By Harry Fecitt MBE TD
We were fortunate also in getting during April the 1/12th Battalion The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, which came to us as our Pioneer Battalion, under a most capable officer, Lieutenant Colonel Beckett. They were a hard-bitten, thirsty lot of Lancashire miners, but what they could do with a spade was a perfect revelation. The Division owed a great deal to this fine Battalion for the splendid work they did on the Vimy Ridge, and I attribute our comparatively low casualty returns to the rapidity with which these pioneers, assisted by the various battalions, managed to lower the depth of the trenches eighteen inches in record time.
Major General E.S. Bulfin CB, Commander 60th Division, France 1916.
Salonika was a large Greek port that was the main entry point for British, French, Italian, Russian and Serbian Allied troops who were fighting a mainly Bulgarian enemy in the hinterland; these troops were named the Allied Army of the Orient and the Front stretched from Albania eastwards to the River Struma. The Bulgars occupied the tactically important high ground and were supported by German and Turkish units. Britain was unhappy at being involved in this Front, regarding it as an unnecessary ‘Sideshow’, but France saw the potential political gains to be made by fighting here and the French view prevailed. The area of fighting was named Macedonia but historically the name Salonika has been used to describe the Front.
The 1/12th Battalion disembarked at Salonika from His Majesty’s Transport Menominee on 23rd January 1917; the Battalion strength was 35 officers and 964 other ranks. The men marched a few miles up the Seres road to a tented camp that was its initial base. The Commanding Officer was informed that the Battalion would return to the fold of the 60th (London) Division, and for the next few days redundant equipment used in France was handed in and replaced by tools and equipment used in Macedonia; mules and saddlery were also issued to the unit.
Deployment into the hinterland
During the second week of February the Battalion undertook a tough march through heavy snowstorms to the village of Snevce, sleeping in rapidly-pitched tents each night. ‘B’ and ‘D’ Companies then remained in a camp in Snevce working on a road that ran to Karamudli, but Battalion HQ with ‘A’ and ‘C’ Companies marched out to camp at Karamudli where they were tasked to supervise locally hired labour on road formation work, to run a stone quarry and to construct an observation post. Further moves took place at the end of January when ‘B’ Company marched to Salgrec Avance whilst ‘D’ Company marched to Aracli; both companies were employed on road work.
The rainfall on 1st March was so heavy that road-construction and maintenance was suspended and instead the Battalion dug slit trenches in its camps as protection against the frequent Bulgar and German air attacks. Road work was the priority and ‘D’ Company marched to Sari Degauli to construct a special road suitable for use by heavy artillery guns. In mid-March the Battalion concentrated and marched to the Sal de L’Abri area where 60 Division HQ was located. This was another rough march over three days in heavy snow, a trestle bridge on the route being swept away necessitating the fording of a swollen stream 30 yards wide. Bivouacs had to be used on the route as the lorries carrying the camp equipment, blankets and men’s kits could not get through the snow on the road. The companies then dispersed again to work on roads, ammunition dug outs, shell slits, horse lines, communication trenches, the Divisional vegetable garden and a camp for the Divisional artillery personnel. On 18th March an enemy aeroplane bombed Caussica where ‘D’ Company was working and five men were wounded, one of them (No. 265297 Private John Mills Lomas) later dying in hospital. A typical Sunday routine was a Church Parade followed by respirator (gas mask) drills and inspections of sleeping areas and equipment.
The 1st April saw excitement on Bowlesbarrow, a low front line feature that a platoon was working on. After a short artillery barrage during which the platoon sergeant was wounded the Bulgars attacked from adjacent high ground and captured four men from the Battalion who were working in the trenches. Two men managed to escape as they were escorted back to the Bulgar lines, one (possibly No. 265683 Private Matthew Burrows) was mistakenly shot along with his enemy escort on reaching the enemy lines, and the fourth (No. 265716 Private Richard Robert Roberts) went into captivity in Bulgaria and died there on 9 September 1918.
Four days later 12 enemy aeroplanes attacked Karasouli (now named Polykastro) railway station, igniting ammunition dumps there. Two salvage parties of 50 men each were sent by the Battalion but they could not get close to the bomb damage because of continuous explosions coming from the ammunition dumps.
On 20th April a large-scale British attack was made on the enemy positions west of Lake Doiran and the Battalion was employed on consolidating the positions captured by 60 Division. Two days later a platoon from ‘C’ Company was working in the front line trench near a feature named L.4 when a Bulgar night-time artillery barrage hit the trench. All of the enemy ammunition fired was gas shells and the men immediately donned their anti-gas helmets, preventing casualties from occurring; the Sunday anti-gas training sessions had proved to be invaluable. The 26th of the month was another day of heavy rain, preventing work; to compensate for this on the following Sunday half the Battalion rested after Church Parade whilst the other half worked.
May started with a flurry of different activities including front line trench deepening, communication trench, dummy trench and fire bay digging, the construction of observation posts, the maintenance of roads, farming activities at the Divisional vegetable garden and the demolition of the burned-out Karasouli station buildings. As the weather was now very warm work was confined to two shifts in the morning and afternoon, leaving a four-hour break for resting in the heat of the middle of the day.
In mid-May the whole Battalion passed through the Divisional Baths for a thorough disinfecting and cleaning. Pioneer taskings continued and a draft of 145 men arrived to join the Battalion. In late May the advance party of the 8th (Service) Battalion (Pioneers) The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry arrived to take over the Battalion’s pioneer duties. On 26 May, the hand over being completed, the Battalion concentrated and made a night march to its new location which had its headquarters on Hill 221 in Vladaja Ravine. But on the last day of the month the Battalion was on the move again, marching for the next week to a Divisional concentration area at Uchantar camp.
To be continued …