The Great Fire of 1917 : an eyewitness account

My thanks go to David Shillito for providing the transcript of a letter written by his father – Second Lieutenant John Ewart Shillito of 2nd East Yorkshire Regiment (83 Brigade, 28 Division) – to his family describing the fire of August 1917.

My dear Mum Dad & Phyl.

Yesterday I saw Salonica burnt to the ground. You have often spoken of Mile Thorn [an engineering works in Halifax] & similar conflagrations but this was surely a second Rome. I came into the town from a French aerodrome soon after two o’clock when I noticed a small cloud of smoke on the North Side emanating from the Turkish quarter. No-one paid much attention to it, save a few hundred excited Greek policemen who were bustling about Piccadilly Circus and banging into every pedestrian. The town is devoid of any general water supply and it appears that, during the afternoon, while people were leisurely cooling themselves with iced drinks in the cafes, the first fire spread over a portion exceeding one square mile.

Even as late as 7 o’clock when I was dining at the French Club with some friends, no-one seemed to have the wind up until about 8 o’clock. Everything was quiet when at last the stream of refugees and homeless children steadily grew and by 8.30pm all the front was just one surging mass of moving furniture of every description and men, women, boys & girls & children in arms, literally thousands… At 8.30 I climbed up the White Tower with some friends and saw a blaze covering an area larger that Sowerby Bridge [a town 5 km from Halifax] extending downwards from the North side. All the notable churches were ablaze and French engineers were already beginning to dynamite large sections of buildings around the fire in an endeavour to localise it.

We walked up to the town close to the scene until we were almost scorched. British ambulances were evacuating the sick and aged Turks, Jews and Greeks and the rest, many of whom absolutely refused to budge from their doorsteps until the flames actually drove them out. Round one corner I caught a nasty knock on the shoulder and found the head of a corpse thrust in my face. It was of an old Jew, being borne along by his lusty son and daughter on a rude trestle. What the casualty list was it is hard to say: I climbed up the White Tower again after clearing from the scene and stood on the gallery for an hour until I met the Colonel and some officers of No 1 Canadian Hospital. They offered me a lift up in their car which was waiting at the other end of the bay about a mile away and we all got down into the street to make off in the direction of the landing stage. In the street were long convoys of transports going in every direction and on the sea side of the street were the helpless refugees three and four deep for a mile seated on their belongings, hysterical girls shrieking in the weirdest manner all the time.

Meanwhile huge chunks of fire were being blown along with the wind and out at sea one or two ships had already caught alight. Halfway to the landing stage the air was thick and hot with smoke and sparks and I felt a real choking sensation about the throat. However, being with the M.O.’s I felt sure we would be alright.  Soon we pushed to make for the car and beat it before we were cut off or driven into the sea.

As I looked back to the White Tower, two or three buildings on the front had already taken fire and were crackling fiercely. Further on towards Venizelos Street the fire was raging down towards the front and was scarcely 50 yards from us as we passed the bottom of the street by Hocas where a red-hot fire engine was pumping sea water up to the top of the building which had caught alight. Scarcely 150 yards further on when we arrived at the Quay, half choked and blinded with the sparks and smoke we looked back in the direction we had come and saw the whole front was one huge mass or roaring flames.

The fire had spread like lightning on the wind and not only the front but all the fishing boats moored up to the water’s edge were blazing away, many of the filled with the poor refugees. What happened to scores of those poor helpless souls God only knows. They cannot all have escaped for the street was so thick that you could scarcely do more than crawl 1 mile per hour. There were little girls of six and seven carrying babies in their arms and children in threes and fours clinging to their mothers’ skirts as they were shoved along with the dense crowd.

Arriving on the Quay we found that our ‘bus’ had been mobilized and the Colonel was in the devil of a temper. Anyway he got away and myself and another young officer remained there to assist the M.L.O. in shifting his office, kit etc on board a launch. After having done that we joined a convoy of motor transport and spent the rest of the night clearing the refugees out of the way until 3 o’clock this morning. At 8am I cleared off up the line away from the mess which was still in flames. I am just about 50 kilos up country from Salonica in a cosy little rest camp where the glare of the fire is still visible, high up in the sky.

I never want to see another sight like last night’s. It was far too destructive and horrifying.  All the large Jewish houses that have made so much filthy lucre out of the Allies have been razed to the ground, burnt to ashes. Stein, Orosdi, Back, Tiring and Hocas are no more. It is certain that the business of the whole city will be dislocated as the place which was burnt was the business section apart from the Jewish and Turkish quarter where the natives lived in close, congested, wooden hovels.

I will write you more anon concerning the fire. It has probably cleared out not a few nests of foul spies to say nothing of the germs of disease.  Well, well. These people can thank the Allies for being in occupation of their land for without us the loss of life might have been ten times greater. These people never showed more clearly that last night the implicit faith they have in the British. One feels the real responsibility of maintaining our reputation and dignity among this weird concourse of half castes, rogues and vagabonds who have not a soul above a drachmae.

You would marvel to realize the magnificent reputation that our troops have made out here by their general bearing and their chivalrous behavior.

It is truly a monument more lasting than brass that the British Army has achieved in Macedonia.

Well more of this anon.
I am far away up on the hills.
My love to you all (and the dog).
Always yours. J.

Author: SCS Web Editor

Robin Braysher joined the SCS in 2003 and soon after became editor of the Society's journal, 'The New Mosquito', a role he held until 2008. He then became the Society's web editor, a role he seems unable to shake off. His interest in the campaign comes from his grandfather, Fred, who served as a cyclist with the BSF from 1915-1917, mainly in the Struma valley.

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