‘The Brigade was on its own…’

Before continuing the story of the Brigade-Jouinot-Gambetta, I should mention that Serbian and British cavalry were also doing their bit, although the latter was in short supply (but that could be said about much of the BSF). Serbian cavalry entered Gradsko – a vital communications hub – on the 25th and the Derbyshire Yeomanry were following the retreating Bulgarians along the road to Strumica.

25 September 1918

The French colonial cavalry reached the Babuna Pass in the early hours and advanced cautiously expecting enemy fire, but found, to their surprise, Italian prisoners of war from 35th Division who had taken advantage of the chaos of the retreat to return to allied lines! At the summit of the pass, though, the Brigade encountered the Bulgarian 4th Division which was putting up a stiff defence of Veles against the Serbian First Army. Should General Jouinot-Gambetta help the Serb infantry break through to Veles and then take the Vardar route to Skopje (Uskub)? But the Bulgarians were clearly going to dispute every step of the way to Skopje – and Franchet d’Espérey wanted his forces to enter Skopje by the end of the week. Jouinot-Gambetta made his decision: leaving the armoured cars to help the Serbs and a Spahi rearguard to hold off any pursuers, he struck out across the unpromising land to the north, with peaks in excess of 5000 feet. As Alan Palmer puts it:

From then on, the Brigade was on its own; French headquarters had no idea of its whereabouts; and Jouinot-Gambetta lost all contact with the rest of the advancing army.

26 September 1918

Throughout the day the Brigade made its way across the ranges of the Golesnica Planina, having to walk as riding was impractical on the winding, narrow paths in the sprawling woodland. Covering just 11 miles, they were allowed a four hour rest before carrying on through the night for a further 10 miles.

27-28 September 1918

By dawn on the 27th they were 5000 feet up with men and horses close to exhaustion, so rested that day to await the Spahi rearguard, who joined them on the following morning. Then began the descent to the Vardar valley, seven miles south of Skopje, which they reached late that afternoon. Luckily the railway they encountered was unpatrolled and they remained unobserved in the open country to the west of the main road and railway into Skopje overnight, although they were soon hidden by a heavy mist.

A map showing the continuation of the advance of the Brigade Jouinot-Gambetta to Uskub (Skopje), 25-29 September 1918.
The continuation of the advance of the Brigade Jouinot-Gambetta to Uskub (Skopje), 25-29 September 1918.

Author: SCS Web Editor

Robin Braysher joined the SCS in 2003 and soon after became editor of the Society's journal - 'The New Mosquito' - a role he held until 2008. He then became the Society's web editor, a role he seems unable to shake off. His interest in the campaign comes from his grandfather, Fred, who served as a cyclist with the BSF from 1915 to 1917, mainly in the Struma valley. Opinions expressed in these posts are his and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Society.