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9th Battalion at Salonika (1916)

The Pioneers: Salonika 1916

The beginning of 1916 was no different from the previous year and showed no sign of things improving. As Wylly states, the general situation at this time was as follows:

"On the right the districts of Seres and Drama were occupied by Greek troops, who held the pass through the mountains formed by the gorge of the Struma. At Stavros, on the Stymon Gulf, began the fortified lines of the British position, extending across the neck of the Chalkidike Peninsula N.W. to the Galiko River, and then to Lake Doiran. Here began the lines of the French, which were continued as far as the Vardar and covered its lower reaches on the west."[1]

It was evident that much pioneer work was needed and so from January through to April the Allies of French-Anglo participation had worked tirelessly on the construction of a protected base at Salonika whereby the engineering, strength and effectiveness of this enterprise grew into something formidable along the lines of what could be considered as a fortress, particularly the landward side where it was most vulnerable to attack. The town was in a defensive position and the ground around lent itself to this particular benefit. Due to the bitter fighting on the Western Front in and around Verdun during February, where German strength had been increased many times over to win this battle (Germany had to move many thousands of men for this venture from other fronts), meant that the opposition at Salonika was practically non-existent; the Bulgarians had halted around 30 miles away and as a result the construction work continued without any interference from the enemy at all, except for the very occasional German aircraft making brief appearances. Upon completion the Allied position was virtually impregnable where "the eastern portion of it was very strong and rested on the sea, while in the western portion two sections only were open to possible attack - the 20 miles from Lake Langaza to the Vardar River, and the 18 miles of the Vardar Valley. But the position was throughout a commanding one, was heavily wired all along its front, and before it lay 7 miles of swampy plain over which an attacker must advance."[2]

The 9th Border Regiment continued their pioneer work in the same vein as they had done so over the previous few months. Roads covering the whole Salonika position required improvements, dug-out preparations for machine guns were much needed as were emplacements for heavier guns, not to mention the Headquarter battle positions; these all kept the Borders busily engaged in their duties, however, another move was imminent. On the 9th May new orders meant a change of scenery and a move to the area of Kukus. The work remained the same and their skills in road building and repairs continued. In a despatch written by General Milne, Commander of the British Forces, for this date states:

"the greater part of the Army was concentrated within the fortified lines of Salonika, extending from Stavros on the E. to near the Galiko River on the W.; a mixed force, consisting of a mounted brigade and a division, had been pushed forward to the N. of Kukus in order to support the French Army, which had advanced and was watching the right bank of the Struma River and the northern frontier of Greece. Further moves in this direction were contemplated, but, in order to keep the Army concentrated, I entered into an agreement with General Serrail by which the British forces should become responsible for that portion of the Allied front which covered Salonika from the E. and N. By this agreement a definite and independent area was allotted to the Army under my command."[3]

By the end of June the 9th Border Regiment was required to be placed at the disposal of the XVIth Corps to work on the Salonika-Seres Road where they would also be engaged in work on the Decauville railways.[4] Here they remained until the end of July when they rejoined their own Division back in the area of Kukus. Shortly after this 70,000 in Serbian strength joined the Allied forces in preparation for an offensive against the Bulgarian forces, which commenced on the 10th August. The 9th Borders, however, did not actively take part in the offensive but in light of the important work they did, and had for so long up to that point been doing along the British positions, meant that, in part, the success of the operation was contributed to their efforts. "Officers and men appear to have been in a good position to see all that was going forward, the Battalion, on the opening of the Allied offensive, being disposed with Headquarters, A and D Companies at Yenikeui, and B and C at Yates Ravine."[5]

Further road work was carried out with a sense of urgency near Armutchi at the end of August and on the same day the Battalion moved out to this position, Germany and Bulgaria had declared war on Romania. A total of fourteen nations were now involved in the Great War. With various fighting taking place during this time it seemed a distinct possibility that the 9th Border Regiment would become actively involved in front line combat, ultimately swapping spade for rifle and bayonet. The Battalion war diary states that "no work was to be done but that we were to rest in view of standing by during the night in case assistance were required in the attack about to take place on the Piton des Mitrailleuses by the 65th Brigade. Very heavy bombardment all day, which was intensified at dusk. Attack time was 7.30pm." The Battalion was not actually needed and the diary for the 14th mentions that work carried on as usual and the enemy trenches were occupied, having been captured "by a skilfully planned and gallant assault in which the King’s Liverpool Regiment and Lancashire Fusiliers specially distinguished themselves." By the end of September the companies of the Battalion were, for various reasons, distributed amongst the Brigades carrying out different duties that were demanded of their skills. Whilst working on defensive lines 3000 yards north of the mouth of Selimli River, B Company of the Battalion was heavily shelled but were able to see it through without sustaining any casualties. Material damage was done only to kit, equipment and explosives.

The 9th Border Regiment did not take active part in the operations in and around Piton des Mitrailleuses but their pioneer work was a contributing factor to its successful conclusion. The following message from the Army Commander to the General Officer Commanding 22nd Division expressed his congratulatory words to the whole Division, "Please convey to General Gordon and all the troops responsible for the capture of the ground near Piton des Mitrailleuses my heartiest congratulations on their success in face of determined opposition by enemy and topographical difficulties. The attack seems to have been skilfully planned and admirably supported and carried out."

Throughout October and November the 9th Battalion continued as normal gaining "golden opinions for the good work done and for the cheerful spirit in which all demands by the C.R.E.,[6] and other importunate persons, were met." A draft of 130 non-commissioned officers and men arrived in October, made up entirely of men from other battalions of the Regiment. Second-Lieutenants G. Ibberson and E.P.H. Mitchell joined the Battalion a few days later, whilst in November a further draft of 156 men arrived with four officer from the Westmorland & Cumberland Yeomanry, these being Second-Lieutenants W. Fielding, C.F. Pickworth, R. Logan and A.C. Stern.

And so the Battalion closed the year 1916 with a string of pioneering successes under their belts, which without, the successful outcome of the operations thus far would have almost certainly taken on different role in history. The men had struggled through all ranges of weather and engineering problems, not to mention the constant moves from location to location in parties of varying sizes, separated from the strength of their own Companies. The added danger of working in malaria rife conditions meant that what was asked of them was nothing short of a test of endurance.

The British front at this time covered a distance of some 90 miles, plenty of earth for the pioneers to mould into something battle worthy.

See also

References / notes

  1. Colonel H.C. Wylly, C.B. (1925). The Border Regiment in the Great War. Gale & Polden Ltd. ISBN 1847342728. p.p.108.
  2. Colonel H.C. Wylly, C.B. (1925). The Border Regiment in the Great War. Gale & Polden Ltd. ISBN 1847342728. p.p.108.
  3. General Milne’s despatch dated the 8th October, 1916.
  4. See here for more details of Decauville railways:
  5. Colonel H.C. Wylly, C.B. (1925). The Border Regiment in the Great War. Gale & Polden Ltd. ISBN 1847342728. p.p.109-110.
  6. Believe this to be the Commander, Royal Engineers.
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