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Sunday, 29 April 2012

13. A Soldier's Life in Salonika.

 The fighting season in Salonika was largely restricted to April/May in Spring and October/November in Autumn. Cold in Winter and mosquitos and disease in Summer were restrictive. Much time was spent building roads, railways and bridges, shoring up dug-outs, obtaining supplies and healing the sick.

The following account by George Ward Price in The Story of the Salonika Army  gives an indication of the sort of thing Bert, as batman to Captain Bailhache, would have done during the ‘non-combat’ time of the campaign. 

One of Bert's postcards
The low, two-storied houses, each in a little compound of its own, are the kind of dwelling you find all over Macedonia. The lower rooms are dank, earth-floored stables or storehouses, where the winter's supply of Indian corn is kept. A ramshackle outside wooden staircase leads up to a broad verandah on the upper floor. You need to walk gingerly, for half the planks are loose. Off this open the two or three rooms that make up the dwelling. These, when they have been cleaned with the vigour which the British soldier puts into such operations, when years'-old accumulation of filth has been scraped off the floor and burnt, and when walls and ceilings have been whitewashed, become quite tolerably habitable. The half-dome fireplace, indeed, reminds one rather of modern villa architecture at home. The furniture, if any, is of the roughest, but the roofs of these cottages are generally sound and the soldier asks no more. It is always astonishing to observe the resourcefulness and zeal with which army batmen will manufacture tables, chairs, washstands, bookcases, for their officers. They "scrounge" the material somehow under the most improbable circumstances, and are amply rewarded for hours of labour in what might have been their own spare time by a casual remark of their "boss." "Oh, by the way, Jenkins, the Colonel liked that armchair you knocked together for me, when he was in here to-day. He wants to know if you can't make one like it for him." And yet all their labour is of no more than temporary service. When the battalion moves on these products of ingenious carpentry must be left behind. With four officers' kits to go in one half-limber there is no room for chairs. But where would you find such energy in peace time? If a castor came off a sofa would your butler, at thirty shillings a week all found, put it on again for you? If he noticed you had nowhere to keep your smoking things, would he sit up at night in his pantry carving you a pipe-rack? Yet your batman, at half-a-sovereign a month, will improvise you a bed or a bath-tub as cheerfully as he brings your morning tea. War is a great energiser. 

These were things at which Bert was skilled. He could always improvise, mend and fix. Most of his half-a-sovereign went home to Nell, getting by with her two children, support from family and her own capacity to improvise. 

An English language newspaper broadsheet, The Balkan News, provided information about the War on other fronts, local events, commentary on the War and advertisement for local businesses. Bert kept the edition of Tuesday 11 July 1916, the 343rd day of the War. The front page stories are largely on the War in France.

The commentary is hardly critical of the War, nor objective, but does give soldiers a big picture of the other fronts of the War.
 Clearly quite a few businesses have grown up around the needs of the troops stationed in Salonika, not all of them run by Greeks.
It is unlikely that Bert, the batman, frequented local hairdressing salons, even when he found himself near a town.

The local authorities used the newspaper to try to improve the efficiency of local services, as evidenced in the tramways notice.

Of course, the newspaper itself created some local employment.

Bert's drawing
Sometime in 1916 Bert occupied himself drawing his own souvenir of his War to that point.

Salonika seems to have been, on the whole, frustrating rather than horrific as a war zone.In March 1916 alone, 98 men were detained with malaria. While not without its battles, extremes of temperature and disease were the Salonika soldiers' most powerful enemies.

Monday, 23 April 2012

12.Dick Whittington in Salonika

sketch from souvenir program.
If some stranger, during the week before Christmas 1915, had paid a visit to the Camp of the 85th Field Ambulance, his first impression, as he looked round the five large hospital marquees in which the sick were being tended, would have been that here, at least “business as usual” was the order of the day.
But if he had manifested sufficient curiosity to glance into some of the bell-tents in order to see how the men occupied their spare time, he would have been, doubtless, rather surprised, and not a little puzzled, for in one tent he might have seen a man busily engaged in painting bright red stripes on Army pants, and the occupants of the next assiduously scrubbing the labels off the outside of jam tins and polishing their interiors. Elsewhere he might have observed other men...converting oat-sacks into baggy trousers... In short, he might have looked into several other tents and seen men busying themselves in sundry other ways equally extraordinary for soldiers on active service.[1]


On Christmas night, 1915, the 85th Field Ambulance Brigade, under the direction of one of its members, Private Frank Kenchington, staged a performance of Dick Whittington, a Pantomime in Three Acts for the troops in Salonika , believed to be the first – but not the last - such divisional pantomime . Frank Kenchington, who in civilian life worked in the London life department of the North British Mercantile insurance company, wrote the script in less than two weeks, on the march or in the communal tent at night. Private Norman Hadfield wrote the words to the numerous songs and Private Jaques wrote original music for two of these. Pte Norman King choreographed the solo dances.
The First Act is set in Alderman Fitzwarren’s Store in Chelsea, the Second Act on board the Good Ship Passover , and the Third Act outside Alderman Fitzwarren’s Canteen –“ in the mists on the mountains, somewhere in Greece” – providing ample opportunity for jokes about Army food, profiteering and  local conditions.
With the script completed three days before the Christmas performance, Private Milford Cottam, the producer, organised two tents in the shape of a T, with the audience in the long arm, stage and wings/dressing rooms on the crossbar. As timber was scarce and needed for trenches, the stage was constructed by digging out the auditorium floor and using the soil to raise the stage.  Officers got chairs made of sandbags filled with straw, everyone else sat on the floor.  The stage was lit by three acetylene operating lamps and four ambulance headlights acted as limelights. Footlights were provided by candles placed in twenty five jam tins, painted black on the outside and highly polished on the inside.
Army blankets were put to good use to create scenery and clothing.

Two of the most effective costumes were those of the villains, Maconochie and Paxton. The former wore a kilt made out of a blanket, with a plaid of the same material fastened by a brooch fashioned out to the time-fuse of a shell. The wing of a Christmas turkey made an excellent sporran, and white roller bandages bound round the boots were used in place of spats. He wore a genuine German belt – a trophy of Vermelles.(p.xvii)

The costumes of Alice, Dick and Mrs. Whittington were practically the only ones which were any expense at all, and although the materials for these had to be purchased, they were actually made by members of the Corps, as also was the becoming wig which Alice wore. (pxvi)

The greatest challenge was music – which meant to the panto purists of the 85th Field Ambulance, a piano.

Finally however, an instrument of sorts, reputed to have been at one time the property of the Serbian Minister, and seemingly the only piano in Macedonia, was secured at an extortionate rate of hire from a rascal who had already sold it to somebody else. (p.xvii)
The piano was played by the versatile Pte Jaques and supplemented by a piccolo and a violin that had survived Ypres .

The Commander of the 28th Division, Major-General Briggs, saw the Christmas performance, and, to his great credit, asked the Company to tour it to the troops in Salonika during the rest of December 1915 and January 1916.

24 battalions saw the pantomime in Salonika that Christmas.  It was later performed in other battlefields and on board ships. 

For the 3rd Battalion Royal Fusiliers, arriving from France just before Christmas it must have seemed extraordinary.

Kenchington wrote:
Pte Jaques' illustration
Every night an audience some five hundred strong used to come tramping over the hills, sometimes through the deep snow, to the little temporary theatre nestling in some sheltered hollow, and every night the “house” was crowded to its utmost capacity, while numbers of men who had been unable to secure admission endeavoured to obtain a glimpse of the show through any opening they could discover in the sides of the marquees. (p.xix)

No effort seems to have been spared.
The transport of the marquees and stage properties from place to place was an undertaking in itself,and the precious piano was always more or less of an anxiety on the rough and steep tracks over which it had to be carried. (p.xix)

The impact on the troops was no doubt significant. The script was adapted each night to include references pertinent to the particular audience.
After a day or two... one could hear all round the countryside, in dug-outs and trenches, Pantomime songs being sung and Pantomime jests being exchanged. (p.xix)

The British occupation and development of this part of the world has necessitated the giving of names to certain places of military significance, such as new roads, and now upon the official military maps of Salonika one can read such names as “Fitzwarren’s Corner”, “ Alice Lane” and “Ahnyah Valley”. (p.xix)

In February 1915 Kenchington responded to requests from the troops to have the script printed, with illustrations and a photograph.  He produced it in book form. Bert purchased one and later that year sent it to Nell. All photos and quotes are from his copy.

For Christmas 1916 Kenchington and the 85th Field Ambulance produced Aladdin in Macedonia which Bert no doubt saw. He does not seem to have acquired a souvenir copy of Aladdin, perhaps because, by the time it was printed, he had left Salonika.

After the War, Kenchington returned to his job at North British Mercantile, retiring in 1952. His Dick Whittington and Aladdin were both performed in London in the early 1920s and for the Company reunion in 1935.
Corporal Eddie Dillon, who played Alice, and also Kitty in Aladdin, was accepted for training in the Royal Flying Corps in 1917. After a spell on the Western Front, he became an instructor at 7th Training Depot Station at Feltwell in Norfolk. He died in a flying accident aged 23 on 12 April 1918, and is buried in St Mary's Roman Catholic section of Kensal Green Cemetery.

They had succeeded in doing their share, in their small way, to enliven the dull and uninspiring monotony of a winter in the mountains of Greece. (p. ix)

[1] Kenchington, Frank, Dick Whittington: a pantomime, a souvenir of Salonika, Christmas 1915. P. xv All quotations and illustrations in this post are from this publication.

Monday, 16 April 2012

11. War in Salonika

Bert's Christmas Card 1915
On 19 October 1915, the largely regular army 28th Division, badly depleted by their winter entry into France and the battles of Ypres and Loos, was ordered to prepare to sail. The first units left Marseilles for Alexandria on 24 October 1915. The Division was assembled in Alexandria by 22 November and ordered on to Salonika (modern Thessalonika), a journey completed by the 3rd Battalion, according to O'Neill's The Royal Fusiliers in the Great War (Ch. XIV, p.261),  by December 1915, presumably in time for Christmas. 

Two Franco-British brigades had been in Salonika since October 1915, in response to a request for assistance from the Greek government when Bulgaria invaded Serbia. The English were supporting the French, headquartered at Dedeli, defending a stretch of some 50 miles high in the rock-strewn ranges between
Kostorina and Lake Doiran, with the Bulgarians holding a facing ridge.

There were 10 000 Bulgarian troops deployed along the line. Many locals had evacuated months before. In late November a three day blizzard hit. George Ward Price, a journalist and war correspondent for the London Daily Mail, described it in detail in his 1918 book The Story of the Salonika Army.

It began on November 27th with torrents of rain which soon turned to snow. Then it froze so quickly that the drenched skirts of greatcoats would stand out stiff like a ballet-dancer's dress. Even down at Strumnitza Station in the valley, 7.6° below zero Fahrenheit was registered, and up on that exposed knife-edge ridge where our trenches were, the biting wind made the cold more piercing still. The men had no shelter but waterproof sheets pegged across the top of the open trench and the weight of accumulated snow soon broke those in. They had had no time to make dugouts in the rocky mountain side; and if they had had time they had no materials.
In that terrible weather our patrols and those of the Bulgars which used both to visit the unoccupied village of Ormanli would be driven to shelter and light fires in houses so close together that each could hear the other talking, and each by tacit agreement left the other undisturbed. It was too cold to fight.
There were 750 cases of frostbite in one brigade alone during those three fierce days, when it seemed as if the Balkan winter were showing the worst of which it was capable. Men frozen stiff were carried in scores from the trenches to the first-aid posts to be rubbed back to life again. Warm underclothing reached the division in the very middle of the snowstorm, but the cold was too bitter for the men to undress to put it on, and it was added anyhow to the sacks and blankets and other additional garments that each did his best to accumulate, a pair of drawers being used as a muffler or tied round the middle. George Ward Price  The Story of the Salonica Army Ch III

The Allies were outnumbered between two and four to one, and during December gradually retreated to Doiran, inside the Greek border, blowing up bridges and roads as they left.

British camp. Bert's postcard.
The now-Royalist Greek government suggested the British leave. The British stayed. There was fighting in the Dardenelles and Middle East. The British needed a reserve force. Army command, however, was cautious about opening up another front and was reluctant to engage this force. The Greek government was in discussions with the Germans and Hungarians.  

Into this situation marched the 28th Brigade in December1915. 

Bert's postcard showing road building

They spent their first four months of winter fortifying their position. The French fortified the approach from the rolling plains. Everything had to be brought in by mule while roads and railways were built.

The English fortified the hills above and rebuilt the only road – the Seres Road - that could transport heavy artillery over the range. They built piers on the sea-approach to allow supplies by ships - those that could evade the German submarines.

Chris Baker’s website The Long, Long Trail has this to say about Salonika in 1916:

During the first four months of 1916 the British Salonika Force had enough spadework to last it for the rest of its life. Large amounts of barbed wire were used and a bastion about eight miles north of the city was created connecting with the Vardar marshes to the west, and the lake defences of Langaza and Beshik to the east, and so to the Gulf of Orfano and the Aegean Sea. This area was known as the 'Birdcage' on account of the quantity of wire used. The Bulgarians and Austrians also fortified the heights of the hills surrounding Salonika during the same time which had dire consequences later on. ...The Salonika Force dug-in until the summer of 1916, by which time the international force had been reinforced and joined by Serbian, Russian and Italian units.

In May 1916 the local inhabitants caught sight of their first Zeppelin. As George Ward Price tells it in Chapter Five of his book:
Bert's Postcard of the town and church of St. Sophia
In the small hours of May 6th the town was awakened by the crash of antiaircraft guns from the hills behind and from the ships in the harbour, and there, floating yellow in the glare of the searchlights over the heart of Salonica, was a Zeppelin, the first the townspeople had set eyes upon. A characteristically silly panic started, the people rushing out of their houses, and scurrying in contrary directions along the streets. The Zeppelin made for the harbour as if to bomb the warships there. At first it was too vertically above them for the naval gunners to fire, but a moment later the airship altered course, and a 12-pounder mounted on a high carriage on the forward bridge of H.M. S. "Agamemnon" brought it down in a long slant onto the marshes at the mouth of the Vardar, where, a moment after it had touched, the Zeppelin burst into flames. A startling, long-drawn-out cheer rang from the silent English and French warships at the sight and echoed through the darkness across the frightened town. 

One of Bert's postcards - mountain monastery

In July 1916 the Bulgarians invaded Greece. The Allies repelled them near Lake Doiran.

trenches in Salonika

In October there was fighting in Seres and Monastir, with the Serbians pushing back the Bulgarians for a time. The Rupell Pass was taken back. The Allies advanced to within a few miles of Seres. The terrain was inhospitable.

The Royal Flying Corps began bombing in support of the effort in Salonika in the summer of 1916.
An Ancient Greek Church in the hills - Bert's postcard.

The Balkan front was largely a holding operation. Allied efforts gave support and heart to Serbia in pushing back the Bulgarian invasion. However, the Bulgarians were backed by German forces and in a much better supply position.
Bert's postcard of fortified walls in the mountains.
Winter in Salonika is very cold and wet. In January to March 1917 soldiers were occupied repairing trenches and roads, day and night, just trying to hold their positions and keep supply lines operational.

In April and May of 1917 the Allies attempted to regain ground around Doiran but were matched by the Bulgarians.

Bert in Salonika with Capt. Bailhache
Small gains were made by some battalions, but could not be supported on a wide enough front. The summer threat of malaria forced both sides to retreat to the hills.

The British withdrew some of their troops in summer 1917, Bert, it seems amongst them, although the 3rd Fusiliers were not fully withdrawn for another year. The Allies continued to defend their positions and use Salonika as a base until November 1918. It was only in the last two months of 1918 that battles in Salonika were of significance to the War as a whole. There were 2 800 British deaths in action in the Salonika campaign, 1400 deaths from wounds and 4 200 deaths from sickness. The deaths in action are miniscule, compared to the those in France. Malaria would have taken an even higher toll but for the huge effort of the Royal Army Medical Corps.

The campaign is a tribute to determination and stubbornness in the face of failing diplomacy and a superior enemy position.

There is a battle memorial to the British in Salonika designed by Sir Robert Lorimer with a sculpture by Walter Gilbert, unveiled in 1926.
Caught between a malarial river valley and difficult mountains, the troops spent much of their time building roads and railways. Bert kept a few documents that give an indication of how they kept the spirits up and their minds occupied. That’s the subject of another chapter.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

10. War and France

Albert Ray standing
Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914. Bert enlisted in September 1914, probably at the Royal Fusiliers' Depot in Hounslow. He was assigned to the 3rd Battalion Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment) as a rifleman and gave his civilian occupation as nurseryman.

The Royal Fusiliers got their name from their original job when formed from soldiers of the Tower of London guard in 1685. They were an ordinance corp, carrying flintlock fusils, to light the muskets of the infantry corp they accompanied. It was too dangerous for the soldiers to carry both the gunpowder for their muskets and fusils to ignite the powder for fear of accident. The regiment participated in the War against the American Revolution, and the Napoleonic Wars.

insignia from Bert's uniform

The Royal Fusiliers had four regular army battalions that were hastily recalled in August 1914, and a number of territorial units that mobilised. The third battalion, to which Bert was assigned, was recalled from Lucknow in August 1914 and assembled, as part of the British Army’s 28th Division, at Hursley, Pitt Hill and Magdalen Hill Camps near Winchester in December 1914. It isn’t clear when Bert and the other volunteers joined the regulars, but presumably they went into camp at Winchester around November 1914.
insignia from Bert's uniform

Bert's dogtags

They set sail from Southampton between 16-19th January 1915 for le Havre in France.Bert left Nell in Essex with their 18 month old son and expecting their second child.

Arriving in France in mid-winter, with the cold and damp conditions, the Division had a high sick list, particularly amongst the regular soldiers who, weeks before, had been in India.

British soldiers prepare for gas attack
Bert’s regiment took part in the Second Ypres Salient, fighting at the Battles of Gravenstaffel and St Julien in April and the Battles of Frezenberg and Bellewaarde in May 1915. Second Ypres was the first battle in which the Germans used chlorine gas as a weapon, causing outrage, and with limited tactical success. Nevertheless, the Allied forces lost 69,000 soldiers and the Germans 35,000. On 22 and 23 April, when the gas was first unleashed, the 3rd Fusiliers were on the right flank of the Canadians with the French, who took the brunt of the gas, to their north. The impact of the gas left the Fusiliers the task of restoring the lost ground. Their machine-gun attack under Lieutenant Mallandain is mentioned in Conan Doyle's British Campaign in France and Flanders, Vol II. (p64).

According to H. C. O'Neill's The Royal Fusiliers in the Great War, (Ch. XVII) between  April 22nd and May 3rd, when the line was ordered to retire, deaths in the 3rd Royal Fusiliers were a Lieutenant, five second lieutenants and 100 NCOs and men. In addition, 13 officers were wounded along with 363 other ranks. By May 12 they had lost a further two second lieutenants and 40 other ranks, with an additional 3 officers and 141 men wounded. By the Battle of Bellewarde Ridge on 24 May, 1915, after a gas attack and a successful German offensive to take British trenches, the 150 Fusiliers left of the original battalion of 880, managed to hold the third defence line to the end of the day, when it was decided the lost ground could not be recovered and the battalion was withdrawn.

In June 1915 the 3rd Battalion Royal Fusiliers was moved South. At the same time, Bert was appointed as batman to Captain Clement Hermann Bailhache, a position he retain for the rest of the War. Bailhache began the War as a Lieutenant and became Captain at some stage during the War – more than likely at the same time Bert became his batman.

Bert in France, back left.
Their battalion joined what became the Battle of Loos in September 1915 – the first battle in which the British used chlorine gas as a weapon – with even less success than the Germans. The chlorine blew back on British troops, creating 2632 British casualties, of which 7 died. British losses in the Battle of Loos are estimated at 50 000, about twice the German losses. The 3rd Fusiliers lost 7 officers and 337 men. It was largely as a result of this battle that the British Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Sir John French was replaced by General Sir Douglas Haig.

Grace's baptism, with Albert.
Bert survived. In the meantime, at home, Nell had given birth to a daughter she named Emily Grace, after Bert’s mother on 26 May 1915. She would be two years old before Bert saw her.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

9. Independence

In 1911 Bert was a mineral water traveller. In 1912 he worked for six months in Pinkerton's market garden in Rayleigh, Essex. It is likely that the change occurred with the sale of the family's mineral water business.

The market garden work was seasonal.

He got a good reference. It included, almost as an afterthought, the fact that John Pinkerton had always found him sober - a characteristic Bert kept all his life.

He collected other references, including one from the Edinburgh Hotel to which the family had no doubt regularly delivered mineral water.
The move from Hounslow seems to have put paid to his competitive cycling.

Permanent work was hard to find. Somewhere, however, in his search for work and friendship in Essex, he met Nellie Talbot, a young woman, daughter of a farm labourer, living in St Thomas Road, South Fambridge, Essex, with her parents, six sisters and four brothers, .

 They got on well. She apparently appreciated his sobriety.

In March 1913 they were married at the Fulham Registry Office, giving as their address 17 Mulgrove Road Fulham. Bert had a job as a railway porter.

No one from either of their families was present. Bert was 21. Nell was 20, although the marriage certificate says 21. Nell, it seems, put her age up by a year. Either her father had refused permission for her to marry, or she hadn't told her parents.

Their son, the third and last Albert Edward Ray, was born in June of the same year. Only after the death of both Bert and Nell did their marriage certificate and date of marriage come to light. They kept to themselves the story of their marriage and the reactions of their families.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

8. Stepfather and Blended Family

The line between comfort and poverty was a short one for a widow in Edwardian England. Bert's mother, Emily, chose to work to support her family, but it was a struggle to maintain six children, her aged mother-in-law, a job and a business.

In 1908 Bert's Aunt Rosa, his father's sister, also died. She was 44, with four living children, two girls aged 22 and 20 and two boys aged 10 and 6. Her husband, Henry Smith, was a foreman in a market gardener in Cheshunt, Essex, to the north of London, about 30 miles from Hounslow .

It seems likely that one of the housekeeping jobs Bert's mother took on was for Henry Smith.

Eliza Ray, widow of Thomas Ray, and Bert's grandmother, died in  April 1910.

Also in April 1910, Emily Grace Ray married Henry Smith in Hounslow and moved, with her children, into his home in St Claire, Church Fields, Cheshunt, Essex. It would have seemed at the very least sensible. Both Henry and Emily had experience in market gardening, Henry's sons were around the age of Emily's younger sons and both families were struggling with a single parent.

The census of 1911 sees them as a blended family, living in Cheshunt. Bert is working as a mineral water traveller, presumably for the Hounslow business, but possibly for his Uncle Arthur's business at Bourne's Bridge, Hayes. Sid is working as a nursery hand, the five younger children are at school and Doll is helping out at home. The house has seven rooms - substantial for the time. Interestingly, it is Emily who fills out and signs the census - unusual for the time.

It seems a reasonable arrangement for all concerned. It was not, however, a lasting one. Henry Smith convinced Emily to sell the  mineral water business that she inherited, along with any associated property and buy Brookfields, a smallholding in Eastwood, Southend. Emily seems to have taken the precaution of keeping the property in her name. Within a few years any money had been spent and Henry Smith told the family he was leaving. Doll was there when he made his announcement. Many years later she told her own children that she offered to clean his shoes to hasten his departure, such was the animosity she felt towards him.

It is hard to say how Emily felt about the arrangement, the sale of the business or about Henry himself. Perhaps it was from the start, a hard-headed business arrangement. Perhaps there was kindness and hope. Emily's children and extended family certainly felt she was used in the relationship. No one in Emily's family ever heard from Henry Smith again, and Emily seems to have expressed no regrets at his leaving. She turned to housekeeping work to support herself and her younger children, probably supporting her two nephews as well. (It is hard to trace Charles and Albert Smith.) She sometimes called herself Emily Grace Smith, sometimes Emily Grace Ray.

Bert looked for work and independence.