I first read Alan Palmer’s The Gardeners of Salonika about 30 years ago, to try to understand what my late grandfather had been doing in Salonika. I have to confess that what really stood out for me in the book, was not the descriptions of the tedious patrolling carried out by the BSF’s XVI Corps in the Struma Valley (which included Fred on his bike), but the dramatic advance of the French colonial cavalry to capture Skopje.
Whilst I have a new found appreciation of the BSF’s operations up the Struma, there is still something exciting about what Palmer describes as “… probably the last great cavalry march in the continent of Europe …’. Maybe I’ve read too many Flashman and Brigadier Gerard stories! We should remember that there was a Serbian cavalry division attached to their Second Army, but this is all about the Brigade Jouinot-Gambetta.
Led by the impulsive General Jouinot-Gambetta – nephew of the radical nineteenth century French statesman, Léon Gambetta – the brigade comprised the 1st and 4th Chasseurs d’Afrique and six squadrons of the Régiment de Marche des Spahis Marocains, supported by a section of armoured cars and pack artillery. After six days waiting on the outskirts of Florina, it was only on the 22nd that orders were received to seize Prilep and wheel to the west to destroy retreating enemy columns. The next morning the Brigade rode down the Crna valley, through burning villages and to the sound of exploding munition dumps. Alan Palmer takes up the story:
The Brigade rested its horses at Dobusevo that morning; and, at that moment, it was overtaken by Franchet d’Espérey himself, who as usual was visiting by motor-car the various units along the Front. D’Espérey verbally countermanded [General] Henry’s orders and instructed Jouinot-Gambetta that once he had taken Prilep he was to move on to Skopje itself. This was a far more ambitious undertaking, for Skopje was nearly sixty miles by road from Prilep and the most important town in Macedonia after Salonika.
The advance-guard reached Prilep at 1pm on September 23rd and found that the town had been evacuated by the Germans and the Bulgarians. The Serb inhabitants were so exhilarated that they mobbed the young officer who commanded the first patrol and carried him on their shoulders to what had been German headquarters … When Jouinot-Gambetta himself arrived a couple of hours later he found the picturesque little town, with its white minarets, low wooden houses, and rows of black cypresses, plane trees and almonds had ‘an enchanting oriental atmosphere’.
A section of Spahis (French colonial cavalry from Morocco) on parade in Salonika. These troops formed part of the Brigade Jouinot-Gambetta that captured Skopje on 29 September 1918. FRENCH FORCES IN THE SALONIKA CAMPAIGN 1915-1918 © IWM (Q 32800) Click on image to see full size.