The 10th Division in Salonica

Salonika war zone 1915 to 1918 Salonika front 1915 Birdcage Front Salonika 1916

After the entry of the Ottoman Empire into the war on the side of the Central Powers, Bulgaria became of vital importance to the Allies. Bulgaria occupied a strategic position on the Serbian flank, and its intervention on either side would influence the course of the war. There was a widespread feeling among the Bulgarian government and people, that Serbia had stolen land during previous wars which was rightfully Bulgarian. The Allies could only offer small territorial concessions from Serbia and (as yet neutral) Greece, buth the Central Powers' promises were far more enticing, as they offered to give most of the land Bulgaria claimed. The Bulgarians therefore joined the German side.

Bulgaria attacked Serbia in October 1915. Serbia appealed to the British and French governments for military assistance. At the same time Greece asked the Allies for help with their treaty obligations to Serbia. The British and French sent a small force (2 Brigades) which began landing at the Greek port of Salonika (Thessalonika) in October 1915.

September 29th, the 10th (Irish) Division, under the Command of Lieut. General Sir Bryan Mahon, was ordered to prepare to move from Gallipoli to Salonika. The 10th Irish Division contained the 6th and 7th Royal Dublin Fusiliers.

September 30th, the divisional headquarters, three infantry brigades, field companies, pioneers, cyclist company and field ambulances embarked from Sulva Bay and reached Mudros Harbour on the 1st of October. The next day they were reorganising in camps near Mudros. It was far from being the superb division which had paraded for Kitchener back in Hackwood Park in England. At least ninety percent of its infantry were dead, wounded or ill and the major part of its support arms and services were in France, England or Egypt.

October 5th 6th and 7th Dublins embarked at the Egyptian Pier on the transport vessel H.M.T. Aeneas, the same day that the Austrians and Germans attacked Serbia. The strength of the 6th Dubs was twenty two officers and 551 other ranks. The total number of men on board was ninety one officers and 2,363 other ranks. On her way out of the harbour on 5th Oct the ship either fouled the anchor of another ship or anti-submarine cables lying below the water line, either way she got stuck at the mouth of Mudros harbour. Navy divers tried to cut her loose and tug boats pulled to release her.

October 7th A violent storm in which the SS ‘Aeneas’ drifted and collided with a Minesweeper.

October 9th SS ‘Aeneas’ steamed for Salonika

October 10th SS ‘Aeneas’ arrived at Salonika from the island of Mudros. The Battalions disembarked at Salonika and proceeded 2½ miles to Lemdet Farm where they was encamped. The camp had fine views of Mt Olympus.

With the threat of internment by the neutral Greek government hanging over it, the 10th Division found itself allowed to land and go about the business of making war on the northern Greek frontier, but it could expect no assistance from its suspicious Greek hosts, while German spies were allowed to peruse the docks and openly make notes. The 10th Division had come with orders from the British Government to establish itself for the winter in Salonica and not to cross the Greek frontier unless this was violated, but on the decision being reached that the French should push up into Serbia, General Mahon received authorisation from London to advance the l0th Division as far as Lake Doiran, just across the Greek frontier.

When they arrived hardly any artillery came with them. The heat added to this by rendering ammunitions useless. Tents would arrive without any poles, ambulances were often damaged as they were driven by inexperienced drivers. Once the logistical problems had been sorted out the men had to fortify Slaovia. They built trenches; quarried and built roads which men found "tedious and unrewarding" they also faced long hours of guard duty.

October 15th , the 6th Dublins received a reinforcing draft of eight officers and 389 other ranks from the 2nd Norfolk Regiment. On the same day the 7th battalion received a draft of six officers and 302 men from the 3rd Royal West Kent Regiment plus thirty other ranks from the 3rd and 4th Reserve Battalions of the Dublins

October 26th the first detachments of this British division began to arrive on the sector between Dedeli and Lake Doiran. Here he relieved the French who were holding the right wing of the Allied front, and protected the line of communications of the main French force which had been pushed on and become engaged with the enemy eighty miles up the Vardar from Salonica.

When you step out of Salonica you step into a virtual desert, roadless, treeless, uncultivated, populated only by scattered villages of the most primitive kind, inhabited by a low-grade peasantry. Two roads, in a condition quite inadequate to support heavy traffic, and three single lines of railway ran, at the most divergent angles possible, from Salonica towards the enemy's territory. Apart from these there was hardly even a track which in winter was possible for wheeled traffic. So that from the very beginning the Allied Forces have had to build up slowly, laboriously, the whole of the system of locomotion necessary for themselves and their supplies,---piers, roads, bridges, railways,---all have had to be created where nothing of the kind previously existed.

A handicap that has weighed heavily upon the Balkan Army is a climate most unpropitious for soldiering, cold and wet in winter, hot and feverish in summer. In fact the campaigning season in the Balkans may be said to be limited by weather conditions to a few weeks of the spring and autumn of each year. Winter, right up to the beginning of April, is a season of snow, rain, and, above all, mud. Tracks dissolve into quagmires; main roads break up into holes and ridges impassable for motor-traffic, and transport becomes a matter of the very greatest difficulty, testing almost to breaking-point any organisation of the service of supply.

The story of the Dublins campaign on the Greek Border and the Battle of Koskorino is given here in more detail. 10th Division had been very heavily outnumbered. Where the main attack was made upon the 30th Brigade, the Bulgars probably had a four to one advantage. and elsewhere they were two to one. In addition the Bulgars had the advantage of possessing much mountain artillery, which in this rough and broken country was far more effective than our field-guns.

In the battle of Kosturino in December 1915, some units came close to being wiped out. Despite a year of trench warfare in north-west Europe, the Irish troops in the Balkans had no mortars, no howitzers and not enough machine-guns, and ammunition for their field artillery was rationed. Just like the BEF in 1914, they were forced to rely on rapid-fire musketry against superior forces. The Bulgarians were held off, but a hazardous retreat to Salonika with few rations or pack animals ensued. Kosturino was a uniquely Irish historical event, however: an Irish army engaged with the Bulgarians, essentially alone, with their French allies out of sight over the mountains to their left. 

Except for the guns which had to be abandoned at Memisli, little material was left behind in the retreat of the 10th Division; a certain amount of ammunition was lost, especially at Crête Simonet, and perhaps one day's rations in all were abandoned. All the transport was got away. The fog played a very important part in these operations. It stopped all aerial scouting, and greatly interfered with artillery observation.

In December, still wearing summer uniforms, the severe snow and frost caused many casualties. The 10th Division, which included the 6th and 7th Dublins as well as a number of other Irish battalions, together with the Anglo-French forces, were ordered to retreat to Salonika, where during 1916 they were build up to strength again. 10th Division lost about 300 dead and 800 wounded or taken prisoner in the mountains

The Germans had ordered their Bulgarians allies not to cross the Greek borders as they wanted to avoid to risk a Greek entrance to the war against a Bulgarian invasion in Macedonia. So the pursuing Bulgarian army stopped at the Greek border. The Bulgarian sucess meant the the railroad from Berlin to Constantinople was opened and Germany was able to prop up its weak partner, the Ottoman Empire.

The Allies withdrew to Salonika and set up an entrenchment camp around the town known as the "Bird Cage". Large amounts of barbed wire was 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. The Allies waited for the Bulgarians to attack them. However the Bulgarians did not attack Salonika, but instead consolidated their gains in Macedonia.

The Irish soldiers arrived back in Salonika in the dying days of 1915 and, with Serbia defeated and sealed off, they may well have believed they were about to be sent to the Western Front. This was the intention of the British government, but Britain’s allies persuaded her otherwise at the Chantilly conference at the end of 1915. The same fateful meeting that decided to undertake the Battle of the Somme also decided that the 10th would stay in Greece and be joined by four more divisions

1916

On their retreat from Serbia, General Mahon, the former commander of the 10th Division and now in overall command of the British Salonika Force, decided to fortify the area around Salonika in preparation for a Bulgarian attack. For four months the Allied force saw no Bulgarians as their enemy waited on the Greek frontier, under instructions from their German allies not to seize Salonika in order to avoid complications with Austria-Hungary, which had its own designs on the city. The Irish regiments of the force engaged in back-breaking building work (the importance of the prepared defensive position in this war was firmly established by early 1916).

But having built these positions, the Allies proceeded to abandon them in the summer in order to advance to the border. The experience of working with the terrain and the manoeuvres carried out in this period would be invaluable in later fighting. The British force at Salonika was maintained on the basis that it would be used only for defensive purposes; this was the compromise Kitchener had struck at Chantilly. Offensives were initiated by the French in conjunction with Serbian and, later, Russian forces, with the British playing a supporting role only. Although contact was re-established with the Bulgarians by April, Captain Eric Faithful of the 1st Royal Irish Regiment (actually part of the 27th Division at this time) acknowledged in 1916 that an open state of ‘live and let live’ was allowed to exist between the trenches. Robert Graves, in his classic war memoir Goodbye to all that, firmly condemned the policy of ‘live and let live’ and regarded it as something of a French sickness; indeed, the policy of trench-raiding was partly adopted by the British at divisional level on the Western Front to discourage the opposing armies from coming to an accommodation with one another. Captain Faithful, however, admitted in letters to his wife that his troops knew when to expect shells and cooked their meals accordingly

The British continued to build up their forces, and by early 1916 the force had increased from just the 10th (Irish) Division to the 10th, 22nd, 26th, 27th and 28th divisions.

For the first four months of 1916 the building of the entrenched camp engrossed the energies of the Anglo-French Army at Salonica, assisted by a good deal of native labour. Eight miles to the north of the city there is a high ridge running east and west which forms a natural rampart dominating the broad plain beyond. The work of fortifying this ridge and extending the position on each flank to the sea was carried on under completely peaceful conditions, the enemy remaining inactive thirty miles away where he had halted after our retreat from Serbia, and where he, too, began to dig himself in.

The whole of the perimeter is not, of course, covered by a continuous trench-line. There are sectors which Nature has already made sufficiently impassable, such as the marshes along the lower banks of the Vardar, south of the bridge on the Monastir road. About twenty-five miles of the eastern end of the defences, too,---which is the British sector,---are covered by the broad lakes of Langaza and Beshik.

The circumstance which made all these works so strong was that they were constructed, not only with all the experience of modern warfare that their designers had gained in France, but also under conditions of absolute peace. The scientific ideas underlying the plan of the defences were accordingly able to be developed to a high degree of perfection, the second line not being the haphazard product of the varying fortunes of battle, but made to correspond fully to the tactical needs of the first. In fact, the defences of Salonica may be regarded as some of -the most formidable in the world.

Mar 1916 During a St Patrick’s Day commemoration in March 1916, Captain Hemphill of the Leinster Regiment acknowledged how different life in Salonika was compared to where they had been the year before, at Saint Eloi in the Ypres salient; in a letter he frankly admitted that ‘we may well be thankful we’re safely here this Saint Patrick’s Day, and not in a similar show in France’. Soldiers in Salonika often felt frustrated by the remoteness of their sector, but they were far more likely to make it home than those on the Western Front.

May 1916 The Bulgarians, with German support, crossed the Greek frontier on 26 May 1916.

July 1916 Early in July, much to the annoyance of the Allies, the Greeks who were still neutral, handed over to the Bulgarians the Fort at Rupel on the banks of the Struma River. Rupel is about forty miles north-north-east of Salonika and it was a strategic fortification above the deep gorge along which the River Struma led into Bulgaria. The men also faced a different enemy: the weather. According to men’s diary they claimed that "the weather conditions are worse than the enemy itself". During the summer months in the central Struma valley men could march 25 miles (40 km) in temperatures of 114 *F. The marches were occasionally fatal; in July 1916 men fainted in their scores while marching and one young soldier died on the side of the road. Sometimes the rain too would reduce the ground to "a sea of mud". Thunderstorms also affected the men who weren’t use to them.

Aug 1916 A German offensive was launched on August 17, just three days before the French offensive was scheduled to start. In reality, this was a Bulgarian offensive, as the Austro-Hungarian Army was in Albania and only a single German division was on the Greek border. The attack achieved early success thanks to surprise, but the Allied forces held a defensive line after two weeks. Having halted the Bulgarian offensive, the Allies staged a counterattack starting on September 12. The terrain was rough and the Bulgarians were on the defensive, but the Allied forces made steady gains. Slow advances by the Allies continued throughout October and on into November even as the weather turned very cold and snow fell on the hills. The Germans sent two more divisions to help bolster the Bulgarian Army, but by November 19 the French and Serbian Army captured Kaymakchalan, the highest peak of Nidže mountain and compelled the Central powers to abandon Monastir (Mak.Битола) to the Entente.

Sept 1916 The 10th Division was first sent into action in August along the Struma River valley, coming into action against the Bulgarians on 30 September in the 'Struma offensive', crossing the river and taking the village of Yeninkoi (present-day Provatos in Serres Prefecture, Greece) then after a Bulgarian counter attack retaking it, but at the cost of 500 men. Now well below strength, also due to the malaria in summer and lack of recruits, they remained in Provatos.

Oct 1916 By far the greatest number of casualties suffered by the Dublin Fusiliers in the Salonika campaign occurred towards the end of September and the beginning of October 1916 10th Division engaged in large-scale raiding in the Struma Valley towards the end of 1916, culminating in the seizure of Yenikoi in October, the final successful attack of the 6th and 7th Dublin Fusiliers being observed over lunch by the British commander-in-chief and his guests, and cheered on by some of the regular Irish battalions. Fighting was not constant, however; the British simply didn’t have the resources to carry out the day-to-day attritional warfare that had become the norm in Belgium and France.

After the battle the men faced stress and boredom as they had little to do. Some of the soldiers took comfort in the arrival of mail from home. Others watched modern warfare unfold before their eyes; regular dog fights between British and German planes as well as the occasional Zeppelin filled with gas light up the night sky. One doctor pondered on the waste of life. (Entries from his diary)- "One man was killed in a bombing practice another man mistaken for a Bulgarian and I have a young soldier who has a 3 inch wound in diameter in his back. What a useless sacrifice of poor young men’s lives".

Nov 1916 Italian forces manned the western portions of the line and successfully captured Monastir in Serbia on 19 November 1916. British formations held the area east of the Vardar River, the trenches west of Lake Doiran and patrolled the malarial Struma Valley to the east. The chief enemy on the Salonika front proved to be the malarial mosquito. Malaria was a far bigger threat than it had been in Gallipoli; there were over 7,000 reported cases in the 10th Division in August 1916 alone. In fact, though they didn’t appreciate it at the time, the British Salonika Force had arrived in Europe’s most malarial region. General Mahon had asked for the nets, quinine and protective cream needed to stave off the threat as early as 1915, but a British army general in 1915—especially one engaged in a French-supported sideshow—was unlikely to get much of what he wanted, and the division wasn’t adequately protected against malaria until the spring of 1917. The reaction of the men to these shortages can be guessed at, with Lt. Campbell of the Royal Irish Rifles writing in 1916 that he had heard a ‘rumour’ (rumours being especially popular amongst soldiers with too much to complain about) that the staff in Salonika had spent money earmarked for mosquito nets on a swimming-pool at headquarters. The situation got so bad that in July 1916 it was decided to retire from the Struma Valley for the summer months, again breaking contact with the Bulgarians. The patrols that were sent out would often ignore their Bulgarian opposite numbers rather than engage in a fruitless fire-fight.

The Allied army was known back home as the "Gardeners of Salonika" due to the apparent lack of activity. However life in Macedonia was far from easy. The British Salonika Force had to cope with the extremes in temperature and also malaria. In 1916 it was possible to evacuate the most serious cases. However, with the introduction of unrestricted submarine warfare in April 1917 this was no longer possible. Consequently the cases of malaria soured as the infected men were compelled to stay in Macedonia. Hospital admissions in 1917 alone were 63,396 out of a strength of about 100,000 men. By early 1918 the British were again able to evacuate the worst cases and nearly 30,000 were evacuated.

1917

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.

Feb 1917 In February 1917, soldiers of the Royal Irish Rifles were allowed to climb unmolested out of their flooded trenches in full view of the Bulgarians, the only firing resulting when the men decided to turn their machine-guns on a flock of geese which had set upon them. It is hard to see how hatred of the enemy could be fostered in such an environment, and letters from Irish officers at the front spoke semi-affectionately of ‘Brother Bulgar’, while reserving their anger for the Germans—and, of course, their own general staff

Mar 1917 The Division withstood further Bulgarian attacks in March 1917. For some men the horrors of war were too much and alcohol was an easy escape. One Munster fusilier died of alcohol poisoning and on St. Patrick’s Day 1917 it was said that "not a dozen sober men in the camp could be seen" some of the men also had their first intimate experiences with the local girls.

The Official History records the Bulgarians using gas ("for the first time") in a bombardment on 17-18 March 1917 on British lines between Doiran and the Vardar, and French lines across the river. In the course of three nights they fired about 15 000 asphyxiating shells on a small sector of British trenches, inflicting about 113 casualties, of whom only one died. Apparently, the advanced gas masks that replaced an older model only a month earlier had done their job. German and Bulgarian chemical harassment fire, with deadly poison and tear gas, directed mainly against artillery batteries, continued to the end of the war, causing their temporary neutralization.

April 1917, the British attacked, gained a considerable amount of ground and resisted strong counter-attacks. General Sarrail's Armee d' Orient had been reinforced to the point that he had 24 divisions: 6 French, 6 Serbian, 7 British, 1 Italian, 3 Greek and 2 Russian brigades. An offensive was planned for late April, but the initial attack failed with major losses and the offensive was called off on May 21.

May 1917 The British forces in Salonika did face some hard fighting; the assaults at Lake Doiran in April and May 1917 eliminated any question about the fighting ability of the Bulgarians. After the failed Lake Doiran offensive, the British retreated back to their original positions behind the Jumeaux Ravine, the Bulgarians erected banners to tell them  ‘We know you are going to the mountains, so are we’. The British action in May triggered a series of attacks elsewhere on the front by the other Allies, known as the Battle of Vardar.

June to Aug 1917 The sentries along the river, in tiny wattle and mud huts, in the hot and humid summer months, were by now protected from the mosquito by netting, doused themselves with an evil smelling petroleum jelly to repel mosqitos, and would still have the foul taste in their moths from the medicine taken at the mornings "quinine parade".

Most officers writing at the time reflected their fear of the mosquito, and there may well have been a stigma attached to contracting the disease. One officer, Captain Michael Dunphy of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, wrote constantly throughout the spring of 1917 to the War Office from his home in Mooncoin, Co. Kilkenny, asking to be sent back to his regiment, having been sent home in the first place with two bouts of malaria. Captain Dunphy insisted that he was fit for active duty, despite a series of medical board reports firmly suggesting otherwise. Recurring malaria also had a devastating effect on the morale of soldiers serving at the front. Second Lt. David Campbell of the Royal Irish Rifles recorded how, in the particularly severe winter of 1916/17, many of the men suffered a recurrence of their malaria and suicides were not uncommon as a result.

Aug 1917 On the 18th of August 1917, the 10th (Irish) Division received orders to assemble at Salonika. This heralded a move from Macedonia to yet another theatre in the war. August 18th 1917 was the day of the Great Fire in Salonika. It started in the early afternoon, so your photos are perhaps 4pm and 9pm (after dark) that day. The fire burned until the 21st, destroyed much of the old Turkish and Jewish quarters of the city and rendered some 80,000 people homeless (over 9,000 buildings were destroyed).

Sept 1917 On the 9th September 1917, the Dublin Fusiliers left Salonika bound for Alexandria. What was left of the Irish Division went to Palestine to assist General Allenby remove the Turks from the Holy Land. It joined General Chetwode's XX Corps and fought in the Third Battle of Gaza which succeeded in breaking the resistance of the Turkish defenders in southern Palestine.

The campaign in the end did not have the resounding victory that eventually came on the Western Front, nor was it the tragic but romantic failure of Gallipoli. The soldiers serving there often felt as though they were not fighting the real war and there was little effort to commemorate the specific campaign in post-war Britain, and even less in Ireland. In the Second World War the Salonika campaign was remembered primarily as an example of the futility of deploying troops in the unfashionable Balkans.

Austro-Hungarian Military Mapping of whole area

6th battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers

7th battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers