It was supposed to start at midnight so that it had to be found in the darkness of the night. As there were over a score of tracks each packed with flat trucks and freight cars this alone was an adventure. As all the tracks were filled from end to end, this meant climbing over the buffers of coupled freight cars and splashing about in the puddles of water that usually lay between the tracks. On account of the danger of enemy air raids the whole station was in black darkness and as most of the employees only spoke Greek it was no easy matter to locate anything. The train when I did find it consisted of an endless succession of flat cars, box cars and cattle trucks, the latter used for moving the horses and mules necessary at the front. Up near the engine was a single passenger coach which had certainly seen better days. Window glass was conspicuous by its absence and one of the doors would not shut and had to be tied with string to keep it closed. As six passengers were placed in each compartment the possibility of sleep was reduced to a minimum. Though all the passengers were punctually on board at midnight it was nearly four o’clock before we got under way. The average speed was about seven or eight miles an hour and the stops were frequent and interminable. As the line was single track we were side-tracked at nearly every station to let empty trains coming from the front pass. The result was that it took us over ten hours to cover the sixty miles separating us from Vertekop”.

Leaving the plain, the railroad climbs to Edessa and Arnissa (Ostrovo). We read in the “Rapport de renseignement No20, 178/2 du 2 Septembre 1916” from Salonika headquarters to Grand Quartier Général (GQG) in Paris that “the line, with many bends and multiple tunnels, climbs 508 meters between Vertekop (30 m) and Ostrovo (538 m) at a distance of 30 km. The Vertekop – Vladovo section (419 m), 20 km long with a slope of 2.5%, is very difficult to ride even with very slow speed. For 20-25 wagons, it is necessary to use three locomotives, two in front and one in the back. “

The northern Greek border in early 1916 from a French map. With blue line I marked the entrenched camp built by General Sarrail to protect Thessaloniki from Bulgarian attack

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Such was the situation in spring of 1916 when General Sarrail, head of the Entente forces, decided to head the army out of the Salonika entrenched camp and deploy it along the northern Greek borders. He had already agreed with the Greek authorities, who kept a neutral position to the conflict at the time, to replace the Greek military units in the northern border by Anglo-French and Serbian troops. British troops would be lined up along the Struma valley and Doïran, the French would be deployed on both sides of the Vardar valley and the Serbs would be placed along the Voras (Moglena) mountain range up to Florina and Prespa lakes. The Serbian army had just arrived in Salonika. After the Great Retreat of autumn 1915 through Montenegro and Albania and a short stay in Corfu, they moved to Mikra near Salonika where they were re-armed and trained by French officers. They were about 150,000 men including Yugoslav volunteers from Slovenia, Croatia, Herzegovina and Montenegro. The western part of the front, the Serbian section, was next to home as they used to say, just behind the Voras mountain range. This mountain, a real wall, was then the border between Greece and Serbia and had become the front line between Entente and Central Powers. It stretches for about 70 kilometers from Vevi (Banitsa) in Western Macedonia to the villages of Periclia and Huma in the east. The Serbs were organized at that time in three Armies of two Divisions each, plus a Cavalry Regiment. The 1st Army (Divisions Morava and Vardar), led by General Michitch, was assigned the eastern sector, from Koùpa (near Skra) to Foùstani. The 2nd Army (Divisions Timok and Shoumadia), led by General Stepanovitch, occupied the central section from Foùstani to Ano Koryfi near Orma (Tresina). The 3rd Army (divisions Drina and Danube), led by General Vachitch, was in charge of the extensive western sector from Ano Koryfi to Florina and Prespa lakes.

The Voras mountain range (in greek ΒΟΡΑΣ) extends from Vevi in the West to Periclia / Huma in the East. In purple colour the approximative front line in mid-August 1916, almost identical to the then Greek – Serbian border. The red line indicates the positions of the three Serbian Armies (I, II, III). The blue line shows the sector of 122nd French Infantry Division. In black is the railway line Thessaloniki – Monastir (Bitola) and the brown one marks the decauville line from Skydra to Apsalos (A), Xifiani (Ξ) and Aridea.

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The construction of the first decauville line in 1916
Almopia valley was isolated from road and rail networks of the broader region. In May and June of that year the 2nd bis French regiment of Zouaves had transformed the narrow path linking Skydra to Aridea (Subotsko) into a larger dirty automobile road. However, for the daily provision of food and ammunition it was considered necessary to have also a railroad. The order to construct a light and narrow decauville line was taken at the end of June and the job was entrusted to lieutenant-colonel Premovitch, commander of the pioneers of the Serbian army, with help and supervision from French engineers (les sapeurs des chemin de fer). Progress of work was reported to Paris through the quarterly and monthly reports from Salonika. Work began in the first half of July (Compte rendu of 07.18.1916) and already on 12 August, the section Skydra – Nea Zoï was ready (Rapport de renseignements no20 178-2 of 09.02.1916). On 10 September the entire line Skydra – Xifiani (Kosturian) was ready (Compte-rendu 18/9/1916) and a decision was taken to extend the line to Aridea. In the report of 16 October, Sarrail announces the start of work for the new section (on commence également le prolongement de la voie de 0m60 vers Subotsko), while its completion took place in the first days of December (“Rapport de Novembre 1367/4 du 3 décembre 1916 “). So in five months the decauville line Skydra – Aridea was up and running!

The road Apsalos – Aridea under construction by the Zouaves in June 1916 with the Voras ridge in the background

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The decauville line was running next to the French airfield of Mavrovouni, near Skydra (Vertekop)

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The first bridge on 6th km of Skydra – Apsalos section

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In the same position there is today a road bridge

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The railroad was following the dirty road built by the Zouaves a few weeks earlier. Here the bend before the ‘Rock with the hole‘ near Nea Zoï village

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After Nea Zoï village there was a shorter bridge. The French officer of ‘Sapeurs des chemins de fer’ supervises the construction

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Fishing by Senegalese of the 17th colonial division near the bridge a year later

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The bridge today is part of a rural road 

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The steel basis of the bridge is the same since 1916. It sustains the concrete of the modern road

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The station of Apsalos (Dragomanci) is still there with a small section of the decauville line

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Just behind the station it was the big Serbian hospital of the 2nd army. In the photo the same position then and now

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The correspondent of the New York Tribune, who travelled to Apsalos (Dragomanci) in 1916 writes:
“No one dropping into Dragamanci would ever have imagined that the peaceful little village was a centre of warlike activities. Its six hundred inhabitants were mostly Turks. All day long from the village schoolhouse, where a couple of score of children sat cross-legged round the teacher, came a droning chant as they all repeated their lessons in unison. The only sign of the military occupation was when a staff automobile would shoot along the street carrying officers to or from the front. The only other sign of war was the continuous drone of the heavy gims which echoed from the distant mountains. In a meadow near the exit of the village a score of tents were pitched. A narrow stream meandered through it, crossed by a simple plank bridge. On the other side a solitary tent was pitched. This was the home of Field-Marshal Stepanovitch, commander of the Second Serbian Army, the most taciturn soldier in the service of King Peter. When he was not in his tent, immersed in his maps and plans, he wandered alone. The only persons he ever spoke to were the little village children who little knew that the man in the shabby uniform was one of the greatest generals in an army that counts many soldats d’ elite”.

“All day long from the village schoolhouse, where a couple of score of children sat cross legged round the teacher, came a droning chant as they all repeated their lessons in unison”

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“A narrow stream meandered through it, crossed by a simple plank bridge”

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Next decauville bridge was near the Xifiani (Kosturian) village

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In Aridea was the end of the 1916 line. Below in front of the Aridea station, it’s the loading of a 155mm canon hit by airstrike

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The same foreign correspondent arriving in Aridea observes: Next day I rode on to Soubotsko, the Headquarters of the Shumadia Division. No one dropping into Soubotsko would have imagined that it was one of the storm centres of the Balkan campaign. It presented a picture of peace such as would have gladdened the heart of any pacifist. The two streets that form the village, the shorter one at right angles to the other, running along a sluggish stream of doubtful purity, were lined with a few wretched shops in which soap, petroleum, sugar and a few other strictly necessary articles were to be found. Luxuries here were none, unless one counts the inevitable tins of concentrated milk and a few stray boxes of sardines in that category. At the angle where the streets join, the solitary mosque of the village, and a marble fountain with a Turkish inscription, formed the last souvenirs of the regime of the Sultan. Here, once a week, the populace of the surrounding country poured in on foot and on donkeys to hold a market. The goods on display did not have, however, a total value of more than a hundred francs or so, consisting mainly of onions, chestnuts, paprika and such oddments as pins, needles and thread. I saw one red-turbaned merchant spend the whole day cross-legged in front of a couple of dozen boxes of matches. As these sold for a cent apiece, even if he had disposed of his whole stock (which he certainly did not), his gross receipts would not have been twenty-five cents. From time to time a grey-bearded man with a red fez climbed on to the marble fountain and made a speech. At first I thought he was a political agitator, as he spoke with apparent eloquence and conviction, but I discovered he was only the town crier making known the latest municipal decrees. From the freezingly cold reception given to his pronouncements, I imagine he was proclaiming some fresh taxation, or something of the sort.

From 9 o’clock in the morning hundreds of peasants, the men, Turkish fashion, mounted on donkeys, and the women walking on foot, poured into the village. Even the small boys rode, while their mothers walked behind, the outward tribute to the predominant position of the male. The feminist movement has a long distance to go in Macedonia. The chief business of the males on market days seemed to be to sit cross-legged on the ground in the various cafes (wooden sheds with beaten earth floors open to the streets) and consume an endless number of microscopic cups of coffee. As the immense majority of the people are Mahometans, 90 per cent of them wore either fezes or turbans.

The extensions of the decauville line in 1918

In late spring 1918 the military situation in the Macedonian Front was profoudly changed. The first change was the differentiation of the front line. After the successful Entente campaign of the previous two years, the western part of the front had moved northward. It passed north of Prespa lakes and Monastir, to Macovo (FYROM) and then passed south of Gradesnitsa (FYROM) and continued south of Sokol peak and of Dobropolie plateau in the Greek-Serbian border. The second important change was Greece’s entry in the war on Entente’s side. Nine Greek divisions were added to the allied army creating practically an equilibrium of forces. General Louis Franchet d’Espèrey, who replaced General Guillaumat on 18 June as commander-in-chief of the Entente forces, said in a radio interview in the ‘30s:

After my arrival, I went to see Prince Alexander who was the leader of the Serbian army (it was June 28, the anniversary of Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo). I went to his headquarters in Yelac (FYROM) in a wooden hut. He was not fond of the city’s entertainments and preferred to live in a hut, offered to him by the British and built on Serbian territory conquered in the previous year. The next day (June 29) we went up riding to Floka peak. I had the pleasure to meet there an old friend, Major Claemens, commander of two French batteries supporting the Serbs. It was he who explained to me very clearly the tactical situation. It was 6:00 in the afternoon. Although it was June the sun had begun setting and the oblique rays lit up the Bulgarian positions: facing south was possible to see not only the first Bulgarian lines – we were at 2400 meters and them at 1800 – but also the second lines until the last one at Koziak. It was a unique opportunity. The Serbs were enthusiastic and ready to march, they were highlanders, but they lacked the methods of modern warfare. I decided to give them two French divisions: the first one I knew very well because it was me who had formed in 1915, the 122nd Infantry Division; the other one was commanded by an old friend whom I knew and appreciated in China during the Boxers war, the General Pruneau of 17th colonial Infantry Division. I decided that these two divisions would break the “crust” of the first Bulgarian lines and behind them the Serbs would follow …. The allied army consisted of people of all races and religions which was historically unprecedented. I had the British army that consisted of English, Scots, Irish, Cypriots and Indians. I had the French army composed of French, Algerians, Tunisians, Moroccans, Annamites (Vietnamese), Cambodians, Senegalese, Malgasious. I had Albanians, Russians, Italians, and Greeks of course who offered me a very great service because thanks to the Greeks I was able to form the necessary critical mass for maneuvering. Thanks to Venizelos I was able to give two divisions to the Serbs, and several heavy guns”.

Left: Prince Alexander with Franchet d’Espèrey in Yelac next to the wooden hut on 28 June. Right: Prince Alexander, Franchet d’Espèrey and Marshal Michitch at Floka in June 29, 1918

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It should be noted, however, that already by the end of 1916, general Pavlovitch, commander of Shoumadia division and General Stepanovitch of the 2nd army believed that an attack through Dobropolie had a lot of chances of succes. However, the French had to be convinced. Sarrail and his successor Guillaumat were not of the same opinion. But Franchet d’Espèrey believed in it and after the two-day trip to Yelac he radically changed the plans. According to the previous Guillaumat’s plan, the mountain range of Voras, and Almopia valley in general, would only play a minor role, a defensive role. With the new plans, Almopia would become the main theater of the battle, the two French divisions being the spearhead of the attack! Who could seriously believe that an attack at an altitude of 1,800 meters was possible and had a chance of success? Certainly not the commander of the German-Bulgarian Army, general von Scholtz. He was sure that their position in Voras were so favorable that they could easily defend the crests even if the opponents had larger forces. This view seemed to be shared by the commander of the 11th German army, General von Steuben who was defending the area north of Monastir.

The change of plans meant changing preparatory priorities. It was necessary now to improve all the roads in Almopia valley and expand the trails on the slopes of the mountain. And most importantly, it was urgent to extend the narrow decauville line in two directions: from Aridea to Sosandra and Promahi (Bahovo) near the foot of the mountain and from Apsalos to Orma near Loutraki (Pojar), the beginning of the ascent to Sokol and Dobropolie. The carrying capacity of the light rail should be increased from 200 tonnes/day to more than 600 tonnes/day, by using more locomotives and wagons. 600 canons, one third of all the canons of the Salonika Army, and 85,000 men would be squeezed in a distance of 30 km! The workload fell on the French and Italian pioneers assisted by Bulgarian prisoners and Russians Bolsheviks who refused to continue the war after the withdrawal of their new government from the war. Local residents from the Almopia villages were also used.

The positions early September of 1918. The 122nd French Division was located under Sokol (S) and the 17th French colonial division under Dobropolie (D). To the Right, the Serbian division Shoumadia (SH) aiming at Veternik (the Rock of Blood as the Serbs used to call it) and at Koziak (KO). Behind the 122nd was the Yugoslav division (YU), behind the 17th was the Timok division (TI). Further to the right, the first group of divisions under the French general d’Anselme with the participation of two Greek divisions (F + GR). Next to the 122nd division were the divisions of the 1st Serbian Army, i.e. Drina (DR), Danube (DA) and Morava (MO) and further to the west the Armée Française d’Orient (AFO) with a Greek division under general Henrys. Floka (F) was the observatory of the Serbian army, dominating all the Bulgaria occupied peaks in the east. In Yelac (Y) was the headquarters of Prince Alexander at 1,600 meters. Franchet d’Espèrey decided to carry heavy French artillery to Floka, at 2,300 meters !! For its transport they used the decauville line in green colour from Marina (Sakulevo) village near Florina to Scotsivir (FYROM), then with lorries from Scotsivir to Petalino (FYROM), with smaller cars to Yelac (FYROM) and with mules to Floka. It’s perhaps the highest position of heavy artillery (155mm) in history! Lighter loads were carried using the trail  Arnissa – Patima – Tourkolivado – Floka. For provisions to Divisions 122, 17, Yugoslav, Shoumadia and Timok the decauville lines of Orma and Sosandra – Promahi were used. In brown colour is depicted the decauville line of 1916 and in black the extensions built in 1918.

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Franchet d’Espèrey to general Michitch on July 13, 1918: “…. in response to your letter of July 11, I have the honour to inform you that I agree with the creation of a 0.60 meters line from Dragomanci (Apsalos) to Poliani and Tresina (Orma) you proposed to urgently undertake … the orders have been given for the transport of the necessary materials for 16 km 0.60m line to Vertekop (Skydra) station …. According to your desire I put at your disposal the 3rd company of the pioneers of the railways (sapeurs des chemins de fer) “

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The Orma extension began on July 20 (Compte rendu 5/8/1918). On 28 August the line to Megaplatanos was ready (Compte rendu of September) and a few days later the remaining small section to Orma. We found no reference of the completion date of the Aridea – Sosandra – Promahi extension. A mid-August request by general Michitch to increase the capacity of Aridea – Promahi section to 400 tonnes/day may imply that the line was ready by that time.

The decauville train on the right and the normal one on the left in Skydra railway station

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Ammunition arrived in Skydra with the normal train from Salonika and then loaded into decauville wagons for distribution to the various warehouses in Almopia.

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Entente soldiers relaxing after having loaded the decauville wagons

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In conclusion, the Almopia narrow railroad network was constructed in two periods. The Skydra – Aridea line was built between July and December 1916 for the supply of the Serbian divisions stationed in Almopia from the summer of 1916 onward. The material and design were provided by the French, the execution by the Serbs. The extensions from Apsalos to Orma and from Aridea to Sosandra and Promahi took place during the 1918 summer in view of Franchet d’Espèrey’s plans to break the enemy lines on the Voras ridge.

The Voras peaks east of Kaymakchalan (1) Kaymakchalan (Profitis Ilias) 2524m, (2) Koutsoumpeis 2440m, (3) Floka 2370m, (4) Sokol 1827m, (5) Dobro Polie 1750m, (6) Kravitsa 1772m, (7) Veternik 1755m, (8) Koziak 1817m, (9) Pinovo 2156m, (10) Djena 2182m

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Franchet d’Espèrey’s plan was succesful. Although it is not the subject of the present article, let’s say a few words about the biggest battle in the Balkans during WWI. The Entente bombardment started September 14th at 7 a.m. from Florina to Struma and continued all daylong. In Almopia the 600 canons poured their shells in the few miles of front line on the Voras crests. “The earth in the positions was completely destroyed or collapsed by the concentrated fire. The greater part of the trenches disappeared. In their place appeared huge pits, in which it was impossible to move around” said a Bulgarian observer. Next day, at 5:30 a.m.  the attack began. By the end of the day the three main objectives were attained despite the strong and brave Bulgarian resistance: Sokol, Dobropolie and Veternik were under the Allied control but with heavy losses. The second day the breakthrough continued and the following days the retreat of the Bulgarian army took bigger proportions. On Sepember 25th the Bulgarian government decided to seek an armistice (without tsar Ferdinand’s agreement). The armistice was agreed and signed between d’Espèrey and a Bulgarian delegation in the evening of 29, effective from September 30 at noon. The Bulgarian collapse came as a big surprise in Paris and London. “It was recognized at once that the end had come” writes Churchill while in a mission in Paris. And Hindenburg, the commander-in-chief of the German army will write three days later : “as a result of the collapse of the Macedonian Front….there is, so far as can be foreseen, no longer a prospect of forcing peace on the enemy”. It was the beginning of Kaiser’s fall.

The Balkan breakthrough in September 1918

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What was the future of the light Almopia railway after the war? The French offered it to the Greek government who ceded it in 1923 to a private company, the “Macedonian Local Railways”. The decauville train operated for the transport of goods and people until 1931, but then following the crisis it was temporarily shut down and stopping altogether in 1936. Shortly afterwards the lines were removed and the locomotives and wagons were dispersed to other similar networks in Greece. The only known locomotive of the Almopia decauville seems to be currently in the Athens Railway Museum. Thus ended the life of the “little Karatzova train” from a glorious and historic period.

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