“The women kept kissing our hands …”

Now to finish the story of the Brigade Jouinot-Gambetta. I’m rather late with this as the capture of Skopje (Uskub) was all over by 9am!

Jouinot-Gambetta had no idea what forces he would be taking on with his three tired cavalry regiments and 37mm pack artillery who, nonetheless were in high spirits. Commanded by a German colonel, the garrison had seven infantry battalions – mainly Bulgarian, but with a sizeable German contingent – four batteries of guns and an armoured train. Relations between the two allies were bad, the town was full of rumours and the demoralised Bulgarians had already started destroying ammunition dumps.

It must have been a shock for the Bulgarians to the south of the town to see squadrons of Spahis riding out of the mist as the sun rose at 8am. Clearly their high command was wrong when it insisted that the enemy was still 20 miles away! The Bulgarian troops quickly broke off the fight and escaped. The German detachments still had some fight in them, though, and the Chasseurs d’Afrique came under heavy fire from the armoured train and a counter-attack forced French patrols back. But the town couldn’t be held; the Spahis crossed the river and were wheeling round to come into the town from the north. All the Germans could do was get steam up and puff away to the north, as fast as they could go, leaving the town in the hands of the jubilant French and Moroccans. Alan Palmer (The Gardeners of Salonika), describes the outcome:

Five heavy German guns were captured with their ammunition and there were 139 German prisoners taken, as well as more than 200 Bulgars. As in Prilep, the Serb population was deliriously happy. ‘The women kept kissing our hands while crying with joy’, wrote Jouinot-Gambetta later …

The Brigade arranged panels on the ground to inform an overflying French plane that they controlled the town at 10am, but French headquarters, barely believing the news, sent two more planes back four hours later to make sure!

Since leaving Prilep, Jouinot-Gambetta’s Moroccans had covered 57 miles in six days, over some of the most difficult country in the Balkans. When his patrols entered the city the main Serbian army was still, by road, thirty miles to the south. … the second largest town in Serbia had been liberated. And that evening Franchet d’Espérey was able to pass on his information to Bulgarian delegates who had come to sue for peace.

A scene from the French Colonial cavalry brigade's epic march.
A scene from the French Colonial cavalry brigade’s epic march.

Author: Andy Hutt

Andy's interest in the campaign comes from his grandfather, Arthur, who served in Salonika as a sapper with the Royal Engineers from 1916-1918. Opinions expressed in these posts are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Society.

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