Salonika

This section of the Long, Long Trail will be helpful for anyone wishing to find out about the fighting in the little-known campaign in Salonika.

British forces involved at Salonika
(The British Salonika Force)

Battles and engagements

1915

In October 1915 a combined Franco-British force of some two large brigades was landed at Salonika (today called Thessalonika) at the request of the Greek Prime Minister. The objective was to help the Serbs in their fight against Bulgarian aggression. But the expedition arrived too late, the Serbs having been beaten before they landed. It was decided to keep the force in place for future operations, even against Greek opposition. The Greek Chief of the General Staff in Athens had told them " You will be driven into the sea, and you will not have time even to cry for mercy" (Some Greek factions, including King Constantine, were pro-German). The outcome of the Gallipoli campaign was in the balance and most shipping in the area was involved so they really had no choice. In December 1915 the British element fought a battle at Kosturino, north of Lake Doiran, after withdrawing from Serbia. After this there was little action except for occasional air-raids on Salonika.

1916

  • The Occupation of Mazirko (2 October)
  • The capture of Karajakois ( 30 September - 2 October)
  • The capture of Yenikoi (3-4 October)
  • The battle of Tumbitza Farm (17 November - 7 December)

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 original two Brigades eventually were reinforced by larger units until 22nd, 26th, 27th and 28th Divisions were there. If the Bulgarians had descended from their Doiran and Struma heights it would have been very difficult to ' push us into the sea', for the force was deployed to fortify an advanced defensive line.

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. The Bulgarian attempt at invasion of Greece in July was repulsed near Lake Doiran. At the beginning of Oct 1916, the British in co-operation with her allies on other parts of the front, began operations on the River Struma towards Serres. The campaign was successful with the capture of the Rupell Pass and advances to within a few miles of Serres.

1917

  • The First Battle of Doiran (22 April - 8 May)
  • The Capture of Ferdie and Essex Trenches (near Bairakli Jum'a) (15 May)
  • The Capture of Bairakli and Kumli (16 May)
  • The Capture of Homonodos (14 October)
  • The battle of Tumbitza Farm (17 November - 7 December)

During 1917 there was comparatively little activity on the British part of the front in Macedonia, due in part to complex political changes in Greece throughout the year. The main fighting took place around Lake Doiran, where the line was adjusted several times by each side early in the year. In April 1917, the British attacked, gained a considerable amount of ground and resisted strong counter-attacks. In May, the Bulgarians attacked the British positions, but were firmly repulsed. The British action in May triggered a series of attacks elsewhere on the front by the other Allies, known as the Battle of Vardar.

1918

  • The Capture of the Roche Noir Salient (1- 2 September)
  • The Second Battle of Doiran (18-19 September)
  • The Passage of the Vardar and the Pursuit to the Strumica Valley (20-30 September)
  • Armistice (30 September 1918)

At the beginning of 1918 the Allied troops in Salonika were prepared for a major offensive intended to end the war in the Balkans. The Greek Army had been reorganised and joined the Allied force. The offensive began in July 1918 but the British contingent did not play a significant part until early September. Then the British attacked a series of fortified hills. The final assault began along the whole front on 15 September 1918; the British being engaged in the Lake Doiran area. This battle was really on the 18 and 19 September 1918 and was a disaster for the British Divisions. They had to frontally assault 'Pip Ridge' which was a 2000 foot high heavily defended mountain ridge with fortresses built on some of the higher mountains, notably Grand Couronne. (This was what the Bulgarians had been working on in the first months of 1916 and early 1917.) They sustained very heavy casualties.

The following report from one involved gives some idea of what the men went through. By 'An Unprofessional Soldier' on the Staff of 28th Division. He entitled his paper: " I saw the Futile Massacre at Doiran". It is from Issue 46 of " I Was There" published 1938/9 " The Battle of Doiran is now a forgotten episode of the Great War, overshadowed by the doings of Haig in France and Allenby in Palestine. There was no full contemporary account of the Battle in any British Newspaper. Sir George Milne's dispatch was not published and did not appear in the Times until January 23rd 1919, and then only in truncated form. The very name of the battle is unknown to most. Yet, in singularity of horror and in tragedy of defeated heroism, it is unique among the records of British arms. The real work of the assault was entrusted to the men of the 22nd and 26th Divisions, who were to attack the Doiran hills, co-operating with the Cretan Division of the Greek Army and a regiment of unreliable Zouaves. In the early light of an almost unclouded morning the British and Greek forces advanced in order of battle. The noise of our guns had abruptly ceased before daybreak, and there came that awful pause in which defenders and attackers are braced up to face the ordeal, with fear or desperation, with cool courage or with blazing ardour. Slowly the pale grey smoke lifted in layers of thin film above the ridges, blue shadows deep in every fold or hollow and a dim golden glow on scrub, rock and heather. No one could tell what had been the effect of our gunfire upon those fortified hills. The infantry soldier relies upon the guns behind him, trusting in their power to smash a way for his advance by killing or demoralizing the enemy and cutting up his defences. In this case, if he had any hopes or illusions, the infantry soldier was quickly undeceived.

Our attack on ' Pip Ridge' was led by 12th Cheshires. The battle opened with a crash of machine-gun fire, and a cloud of dusty smoke began to blur the outline of the hills, Almost immediately the advancing battalion was overwhelmed in a deadly steam of bullets which came whipping and whistling down the open slopes. Those who survived were followed by a battalion of Lancashire men, and a remnant of this undaunted infantry fought its way over the first and second lines of trenches - if indeed the term " line " can be applied to a highly complicated and irregular system of defence, taking full advantage of every fold or contortion of the ground. In its turn, a Shropshire battalion ascended the fatal ridge. By this time the battle of the " Pips" was a mere confusion of massacre, noise and futile bravery. Nearly all the men of the first two battalions were lying dead or wounded on the hillside. Colonel Clegg and Colonel Bishop were killed; the few surviving troops were toiling and fighting in what appeared to be inevitable and immediate death. The attack was ending in a bloody disaster. No orders could reach the isolated cluster of men who were still trying to advance on the ridge. Contact aeroplanes came roaring down through the yellow haze of dust and smoke, hardly able to see what was going on, and even flying below the levels of the Ridge and Grand Couronne. There was only one possible ending to the assault. Our troops in the military phrase of their commander, " fell back to their original positions" Of this falling back I will say nothing. There are times when even desperate heroism has to acknowledge defeat.

While the 60th Brigade was thus repulsed on the ridge, a Greek regiment was thrown into disorder by a counter attack on the right. At the same time the Welsh Brigade was advancing towards Grand Couronne. No feat of arms can ever surpass the glorious bravery of those Welshmen. There was lingering gas in the Jumeaux Ravine ( probably ours!) and some of the men had to fight in respirators. Imagine, if you can, what it means to fight up a hillside under a deadly fire, wearing a hot mask over your face, dimly staring through a pair of clouded goggles, and sucking the end of a rubber nozzle in your mouth. At the same time heat is pouring down on you from a brazen sky. In this plight you are called on to endure the blast of machine-gun fire, the pointed steel or bursting shell of the enemy. Nor are you called on to endure alone ; you must vigorously fire back, and vigorously assail with your own bayonet. It is as much like hell as anything you can think of. Welsh Fusiliers got as far as the Hilt, only half a mile below the central fortress, before being driven back by a fierce Bulgarian charge. Every officer was killed or wounded. Following these came the 11th Welsh, who were also compelled to retire fighting. For a time, however, a few of the enemy's trenches, full of dead or dying men, remained in our possession. A third Welsh battalion was offered up, to perish, on that awful day. The 7th South Wales Borderers nobly stormed up through the haze of battle until they had come near the hills of The Tassel and The Knot, Then, all at once, the haze lifted, and they were left exposed in the open to a sweeping and overwhelming fire. Melting away as they charged, a party of Welshmen ran up the slopes of Grand Couronne itself and fell dead among the rocks. Of the whole battalion, only one officer and eighteen men were alive at the end of the day.

All night, unheard in the tumult of a new bombardment, wounded men were crying on the hillsides or down in the long ravines. Whatever Sir George Milne now thought of his own plans, he must have been gratified by the behaviour of his own troops. Those troops had been flung against positions no infantry in the world could ever have taken by a frontal attack, and they had proved themselves to be good soldiers. Two entire Brigades had been practically annihilated. Only on the right was there a temporary gain of ground by two Hellenic regiments in the neighbourhood of Doiran Town. My own troops (if I may speak of 28th Division) were in support of the Cretans under the Krusha hills east of the Lake. These people were intended to make a " surprise " attack on the high positions to the north, though I do not see how anyone can be surprised by an attack which has to be launched over three or four miles of perfectly open country - unless he is surprised at the futility of such a thing. The Cretans had lined up during the night along a railway embankment, which is immediately below the hills. At dawn they advanced over the plain of Akindzali, breaking through the enemy's outpost line. Our artillery, owing to a failure in co-ordination, did not properly support the advance, and our guns were eventually withdrawn under a heavy Bulgarian fire. There were casualties in the neighbourhood of Akindzali village (the scene of unmentionable Greek atrocities in the war of 1913). The attack rapidly collapsed, and by evening the Cretans were back at the railway line from which they had started. At nightfall the 28th Division took up a purely defensive attitude, overlooking the plain. It may well be asked why this Division was never given the chance of throwing its full weight into the battle. The enemy himself, as we afterwards learnt, was very much astonished by the absence or concealment of so large a body of troops. One of the first questions put to a captured British airman near Petrich was "can you tell us what has become of your 28th Division?" A fresh and equally futile massacre on the Doiran hills was arranged for the following day, in spite of the total breakdown of the general scheme. It was now the turn of the Scotsmen - Fusiliers, Rifles and Highlanders of the 77th Brigade, undismayed by the dreadful evidence of havoc, ran forward among the Welsh and Bulgarian dead. Artillery demoralised the regiment of Zouaves on their left. A storm of machine-gun fire blew away the Greeks on their right, in uncontrolled disorder. Fighting on into a maze of enemy entanglements, the Scotsmen were being annihilated, their flanks withering under a terrible enfilade. A fine battalion of East Lancashires attempted to move up in support. The 65th Brigade launched another forlorn attack on the Pip Ridge. The broken remains of two Brigades were presently in retreat, leaving behind more than half their number, killed, wounded or missing. We had now sustained 3,871 casualties in the Doiran battle. Our troops were incapable of any further effort. A terrible high proportion had been lost or disabled. We gained only the unimportant ruins of Doiran Town and a cluster of small hills immediately above it, never of any value to the enemy or strongly defended. The fortress of Grand Couronne was unshaken, with crumpled bodies of men and a litter of awful wreckage below it. No one can view the result of the operation as anything but a tactical defeat. Had it been an isolated engagement, there would have been every prospect of disaster. The whole plan of the battle and its conduct are open to devastating criticism; but so are the plans and the conduct of a great majority of battles. ( The Cheshires, South Wales Borderers and the Argylls were awarded the French Croix de Guerre for their part - the Royal Scots Fusiliers lost 358, the Argylls 299 and the Scottish Rifles 228 men) Luckily, the Franco-Serbian advance was being continued with extraordinary vigour. (elsewhere) Before long the Bulgarian Army was cut in two and a general withdrawal began to take place along the entire front. Our Doiran battle was now regarded as a contribution to victory for had we not been effective in pinning down the enemy reserves? British commanders are wonderfully philosophic after all. " In other words a waste of lives. The Franco - Serbian Armies were also attacking in better conditions further to the east and, In spite of desperate fighting by the Bulgarians and their Austrian allies, a gap was opened in the Bulgarian line and the Serbian, French and British cavalry followed up the Bulgarian retreat and captured Kosturino and Strumitsa. Following the breakthrough the Bulgarians sued for peace. To add to the tragedy the battle honour 'Doiran 1918' was awarded to one yeomanry regiment and 22 infantry regiments. The campaign honour 'Macedonia 1915 - 1918' was awarded to 10 British yeomanry, 59 British infantry regiments and 4 Indian infantry regiments. Sir George Milne was never asked about these events but was hailed a victor. The following is also taken from the same issue of " I Was There" A description of life in Macedonia during the final phase of the campaign suggests that discomfort rather than danger was the chief menace to the troops. The tragic battle of Doiran was an unhappy exception. Mr F.A.W.Nash served with the RAMC and the King's Shropshire Light Infantry from summer 1917 to the Armistice. He became a schoolteacher after the War and wrote a book of fairy tales ' The Enchanted Spectacles' " The Infantry Training Base at Summer Hill cast us forth upon a cold, hard world after a tabloid training of six weeks. NCOs shepherded us, our putteed legs carried us, and motor lorries decanted us, upon the wide margins of the Struma Plain. Before us lay the winding Struma, silvery in the winter sunshine, and in the distance the bluest hills I have ever seen. To our left lay the famous Rupell Pass, an impregnable defile commanded completely by German guns. An occasional shell screamed across the plain and burst at the foot of the hills where Johnny Bulgar lived and moved and had his being. How well I remember the villages scattered over the plain, each with its trivial happening on that stagnant front! There was Orljak where we slept under canvas in a blizzard, and the tent pole, round which our rifles were lashed, fell upon my legs. I kicked myself free, lifted a flap of the fallen canvas, saw the snow and snuggled down cosily again. We lived in redoubts in comfortable little iron tunnels, and had Greek infantrymen to share our guard with us. Once we were marched to the ' crumped' village of Yenekoi, where we dug ourselves in. We were acting as a sort of infantry screen to a flying battery. There was no attack through the hot and thirsty night. We drank all our water and then lay and endured till dawn. One enterprising lad tried to assuage his thirst with a tin of sweetened condensed milk! This was an act , which, would have caused a shock of revulsion even to the Ancient Mariner! But apart from battalion manoeuvres at Four Tree Hill and a rush from thence to the Plain again, when a false alarm of mutiny amongst the Bulgars was spread, we were bedded fast in slab and thick monotony like flies in treacle. We had kit inspections, we scrubbed our shorts and helmets with the wonderful sandy Struma mud, and went out on patrol looking for Bulgars. On these patrols we actually carried stretchers. We hacked down the lush green grass, which might harbour malarial mosquitoes, and poured cresol in pools to kill the larvae. The night patrols had a ritual of their own. Each man anointed his face and neck with almond-smelling mixture of the appearance of floor polish. This was to make us unpleasant to the mosquitoes. Then we put on a muslin veil and tucked the loose ends into our tunics. The tout ensemble was surmounted by the good old tin hat, and off we went like the female portion of an Eastern Bridal Party. One of our patrols, actually, made contact with the Bulgars. A corporal ' discharged his piece ' at them. One of the Bulgars replied and, honour satisfied both sides went home to supper. A terrific bombardment over the Rupell Pass one morning held our momentary interest, and the news that a section of The Rifle Brigade had been wiped out near Prosnik. Then we settled down to the eternal sameness. But a change was to come over the dream of the plain dwellers. Mosquito strafing, O.Ps and comic opera patrols were to be no more. We ' proceeded' - in the majestic language of the War Office - to the Vardar front. This was a very different pair of shoes. Behold us then, marching up a camouflaged road leading to a Turkish village called Myadagh. Greenery and wire netting against the vulture eyes of Fokkers had screened the road. "L'artillerie, ce n'est pas merchante!" our French guide informed us. He would go to Ceres with his battalion - but yes - and dorme.. He folded expressive hands simulating sleep. Which would he rather fight, Johnny Bulgar or Le Boche? "O - le Bulgare! Le Bulgare" He left us in the courtyard of a ruined house in Myadagh. We eased our equipment and ate our plentiful rations. Pipes and cigarettes came out. The floor was littered with our mess tins. The fig tree in the middle of the court sustained our reclining forms. In one corner, potsherds and stacks of litter, which might have graced the rubbish dump of Haroun al Rashid, were piled upon three timber joists, making a sort of smelly Aladdin's cave. A little Turkish boy and girl ate jam from a tin with their fingers, whilst we tried to talk to them in scraps of French. Suddenly a gun boomed and a sound like the shuffling of a giant across the sky in slippers filled with boulders grew to a fearful crescendo. The little sultana dived like a rabbit into the magic cavern, simultaneously with the oldest sweat in the party. I seized the little boy and dragged him into the doubtful shelter of the doorway.

The crescendo rose to a high demoniac shriek, as a high explosive shell burst thirty yard up the road and demolished a house in a fan of black smoke, flying bricks, dust and rubble. Our platoon sergeant strolled up unconcernedly, grinning at our perturbation. Although the artillery wasn't too bad on the Vardar, it was nevertheless worrying. There would be sporadic bursts of shelling when fatigue parties were in the open and on the move. We were shelled as we bore ammunition to the trenches, when we filled our waterbottles at the great stone Bulgar fountains, or when we made sand-bag emplacements for Lewis guns. One nearly had me at a fountain, and before breakfast too! Here we were awakened soon after dawn by a Taube overhead. She signalled the German battery across the river. Then came the ominous boom, followed by the rattling scream of a shell. Gloucesters and Hants bathing in the Vardar by the pontoon scattered wet and naked as the high-explosive shells raked the railway line and ravine. I viewed the bombardment with a sergeant of the Royal Engineers from behind a mass of rock. The Taube sheered off for Brigade Headquarters and the bellowing echoes died away further up the line. After lunch the wretched machine came back. This time I posed. I snatched up my tin hat and Palgrave's Golden Treasury ( of verse) and dashed off amidst a crowd of Gloucesters and Hants. It would be a good thing to tell 'em at home that I'd read poetry under shellfire. I remember that as we crouched under the shadow of a boulder that one of the Gloucesters had come without his tin hat. He was bald and pink on the top and tied a spotted handkerchief pirate-wise round his pate, more for protection from the sun than high-explosives and shrapnel. Soon our position became untenable and we fled again, the Gloucesters to an arch in the railway and I to the RAMC hut round the corner. The echoes up and down the dump were simply infernal and one shell landed amongst a group of mules feeding by the railway line. I saw a brave fellow going to get one of them in with stuff dropping all around him. A pale man in the RAMC hut pushed back his topee, removed an unsteady cigarette, and observed " If it was your fate, you'd go that way" I read Palgrave but can't remember which part. At length the hideous noises ceased and the Taube departed. There were no more bombardments, though had the Germans shelled the steep road leading to 67 Kilo, when it was choked with lorries, mules and limbers, I dread to think what would have happened. 67 Kilo was important because it was here, returning from the YMCA, I used to come across the Gloucesters and Hants manoeuvring, or gathered round a relief map made of clay, of the positions they were to attack in a long projected " stunt". They went into action in the late summer of 1918 with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

Fate and the Higher Command decreed that I should witness only a part of the battle. I was extremely obliged to Fate and the Higher Command. I saw the terrible bombardment under which our fellows attacked the Bulgar trenches outside Gevgeli. A land torpedo was placed under their wire and our men took the trenches with bomb and bayonet. But our losses were terrible. A friend of mine in W Company helped bury the dead. He said that under the light of flares and a heavy shell-fire they buried our poor fellows with their equipment still on and wondered if the graves they dug would be their own. The Middlesex Regiment Pioneers dug a communication trench from our old positions to the captured Bulgar ones. To these trenches a man of the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, whom we were relieving, led us. We came at long last to our fire bays, for he led us round and round, always missing the turning at the side, which led to our temporary home. Part of the parapet had been blown in a few yards to our left and a gaunt iron stake was alone left standing, but our own dugout was deep in the chalk. There was a puddle at the bottom, and here we tried to brew tea over the flame of three candles. Never have I tasted such a horrid concoction of lukewarm, smoky water and floating logs. We had two hours on and four off, all through a night of intermittent bombardment. A few nights later the sky was red with flames from the Bulgar positions, and the air was alive with the pop of the ammunition they were burning. The next day we were walking about on top of the parapets under which we had so recently cowered. The Bulgars had at last broken under the strain. We chased them up through the Rupell Pass and into Serbia. The line of their retreat was strewn with shreds of clothing, dead horses, wrecked machine-guns, ammunition, rifles broken across the small of the butt and bayonets with the locking ring torn off. The Germans had laid out the part of Serbia they had occupied with little chilli and tomato gardens, and had built Swiss looking chalets on the sides of the ravines. At one place they had built a bath over a natural hot spring. We had a swim! The conduct of our fellows was exemplary but not so some of our allies. We soon came upon grim evidence of this, in the shape of blackened Bulgar corpses at an abandoned hospital. All of them were sitting up in their beds and rotting. Someone had got there before we did. We had to burn the whole hospital, including a German medical marquee with cases of beautiful surgical instruments. ( The Serbian Army was ahead of them) We were informed by our Colonel we were going to Sofia. Our route took us across a plain as flat as a draughtboard. We changed direction towards the Danube but we never arrived there. We saw the poor old disbanded Bulgars with the toes hanging out of their boots returning to their homes. They gratefully accepted bully beef and cigarettes from us. Strange how we try to slaughter poor fellows who have no real enmity towards us and whose only fault is obeying their leaders. So back we came to Macedonia, even unto Sarigal, where we bivvied among the mule lines in the mud. Here, on a certain November night , the Greeks on our left sent up rockets and flares and a bugle quavered a call we had never heard before. Our sergeant, coming back from the canteen and his potations said " Don't you know the Cease Fire when you 'ear it!"