The First World War had begun on the borders of Serbia and Austria-Hungary, even if, in the aftermath of the Great Powers all throwing their lot in, that theatre of the war had become almost a sideshow in comparison to the more titanic clashes on the western and eastern fronts, not to mention the drama in Gallipoli, the growing colonial struggle and the war underneath the waves. But still, even as the Irish regiments were having their first bloody taste of combat in Belgium and France, and even while they were being dashed to pieces on the beaches and hills of the Gallipoli peninsula, Serbia was continuing its own war with Austria-Hungary.
And, expectations to the contrary, they were doing quite well. The initial Austrian invasion had taken the capital, Belgrade, but a determined Serbian counter-attack had sent the Austrians reeling backwards, though not without significant loss. Austrian commitments elsewhere, against the huge Russian armies on their eastern frontiers and then the Italians to the south in 1915, meant that the Serbian front was locked in stalemate for most of the second year of the war. The Germans was desperate to open a land route to the Ottomans, and the Austrians wanted to re-focus elsewhere: together, the two scored a diplomatic coup by getting up-to-then neutral Bulgaria to join the Central Powers. Bulgaria had grudges over losses of territory in the Second Balkan War of 1913, and was unmoved by Allied entreaties to join in on their side. A new offensive was launched on Serbia in October 1915, with the Germans, Austrians and Bulgarians attacking from multiple sides.
Serbia had repeatedly requested assistance from the western Allies, to shore up its defences and to rejuvenate its battered army. But France and Britain had delayed at every turn, reluctant to send troops to the Balkans when they were so badly needed on the western front and then Gallipoli. Greek (they were divided between a pro-Allied government and a pro-German monarchy) and Bulgarian neutrality complicated Allied ability to intervene (or at least that was the public line) and up to Bulgarian entry to the war, France and Britain still hoped they may never have to land troops in the area.
The new invasion of Serbia changed that, and soon an Allied force was landed on the Greek port of Thessaloniki (also known as Salonika or Salonica). It consisted of a French force and the “British Salonika Army”, that would eventually consist of three corps. Commanded by the recently “promoted” (because it was more of an upward demotion) General Bryan Mahon, the expedition included the 10th (Irish) Division, straight from the Gallipoli campaign.
The 10th was in bad shape, having lost a significant amount of men in Turkey, and the rest being exhausted from that battle and under-supplied. Transfers from English regiments were necessary to keep the individual units of the 10th in a workable condition, and they were dumped into the Balkan theatre without adequate preparation for the oncoming Balkan winter. The cold, and disease, were soon going to be terrible problems.
The western Allies arrived too late to adequately help Serbia. At risk of being encircled by the Austrian, German and Bulgarian armies, the Serbian military was forced to endure a gruelling retreat southwards, through soon to be conquered Montenegro and into Albania, where whoever was left was evacuated by Allied navies into Salonika. Serbia itself was occupied.
For their part, the western Allies did advance from Greece towards Bulgaria, engaging in combat along a line in the Macedonian region, a theatre where they would remain embattled for the majority of what was left of the war. But they did not do so on an even keel. With the collapse of Serbia the British government were reluctant to commit fully to the fight, and a withdrawal from the entire region was considered. So, the French pushed on alone, until they finally got into a full-scale engagement with the Bulgarians at Krivolak late in October, from which, outnumbered and outgunned, they were eventually thrown back. They bought time for the ongoing Serbian retreat, and for the British to dig in on a ten-mile front, along the high-ground at the strategically vital point of the Kosturino Pass.
The terrain was part of the Rhodope Mountains and so was difficulty for military forces to operate in at the best of times, but this was made worse by the terrible weather, with wind, rain and snow making the roads and passes inoperable. It rained non-stop from the 26th of November to the 3rd of December, destroying coats and other equipment, and leading to alarming spikes in instances of frostbite evacuations, with the 10th badly affected. The majority of troops were still kitted out for a summer campaign in Gallipoli, and only a few had the newer, more appropriate, woollen uniforms. Clean drinking water was also in short supply, with dysentery looming its ugly head.
From the 4th to the 6th, the British withstood a fierce artillery bombardment in their makeshift trenches. By then the French were in retreat, and the British defence was largely a holding operation to assist their allies, before an inevitable withdrawal themselves. In the coming battle seven Bulgarian divisions would smash into the 10th, focusing especially on “Rocky Peak”, a well-named outcropping that jutted ahead of the main line. A general Bulgarian assault was thrown back on the 6th, with the Irish largely relying on rifle volley fire and flanking support to get the job done. Elements of the Connacht Rangers, Royal Irish Fusiliers, Royal Dublin Fusiliers and Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers were all heavily engaged. But they held.
On the following fog bound morning, the Bulgarians took advantage of the conditions to launch a surprise attack on the peak, sending the Royal Irish Fusiliers there reeling backwards. The Bulgarian taking of the height allowed them an excellent vantage point to rain havoc down on the rest of the British line, with the 5th Connacht Rangers especially beset, dealing with machine gun fire from the peak and constant forward assaults. In the afternoon, having largely run out of ammunition, a few of what were left of the Rangers engaged in a brief bayonet charge before withdrawing, having lost 450 men.
The Rangers’ retreat was the signal for a more general withdrawal to a newly prepared defensive line at a place called Crete Simonet, where the 10th dug-in on December 8th. Retreating French troops, and retreating French artillery, helped stem the Bulgarian tide for a period, but the writing was on the wall. Badly outnumbered and running short on every kind of supply, the 10th was soon obliged to retreat again, with the 7th Dublin’s one of the last units to take some shots at the advancing enemy.
The British and French stumbled back over the Greek border and eventually into Salonika. The Bulgarians, respecting nominal Greek neutrality, did not pursue beyond the border. The British had lost 1’209 men in the course of the three days fighting and retreat after, the majority coming from just two regiments, among them the Rangers. The French lost more still, and the Bulgarians likely matched or exceeded them both.
The Allies – French, British and what was left of the Serbian Army – were now bottled back up in Greece, awaiting a possible Bulgarian invasion, with many there and at home wondering what the point of the entire exercise was. But there was a point: while Serbia had fallen, a viable new theatre had been established in the Macedonia region, and the Serbian military had lived to fight another day. Within six months, it would be in a position to resume offensive operations. The brief advance into the Balkans had been hamstrung by numerical inferiority and supply difficulties, but it had managed to prop up one of Britain and France’s key allies: an ally that would be marching with them to victory in the region eventually.
In the short-term though, it was a most definite success for the Central Powers, who cut open a path to the Ottoman Empire, got Bulgaria on their side, and bottled up their opponents in the region inside a nation whose own allegiance was very suspect.
The British Salonika Army were in for the long haul, and Irish troops would remain there with them. As 1915 came to a close, it was clear that something earth-shattering would have to occur for the Allies to make headway against their opponents, on any front, be it France, the Balkans or anywhere else soldiers were engaged against the Central Powers.
The big push and the major baptism of fire for Kitchener’s new legions was still to come. Before we return to the grim and grimy world of the western front, we must turn instead to the ongoing battle with the Ottomans, and Irish soldiers engaged in Mesopotamia, a struggle that was truly showing the conflict as the “world war” it was.
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