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9th Battalion at Salonika (1917)

The Pioneers: Salonika 1917

During January the Battalion spent much of its time around the area of Spancovo; because of the nature of the marshy ground beneath them, they were employed in bridging many streams and causeways to ensure easier transit from one location to another. In addition to this they also worked tirelessly on the usual roads and dug-outs, which without would have caused more problems for the many fighting units in the vicinity. February saw no difference in their work and passed by in much the same manner. During the middle of March orders received expressed that Battalion Headquarters were to move to a new location at Cugunci, however, the work there remained the same. The weather thus far had not been pleasant and heavy rainfall at periodic times had effectively turned the Seres Road into dangerous quagmires making any sort of motor transportation nigh on impossible. But as the weather started to change and become warmer and drier new operations would slowly commence. As General Milne states regarding a new attack:

"By the 10th March the Corps on the left had pushed forward for distance 1,000 yards on a front of 3,500 yards, extending in a S.W. direction from Horseshoe Hill, on the ridge which forms the watershed between the Doiran Lake and the Vardar Valley. The ridge, commonly called the 'P' Ridge, running N. into the left of the enemy’s position, rises to a height of about 500 feet above Horseshoe Hill, and dominates the whole country between Doiran Lake and the Vardar. On both flanks in front of Doiran and opposite Mucukovo, the Bulgarian trenches are pushed forward, forming strong bastions, with flanks resting on Doiran Lake and the Vardar River respectively….Situated some 800 yards in front of Horseshoe Hill, which formed the apex of the salient between these two bastions….a hostile advanced work called 'P.4 ½' formed a valuable observation station to the enemy and its capture was essential to any further advance. The front, therefore, selected or the initial attack, with a view to threatening the approaches to Doiran town, extended from the W. shore of Doiran Lake, along the enemy’s salient in front of the town, to the crest of the 'P' Ridge."[1]

And so it had been arranged, after the preparatory work had been completed, that this particular attack was to commence on the 8th April, however, as a result of several different factors this date was postponed until the 24th. The timing had to be right and every element of the attack had to be considered thoroughly before the men were sent in. It had been decided that a bombardment on the enemy positions was integral to the successful conclusion of this attack simply because of the number of heavy guns located in their positions was far too great. The planned outcome of this bombardment was to effectively eliminate as many of the enemy and heavy guns as possible before the attack commenced. On this day, the 24th April, the Battalion war diary states:

"the bombardment was terrific, ceasing almost entirely about 1800 hours and re-commencing about half an hour before X hours with renewed force and energy. The object of the attack on our portion of the front was to advance the line on about 1,800 yards frontage by about 600 yards on W. and 1,000 yards on E. in depth and take 'Point 4½' on the W. and Hill 380 on the E., and this was most successfully carried out, the divisions on left and right co-operating. In the 60th Territorial Division on the left we took particular interest, because formerly we held a portion of the line and could realize the difficulties to be faced. It encountered a very heavy barrage, but, with a counter-barrage of guns, machine guns and trench mortars, attacked at three different points and found the trenches deserted and full of barbed wire. However, it attained its object by retaining the fire of many batteries on the front. The 26th Division on the right was thought to have much the most difficult task at this period of the advance, and so it proved. Though fighting with great gallantry, the 79th Brigade in the attacking line encountered such heavy H.E., shrapnel and machine-gun barrage as to be unable to retain any position gained, and in the end had to return to the starting point. The Brigade had an especially bad time when formed up in the Jumeaux Ravine waiting orders to go forward."
"The task allotted to the 9th Border Regiment (Pioneers) was to assist in consolidation of a new front line when taken, by putting up a wire entanglement on a front of 2,800 yards on a line of about 200-400 yards N. of the captured Bulgar trenches, and for this purpose, 'B' Company (Captain C. Woodall-Smith) and ‘D’ Company (Lieutenant M. D. Stott) had been trained in rapid wiring by day and night. For better supervision and independence of action each company was divided into two half-companies and given its own portion of about 700 yards to work on, while these half-companies were again told off into seven wiring sections of 9 men, each man being allotted to and trained in his own definite task in the general wiring scheme and instructed what to carry forward from the R.E. dump to the wiring position. Thus each wiring section had a frontage of about 100 yards, and, it was anticipated, about four hours before dawn in which to erect a complete line of trench wire, with 6-feet stakes driven at five paces interval to a height of 4 feet 6 inches through the back of it. A 4-strand barbed wire fence and a double W barbed-wire apron fastened to short pickets with a trip wire running between them at about 9 inches from the ground."

The task was duly carried out; the half-companies of D commanded by Second-Lieutenants Moore and Warden, and B, by Lieutenant Kirk and Second-Lieutenant Brownlie. As the work transpired, Second-Lieutenant Moore and a total of 55 other rank were wounded. They did what was expected of them and the frontage was wired and secure. On the 25th all the companies were moved forward to continue their wire work, the resulting injuries amounting to 4 other ranks; however, over the previous two days’ wiring, no one was killed. The same day C Company were withdrawn from this location, with the exception of 16 other ranks under the command of Lance-Sergeant Chadwick who were ordered to remain behind to look after the stores. This small party of men while holding fast were, during the night of the 26th, called upon to help bring up various ammunition and bombs that were needed in an attack to repulse the enemy at Hill 380. Under a very heavy barrage they did their duty and unfailingly made good on their orders, which was duly reported. Further action in this area had been postponed until the 8th May under the direct order of General Milne.

The operations that had taken place up to this point had only been moderately successful and the 9th Border Regiment had not actively fought anywhere in the region. Their involvement continued as it had previously done in the improvement of roads and that of preparing battle positions for the infantry. With the summer closing in fast and with malaria and dysentery, a powerful enemy during these months, it had been decided by both General Sarrail and General Milne to cease offensive operations and to abandon forward positions of the British line respectively. With this in mind the British troops were ordered to withdraw to the foothills on the right bank of the River Struma and to the south of Butkova Valley. There were regular patrols of the vacated areas and all bridgeheads were garrisoned. By the middle of June this withdrawal had been successfully completed with little to no interference from the enemy. The 9th Borders remained in and around the area of Cugunci in the British sector of the Balkan front. The sector in which they resided was 100 miles long and as far as 50 to 60 miles from Salonika.

During the summer months the strength of the British Army in Macedonia and the present situation in this theatre of war, as Wylly states:

"originally containing five infantry divisions - the 10th, 22nd, 26th, 27th and 28th - it had been augmented in January of this year by a sixth, the 60th; but at the beginning of June this division was transferred to the Egyptian theatre of war and was followed thither at the end of August by the 10th Division. Two cavalry brigades were also taken out of the British Salonika force and sent to another theatre of war. This reduction of strength brought the question of communications into greater prominence, it being very evident that with fewer troops it was necessary that means should exist for moving them with increased rapidity from one to another; further, the line of defence had to be not only strengthened but shortened, and in all these works the services of a Pioneer Battalion were especially called for and the 9th Border Regiment was found particularly useful."[2]

The importance of a Pioneers Battalion had been evident in other theatres of war and was equally so at Salonika and the vast surrounding areas. The pioneers’ skills were integral to the successful conclusions of many of the operations that had taken place, of which several were highly praised for in the planning and overall effectiveness by all those involved. This is what Wylly describes here by stating what the 9th Border Regiment had achieved: "with its help, and with the assistance of units similarly trained, good metalled roads were constructed to Seres, Doiran and to Karasuli on the Vardar River; light railways as well as roads led to Neohori, at the mouth of Struma River, and to Snevce and Rajanova, at the foot of the Kursha Balkan; while lateral communications were constructed behind the first and second zones of defence."[3] Later in the year during the month of September work had begun on the construction of new entrenched positions and while it covered a large area in general terms, the improved positions contained shorter lines of defence making the handling of these easier and the positions stronger.

The summer months had come and gone and Autumn was ebbing away making a path for the winter to set in, which had come around again, another year spent fighting on foreign soil. The weather took a turn for the worst and heavy rains, snow and then frost made conditions difficult and hampered the operations all along the front. The 9th Border Regiment were still encamped at Cugunci, again "winning golden opinions for the good work cheerfully done by all ranks."[4] The Battalion’s numbers were revitalised when, in December, a draft of 7 officers and 116 other ranks joined, giving the Battalion a total strength of 30 officers and 944 non-commissioned officers and men to see in the New Year.

Before the end of the year General Sarrail was succeeded by General Guillaumat in the command of the Allied Armies, ordering the enlargement and further improvement of the defences of Salonika.

At Christmas the King and Queen; who at this celebratory time were ever mindful of the men who were fighting overseas on all fronts throughout the war, sent the following telegrams for all ranks:

"I send to all ranks of the Navy and Army my hearty good wishes for Christmas an the New Year. I realize your hardships patiently and cheerfully borne and rejoice in the successes you have won so nobly. The Nation stands faithful to its pledges, resolute to fullfil them. May God bless your efforts and give us victory."

And here ended another year where the crucial work of the 9th Border Regiment played a vital role in the operations at Salonika. Their time there far from over and more pioneer work was needed before the war in the Balkans was to come to an end.

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.166.
  2. Colonel H.C. Wylly, C.B. (1925). The Border Regiment in the Great War. Gale & Polden Ltd. ISBN 1847342728. p.p.168.
  3. Colonel H.C. Wylly, C.B. (1925). The Border Regiment in the Great War. Gale & Polden Ltd. ISBN 1847342728. p.p.168.
  4. Colonel H.C. Wylly, C.B. (1925). The Border Regiment in the Great War. Gale & Polden Ltd. ISBN 1847342728. p.p.168.
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