Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Great Fire of Salonika

In 1917, the port city of Salonika was bursting with Allied troops heading for the Macedonian Front just to its north.  Then in August, a fire broke out one Saturday afternoon, and a conflagration ensued.

Salonika from a British Seaplane Before the Fire

Starting with a kitchen fire at one house at the beginning of Ayiou Dimitriou Street, the fire destroyed, with the help of the Vardaris (a strong north wind), 250 acres of building area, 9,500 houses, and most of the city's churches, banks, schools, printing presses, hotels, and shops. It left 72,000 people homeless, two-thirds of whom were Jews. The fire wiped out the traditional, cosmopolitan appearance of the city.

I recently stumbled across this account of the fire by  Dr. Isabel Emslie Hutton. In 1915 she joined the Scottish Women's Hospitals Organisation and served in France (Domaine de Chanteloup, Sainte-Savine, near Troyes) and then with the Armee d'Orient in Salonika, distinguishing herself by leading the unit which accompanied the Serbian Army during the First World War.

About five o’clock in the afternoon we noticed a thin lick of yellow flame just beyond the bazaar. Half an hour later it seemed to have grown bigger, and we all drew one another’s attention to it, but none of us considered it was anything serious, and thought no more about it. The inhabitants must surely have realised the danger, but as they had no fire engines or methods of coping with it, nothing was done. The evening breeze arose and the flames licked along eastwards towards the principal parts of the town.

Dr. Hutton
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.

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.

We hurried back as soon as possible, for there seemed no reason why the fire should not spread along the line of houses to our hospital, GHQ, and the other offices of the Allies.

By nine o’clock huge fire-balls were being blown right into our hospital and even beyond it, for the wind was still in the same direction, and there was great danger that our tents would catch fire, even if the fire itself did not reach us. Members of the staff, armed with brooms to beat out the flames, perched themselves on the ridge-poles of the high tents and stayed there till the wind changed and there was no more danger. “Comme ces dames sont pratiques; les seestaires ont merveilleuses,” said our patients. “Sont des garçons manqués,” grunted Danjou, the taciturn old Medecin Chef from next door.

The Fire from the Waterfront

Before midnight the entire town was a semicircle of fire, and it seemed as if nothing could escape; mercifully, after midnight the wind suddenly changed and the flames, instead of licking further eastward, blazed straight southwards to the bay, setting fire to the barques that lay alongside the quay. These barques had been doing excellent work during the progress of the fire, and since the quay was till now untouched they had been able to save the inhabitants and some stores. Now moving out for safety, they spread the fire to other ships, and there was much confusion in the bay for a time. Nevertheless, the change of wind certainly saved the remainder of Salonika, and when daylight broke, though the fire had not stopped, and, indeed, continued to smoulder for days, the danger was over.

On all sides we heard praises of the British lorry-drivers, who worked most strenuously and considerately for all, especially the women and children. Of other Allies it was said that the drivers were not above taking tips and that much stealing went on (this is possible, for all the well-stocked shops were completely looted). It was said, too, that it was revolting to see the Russians lying in the gutters drinking the wine which flowed down from the burst barrels in the store-houses on the quay. Olive Kelso King did splendid work in this fire, and was awarded the Gold Medal for bravery by the Serbian Headquarters for which she was now working.

A few days later we went down to see the town, which was still smouldering and hardly recognisable. All the quayside buildings were completely gutted, and nothing remained of Venizelos Street or the Bazaar but masses of masonry; every shop and hotel had been wiped out, the roads were blocked with smouldering debris, and the whole place was desolation. The Turkish quarter, however, nestled on the hillside as cheerfully as ever, and the old walls and the mosques rose dignified among the desolation, save the beautiful Church of St Demetrius, which was almost completely destroyed. Many Salonicians were heavily insured with British Insurance Companies, who paid up the full amounts at once, much to the amazement of the inhabitants, who thought it a wonderful and noble act of generosity.

Salonika was soon in working order again, though no attempt was made to rebuild it. The inhabitants went back into the skeletons of their shops, raised tarpaulins and corrugated iron, and carried on as brisk a trade as before. Great fires must have occurred many times there during the previous centuries, and the inhabitants seemed to take it all as a matter of course, and hardly ever alluded to it.
Looking West at the Fire

There was great discussion as to whether it was caused by enemy incendiarism, and since Salonika was full of spies this would not have been a difficult matter; on the previous day Monastir had been evacuated because of a fire caused by incendiary bombs, and Florina had likewise suffered. Be that as it may, the official opinion seemed to be that it was accidental, and was caused by a careless housewife upsetting some boiling fat on the fire.

First published in With a Woman’s Unit in Salonika, Serbia and Sebastopol, by  Dr Isabel Emslie Hutton (Williams & Norgate, 1928)

The city was left in complete chaos after the fire but the government had to reconstruct itself. But there was a new plan for Thessaloniki, a want for a more urban city feel. The minister of transports, Alexandros Papanastasiou, was chosen to lead this task and created the "International Committee for the New Plan of Thessaloniki." Ernet Hebrard was chosen to be the head architect, and the goal was to redevelop the city according to European lines. After the reconstruction, the city had better squares, transportation, and less cluttered streets.

Sources:  Wikicommons, The Great Fire of 1917, The Independent, and Mental Floss


  1. The British Salonika Force had some fire fighting equipment but were fully engaged in protecting their warehouses on the waterfront.