The Retreat from the Mountains to Salonika - 1915

Salonika Mountain Campaign 1915 map kostorina 1915 and RDF

30th Brigade of the 10th Division, which included 6th and 7th Royal Dublin Fusiliers, moved up from Salonica to Guevgheli, on the Vardar at the Greco-Serbian frontier in the last week of October, and marched through Bogdanci by the Chenali river to Dedeli. After concentrating there the brigade took up a position facing north between the villages of Tatarli and Robrovo, with the French holding the range of hills just in front of them, while they were encamped at its foot in second line. The two other brigades of the 10th Division shortly afterwards followed the 30th and encamped on the Doiran-Dedeli road.

November 20th-21st, 10th Division took over the line in front which the French had previously held. The position which the Irishmen were now holding formed the right of the Allied Balkan front. The sector consisted of the mass of the jumble of steep, rocky mountains between Kostorina and Lake Doiran.The line was held by 30th Brigade, which consisted of the 6th and 7th Dublins and the 6th and 7th Munster Fusiliers. The line of 10th Division was in savage hill-top country broken by deep gullies, barren rock and scree, its only vegetation scant grass, scrub and scarce stunted oak. Within a few months, they had gone from the desert conditions of Gallipoli, to near arctic conditions. The exposed infantrymen, their health already undermined by privations on the Gallipoli peninsula, began to deteriorate. There was a sudden change in weather conditions when a cold rain then a raging blizzard struck the Balkans. The exposed infantrymen, their health, already undermined by privations on the peninsula, deteriorated. Hundreds suffered frostbite and exposure, hundreds more collapsed with aliments associated with debilitation, cold and under-nourishment.’. The Official History insists that in spite of these privations, the men remained cheerful – but when the weather eased at the end of November, 1656 (all ranks) had to be evacuated, of whom 998 were hospitalised with frostbite.

Comparatively peaceful conditions prevailed on the front of this new British position until the end of November. To reach the British lines from Salonica you took the train and arrived at Doiran four hours later. Nineteen miles of good motoring-road took troops on from the station to Divisional Headquarters at Dedeli. The road from Doiran town, skirtied the edge of the lake, and then gradually climbed up the wide valley north-westwards. Dedeli itself was a characteristic Turkish village of unpaved lanes and alleys filled with loose boulders. The low, two-storied houses, each in a little compound of its own, are the kind of dwelling you find all over Macedonia. These, when they have been cleaned with the vigour which the British soldier puts into such operations, when years'-old accumulation of filth has been scraped off the floor and burnt, and when walls and ceilings have been whitewashed, become tolerably habitable.

10th Divisional Headquarters at Dedeli overlooked the half-mile broad valley of the Bojimia river, whose bed was a dry waste of sand and rocks. Cotton, hemp, mulberry trees, withered vestiges of the Indian corn, witnessed to the fertility of the district whose inhabitants had been driven away by the approach of hostilities. On the ridge on the far side of the Bojimia valley our entrenched positions lay, and a short walk eastwards along the river bed took you to Tatarli, where 31st Brigade had his headquarters. The Bulgarians were understood to hold a line of trenches, blockhouses and sangars along the ridge parallel to ours.

A rough ride of four miles took you from Dedeli to the headquarters of the 30th Brigade at Kadjali. The line which the 30th Brigade set themselves to dig on taking over this position lay along the ridge just below the crest. The ground was of unrelenting rock, so hard to work that the French had chiefly relied on sangars or stone redoubts, but these being liable to splinter under shell fire the 30th Brigade did not occupy them, leaving them empty to draw the enemy's artillery. On this brigade front, as on that of its neighbour, there was no action during November, the only losses being caused by an unlucky Bulgar shell which fell in a group of Dublin Fusiliers, killing nine and wounding a dozen. I cannot verify this as there do not appear to be any burials corresponding to this incident

Kosurino trenches

The trenches at Kosturino

November 27th a 3 day blizzard began with torrents of rain which soon turned to snow, while these Irish brigades were still imperfectly installed on the barren, inhospitable Dedeli ridge. The blizzard caused bitter suffering to our troops. 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, 22 below zero Centigrade 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 nor material to make dugouts in the rocky mountain side.

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. 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.

It must be remembered, too, that the men of the 10th Division were already in poor physical condition when this severe ordeal came upon them. They looked worse indeed than they had at Suvla. The faces of most of them were yellow and wizened and their bodies thin. The trying climate of the Gallipoli Peninsula had sapped their strength.

December 1st the 6th Munsters and 6th Dublin Fusiliers of the 30th Brigade had suffered so much by cold that they were relieved in the front line.

December 2nd The weather started to get very foggy and continued foggy for many days

December 4th that the Bulgars' artillery fire began to be better directed and concentrated; and the fact became evident that they had received reinforcements.

field gun kosturino

December 5th The Bulgars started an attack on the French upon our left to the west of the Doiran-Strumnitza road. Meanwhile their activity against us increased and small parties of Bulgars began to creep up the little nullahs towards our front line and open rifle fire. The weather since December 2nd had become extremely foggy.To meet the increased Bulgar artillery activity, two batteries of field guns had been man-handled with great difficulty to a position 1,000 yards south of Memisli. These guns had later to be abandoned in the retreat. It was only by the hardest labour that wheeled guns were ever got up to such a position at all, but we had no mountain artillery, and unless this step had been taken we should have been without reply to the enemy's shelling.

rocky peak, kosturino

Rocky Peak from British lines

December 6th, the Bulgar attack on the 10th Division began. Eight hundred yards north of Memisli was the advanced post known as Rocky Peak. The effect of our occupying this had been to deny to the enemy artillery access to the right flank of the 30th Brigade. The hill had originally been held by a battalion of Irish Fusiliers. But there was no cover there; it was nothing but a treeless, shelterless, boulder-strewn height, and the battalion had suffered so severely during the blizzard in that isolated position that it was withdrawn and only one company and one machine-gun were left to hold it. In their first attack on Rocky Peak in the afternoon of December 6th the Bulgars captured a small trench, but later were driven out and off the hill again. Many of the Bulgarians most deadly attacks were bayonet charges - men bled to death and were buried behind the trench line.

One company from 7th Royal Dublin Fusiliers was deployed in defensive position in Kajali ravine(south of Kosturino) . They took the left side and made coordination with French troops. The rest of the troops of 7th Royal Dublin Fusiliers were in reserve north of Kajali.

  6 BROUN, RICHARD CLIVE MCBRYDE Lieutenant 06/12/1915 na --
  7 SARGAISON, WILLIAM HENRY Second Lieutenant 06/12/1915 22 Son of Walter and Elizabeth Sargaison, of 8, Clara Park, Neill's Hill, Belfast

December 7th. During the night the Bulgars crept along the ravines that surrounded the isolated peak and took Rocky Peak by storm at 5.30 on the morning of December 7th. About thirty of our troops holding it were captured; the rest got away. This loss gave the enemy a serious footing in our line, for the Bulgars brought up mountain artillery and machine-guns onto Rocky Peak and began to enfilade the front of the 30th Brigade, which was also bombarded from the other side by field-gun batteries at Cepelli. The 30th Brigade had a line which made a salient, and was thus considerably exposed, and it became clear that they were to be the object of the main Bulgar attack.

crete simonet kosturino

Crete Simonet

General Mahon, who was at 30th Brigade Headquarters on the morning of the 7th, had asked General Sarrail to expedite as much as possible the retreat which was now in full progress under most difficult conditions of the French contingent down the Vardar. The converging artillery fire upon the 30th Brigade front was now becoming very severe and causing heavy losses to the 10th Hampshires and 5th Connaughts. 30th Brigade withdrew withdrew to a new position between Cadjali and Tatarli on Crête Simonet with an advanced position on Crête Rivet. The Bulgars pushed on after us, but were held back from continuing the pursuit by the fire of our field-artillery which prevented them from crossing the Kostorino ridge. The retreat was over "rough stones and rocks", over perilous passes where water oozing out of the hill formed solid blocks of ice in places. In the long retreat from Kosturino, men huddled together on the lee side of rocks. Hardened men wept "as their frozen fingers could not untie their pack loads"

17986 7 BARRY, J Private 07/12/1915 26 Son of John and Bridget Barry, of Neamstown, Kilmore Quay, Wexford
15294 7 GRIFFIN, JOHN EDWARD Private 07/12/1915 36 Son of John and Eliza Griffin, of 22, Parliament St., Chippenham, Wilts

December 8th was a day of heavy artillery and machine-gun fire upon our new position. During the night we had been reinforced by three French companies and a mountain-battery. The fog grew constantly denser, and in this broken country of steep, twisting ravines and pathless hill-sides, it was difficult to know whether the enemy might not be pushing on upon the flanks to surround us. At 5pm 30th Brigade were ordered to withdraw to a new line across the Dedeli pass. 30th Brigade started retiring at 5.30pm. and as the last battalion left the position the Bulgars rushed up the hill with cheers, firing flares as they came.

8380 6 CULLEN , J Private 08/12/1915 na --
13032 6 CULLEN , J Private 08/12/1915 na Son of Patrick and Catherine Cullen, of Ballykillen, Edenderry, King's Co
13849 7 PORTER, ROBERT CYRIL Private 08/12/1915 21 Son of George Francis Lambert Porter and Aice Porter, of 10, Vernon Parade, Clontarf, Dublin
  6 MARTIN, CHARLES ANDREW Captain 08/12/1915 20 Mentioned in Dispatches. Order of the White Eagle 5th Class (Serbia). Son of Thomas and Mary Martin, of Greenbank, Monkstown, Dublin
11967 6 MORRISSEY , J Private 08/12/1915 na --
24135 7 STALLARD, HORACE RONALD Private 08/12/1915 27 Son of William and Fanny Stallard; husband of Lillian Stallard, of 100, Mansel Rd., Small Hath, Birmingham. Born at Birmingham

December 9th the 31st Brigade on Karabail was replaced by a brigade of another division which began to arrive, the 31st going into reserve. The general commanding this division came up at the same time and took charge of the operations. The dense fog made it difficult for the new brigade to orient itself, and for the 30th to get in touch with them, so that a proper liaison was not made before the 10th.

By December 9 the French had succeeded in retiring safely through the gorge and were in position on the river Boyemia, with the British Tenth Division on their right. Reinforcements had been sent from England and France and were beginning to disembark at Salonika, but there were many difficulties in the way of their immediate utilization. Communications with Doiran were dependent on roads which were little better than tracks, and transport of guns and stores proved a serious problem. General Sir Charles Monro, who since October 28 had been in command of the whole British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, saw, however, the necessity for holding this line till the new divisions were disembarked at Salonika. But on December 6, the Bulgarians attacked them in great strength, about four times the British numbers. Fierce fighting continued for three days. The Tenth Division showed all the courage and toughness which was to be expected from the battalions composing it — Munster, Dublin and Inniskilling Fusiliers, and Connaught Rangers. There were " very heavy odds " against them, but they put up a gallant fight as they fell back on the positions on the right of the Boyemia line. Their casualties were about 1,500 and eight guns had to be left behind, but heavy losses were inflicted on the advancing enemy. In the opinion of General Sir Charles Monro the troops, who, it must be remembered. " had suffered considerably from the cold in the Highlands of Macedonia,"and "" in the circumstances conducted themselves very creditably in being able to extricate themselves from a difficult position with no great losses."

In the words of the War Office communique, " it was largely due to the gallantry of the troops, and especially of the Munster Fusiliers, the Dublin Fusiliers, and the Connaught Rangers, that the withdrawal was successfully accomplished." It was impossible, however, to rest on the Boyemia line. The small Franco-British forces would have been too far away from their base at Salonika, and the Bulgarians from Monastir, which they entered on December 2, might have taken them in the flank and rear. Already the question of retiring into Greek territory had been discussed. Having acquiesced in the Allies' disembarcation at Salonika the Greek Government could not easily object to their retiring on the town

13413 6 ALLERTON, ALBERT Lance Corporal 09/12/1915 30 Son of John and Hannah Mary Allerton, of 41, Bondgate, Selly Oak, Birmingham
9126 6 ARKINS , B CSM 09/12/1915 na --
18420 6 BOYLAN, HAROLD Lance Corporal 09/12/1915 18 Son of John Joseph Boylan, of 60 Gladstone St., Widnes, Lancs
21975 6 BURNS, PATRICK Private 09/12/1915 38 Son of James Burns; husband of Catherine Trainor Burns
13288 6 BYRNE , J Serjeant 09/12/1915 na --
21979 6 CARSON, PATRICK Private 09/12/1915 18 Son of Robert and Lizzie Carson
12934 6 CASSELLS, JOHN Private 09/12/1915 24 C Company. Son of James and Lizzie Cassells, of 39, Cliffe St., Dublin
13404 6 CLEGG, ROBERT Private 09/12/1915 37 Son of John Thomas and Eliza Clegg, of Rochdale, Lancs
22006 6 DOHERTY , C Private 09/12/1915 na --
16402 6 DOOLEY , E Private 09/12/1915 44 Son of John and Mary Cowran Dooley, of Dublin; husband of Margaret Dooley
11853 6 DOYLE , T Private 09/12/1915 42 Son of Mrs. Ellen Doyle
22239 6 HIGGINS, MICHAEL Private 09/12/1915 38 Husband of Bridget Higgins, of Chapel Lane, New Ross, Co. Wexford
22064 6 McAULEY, HUGH Lance Corporal 09/12/1915 22 Son of Hugh and Chariotte McAuley, of Ballycastle, Co. Antrim
11973 6 NEE , T Private 09/12/1915 na --
16425 6 O'NEILL , P Serjeant 09/12/1915 na --
14295 6 PAYNE , A Lance Corporal 09/12/1915 na --
14368 6 PHILLIPS , F Serjeant 09/12/1915 na --
11951 6 PURTELL , J Private 09/12/1915 na --
16139 6 RAWL , C Private 09/12/1915 na --
13470 6 STEENSON, GEORGE Serjeant 09/12/1915 34 D Coy. Son of Stephen and Mary Steenson, of 23, Strand St., Irishtown, Dublin. Served in the South African War
13433 6 WRIGHT, RICHARD GEORGE Lance Corporal 09/12/1915 22 Son of Thomas and Harriett Wright, of 122, Wellington st Millom, Cumberland

December 10th the French were heavily attacked on their new line at Cestovo while their left again was being rapidly driven back down the Vardar on Guevgheli. By the afternoon of the next day the Bulgars were pressing so hard upon the French that they had fallen back to a front stretching from Furka through Bogdanci to Guevgheli, and it was the 10th Division's turn for its flank to be left in the air. The Bulgars furthermore were now also trying to get round our right flank and so down to Lake Doiran to cut our only road of retreat where it reaches the north-west end of the Lake. Fortunately the pathlessness of the mountains prevented that attempt from succeeding.

December 11th Dedeli had to be evacuated hastily on the night of the 11th or it would be too late. Accordingly a general order was given for the 10th Division to retire across the Greek frontier. It was not, of course, sure whether the Bulgar pursuit would stop at this political obstacle, and there was further a strong report that the Greeks were coming in against us, and that the communications of the division with Salonica were anything but safe.

December 12th 1 A.M. on the morning of the 12th when the 30th Brigade received orders at Dedeli to retire on Doiran, one battalion had all its company cooks (about fifteen men) sleeping together in a house. Dedeli, like all Macedonian villages, is a straggling place, and when the order was being circulated, the cooks' house was overlooked. So, huddled round their comfortable fire, they slept on undisturbed till daylight, when on going to the door, they were horrified to find the street full of Bulgars. The cooks seized their rifles, and the Bulgars at this sign of what looked like hostile action, took cover and opened a characteristically ill-aimed fire, of which the cooks took advantage to make a bolt for it as hard as they could go down the road to Doiran under cover of the fog, and all rejoined their battalion safely.

The 31st Brigade, already concentrated, marched back first, then the 30th Brigade was withdrawn south of Doiran and bivouacked near the lake. The Bulgars advancing down the Strumnitza road stopped just short of the Greek frontier stone on the outskirts of Doiran town, the 30th Brigade Headquarters only leaving Doiran about ten minutes before their arrival.

By December 12 the whole Franco-British force had retired into Greek territory. Temporary lines were at once prepared in expecta- tion of an immediate enemy attack. They ran from Karasulii (" Blackwater ") on the Vardar railway to.Kilindir on the Salonika- Dedeagatch line. A branch railway connected Karasulii and Kilindir. It was for the moment the best possible line for awaiting the enemy. But the attack never came.

The 30th Brigade now came down to Salonica by train, and a remark that indicates the conditions prevalent at the time was made by the Greek stationmaster at Doiran, as the first trainload of British soldiers went out. "I am pro-Ally," he said, "but the man at Kilindir is pro-German, and probably won't allow your train to pass." The other brigades came down by road, and the worn-out 10th Division then went into camp at Kapudjilar just outside Salonica, until it was moved up to hold the line along the lakes and across to Stavros, which was made part of the entrenched camp. So ended the British share in the retreat from Serbia.

Around 100 of 10th Division were taken prisoner by the Bulgarians and interned in a camp at Philippopolis. Desease, hunger and abuse by prison guards were part of daily life there. But the Bulgars treated the Serb prisoners in that camp much worse, often being badly flogged. The conditions in the Bulgarian prison camps were abysmal.

A British pilot shot down over Turkish lines was transferred to the Bulgarian prison camp at Philippopolis. The officers lived in a former cholera hospital with a concrete floor and a sheet-iron roof, which leaked until it was blown off in a sandstorm and never replaced. The walls were coated with mud and chopped straw, ideal conditions for vermin. The facility lacked furniture, crockery, and washing accommodations; individual POWs constructed their own furniture and partitions by purchasing construction material in town at exorbitant prices. Daily rations were limited to three hundred grams of black bread and pepper-pods, egg-fruit (an egg-shaped orange-yellow sweet fruit), rice-mill siftings, or cabbage, an inadequate diet upon which to survive. POWs became dependent on food parcels from home, and officers formed messes through which they pooled food and spare clothing. Some food could be purchased in town at prohibitive prices including sugar, butter, flour, chickens, potatoes, eggs, apples, plums, tea, coffee, cocoa, and scarce soap. Fuel-charcoal and wood-was among the largest expenses, and lighting was very difficult because oil was unavailable. A used suit of clothes in poor condition cost £ 50. The U.S. Charge d'Affaires at Sofia, Dominic I. Murphy, conducted official visits to the prison camp. He provided money to needy POWs and did his best to make improvements in the facility, especially in regard to administrative restrictions.

Conditions were even worse for the rank and file. Bulgarian forces captured British troops near Dorian and confiscated their boots, puttees, and tunics. The POWs then marched to Sofia-150 miles-barefoot, in their shirts and summer shorts. The only food they had was found by foraging onions, roots, and corn from the fields by the roadside. On the march for sixteen days, they received a small loaf of bread on only one occasion. At the prison camp in Philippopolis, the troops were herded into filthy barracks in lots of one thousand. Many men chose to sleep outside rather than face the vermin at night. Their rations were totally inadequate and unpalatable. Like the officers, the British enlisted prisoners relied on food parcels to survive.

Irish Cross salonika campaign

 

The Salonika Campaign