Salonika, Macedonia and Italy

At the beginning of 1918, 2nd and 9th Battalions of the Gloucestershire Regiment had already been in Salonika and Macedonia for two years. The Front had been largely static, with the Allied presence serving to support Serbia and threaten Bulgaria. Resources had never been enough for a major offensive to be mounted during this period, and disease was a greater enemy than the Bulgarians. Private Frank Peck of 9th Battalion was at one time posted as a signaller to Army Headquarters in Salonika and got a good view of his Serbian allies.

“Sleeping on the quarried floor in H.Q. was the hardest part, mosquitoes being particularly attentive after dusk; my arms were bitten into “hills and valleys”. While at this post the reformed Serbian Army marched past; poor beggars, they [were] fagged. They had been fitted out in miscellaneous uniforms, partly British & French, on each man. However nondescript they looked, they shifted the Bulgars from their “nesting” places later – to some purpose!”

Later in the summer of 1916 Peck found himself back with 9th Battalion on the front line.

“The heat seemed to be taking toll of my strength, the rations served were of no use to me, sickness took hold of me – the Doctor’s bismuth tabs didn’t seem any help. Owing to this sickness I was kept off some fatigues by the N.C.Os – who showed some fellow feeling – here’s thanking them. I felt as if I could have fallen over my own shadow.”

Frank Peck was well enough to be selected for a night patrol a little later, during which he was shot and wounded in the foot. He was eventually sent back to England where he recovered. 9th Battalion left the Salonika Front for France in the summer of 1918.

2nd Battalion, too, had spent most of the previous two years in a state of relative inactivity on the Macedonian Front, punctuated occasionally by fierce bursts of fighting, such as at the River Struma in the summer of 1916. A year later, Captain George Power was still writing home to his Aunt Marion letters of a wry humour, concerning the trials and tribulations of life behind the front line:-

“14th July 1917. – French having a ‘beano’ today. Something to do with the Bastille. Awfully warm. . . . there is no news at all except that Colonel Burges turned up today. I was awfully glad to see him. I think he was looking a good deal thinner than when I saw him last. We are still doing a very nice course of rabbits. We liked them awfully for the first 3 days and then rabbits twice a day for a week began to be just a bit wearisome. They have begun again now. The small cats love them. That is an advantage. Their chief diet seems to be grasshoppers.

“17th July 1917. – . . . The government has evidently discovered, like the Jew of old his corn in Egypt, that there are rabbits in Australia. They seem to turn up in shiploads. Perfectly good rabbits. I have nothing to say against them as rabbits. My small cats are a joy forever. They really are the most charming little beasts. They follow me all over the place. . . . ”

Dan Burges of 2nd Battalion was to be awarded a Victoria Cross in Salonika for an act of gallantry on 18th September 1918 while temporary Lieutenant-Colonel of 7th South Wales Borderers. Burges won his V.C. at the height of the climactic Allied offensive which brought about the surrender of Bulgaria. The offensive had opened on 1st September with an attack on the Roche Noire salient by 2nd Gloucesters and 10th Hampshires. The planning had been meticulous, and the two understrength battalions took the enemy by complete surprise and gained his positions on the heights. The biggest test for both was the enemy’s subsequent heavy artillery bombardment over the next few days which, although causing heavy casualties failed to drive the British from their newly captured position. Lieutenant-Colonel Alec Vicary recalled:-

“Up to now the Battalion had received comparatively few casualties, but at this point the enemy concentrated his artillery fire on his lost position, the chief cause of discomfort being the enemy’s trench mortars. The ground was hard sandstone, rendering consolidation difficult and causing splinters of rock to fly from H.E. shells and dense clouds of dust.

“Under these conditions the difficulties of maintaining communications were almost insuperable and added to this the whole of battalion headquarters personnel, with the exception of the C.O. and Adjutant, had been killed or wounded during the early stages of the attack.

“. . . in the early hours of 2nd September, the enemy suddenly increased his artillery fire and a few minutes afterwards followed it up with an infantry attack. On reaching the forward slopes of the Buissons the enemy came under fire from the Regiment’s L.A. and the attack failed hopelessly.”

The bombardment of Roche Noire continued over the next two days, and another serious but unsuccessful attempt to retake Roche Noire was made by the Bulgarians, but the Gloucesters held on.

Hostilities with Bulgaria came to an end on 30th September.

In December 1917 1/4th, 1/5th and 1/6th battalions of the Gloucestershire Regiment were sent to the Italian front with the rest of 48th Division. 12th Battalion was sent at the same with 5th Division. While the train journey through France to Italy was an interesting diversion for the troops leaving the mud of Passchendaele and the Somme, the scenery at the North Italian Front seemed like a world away. Lance-Corporal John Harker of 1/6th Battalion wrote home to his grandfather on 31st May:-

“. . . We are still in the mountains. The weather has been alternately hot and cold for the past 10 days or so. Down on the plains we had it very hot up here – it must have been boiling. The British troops out here are gradually getting issued with khaki drill and pith helmets. Our battalion will be getting them shortly I expect. We shall then have three different kinds of headgear, pith helmets, shrapnel helmets and soft service caps.

“There are some splendid views to be had out here. As it is we are up a considerable height but we can see the tops of the mountains, all covered with snow, which are several thousands of feet higher than we are. The scenery around us is very pretty. Naturally this is a very rocky district, practically all the trenches and dug-outs have to be made by blasting. But there are some fine pine forests up here and plenty of green grass. In fact we are on a plateau. I first heard the cuckoo up here about six weeks ago and that was when there was snow on the ground. I hope you are well at home. Excuse this wrotten [sic] letter.”

On 15th June, Sergeant Thomas Boddington from Gloucester of 1/5th Battalion was in the front line on the Asiago Plateau when the Austrians launched a major attack. There was a preliminary bombardment, which fell mostly on the second line, and Sergeant Boddington recalled what happened to him:-

“. . . I waited till the first wave was about 50 yards when I gave the order to fire. On our left, a gap was blown in the wire, where many men fell from our fire. We continued firing on oncoming Austrians until they got into dead ground in front of our post, when we made use of our bombs. On our right shallow valley, where we saw Austrian runners returning, the fighting seemed to be raging in our rear. These runners were dealt with successfully. At this point an Austrian had gained a little footing on our plateau; this man I shot as I felt we were being closed in on three sides. I sent Lyons back to get some assistance – he returned with the news that Company Headquarters was surrounded. Evidently Lyons returning had inadvertently given our position away. From the rear he arrived in our post safely under a fusillade of bullets. At this point everything happened so quickly and we were immediately surrounded. Richards was killed for one, and several wounded. I received a bullet wound in my right upper arm, which severed the artery and I was bleeding profusely. White, one of my men, was trying to stem it when an Austrian officer, standing on the parapet, saw the position, covered me with a revolver and shouted something which immediately brought an Austrian Red Cross man to my aid. He quickly put on a tourniquet. The last thing I did before losing consciousness was to ask for a drink of water, which he could not give me, as they were to get their water bottles filled on getting down to the Plains. I offered him a 100 lira note which he refused.”

Boddington was made a prisoner of war, and had to have his arm amputated. 1/5th Battalion returned to France and the Western Front in September, and 12th Battalion had already returned in March, their stay in Italy being but a brief one. 1/4th and 1/6th Battalions remained on the Italian Front until the end of hostilities On 12th November 1918, Lance Corporal Harker of 1/6th wrote home to his mother:-

“. . . One thing – three cheers the war’s practically over – bar shouting. There won’t half be a celebration when I come home. I hope Dad won’t get alarmed to hear this.

“. . . our boys have been chasing the Austrians into Austria and have marched scores of miles. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. We captured thousands of prisoners and hundreds of guns. No doubt you have read about it in the papers. Our division has received special mention and the Italian army commander has lavished praises on us. You should have seen me drinking whiskey with our company officer in “no-man’s land” before we got Jerry on the land. It was a scream seeing the officerâ��s servant carrying a bottle of Johnnie Walker over the “top” with bullets and shell whizzing around.”

1/6th Battalion arrived home in Bristol on 25th March 1920.

Picture: Transport of 2nd Battalion crossing the Varda River, Macedonia 1918.