'The Gardeners of Thessaloniki' : the now forgotten soldiers who fought on France's Eastern Front

By Jean-Arnault Dérens, Laurent Geslin et Simon Rico

In World War I around 400,000 French soldiers, many of them from France's colonies, were deployed in the Balkans. As well as fighting, the troops built roads and bridges and even planted vineyards. But today few French people remember the Eastern Front, and fewer still go to visit the graves of their fellow countrymen who were killed in the fighting along the massive front line that extended over nearly 600km from Albania to Bulgaria. However, as Jean-Arnault Dérens, Laurent Geslin and Simon Rico report, Serbs, Greeks and Macedonians have never forgotten the war on their soil and its turbulent impact on their countries in the 20th century.

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From Mediapart's special correspondents in Macedonia and Greece.
Carts and lorries pass each other on the road, and houses, warehouses and small workshops stand side by side in this quiet district of Bitola. Here, in a discreet location on the road out of this ancient city close to the Greek border in the south of the Republic of Macedonia, stands the French military cemetery. There is no sign to mark its presence, but in this corner of southern Europe lie the remains of 6,219 identified soldiers from World War I's Eastern Front, while in the ossuary that looks out over the site are the remains of several thousand more troops who were never identified. This is, indeed, one of the biggest French cemeteries on foreign soil.