We landed at Salonika in 1st December after four days passage from Marseilles, escorted all the way by two destroyers – for the first two days by British destroyers and the last two days by Japanese ones. At this time, the Mediterranean was the happy hunting ground of German submarines and the proportion of sunk shipping was high.
Having landed us, the s.s. Caledonia left 48 hours later and was sunk only a few miles outside the port. Incidentally, the Ivernia, carrying the 2/20th Londons and the whole of the Divisional Staff, followed a few days behind us and also got through safely, but she too was sunk outside Salonika on the return journey. It was essential that ships carrying troops and freighters with essential supplies should have strong anti-submarine escorts and escorts were, of course in short supply. It followed that ships returning empty could not be adequately escorted and just had to take a chance.
From the sea, Salonika, and the rising ground behind providing a back-cloth to the city, was a really beautiful sight but, on landing and marching through the town, the impression was somewhat less attractive. All seemed squalid and just a bit unfriendly. People lined the streets, three and four deep to watch us march through but there was something about the crowds we had not met before. Here, thousands of civilians and large numbers of Greek troops mixed up with them, watched us with completely expressionless faces. Not so much unfriendly as “watchful.”
Of course, Greece was not in the war and its people were perhaps equally divided between those who were pro “Us” and those who were pro “Them”. The King was pro “Them”, whilst the most powerful politician, Venezelos, was pro “Us”. While we were landing and marching through Salonika to a camp a few miles outside, British Marines landed and started to march through Athens and were shot down in the streets. This led to the removal of the King and power passing to Venezelos, who eventually brought Greece to take part in the war on our side.
This uncertainty about the attitude of Greece – whether she would take some part in the war and if so on which side – made it essential to take quick action for the security of Salonika Base, as there was a large Greek army to our left rear in Thessaly.
Immediately on landing, our 179th Brigade left for Katerina to block the Petra Pass between Mount Olympus and the sea and only re-joined the Division towards the end of March, when this confused Greek situation seemed to have been sorted out. Men of this Brigade – the Kensingtons, London Scottish, Civil Service Rifles and the Queen’s Westminsters, still talk of the trek from Katerina up to the line as one of the major horrors of the war. These marches were done over long distances, in impossible country and appalling weather conditions.
We spent six months as part of the Salonika Expeditionary Force, during which time we saw little fighting but suffered the greatest privations which fell to our lot anywhere. For all practical purposes, roads did not exist and the one railway, which was no doubt adequate for the local tobacco crop in peace time, could not serve the needs of six British Divisions.
Great extremes of heat in summer and almost unbelievable cold in winter added to our trials and, on top of this, the high rate of sinkings must have made it extremely difficult for the army to be provisioned at all. This meant that supplies of all kinds were precious and had to be husbanded with care.
The mail came irregularly with long intervals in between and much was lost in sunk ships. Any thought of “leave” was out of the question.
We spent nearly three weeks in Dudular Camp about four miles outside the city, where we were provided with extra winter clothing and other things necessary for a self-sufficient existence. The chief items were a cloth-lined leather jacket, which reached almost to the knees, groundsheet, blanket, a bivouac sheet (half a tent for two), a pole for one end and three pegs. Two men together could make a shelter for themselves, which was quite adequate in good weather.
These extras, on top of full marching order, brought each man’s load to 120 lbs, but this was the dry weight. Over very rough country, with no roads all, it was possible to do about ten miles a day but in those conditions that was about the limit. When everything was wet, greatly adding to the weight, movement of any sort was impossible. However, it was done – but I shall never know how.
We left Dudular on 19th December and covered about 10 miles to Narech. More than half of this trek was over a rough road and, despite the load, I don’t think we lost a man. We had been warned that any who fell out would have to get themselves along without help – catching up with the Battalion when they could. There were no facilities for collecting those who failed. We knew this was a four day trek and I think, on arrival at Narech, we all felt that, hard as it was with such a load, we could make it.
Rain started as we reached Narech and continued heavily all night. In the morning, everything was wet. I don’t know the wet weight of our load but certainly there were very few who could get loads on their back without help.
From Narech to the line, we never again saw a road – just rough tracks through real tiger country and heavy rain continued for the whole of the second and third days. The second day, the 20th, took us to Salamanli and this day was the first “killer”. We lost about 15 per cent of our strength en route and these, of course, were coming into our stopping place for some hours after our arrival – and so were that much less likely to keep up with the Battalion on the following day.
The third day took us to Sarigol. I would think that failures this day were in excess of twenty per cent but, as I was not there at the finish, I don’t know. For the first and last time, I failed to complete a march and realised that I had no hope at all of staying with the Battalion on the fourth day. However, I was in luck. The high proportion of those, who had failed on the third day, had brought home to those who ordered our affairs that it was uneconomic to kill off the infantry in this way before they even reached the line – so on the fourth day, the 22nd, we rested.
The 23rd December took us to Cugunci and this was a somewhat easier day. I have the impression that the track was not quite so rough, the rain had stopped during the night and, consequently, the load, although still wet, was a little lighter and the last few miles before Cugunci proved fairly level going.
Some little time before I keeled over into the mud on the third day, I had next to me on my right, one of the best of all good fellows – Bertie Bone. He was very sturdily built, but like all of us was finding the going very hard. Not in the ordinary way given to the use of colourful language, he was letting fly with a stream of cursing such as I have never heard surpassed. When he thought about the “red-tabbed soft-bottomed so-and-so’s” who ordered our affairs was a revelation. At the height of this, the Adjutant, Captain Hubert Lane, walked his horse past us towards the head of the column and, on reaching Lieut Wilson, a few yards ahead, said to him quietly, in a tone of utter bewilderment as if seeking the answer to a puzzle, “Mr Wilson, Corporal Bone seems to be upset about something”. This brought a grin all around and is the last thing I remember before passing out.
We were at Cugunci until 21st February, working on the Corps reserve line and on road-making. This was a period none of us enjoyed but it was work that had to be done. The 181st Brigade had gone straight into the line at the end of December; we of the 180th were doing this navvies’ work and the 179th were still down at Katerina.
The Division started to concentrate in Mihilova area towards the end of February and we reached Mihilova on the 27th. It was in this area on 1st March that we experienced the great blizzard, which no one who was there will ever forget. We were caught in the open, with some miles of flat country on all sides, when the blizzard struck so suddenly and with such severity that movement was impossible. We were pinned down for 36 hours and lost quite a number – mostly with frost-bitten feet. The two-man bivouac tent with open ends was no protection at all, but after an hour or so, with the force of the blizzard seeming to increase all the time, one man came up with a bright idea – which fortunately worked. By pooling the bivouac sheets and ground sheets of about twelve men, one shelter could be made, which was a great improvement for the group. I think it was this idea, together with the arrival of some rum, which kept the casualties to something under forty. I can find no record of this, but I think the number was thirty-five and they were evacuated to Malta.
Temperance fanatics might note that most of the casualties were in one Company which, by bad luck, did not get a rum issue.
On 8th March, we took over “I” Sector and held it until the 19th, but this must have been a very quiet time for I have no memory of this at all.
On 1st April, we took over “K” Sector – more to our left and close to the River Vardar, still further to the left. We held “K” Sector until 19th May, a period of seven weeks, so it was here that we experienced a kind of war that we had not known before. From our trenches, the ground sloped gently up to the Bulgar positions, which were some 200 feet higher than ours and from 1,500 to 2,000 yards away.
A stream, the Selimli Deresi, flowed through the enemy line about two miles half-right from “K” Sector. Then, within half a mile of our line, it turned sharp west and ran parallel to our line until opposite us, when it turned towards us and passed through our front.
This watercourse was fully fifty feet below the level of the surrounding country and was joined by a number of tributaries in no-man’s-land. Owing to the depth and position of the nullah, it was not possible to see into it from our trenches so, in order to prevent the enemy making use of it, a patrol was always maintained in it during daylight. This Daylight Patrol, as it was called, had to leave our lines before dawn each morning and could not return until night had fallen. Their duties were to patrol the dead ground in front of our lines, to drive off enemy patrols and to give the alarm in case of any large concentration of the enemy.
Most nights, a Fighting Patrol of about fifty was out in front looking for trouble. Fifty was found to be the maximum number which could be closely controlled in rough country and in darkness. Close control was vital. No one else from our side was allowed in the area while a Fighting Patrol was out, and so they had the great advantage of knowing that anyone heard moving about during the night was enemy – therefore, there need be no hesitation about identification before blasting off with everything they’d got. It is not necessary to emphasise the advantage of being able to blast off first.
During this period in “K” Sector, a major attack was made on the enemy position about four to miles to our right. His defences here were on a great ridge extending for some miles and dominating all the ground on our side. The highest point, which was some 1,800 feet high and known as Point 535 (probably its height in metres), overlooked the whole of the area right back to the harbour of Salonika and from the River Vardar, on our left, to Lake Doiran, on our right.
The attack by two Divisions, the 22nd and 26th, failed completely, as had all previous attacks here. Other offensives on this front, right up to the end in 1918, all failed to make any impression whatsoever. Even when all fronts were breaking up in 1918, this whole area around “535” was by-passed some miles to the right and left.
With the object of distracting attention from this offensive, the 2/20th Battalion raided The Nose, which was the chief Bulgar feature in front of “K” Sector. In attracting attention to The Nose, this raid was undoubtedly a success, but it could not had had the slightest influence on the attack against “535”.
About noon on the day following the raid, Sergeant Burt, in charge of the Daylight Patrol in the Selimli Deresi, noticed a movement about a mile away – right up against the enemy wire on The Nose. Bringing glasses to bear, he was able to make out a man in khaki waving his arm. Handing over the patrol to the next senior, he set off with one other man, carrying a stretcher and succeeded in picking up a wounded sergeant of the 2/20th. They managed to get some way unobserved but the last 1,000 yards or so had to be made in full view of the enemy. They decided that the only way was to put on a bold front and march straight ahead in full view – hoping that the Bulgars would let them get away with it. In this they succeeded, and regained our trenches without a shot being fired. As they reached the wounded man and bent over to lift him on to the stretcher, it was a great relief to hear cheering from the Bulgar trenches some 60 yards away. It is good to remember this of a people, who are no longer enemies. They were tough men.
Shortly before the raid on The Nose, a reconnaissance patrol, sent out to examine the enemy wire, had an exciting time – this was a night operation, of course. The Fighting Patrol escorted them half way and then waited to support them if necessary on the return journey.
The first part of the programme went according to plan so that Lieut Collinette and six men were within fifteen yards of the enemy wire, about to send two forward to take a sample of the wire when, taking a final look around to see that all was well, a large patrol of the enemy was seen 100 yards to their right. This patrol of about forty was moving slowly in extended order along the front of their own wire and was approaching our patrol. A mile in front of our lines and a good half mile from the support of the Fighting Patrol, this wasn’t at all comfortable.
It was decided to give them five rounds of rapid fire and, in the resulting confusion, to make a dash for our lines – hoping that some would get away. The five rounds each were fired and then the dash started, but not before the enemy patrol had started to return the fire. Owing to the position of our patrol, the fire of the enemy patrol went into their own front line and they at once joined in, so that our people were getting it from both directions. Fortunately, as is usual at night, most of the shots went high.
Lieut Collinette was hit in the arm as the party started to run, but this didn’t slow him down at all (au contraire as our noble allies would say) and he was the only casualty. Firing continued for some considerable time and it seemed that the enemy patrol and their own front line had quite a battle all to themselves.
So this was life on the Salonika front. Day patrols, night patrols and a certain amount of shell fire both by day and night – but nothing to worry about for men who had their introduction to war under the concentration of shelling, which was normal in France.
Leaving the line on 19th May, we trekked down to Salonika and, on 10th June, left in s.s. Minnetonka for Alexandria, where we arrived on the 12th.
I am sure that leaving Salonika was our most popular move in the war. There was, I think, two reasons for this. First was the very real hardship of the day to day existence out there (there is no doubt we were all very much tougher when we left than when we landed) and, secondly, I think we all subconsciously came to feel the utter hopelessness of our army ever getting through the fortifications in the mountains in front of us.
We knew that several full scale attempts had been made and that first class divisions had been broken to bits without gaining a yard. It happened almost under noses to the 22nd and 26th Divisions, while we were in “K” Sector.
Men must start off with the feeling that success is at least a possibility and I don’t think anyone had that feeling when facing “535”.
Read the War Diaries for 2/18th Bn for the period in Greece:
Watch a video about the British Salonika Force here.