The Royal fusiliers in the Great War 1914 - 1919
After their heavy losses at Loos the 3rd Battalion were withdrawn from the line for a brief rest, had a term of trench duty near Givenchy, and then entrained for Marseilles. On October 25th, just a month after the battle of Loos, they embarked for Alexandria, where they remained about a month. By December, 1915, they had reached Salonika. The troops found little to occupy them. For the first six months they were in the standing camp at Salonika, with the Bulgars some thirty miles away, across the frontier. They were accommodated for some time in tents and dug-outs in a small depression of the hills, west of the Dehrbend Pass. The Lembet Plain and the bay to the south made a very beautiful vista, and on a good day Mount Olympus looked scarcely ten miles away. For work the battalion had to turn their hand to the construction of observation posts for the artillery and also to road-making.
One or two air raids were all that gave a touch of excitement to life. The only provision against aircraft at this time was a few 18-pounder guns set up on improvised carriages. On one occasion the enemy airmen had a great success. The German airmen who crossed the lines on March 27th just after dawn dropped a bomb on the ammunition dump, which contained practically the whole reserve stock. There was a tremendous explosion, and a column of smoke rose high in the air and spread out like a mushroom.
Another break in the monotony was the four days' brigade trek which began on April 4th. Its real object was to give the men some chance of stretching their legs. They marched in shirt-sleeves, but without helmets, as these had not yet been issued. The country is very fine, but the brambles, which are alive with tortoises, made marching the reverse of comfortable. Camp fires were allowed at night ; and with a flute, two drumsticks and a canteen lid, an improvised band filled the air with music. Shortly after the return from this trek the battalion, being among the troops selected to represent the British infantry at the presentation of the G.C.M.G. to General Sarrail, paraded for a rehearsal. In the midst of this a wolf galloped across the front of the troops. Wild wolves had been heard of, but this was the first one seen. On May 3rd the battalion started on an eight days' divisional trek. When they returned numerous kit inspections were held in anticipation of the movement north to the Struma. The hitherto accepted excuse for the loss of any article — •" Lost at Vermelles, sir ! " — had to be finally abandoned.
In June the battalion with the 85th Brigade moved north to reinforce the 22nd Division in the Vardar Valley, and as the aeroplanes then available could only fly between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., the troops were confined to those hours for marching. They had got as far as Sarigeul, on the Salonika-Seres-Constantinople railway, when they were ordered back to go to the Struma hills. Marching in the hot weather was an almost unendurable strain, and the 3rd Battalion have an imperishable memory of Whit Monday's march. In spite of a long midday rest, the heat had been so trying that many men fainted on getting into camp. When the men reached a well near Orljak Bridge there was almost a free fight for water. They at length reached Tureka and camped around the village. Road-making again became the order of the day. The Struma lay a mile to the east, and in the dry weather it seemed unbearably inviting. But some French soldiers had been drowned, and bathing was forbidden. This order was obeyed until, at a certain spot, cattle were seen standing in the river to drink. It was also forbidden to cross the Struma ; but the sight of some wild ducks proved too much, and some shooting took place in which the sportsmen did not trouble about a kit.
LIFE AT SALONIKA
In the summer malaria began to make inroads on the troops. Drafts reaching the country seemed to be attacked almost immediately on arrival. Yet, in spite of this scourge, the men worked well at the arduous occupation of roadmaking ; but it was decided to move camp, for the sake of health, to the hills. After a few weeks' stay there the Fusiliers moved via Paprat to Petkovo, on the southern crest of the Krusha Balkans ; and the battalion were given some five miles to prepare for defence on the right of the French. On arrival the Petkovo Valley was full of cattle, and permission was asked to drive them behind the lines. This was refused, and the cattle were seized later by the Bulgars ! The minor operations preparatory to the entry of Rumania into the war took place, but they were eclipsed by the advance of the enemy armies into Greece. One morning (August 17th, 1 916) the Bulgarian Army was seen to be moving southward through the Rupel Pass. They approached the Struma, and in this way began that long series of minor exchanges which lasted till the end of the Salonika campaign. The battalion for the most part were merely spectators, being almost invariably in support. At one point it was decided to clear all the villages to our front, and the inhabitants were evacuated to the west. As the French had received orders to evacuate them to the east, they had a bad time until this matter was straightened out. It was a strange life the troops led in these months. A sort of pigeon English had been invented in order to communicate with the local inhabitants. The exordium was generally " Hi, boy ! " and the peroration " Finish, Johnny " — brief, clear and pointed.
On October 23rd the battalion advanced into the valley for winter, and camped at Lositza. The Italians had replaced the French on the left of the battalion, and the men made some experiments with wine bought from our allies. The Italians appeared to be always singing, but the amount of work they got through was wonderful. The Fusiliers were really startled when a soldier arrived in camp wounded through the arm. They had been in the Balkans for nearly a year, and this was their first casualty at the hands of the enemy. They were now stationed near the issue of the Butkova River from the lake, and the Bulgars were on the other side. The mountain battery used to water and wash their mules in the river until the authorities decided to stir up the Bulgars. A patrol of No. 4 Company was ordered to cross the river by a pontoon. The Bulgars resisted, and Major Burnett Hitchcock, who was second in command, was wounded ; a soldier who was also wounded died on the way to the ambulance.
The Butkova Crossing.— On November 24th, 1916, the attempt to cross the river was renewed. Two platoons of D Company with two canvas pontoons lay concealed on the bank opposite the creek. It was heavy mist that morning, and the mountain battery could not open fire till 8.30. The boats were lowered into the water ; and two men, already stripped, swam across under heavy rifle fire, with telephone lines attached to towing ropes, covered by two platoons with Lewis guns. The boats were pulled across by means of these ropes, and the troops, moving up the northern bank of the river, occupied two Bulgar trenches. Half of a covering platoon crossed with picks and shovels, and began to organise the position. Patrols were posted in the adjacent woods, and the men remained in the captured positions until the afternoon of the following day. At 6.0 that morning the Bulgars counter-attacked, and in the mist reached the wire. They were then dispersed. The battalion lost three wounded in this small operation, and inflicted 15 casualties on the Bulgars. One of the latter was taken prisoner, and the Fusiliers recrossed the river after securing the information they had set out to obtain. Another similar raid took place on November 28th.
ACTION OF MAY 15TH
In January, 1917, the battalion crossed the Struma and moved into trenches near Barakli-Djuma, where they remained until May 17th. Their sector of trenches lay about a third of a mile west and north-west of Barakli-Djuma. During their first ten days in the trenches, which were now close up to the Bulgar positions, they were shelled at intervals throughout the day. In February malaria began to make inroads on the unit. Forty-five cases were treated, and 1 officer and 12 other ranks were evacuated to hospital. It was not a good preparation for active operations ; and their role in the readjustments preparatory to the April offensive was to prevent the Bulgars moving their troops to the Doiran sector, where the army was to attack. This was achieved by a demonstration on March 2nd, when the battalion suffered five casualties. During this month 98 men were detained with malaria, and 58 were evacuated to the field hospital ; and in April the number sent to hospital had increased to 80, including 1 officer.
On May 15th Major Villiers-Stuart, who had been in command of the battalion since August 1st, 1916, was appointed to command the 7th Oxford and Bucks L.I. He was succeeded by Lieut. -Colonel E. M. Baker, who had charge of the operations against the Ferdie outpost sector. The spring campaigning season was almost at an end. The growing number of malaria cases proved that the troops must be moved to the hills if they were to be retained as effective soldiers ; but the enemy were in a position to hamper the withdrawal, and accordingly, in order to mislead the Bulgars, an attack was made against the trench system guarding the approach to Spatovo, the sentinel of the Rupel Pass. The battalion were assembled at 6.15 p.m. on the night of the 15th. In ten minutes' time the bombardment began, and five minutes later the Fusiliers advanced, No. 4 Company being on the right and No. 3 on the left. Under cover of the barrage, the men reached the enemy wire, passed through where it had been cut in the preliminary bombardment, and occupied the front trenches with little opposition. No. 4 Company captured five men and one machine gun. In half an hour the troops had secured these successes, reorganised and resumed their advance. Further trenches were secured, and more prisoners ; and at 7.20, covering parties having been put out 150 yards in front of the advanced positions, wiring and consolidation began. Two small attacks were made on these trenches at 9.45 p.m. and midnight, but they were broken up by Lewis-gun and rifle fire. Two hours later a more determined counter-attack, supported by artillery, machine guns and a trench mortar, was made upon the right. The Bulgars on this occasion fought their way to the wire, but were then driven off by Lewis-gun and rifle fire, leaving nine dead. In the morning the enemy guns were found to be registering on the new British positions, and at 3 p.m. in the afternoon officer patrols made reconnaissances of the ground in front of the new line. The next group of trenches was found to be evacuated. From the beginning of these operations 57 unwounded men and 2 wounded prisoners had been captured, as against a total battalion casualty list of 40. Captain J. E. French and Lieutenant R. L. G. May and 2 other officers were wounded, and 3 other ranks were killed.
On May 17th another strong patrol was sent forward. A bombing encounter followed, and the Fusiliers retired in face of superior numbers, having lost 4 other ranks killed and 18 wounded. The new positions were now finally consolidated ; and on May 26th the battalion were relieved, and marched back to Orljak, west of the Struma. On June 8th they relieved the 5th Connaught Rangers on the Elisan-Dolap fine, south and slightly east of Barakli-Djuma, and were employed on dismantling the outpost line. This was actually evacuated on the 13th, and the battalion marched to Tureka. The malaria cases increased during the next few months, and in September they had reached the heavy total of 159.
THE STRUMA CROSSED, OCTOBER, 1917
During October the troops were moved once more to the lower ground from which they had been withdrawn in May. The battalion crossed the Struma and occupied Yenikoi on the 13th, and on the 21st Tupolova. But in this case the Fusiliers had to fall back in front of superior forces. This village lies near the Salonika-Constantinople railway, and on the 26th a patrol reached Kalendra, south-east of Tupolova. On November 1st Captain Woolfe led a patrol into Kalendra again, and on this occasion encountered a strong Bulgar party. The Fusiliers had to retire after a brisk exchange, in which they lost one killed. Three days later an observation post at the Belica brook, which runs for some distance west of, and roughly parallel to, the railway, was cut off. Seven men were lost in this mishap ; but one, though wounded, made his way back to the line through another brigade. A third raid was made on Kalendra on December 5th. This time the village was found to be unoccupied ; but a Bulgar patrol was encountered as the Fusiliers were leaving, and two prisoners (wounded) were taken. These local raids were the order of the day of many months yet, before the troops were ready for major operations.
A memorable event in the new year was the inspection of the battalion by the King of Greece on February 9th, 1918. On May nth Lieutenant F. Parker and Lieutenant A. F. Balding, with a patrol of 30 other ranks, went out to Cakli station to intercept a Bulgar patrol. The station was found to be occupied by between 40 and 50 Bulgars. In the fighting which ensued Lieutenant Parker was wounded, and two scouts were cut off. On his return to the line Lieutenant Balding had his party made up to 50 strong, and a search was made for the missing scouts, but without success.
This was the last engagement of the 3rd Battalion in the Balkans. The unhealthy season was approaching again, and the advanced outpost line was being dismantled once more preparatory to a withdrawal to the higher ground. On June 1st the withdrawal to the summer positions was carried out. But by this time the Germans had seriously weakened our army in France by the March-April offensive, and the British battalions abroad were, as far as possible, being quietly sent to France. The 3rd Battalion were soon under orders. On July 3rd they embarked on the French transport Timgrad for Taranto, which they reached on the following day. At 6.30 p.m. of the same day they entrained for Sergueux, France, travelling by the east coast route, Bari, Foggia, and so on along the Riviera to Cannes. There on July 8th they bathed in the sea, and entraining later in the day, reached Sergueux at 6.30 p.m. on the 9th. They had been absent almost three years in a theatre where the worst enemy was disease.