Wednesday 6 June 2018

The guns were firing over our heads, over the heads of the battery where I was. From each side guns were going off and it was really… almost it sounded like pandemonium…

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 there of 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 woollen head gear 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.

British troops taking their daily dose of quinine, July 1916. In total the British Salonika Force suffered 481,262 non-battle casualties of which 162,517 were due to malaria.
British troops in Salonika taking their daily dose of quinine, July 1916. © IWM (Q 32160)

Ernest Humberstone of the Royal Flying Corps suffered from malaria until he was evacuated home.

Well I was taken to the doctor’s tent with ague, which was very… extremely unpleasant. Followed by high temperatures, in the region of 104. I was taken to the field hospital, a tented hospital close to Salonika. And put to bed and just fed with quinine three times a day which, incidentally, made one deaf after a time. I don’t know why it did it but we used to get quite deaf after a lot of quinine. Well I coped with it because we had to, but it was a very debilitating disease. It left you extremely weak. But there were so few people there to step into your place you just kept going as long as you could. I was only very thankful when I was considered unfit enough to be sent home in January 1918.

There was a failed Allied offensive at Salonika in early 1917, after which the front settled down to a combination of static warfare and frequent raiding activity. Ernest Jones recalled one patrol that he took part in.

We went out one night and there was a small village and as we approached this village, the officer give us the word, you know, lie down, see. We listened: there’s nothing, so of course we’d go into the village and have a look round, you see. The houses were all battered, you know, and derelict. Anyhow, he give the order to get up and as soon as we got up there was a… we were fired on. The Bulgar patrol was in the village waiting for us! And there was one or two chaps wounded and all that. But anyhow, we fired back and all that but in the course of time it just fizzled out. And they seemed to go and we come back. That would happen, you see. If we got to a place first, we’d lie down, you see, waiting perhaps for their patrol to come. And that’s how we had little miniature battles you see. And it was the one as was waiting for the other to come that got off best!

Apart from raids and patrols, life was fairly uneventful for the men holding the line at Salonika. Walter Lunt remembered the typical daily routine during his time serving there.

We had the usual stand to an hour before dawn and we stood to. After that, during the period I was with them – which was the 14th Battalion, the Kings Liverpool Regiment – and after stand down, men did their usual jobs. Looking after their rifles, having their food and that kind of thing and rested. But that went on until stand to again which was just before sun-down and the usual thing, just the same as in France and everywhere else.

In September 1918, a renewed Allied offensive finally broke through Bulgarian lines. The Bulgarian Army was soon forced into retreat. By the end of the month an armistice had been agreed, drawing fighting to a close on the Salonika Front. Grahame Donald of the Royal Naval Air Service carried out aerial attacks on the fleeing Bulgarians.

The Bulgarian Army was in full retreat during the last, we didn’t know they were going to collapse so quickly. But at last the British Army had got them on the move. They were retreating through the Rupel Pass and I’m afraid we caught the poor blighters very much on the hop, because it was a very key pass. They’d held it through the entire war; we could do nothing about it. But once they started to retreat through it, they were in a horrible trap because we were shooting them up from low down. It was simply a matter of chasing after motor cars, transport, lorries, bullock wagons – all the transport they had. Marching troops in a narrow valley with no option but to scramble up a steep side on the left-hand side or fall over a cliff on the right. I’m afraid they were doing both and it wasn’t at all a pleasant sight. Nobody enjoyed it, but the fact remains you get an army like that, you’d got them on the run, you’d got to keep them on the run.

Men of the British Army were also sent to Palestine, in a bid to knock the Turkish Ottoman Empire out of the war. They served in the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, or EEF. In March 1917, the EEF attacked Turkish forces at Gaza. This first attempt to capture the city ended in failure. British officer Donald Penrose remembered the battle.

As regards the battle itself, well it was a very sad affair. We were trying to attack the Turks, to drive them out of Palestine; that was the intention, actually. And this was the first go at trying to get them to go out of it. And we were trying to drive them out but they… well they stopped us, shall we say, rather. They didn’t defeat us, but it was a very bad show indeed. And we couldn’t have gone any further because we hadn’t got enough troops or anything else at all. I think that’s the thing I remember mostly about the first battle.

The next month, the EEF’s commander, Lieutenant General Sir Archibald Murray, ordered his troops to make another assault on the city. The Second Battle of Gaza was another disaster. Charles Meager of the Hampshire Regiment was one of over 6,000 British wounded in the battle.

On the 19th of April, we had orders to go up on the top, up over the top. Not in trenches, but on a big plain. Well, I was on a Lewis gun and they were on mules and we were going across. We got about halfway across and then I was wounded. Of course I was bleeding and I said, ‘No, I’m alright.’ But an RAMC bloke come up. He said, ‘You get on back.’ He said, ‘You don’t know whether that’s going to turn septic or not.’ So I came back from there and went down to Alexandria in hospital.

After this second failure to capture Gaza, Murray was replaced by General Sir Edmund Allenby. Allenby made a series of changes to the way the war was being fought in Palestine. NCO Walter Williams was one of many who approved of him.

Upon reflection, I have to say that I think General Allenby was a very, very wonderful man. We often saw him, of course, he would ride around in his Rolls Royce. And I noticed particularly that, when we gave him the salute, he would always acknowledge a salute when passing him on the road. For his overall strategy I have the highest admiration. To begin with, it occurs to me that he succeeded in getting sufficient reinforcements before he would make any advance at all. Then of course, one of the greatest difficulties in Palestine is the supply of water. At one time, I remember we had only possibly about two pints per day; it really was in short supply. Allenby well knew this and he would not make an advance until the water supply was arranged for. This was very fine strategy indeed and of course helped.

Allenby was very popular amongst the troops he commanded, and his arrival was a much-needed morale-booster. William Wood of the Machine Gun Corps explained why.

Then they sent Allenby out and then things began to change. See, when Allenby came, he came over and I actually saw him he came into my trench past me and spoke to me. He went all the way around and sized up the situation. It was very good for our morale, excellent. We thought we’d got somebody on the job that knew what he was doing! ‘Cos the other chap didn’t.

Under Allenby’s leadership, thorough preparations were made for a third attack on Gaza. Edgar Woolley witnessed this build up in activity.

It was obvious that at last a serious effort was going to be made. I was then attached to a battery which was controlled from the artillery headquarters. And a very heavy bombardment of the enemy lines and positions and artillery positions was started. A softening-up operation. The guns were firing over our heads, over the heads of the battery where I was. From each side guns were going off and it was really… almost it sounded like pandemonium.

The Third Battle of Gaza opened on 27 October 1917. This time, the EEF won a brilliant victory. British officer Roger Powell remembered the action.

There was a lot of training in what we were to do when this attack started. I mean it was all timed to the minute. We knew when the bombardment was going to start, you could hear one or two guns and then the whole thing blew up. Every machine gun was brought into action that could be spared, shooting over our heads. And when the troops started to go over no man’s land, I was sitting with our major watching them. And he and I had to shout, with our mouths close to each other’s ears, to be heard at all. I’ve never heard such a row in my life!

After the capture of Gaza, Allenby’s troops continued to push north into Palestine. Jaffa, southern Judea and Jerusalem fell to them in succession. Edwin Pope of the West Kent Yeomanry visited the ‘Holy City’ after it had been taken.

We got into Jerusalem the day after it was captured. We were about a mile and a half away and we got a day’s pass to go into Jerusalem. And we got into Jerusalem, but the Turks had absolutely looted the place. And there was a man in his shop, outside his shop and he was saying, ‘Come in and buy up my store.’ And all he’d got for sale was one or two tins of Brasso polish and some balls of string. That’s all he’d got to sell. That shows how much the Turks had looted the place.

After making significant gains in Palestine in 1917, Allenby had to suspend his advance the following year when many of his units were transferred to the Western Front. But by September 1918, he was ready for a new offensive. A decisive victory was won at Megiddo. British officer John Harding took part in the battle.

The brigade that I was with was put to attack a feature… You’ve got first of all the geography of the place. There was the coast with sand dunes up to a certain level, then there was an open plain and then there were the Judean foothills. And we were on the foothills. And the brigade’s job was to capture a feature which was held by the Turks, which was an old castle. And there were rugged, rock-covered hills not very high. My brigade’s job was to attack that and I had organised the machine-gun support and the guns to follow up the attacking infantry. And that was a successful operation. It was carefully planned, there was a good artillery support and good counter-battery work and it went like a chime of bells.

Ottoman forces in Palestine were soon in full retreat. Further cities fell to the EEF, and Turkish troops surrendered in their thousands. An armistice was agreed on 31 October 1918. Arthur Gardener of the Royal Engineers remembered seeing some of the huge numbers of Turkish prisoners taken at the end of the campaign in Palestine.

We went up looking to see the actual troops coming in, columns and columns of them coming in. They put a barbed-wire fence up on a piece of ground, and as they come round all their arms, all their rifles, they had to sling them into this here sort of compound. There was piles and piles of them. They hadn’t got enough troops there to escort them in, as far as you could see four and five abreast, you know, coming in. Any amount coming in there; thousands of them.

British soldiers also served on the Italian front. Italian and Austro-Hungarian forces fought a series of battles in northern Italy in 1915 and ‘16, with no decisive outcome. But after the Battle of Caporetto in October 1917, the Italian army collapsed. French and British troops – among them G Dalzell-Payne – were then sent to support their Italian allies.

When the Italian Front broke in 1917 and the Italian armies retreated headlong towards the plains of Lombardy and Venetia, the High Command in France detached divisions and sent them post haste by train to stem the retreat. We were among those troops. I remember a long journey by train; five days and five nights in great discomfort, lying on the floor of a third class compartment, draughty and cold – it was November. After five days and nights of this we reached Mantua and detrained, reformed and then began a long march towards the front. This march of 300 miles took us some 10 days, starting early in the morning and marching until evening. Bivouacking by night on the rough ground, rising again, until we came through the plain of Lombardy and then we reached the point where we had to meet the Austrians.

British officers waiting for the leave train to start on the Italian Front.
British officers on the Italian Front waiting for the leave train to start. © IWM (Q 25795)

In June 1918, an Austro-Hungarian attack was launched against the Allied defensive line along the River Piave. The offensive failed. British officer Graham Greenwell described the heavy bombardment that opened it.

You not only ran the risk of the shells – including gas shells – but also the falling fir trees and as you were not in trenches because you were in a wood, the scenario wasn’t very favourable for withstanding a bombardment in gas masks. However the Austrians were first halted and then driven back, with the capture of quite a large number of Austrian prisoners. This proved to be the last offensive of the Austrian Army.

There was no immediate Allied counter-offensive following the Battle of the Piave. British troops now largely provided a reserve force in Italy and found themselves serving in a relatively quiet theatre. George Jameson recalled what it was like.

It was almost as though the war didn’t exist! And again, you see, no war at all – a lovely, peaceful time. Those photographs of the snow scenes and that, and that house. That’s what we lived in and we lived like landed gentry! I tried once or twice to get to Venice. Unfortunately, the powers that be weren’t allowing the British to go into Venice, at least not the lower echelons. Though I went to Rome. You see, we were so far away, they gave us Rome leave. So Sharp from the howitzer battery and I went off to Rome. We stayed at the Hotel Flora which is just outside the Villa Borghese Gardens. But we had a very enjoyable time there, Sharp and I: we went all round the place.

Harold Mayhall of the Durham Light Infantry also found himself in a fairly safe situation – and was not too troubled when he did come under fire.

The Austrians I think must’ve been getting rather short of shells because they sent a few over not many at a time. And on one occasion I was stationed with two or three friends up on a little hill called the Montello, which went up from a place called Montebelluna up the hill. And we’d been down to get some accumulators. And we were carrying them up this ridge and a little, tiny mountain gun was sniping at us with little shells, about so big. We did nothing but laugh at this! But they made a little hole when they dropped, you know. We found that the secret was – with one gun firing – was to go to the side, out of its trajectory. If you did that, you’d escape. You could always, with one cannon, one gun, you were pretty safe because you found out how he was firing and the shells went like that, you see, in a line. Well if you went to the side you were fairly safe. We laughed at this little gun was firing at us as we went up this Montello!

But British troops still undertook some offensive operations, including patrols and small-scale attacks on enemy lines. British private George Kidson took part in a raid in the summer of 1918.

We did a raid in July. There was a Captain Greenwood and a Private Lowther was his batman. And we did a raid at midnight. There was 40 of us picked out for that raid. We hadn’t a button; we hadn’t any identification you know with us at all. Everything was taken off us. We crossed the Piave and when we got to that side, we had a white tape led us up to where we want to make this raid, to follow it on. Our artillery was just firing over our heads and then it lifted right at the back of the Austrian trenches. We went in then and we got 22 Austrian prisoners. I carried a chap back, he was wounded. I carried him back all the way, on my shoulder, back.

In October 1918, Italian forces won a decisive battle at Vittorio Veneto. The Austro-Hungarian Empire soon crumbled. An armistice was agreed on 3 November. Royal Fusiliers officer Sydney Firth was one of the many British soldiers who served on the ‘forgotten’ Italian front. He recalled the impact of the tough terrain there.

Well it was an awful job getting ammunition up to us and then from us – ammunition and food of course – up to us and to the men who were on the bank of the Piave. Because it was very steep and there were no actual roads down to the bank of the Piave. And there was a certain amount of snow and ice and one thing and another like that around. I used to make a point of visiting those who were down on the front line, every night if possible. But sometimes it took me practically all night to get down there and get back again! But I felt it essential that they should not think that we had deserted them…

Voices of the First World War is a podcast series that reveals the impact the war had on everyone who lived through it through the stories of the men and women who were there. 

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