The Great Fire : I Saw Salonika Burn, 18 August 1917

The author … here gives a magnificently graphic description of the inexorable fire which swept over the city in August 1917. Mr Collinson Owen at this time was editor of the soldier’s newspaper “The Balkan News”, and with the characteristic resource of a keen journalist only missed two days’ publication through the ravage of his office and printing works.

Saturday, August 18, 1917 is a day that will be long remembered by many thousands of members of the Salonika Force. They may not always be able to recall the date itself, but they will never forget the fire that occurred on it, when nearly a square mile of the city was burned down in a few hours.

IWM photograph: AT THE EDITOR'S DESK. Mr H. Collinson Owen at work in his office. In front of him is a copy of his paper, "The Balkan News", which he edited so successfully.
AT THE EDITOR’S DESK. Mr H. Collinson Owen at work in his office. In front of him is a copy of his paper, “The Balkan News”, which he edited so successfully (IWM).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In those days I lived in a very pleasant and roomy apartment above one of the town’s big shops. It was a very hot day, and the local sirocco – a hot wind from the direction of the Vardar – was blowing half a gale, and had been doing so for two or three days. I was sitting at tea, clad as lightly as the convenances would allow, when Christina, the Greek maid from Constantinople, came in with some more hot water.

“You know there is a big fire,” she said. “They say half the town is burning.”

IWM photograph: WHEN SALONIKA WAS WIPED OUT BY FIRE. The great fire of Salonika started in the Jewish quarter and gradually crept down towards the sea front. Many of the refugees had fled to the quays to escape the fire, but the Navy came to the rescue. Lighters were brought alongside the quays and the terrified refugees were embarked with their baggage. By the time the flames had reached the waterside nearly all of them had been got away. About 4,000 houses were destroyed. This photograph was taken soon after the fire had started. In the foreground is the English quay.
WHEN SALONIKA WAS WIPED OUT BY FIRE. The great fire of Salonika started in the Jewish quarter and gradually crept down towards the sea front. Many of the refugees had fled to the quays to escape the fire, but the Navy came to the rescue. Lighters were brought alongside the quays and the terrified refugees were embarked with their baggage. By the time the flames had reached the waterside nearly all of them had been got away. About 4,000 houses were destroyed. This photograph was taken soon after the fire had started. In the foreground is the English quay. (IWM)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IWM photograph: THEY FOUGHT TO SAVE SALONIKA: Mr Collinson Owen emphasizes the great difficulty which confronted the troops in their endeavours to fight the Salonika fire. There were men in thousands, but for this sort of fighting there was a great deficiency of weapons. Above is a building that has been completely gutted, and a single hose pipe, the jet from which can be seen on the left of the photograph, is all that is available to quench the glowing ruins.
THEY FOUGHT TO SAVE SALONIKA: Mr Collinson Owen emphasizes the great difficulty which confronted the troops in their endeavours to fight the Salonika fire. There were men in thousands, but for this sort of fighting there was a great deficiency of weapons. Above is a building that has been completely gutted, and a single hose pipe, the jet from which can be seen on the left of the photograph, is all that is available to quench the glowing ruins (IWM).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

French Official photograph: FLOOD-LIT BY A CITY'S FIRE. This remarkable photograph of the great fire at Salonika in August 1917 shows the Turkish quarter burning. The minaret on the left id flood-lit by the flames which leapt high in the air and made an awe-inspiring spectacle by night.
FLOOD-LIT BY A CITY’S FIRE. This remarkable photograph of the great fire at Salonika in August 1917 shows the Turkish quarter burning. The minaret on the left id flood-lit by the flames which leapt high in the air and made an awe-inspiring spectacle by night (French Official).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

French Official photograph: WHEN A HUNDRED THOUSAND WERE HOMELESS: During the Salonika fire there were scenes among refugees comparable to those in France and Belgium. The poorer quarters suffered first and the inhabitants fled from the flames, about 100,000 people being rendered homeless. Above, in one of the open spaces of the city during the fire, crowds of refugees are gathered together, and in the foreground are some of the rough carts, typical of Macedonia, in which they have salved what they could of their personal belongings. Allied troops, especially the British, says Mr Owen, helped shepherd the panic-stricken folk into places of safety.
WHEN A HUNDRED THOUSAND WERE HOMELESS: During the Salonika fire there were scenes among refugees comparable to those in France and Belgium. The poorer quarters suffered first and the inhabitants fled from the flames, about 100,000 people being rendered homeless. Above, in one of the open spaces of the city during the fire, crowds of refugees are gathered together, and in the foreground are some of the rough carts, typical of Macedonia, in which they have salved what they could of their personal belongings. Allied troops, especially the British, says Mr Owen, helped shepherd the panic-stricken folk into places of safety (French Official).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of various miracles one of the greatest was that the “Balkan News” office was unharmed. Then followed a miserable month if ever there was one. Wreckage, dust and misery everywhere. No water to wash in … Explosions everywhere as the French sappers blew up dangerous buildings, with flying bricks thudding down on the roof. And Salonika with the life and soul gone out of it; a heap of rubble with not a hotel left, nor a restaurant, nor any place to go, save only the White Tower Restaurant. One lunched off tinned things and worked in a sort of daze. Oh, for the Club!

And Salonika never recovered during the occupation of the Allies. It remained a “washed-out” city; the wreckage was too big to repair.

This account and these images are taken from a post-war part-work. You can download and read the full article here (PDF). Unfortunately I have no idea what the publication is – if you know, please get in touch.


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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.