Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 285th installment in the series.

August 18-19, 1917: Salonika In Flames

The fact that millions of people were being killed deliberately in the First World War did nothing to stop fate from claiming its usual share of victims through accidents; in fact the war made bloody mishaps far more likely by cramming too many people together in strange places, disrupting transportation and communications, and generally sowing chaos.

On August 18, 1917, one of the worst accidents of the war began with the conflagration in the ancient Greek port city of Salonika (or Thessaloniki), now the main base for French, British, and Serbian forces stationed in the Balkans. After a spark ignited dry straw in a house sheltering refugees, over 32 hours the Great Salonika Fire destroyed two-thirds of the city, gutting its downtown commercial district and leaving 73,000 people homeless. On the evening of August 18 one witness, Dr. Isabel Emslie Hutton, recorded the scene in her diary:

About 7pm Dr McIlroy and I went into the town and walked up to the city walls; there below us was a belt of leaping, roaring fire that stretched almost from one end of the town to the other, and right across the middle part of it above the Rue Egnatia. This great ferocious monster ate up house after house with lightning speed, for the little evening breeze had developed into a mild Vardar wind, and now all the authorities saw that the situation was as bad as it could be, and that nothing could stop the progress of that roaring furnace. It was unforgettable; all the pictures of hell that were ever painted fall short of it in fearfulness, and its hungry roar, mingled with snarls and hisses and the crash of the falling ruins, was most awe-inspiring. The inhabitants ran about trying to save their possessions and not knowing where to take refuge.

Inhabitants paid porters as they desperately sought to save their prized possessions, leading to some absurd scenes in the narrow city streets, Hutton added:

The progress of the flames was now so fast that the streets were thronged with the people carrying what they could, and the hamals were making a fortune carrying great loads of household goods for the highest bidder. A huge wardrobe, an enormous and hideous mirror or a piano would come blundering down one of the narrow streets, a hamal peeping out from under it, and it would sometimes meet a sewing-machine or a feather-bed going in the other direction and get jammed. Mothers and children scurried along with as much as they could carry, and bedridden grandmothers or invalids were half-dragged, half-carried along. All was confusion, grief and hopelessness.

Many witnesses emphasized the unusual speed of the fire, which seemed to consume entire blocks in a single fiery lunge. Another observer, British supply officer Douglas Walshe, recalled:

Salonica is no ordinary city, and this was no ordinary fire. Its progress was appalling… It leapt all barriers. It was not a case of houses catching fire from neighbouring houses; whole districts burst into flame at once. The wind whistled and the fire roared; sobs and shrieks and shouts echoed on every side; mules and oxen and springless native carts clattered on the cobble-stones…” Frantic families surrounded the drivers of those long, noisy native carts, gesticulating, imploring, oubidding each other for their goods to be taken next.

Walshe also recorded a classic moment of wartime fatalism mingled with romance, set as always in a hotel bar:

It was obvious now that the centre of the city was doomed, and that the dwater-front would go with the rest. Officers staying in the hotels began hastily to pack their things, and wondered where they would finish the night. The manager of one of the most crowded hotels, resigning himself to the inevitable, doled out parting tots of whisky free of charge – “the last drink you will have in my hotel, gentlemen!” His unconcern was superb.

The fire reached its climax on the morning of August 19, when two arms of the fire combined to wipe out Salonika’s famed commercial district. For its part Salonika had no official fire brigade, and firefighting was further hampered by the fact that that the Anglo-French forces in Salonika had commandeered the city’s water supply in order to ensure adequate supplies for their own needs, although French and British troops did man their own fire brigades.

While there wasn’t much good news to look for in the Great Salonika Fire, the loss of life was relatively light and at least the city’s iconic White Tower landmark was spared. The presence of the Allies was also a small comfort to the victims, who were transported to temporary homes and refugees camps aboard British and French trucks, and received emergency rations. The fire also had surprisingly little impact on the flow of supplies to the Allied troops on the Macedonian front to the north, since most food and ammunition was delivered by routes that circumvented the town center.

In the longer term, British insurance companies ended up paying the huge claims brought by the fire victims in Salonika (under pressure from the Greek and British governments, the latter more sympathetic no doubt due to Greek’s recent entry into the war). However the war delayed rebuilding, and French plans to create an entirely new city center never came to fruition.

See the previous installment or all entries.