Salonika 1917-1918 II

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The Entente in Macedonia.From left to right: a soldier from Indochina,a Frenchman,a Senegalese,an Englishman,a Russian,an Italian,a Serb,a Greek and an Indian.

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Turrall thought well of the Greeks attached to his division:

A Bde of the Greek Seres Div’n has come to reinforce us & is bivouacked in the Morraine camp of the 9th Border Regt. Am detailed as liaison officer & to escort them to the various parts of the trenches. Arrive at Greek Colonel’s D.O. at the same moment as a distinguished brilliant haughty Staff Officer from Corps Hq. The Greek Col X is eager to know if we have G Couronné; his persistent enquiries concerning it are met with evasive replies that at least do not reveal the truth that at this moment weighs like lead upon us all. . . . Am much impressed by the Greek who is obviously a man of character & would not brook foolery. He & his officers are all keen as blazes to be up and doing . . . the whole crowd impress me very much as men. Officers devouring new maps.

In fine, sunny weather the artillery pounded away at the Bulgar positions in the mountains and at 0508 on 18 September it concentrated on the enemy front line. The 67th Brigade Diary records:

. . . at 0511 the 11 Welch attacked & took the FANG, O.6 being taken by the 11 RWF [Royal Welch Fusiliers] after stiff hand to hand fighting at 0630. At 0628 hrs the 7 SWB [South Wales Borderers] attacked the ROCKIES having come along the FEATHER up to time & with few casualties. At the ROCKIES however they came under a terrific cross fire from machine Guns from both flanks which caused them very heavy casualties. The survivors had to withdraw leaving many wounded, including Lt.Col. BURGESS.

Part of the problem was the fire coming from Pip Ridge. The 12th Cheshires had assaulted P4 from Jackson Ravine with reasonable success when suddenly a huge explosion caused many casualties. They regrouped and pressed on against growing machine-gun fire and mortar fire from P4, which was crossed by the Bulgarian trench line. Eventually they got though the line and B and C Companies advanced towards P3. They were now enfiladed by machine-gun fire from the spur of Little Dolina as well as fired upon by the Bulgarian front-line trench behind them. The 9th South Lancashires came on behind them no less courageously and were also cut down. The 8th King’s Shropshire Light Infantry took up the strain, but now heavy Bulgar counter-attacks rolled them back and off Pip Ridge. The Brigade had lost 37 officers and 800 men in this fight, about two-thirds of its strength. The initial success of the 3rd Greeks on their right in taking the Sugar Loaf on the front line and the Plume and the Warren on the second line was undermined by the failure on Pip Ridge. Supported by fire from there the Bulgars managed to oust the Greeks and force them back to their starting place.

On the right the Seres Division, together with the 2nd King’s Own Regiment, outflanked the Petit Couronné left and right and poured forward to seize Hill 340, Teton Hill and Doiran Hill. Soon after 0900 hours they moved on to take the main line positions of the Orb and the Hilt, but the East Bastion, to their right, could still bring fire to bear on the Welsh battalions of the 67th Brigade. The Greeks could not hold on and at 1050 hours Divisional HQ received a message that they were retiring to Hill 340.

The Crete Division on the other side of the lake advanced with enthusiasm. Lieutenant Lyster, back from leave in England, later wrote:

At last we had made all preparation for the BIG ADVANCE. My assignment was to be the liaison officer with the Greek corps on our left. To this effect I went over to Greek Hqs and was agreeably surprised to find as G.O.C. my old friend General Yoannou, who was also pleased to see me as I could speak Greek whereas no one else he had seen so far could do so. We worked out details and all seemed to be ready for a perfect collaboration. Things did not work out as smoothly as all that however. After the preliminary bombardment which was the heaviest I had ever heard the order to attack arrived and off I went on my mare to take up my position on our extreme left. I easily got contact with the Greeks and reported this back to Corps through Division. The Bulgars seem to have given up pretty soon for I suddenly found that instead of being in touch with the Front line Greeks I was with their reserves. I reported this at once and was told to keep in touch specially with the front units. In trying to do this I almost lost touch with my British units and soon I found a huge gap between the two forces. The Greeks were pushing on whereas we were advancing cautiously. The gap having increased I again wired corps about this afraid that Johny Bulgar might make a sudden attack between both forces. I got a reply ordering me to tell Yoannou to hold back and not advance any more until we caught him up. I never contacted him personally but got a message through to him and he replied that if we could not march HIS troops could and he would not stop until he reached Sofia for which he was making. Then I had a shock, I was ordered to return at once as I was urgently wanted at G.H.Q. Now that was a blow. But an order is an order and I had to comply. I rode back to Division where I was again told that I had to report to G.H.Q.

What Lyster was wanted for he never found out, for on the way back he lost consciousness and woke two days later to find himself in hospital. The attack itself succeeded in overcoming the village of Akindzali but came under heavy artillery fire and the dry fields caught alight; the troops were withdrawn.

The gains for the day had been small and the losses high; an outcome that surprised nobody. All had shared Turrall’s fears, and all had fought magnificently none the less. The Bulgarian 9th Division was still in place, giving no thought to supporting their comrades who were folding under Serbian and French pressure beyond the Vardar, so perhaps the price was worth paying. The Diary of the 11th Battalion the Welch Regiment for 18 September reads, in its entirety: ‘On the 18th the Bn went into action 15 officers & 409 ORs [Other Ranks] strong. Objectives were reached but by the evening of the 19th only 1 officer (the C.O.) & 40 ORs remained of those who went into action.’ The 11th Royal Welch Fusiliers sent 20 officers, 1 Medical Officer and 480 other ranks into action on 18 September and ended the day with 3 officers and 100 men unwounded.

The next day the attacks were resumed with no greater success. New troops were thrown into the fight but the 12th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, 8th Royal Scots Fusiliers and 11th Scottish Rifles achieved no more than their comrades had the day before and, what was worse, some fell victim to their own artillery fire. The Zouaves were ordered to take Pip Ridge from the east and made the attempt in spite of the incredible optimism of the plan. They had no chance of success and this explains the Bulgar flanking fire on the Scots as they gained positions in the front-line fortifications through the Tongue and the Hilt. The 9th East Lancs were sent to the aid of the Zouaves with a similar outcome. The 9th King’s Own (Royal Lancasters) never got the message cancelling their assault on Pip Ridge and they got as far as P4 where they ran into solid and effective resistance. By the end of the day the British casualties had risen to 3,871 killed, wounded and missing; not many by the standards of the insatiable Western Front, but when set alongside their 23,762 battle casualties for the whole Macedonian campaign from 1915 to 1918 the impact is clear.

The morning of 20 September was quiet. Two aircraft of 47 Squadron, RAF reported in the late morning. The roads to the rear of the Bulgarian line through Rabrovo (Robrovo) and Kosturino to Strumica (Strumnitza) were thronged with troops marching north. The French and Serbs to the west had broken the enemy line and reached as far as their supply centre at Gradsko; the whole position of the Central Powers was unstable and they were forced to withdraw. The RAF harried the Bulgars mercilessly. On 21 September 45 aircraft attacked the Bulgarian columns as they squeezed through the Kosturino defile, bombing and machine-gunning, killing more than 700 and destroying over 300 wagons. To the west Franchet d’Espery gave the cavalry their head at last: the 1st and 4th Chasseurs d’Afrique went into action with a section of armoured cars and six squadrons of Moroccan Spahis. They were at Prilep, north of Monastir, by 1300 hours on 23 September and moved on the Babuna Pass the next day. Here the Serbs had made a stand when they were retreating three years earlier and resistance was expected. In the early hours of 25 September the Spahis made their cautious climb but met no enemy until the very summit. They let the Serbian infantry take up the fight along with the armoured cars and took to the hills, the Spahis acting as rearguards. On 28 September, with the Spahis now rejoined, the Chasseurs descended towards the valley of the Vardar and arrived at the river just 7 miles (11 km) south of Uskub (Skopje). At 0900 on 29 September they entered the town, the remaining German troops making their escape on their armoured train.

To the east the British and Greek troops were advancing also. On 25 September the Derbyshire Yeomanry entered Bulgaria near Kusturino with the 79th Infantry Brigade close behind. The next day the Yeomanry encountered a huge German staff car flying a white flag; the Bulgars were seeking an armistice. Hostilities ceased at noon on 30 September.

That was not the end of the campaign as far as the British were concerned. To the east was another enemy, Turkey. On 4 November Captain Turrall wrote to his mother:

. . . Firstly no cake etc. thank you as I may be ANYWHERE by XMAS! Desperate fighting on both sides marked the final days of action on the P Ridge & if the tale is ever told the 22nd Division will be a respected name. Since those days much has happened. . . .

My Company & another were the only two of the English forces to march on foot from SERBIA thro MACEDONIA & BULGARIA to the TURKISH frontier at DEDE AGHATCH, & I think you will agree it wasn’t a bad effort. From here we can see SAMOTHRACE – the island which we used to see from GALLIPOLI. . . .

The Central Powers seem to be rapidly disintegrating now, thank goodness! The date of my own exit from the army is what I must wish to know; may it be very soon. . . .

Hoskins [Turrall’s driver] is in hospital with malaria & dysentry: his brother died out here the other day which is very sad as he had never had leave & was a robust specimen of humanity until he got a sudden & fatal dose of Spanish ’Flu.

Hoskins, it is good to know, survived his illness, for among Turrall’s papers is a copy of a letter he wrote some four years later to his former driver to congratulate him on his wedding. It was not necessary for Turrall or any of his comrades to fight on the Turkish front for the armistice had been signed on 30 October. On 8 December an Allied Military Administration was set up in Constantinople (Istanbul) and there Lyster was to serve for some time to come, for his mastery of languages included Turkish.

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