Salonika 1917-1918 I

In France the government changed again and with it Sarrail’s star went into swift decline. He was recalled and General Marie Louis Adolphe Guillaumat was put in his place. The two men did not even meet and the new commander-in-chief arrived in Salonika on 22 December 1917 carrying more precise instructions from France than Sarrail had received. The Allied Armies of Greece, a new name for them, were to be a force based on Greece as a whole, not just Salonika. They were to prevent the Central Powers from occupying the country and were to hold their existing lines. Guillaumat was charged with consolidating the defensive lines immediately and, for the longer term, with planning an offensive, bringing into play the Greek forces. It was a positive approach to the coming year. The campaign in Palestine was going well as a result of which a battery of 8-in howitzers was released for Salonika and four batteries of 6-in howitzers lost to the Middle East were returned. This gave some hope of the British being able to make an impression on the Bulgar fortifications above Doiran. The Greek Army was re-formed and became a significant part of the Allied force, and the Serbs recruited Croatian and Bosnian troops captured from the Austrians by the Russians. The Serb Volunteers, who began to arrive at the end of March, numbered some 18,000 men.

The British troops spent their time building defences, digging trenches and getting bored. Lieutenant Lyster found some entertainment in the activities of the balloonists:

That Spring an observation balloon had appeared on our front. It was actually on the 28th Divisional front but could be seen quite clearly from our Headquarters. The rumour went round and it proved correct that the Bulgars had sent a message telling us that on a certain Sunday a plane would come and destroy it. True to their word on Sunday at about 11 in the morning a Boche plane appeared suddenly and as suddenly fired on the balloon which came down in flames whilst the observer came down slower in his parachute. Later in the week another message was sent over asking us to put up the second one when it would be brought down at the same time on Sunday. To us this meant a picnic for we took some food and drinks with us and went back to a small hill behind our camp to watch proceed-ings. True to his word the German pilot appeared once more at 11 and brought down again the balloon. We were furious with our A.A. for they started firing only after the German plane was almost out of sight. A third message was sent over telling us this time that they knew we had a third balloon in Salonica and that the German pilot would be delighted to burn that one too on the following Sunday. This was too good to be true so once more we all went to our picnic lunch and started scanning the sky at about 10.45. It was a perfect day without a cloud anywhere. We thought that this time our A.A. would try and do better, yet hoping in a way that the German might get away with it, for his pluck and audacity. All of a sudden we all shouted ‘There he is, there he is, shoot, for God’s sake shoot’ but not a single gun fired, the plane dived straight for the balloon and his tracer bullets could be seen piercing the sausage, when all of a sudden a terrific bang took place and one of the wings of the plane was separated from the rest of the body and the two pieces fell with a crash to the ground. We almost all said ‘Dirty’. What had actually happened was that four different sighting posts had been prepared round the balloon, which this time did not carry an observer but a charge of explosive matter and when the four posts pressed a button a spark set the explosives on fire and this blew the plane almost to bits. The body of the German pilot was buried with full military honours and flowers were placed on the grave. Photos were taken of the proceedings and the grave and copies flown and dropped over the Bulgar lines. As a punishment for this sort of fraternising the Squadron of R.A.F. who did all this was sent to the Western Front.

There were other innocent amusements on offer.

Life was now getting boring and the Staff had to entertain the troops. This took the form of travelling theatrical parties and some of these were really very good. The 27th and 28th Divisional Hqs had their own shows and so had the 738 M.T.Co who had a very good show called ‘Slip your Clutch’. Our Division ran races, mostly riding, whereas our Brigade organised a sports meeting when our regulars were very upset by being beaten by our Territorial Unit. We also had a polo ground. Our Brigadier Gen. Widdrington asked me why I did not take part seeing that my mare was a typical polo pony. I told him that she had a mouth like a steel trap and that no one could ride her with spurs. He laughed and asked to use her the next day. I agreed and rode over to the polo field. I handed Nan to the Brigadier who as soon as he was on Nan must have touched her with his spurs for the last we saw of them for some time was a lot of dust disappearing into the distance. The game was nearly over when they returned, the Brigadier very angry and he shouted to me, ‘You better have her shot for she is a bitch.’ I liked Nan and she liked me, for we understood one another.

Guy Turrall was fully recovered from his illness. Now he was under orders to embark at 1400 hours on 1 May 1918. He wrote to his parents with details of the arrangements for the journey:

The railway route lies as follows:–

(1)Cherbourg. Camp in tents.

(2)St Germain (518 miles). Near Lyon. Train halts 24 hours. Camp in tents.

(3)Faenza (961 miles). Train halts 12 hours. Camp in tents.

(4)Taranto (1,446 miles). Camp in tents.

Officers are recommended to provide themselves with tea or lunch baskets. Rations issued on the train consist of bully beef, bread, tea, butter and cheese. Boiling water is provided at Halte Repas stations. Officers are recommended to supplement rations by purchasing stores at the Expeditionary Force canteen at Cherbourg, also to lay in a stock of mineral water. A spirit stove & small folding table are found very useful. Keep a rug & pillow for use in the train. . . . The journey to Taranto takes about 5 (FIVE) days.

After Taranto I understand that we cut across the Adriatic in about ½ day & thence up into the mountains of ‘Old Greece’ where we again encamp for a night, & thence again eastward. . . .

Lyster was to make this same round trip in May and June on leave.

During the spring and summer the British were involved in a number of actions of modest size. On 14 April an Anglo-Greek force crossed the Struma and held seven villages for a short time. The Bulgars counter-attacked with vigour and caught the Cheshire Regiment in the open, inflicting heavy casualties. The Rifle Brigade was similarly in the open during their withdrawal and suffered accordingly. The British casualties numbered 349 killed, wounded or missing and the Greeks lost half of their 33 dead to premature grenade explosions. On 18 April the British undertook a 4-day artillery harassment of the line at Doiran, backed by 3 trench raids, suffering 136 casualties against a Bulgar loss of about 100.

A much more substantial assault was planned to secure Skra di Legen, a remote Bulgarian border stronghold some 10 miles (16 km) west of Gjevgjeli on the River Vardar. The ridge of the mountain top runs from north to south, covering the frontier east and west with enfilading firepower, and thus it secured the Bulgarian positions on both sides. The task of taking it was given to the Greeks using their Crete and Archipelago Divisions. In spite of the difficulties caused by poor road and rail access, heavy guns were moved up to the area around the village of Ljumnica and guns on either side of the intended objective were made ready. On 28 May barrages fell on Bulgarian positions all along the front line, disguising the sector in which the attack would take place. At 0455 hours on 30 May the Greeks went into action against the Bulgar 49th Division on Skra di Legen. At the cost of 2,659 casualties they cut the defenders to ribbons. Counter-attacks failed. Guillaumat relieved the Greeks quickly and sent French troops to hold the position, but no further efforts were made by the Bulgars to regain the crucial position.

Just as success roused enthusiasm in the Greek population the Allies suffered losses from another cause. The startling advances made by the German storm-troop attacks in France triggered the recall of 20,000 British and French troops from Salonika to stiffen the Western Front. Guillaumat was also recalled and General Louis Franchet d’Esperey was sent out to replace him. D’Esperey was an aggressive fellow and had lost his post in France because of his unsuitability for the defensive battle that had been required in the spring of 1918. Here he inherited the foundation of an excellent plan for a major assault on the Bulgarian and German Armies, an enterprise much better suited to his temperament and abilities. He threw himself into the task, mastering every detail and also getting out into the field frequently to make swift visits to his men. In particular he forged a sound relationship with the Serbian leader, or Voïvode, Zivojin Mišić (Mishitch). On 29 June the French and Serbian generals met, together with Prince-Regent Alexander of Serbia, the future King of Yugoslavia, and rode slowly up the height of the Floka, the mountain north of the hard-won Kaymakcalan. From this height they could see the mountains along the border: Sokol, Dobropolje, Vetrenik and Kozyak. The Serbs assured the new commander that they could break through here. The plan was agreed. There would be strong assaults elsewhere to prevent reinforcements being moved to hold the Serbs, but this was to be the main thrust. The deliberations of the national leaders in France cast doubt on the future of the scheme for a while, but eventually, and in part because of American support, it was accepted.

In due course two coded signals were sent out. From the Serbian leader early in the morning of 14 September, Mettez en route quatorze officiers et huit soldats (‘Send fourteen officers and eight soldiers’), confirming that 14 September at 0800 hours the artillery bombardment would commence. The barrage was fired by 650 guns on a line from Monastir to the Vardar, but with the Sokol to Vetrenik sector taking the heaviest punishment. The firing went on all morning, paused in the afternoon and then began again. The German commanders had assumed that the main attack would come on the River Crna with a diversionary action on the Vardar, and so far there was no evidence that they were wrong; indeed, another battalion was moved down towards Monastir in readiness for the expected strike. The Germans and Bulgars could do nothing but shelter from the shell-storm and wait. A report came in of the Bulgarian 30th Regiment running into a French force on Dobropolje late that night, but when the real assault began at 0530 on 15 September, the defenders of Sokol, Vetrenik and Dobropolje were all surprised. The fighting was extremely tough. Although the largest artillery concentration this front had seen had been brought to bear, the rock-fast emplacements of the German and Bulgarian machine-guns had survived and the mountain guns were unharmed.

The Serbian Sumadija Division struggled up the Vetrenik against such hazards, but managed to secure the mountain by early afternoon. The French 17th Colonial Division battled against positions on the heights between Vetrenik and Dobropolje for much of the day and it finally fell to them when the Serbs had taken Vetrenik and joined them. Against the emplacements on Dobropolje the French made their first use of flame-throwers which quickly gave them the mountain. Sokol fell after dark and the Serb Volunteers, constituted as the Yugoslav Division, were in a position to assault Kozyak the next morning. It took them the whole day to conquer the Bulgars there, and even then they could not take the entire position because the 13th Saxon Jäger Battalion was hurried up to hold the line. The Germans were forced to recognize that the Bulgars were no longer the solid force they once had been. By 17 September, with the Allies now some 6 miles (9.6 km) inside their lines on a front of 20 miles (32 km), they were forced to fall back.

The British contribution, that of holding the crack Bulgarian 9th Division in place on the heights above Lake Doiran, commenced on 18 September. Guy Turrall, now acting Captain and commanding 99th Field Company, Royal Engineers, noted the Order of the Day from the commander of the 22nd Division, Major-General J. Duncan.

I have just come from an interview with the Commander in Chief, who has informed me that the Franco-Serbian Forces have entirely broken through the whole of the Bulgarian defences on a front of 15 miles, & are pressing towards the VARDAR, to our north west.

The Bulgars opposed to them are in full retreat, 4,000 prisoners & 50 guns have already been taken. Aeroplanes report sings of disorganization everywhere behind the Bulgar Army.

The success of the whole combined operation now depends entirely on our own attack. The eyes of the French & Serbians are on us, they are anxiously awaiting our success.

The honour of the British Army is in the hands of the 22nd Division & the gallant 77th Brigade & 3rd Greek Regiment attached to us. Everything depends on us. We must, & will succeed. Success is in the air – on every front the Allied Armies are driving back the enemy. At all costs we must do likewise. Good luck to you in your attack.

Stirring stuff, indeed, and to enthuse the men for another assault on the Grand Couronné it was needed. The axis of the attack was not the same as it had been the previous year and perhaps the change engendered optimism. On the other hand all the British divisions were seriously undermanned as the result of illness and many of those present were either not fully recovered from their ailments or were about to succumb; the spirit was willing enough, but the flesh was weak. The general direction of the assault was towards the north-west. Along the lakeside, leaving the town of Doiran on the right, the Greek Seres Division was to push forward as far as possible. On the extreme westerly flank, beyond Pip Ridge, the 26th Division would support the main attack by demonstrating against the line running towards the Vardar. On the north-eastern side of the lake the Crete Division, supported by the 28th, would attempt to outflank the Bulgarian line. The main attack, in the centre, was divided into three sectors. The Left Brigade, the 66th of the 22nd Division, was to attack Pip Ridge. The Centre was the responsibility of the Greek 2nd Regiment, heading for the Sugar Loaf, the Tongue and the Plume to gain position on the western flank of the Grand Couronné. The Right Brigade, the 67th, had to take O.6 first, and then fight their way up to the Grand Couronné itself.

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