Away from the Western Front - Salonika & Sandham
The Western Front remained the main focus for European commemoration of the First World War during the centenary, but while the British, French and German armies struggled in the trenches of the Western Front, the post-war world was being shaped just as keenly by campaigns taking place elsewhere in the world. The 'Away from the Western Front' project explored the heritage of this often-overlooked aspect of the First World War, including the Salonika campaign with its strong links to Sandham Memorial Chapel.
Away from the Western Front was a two-year project (2017-2019) funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. The project’s main focus was the heritage of the men and women from Britain and its former Empire who served in the often-overlooked campaigns of Salonika, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia and Africa. A range of local and regional sub-projects researched the stories of those who served away from the Western Front, bringing their stories to wider audiences through a range of creative activities
The Salonika Campaign and Sandham
Largely forgotten, the Salonika campaign was an important theatre in the First World War with a multi-national force fighting in terrain combining rugged mountains and malaria-infested swamps. It took place in Greece and Macedonia from 1915 to 1918, involving soldiers from many parts of Britain and its former Empire, fighting against Bulgarian, Austro-Hungarian and German forces. The ultimate success of the Allies against the Bulgarian army at Salonika in 1918 started the chain of events which led to the defeat of the Central Powers.
Away From the Western Front’s project with Sandham, Salonika Stories, highlighted this campaign with a particular focus on the human experience of fighting in Greece and Macedonia – through the story of Harry Sandham and the paintings of Stanley Spencer.
Salonika Reflections was the exhibition part of the project, led by Susan Francis, an artist who works in object, video and installation. Susan used her extensive experience of instigating, managing and implementing participatory projects to identify and work with a group of people who would not necessarily know much about the campaign or, more importantly perhaps, associate themselves with somewhere like Sandham.
Susan developed a partnership with Alabaré, a charity, founded in 1991, that supports homeless, vulnerable and marginalised people. It helps them transform their lives, providing accommodation and helping them gain the skills, confidence and opportunities to live a fulfilled life. Over the winter of 2017-18, Susan worked with a group of military veterans supported by Alabaré to create Salonika Reflections.
Using resources from the Salonika Campaign Society and the Imperial War Museum, alongside additional material including letters, photos and the paintings and archive at Sandham, Susan and the veterans met weekly to produce creative responses to the material they saw and heard.
" We talked about the 'holy box' .. and with this thought in mind, each made up our own personal box to collect work and things of interest in over the weeks of the project.."
You can hear two of the veterans talking about their experiences of being in the army here:
In the words of Susan Francis, ‘The participants were initially very daunted at the idea of producing art or generating ideas for the project. It was a particular criterion of the project that each participant would develop their own individual response in a medium that suited them. This was perhaps particularly challenging for a group of veterans who were used to being given clear instructions rather than free rein to follow through their own ideas. By the end of the project however, they were quite confident to propose ideas and to reflect on their own and each other’s work, looking for symbolism and crossovers that would communicate the message they wanted to get across.’
The participants were clearly inspired, as shown by Mark in this comment:
‘I want my work to be about peace, ‘cause that’s what they (troops in Salonika) wanted – we should be living in peace, not war.’
The military veterans, sometimes struggling with mental illness as well as homelessness, found the experience of working together on this project very therapeutic, helping them to heal themselves through the medium of art. Here are some of their comments:
‘I won’t need to go to mindfulness because this is so relaxing’ (Oli)
‘Art is therapeutic – I think it’s because you can lose yourself, I’m definitely going to get some paint and fabric myself’ (Helen)
In a world which is often unstable and stressful, building self-confidence is an important step towards healing, as shown by Oli in this comment:
‘I’m really proud, really proud of it. I think we’ve done a really good job, all of us, I think it’s great.’
The other main element of the project was a film which was commissioned to add historical detail about the Salonika campaign. Scripted and narrated by Alan Wakefield (Head of First World War & Early 20th Century Conflict at the Imperial War Museum and chair of the Salonika Campaign Society) and produced by Khaki Devil, the film makes use of archive material and includes footage shot on a visit to the battlefields.
Please click here to download a transcript of the film’s narration: Away From the Western Front - Salonika film transcript (PDF / 0.1669921875MB) download .
The exhibition of work produced by the veterans for Salonika Stories can be seen as part of the visitor exhibition at Sandham Memorial Chapel.
To find out more about Away From the Western Front, other campaigns and their other projects, please visit their website.