Voices During the First World War British soldiers served on many fighting fronts, drawn into a truly global conflict that swiftly moved beyond its initial starting point. In autumn 1915, British and French troops landed at Salonika, in Greece, to support Serbia against German, Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian attack. William Hildred arrived in October. He recalled his first impressions of the busy port.
The costumes; the crowded streets; the little mosques and the souk, the market place; the buildings; General Sarrail, the Frenchman, pontificating from a balcony. They didn’t leave us long in Salonika. I remember going to the Tour Blanche, better known as the White Tower; I suppose it’s still there. But we had a very good time thereof amusing ourselves. It was all so different from London, or Hull. We enjoyed ourselves very much and just had fun.
The Allied force advanced north to help the Serbian Army fight the Bulgarians. But they were too late to have any real effect. In December, the men of the 10th Irish Division confronted a Bulgarian attack at Kosturino. They were overwhelmed and fell back to Salonika. Terence Verschoyle of the 5th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers described the action and the retreat that followed.
Nothing happened until the Bulgars opened their attack, I think on December the eighth. They suddenly decided to push us out and they advanced in considerable strength. My company was ordered to make a counter-attack and – fortunately for myself – the order was countermanded, because they were far too numerous for one company to do anything about. So then we beat a retreat back down the ravine behind us and up again the other side, onto the ridge, and that was at night. And it was the one occasion in which I remember the rear, instead of saying, ‘Oh, go slow in front,’ saying, ‘Can’t you get a move on?!’ On the other side of the ravine the Bulgars advanced down with all their bugles blowing and everything. It was really quite dramatic. We got back and then we got through the 22nd Division. We withdrew right down and the Bulgars didn’t come on any further at the moment.
The Serbian Army was defeated and fell back. Despite this, it was decided that Allied troops should remain at Salonika. For the next three years, they held a defensive line against enemy attack. Conditions were harsh. One key problem was the weather, as Wilfred Theakston remembered.
We arrived there in tropical kit, in a snowstorm. Actually we, whatever horse blankets were available we covered ourselves with horse blankets. So we were saddled up with horse blankets, trying to keep warm. Incredibly cold.
The mountainous terrain was also a challenge for the men who served at Salonika. Arthur Barnes arrived there in late 1916.
The authorities said, well we can’t go march up the mountain by daylight, we’ll have to do it by night-time go through the night. So we went up those mountains – 7,000 feet – night after night; night after night. Now and again you’d hear a scream; the mule fell over, all down the mountain precipice. And there was a light – we used to see a little, sparkling light – and our officers used to say to us, ‘Ah, that’s where it is; that’s when we stop for a rest.’
Well, that went on and the next night we’d see another one. Well, that went on and went on and went on and went on until we got to the top of the mountain. And we got to the top of the mountains and of course, unfortunately, it was mid-winter. The cold was terrible, shocking. Men used to cry with the cold, so cold. They issued us out with lamb coats and woolen headgear and that kind of thing, but it didn’t keep you warm.
Malaria was widespread and caused more casualties than the fighting. There was little that could be done to prevent men contracting it, as British NCO Edward Bull explained.
We used to have covers, you know, over the bed. A curtain, the mosquito covers. Even so they used to get in! They had to issue you with quinine, its terrible stuff. That’s the only thing they had, even in the hospital part of it you were dosed with quinine. Terrible to taste. It was a liquid and it was shocking stuff. You were told to take so much a day, you see, of this stuff, from the medical store. There was a medical officer there and he’d give you the actual dose.