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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.

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