At the conclusion of the first Allied campaign operating out of Salonika, the British and French found themselves hemmed in by the unexpected might of the Bulgarian enemy, backed up by Austro-Hungarian and German support. On the 5th January 1916, Austria-Hungary invaded Montenegro, which capitulated within the month, and then continued their invasion down the Adriatic coast and into Albania, where an Italian army was routed. The Allies in the region were forced back into the fortified camp around the city of Thessaloniki, joined by the remnants of the Serbian military that had survived the fall of their nation, and soon stood ready to fight again.
The narrower front and the defensive advantages of the site left the Allies in an impregnable position, albeit one that was also essentially a state of limbo. The official neutrality of the Greeks – with a pro-German monarchy opposed to a pro-Allied government – complicated matters even more. And so, for the first half of 1916, the British Army soldiers in Salonika, the 10th (Irish) Division, the Irish regiments of the 27th Division and other Irish units with them, were stuck.
With precious little soldiering to do, aside from defending against the odd raid, or warding against ambush on patrol, most of the infantry became diggers and rudimentary engineers, ordered to expand and improve the defences around the “entrenched camp”, constructing trenches, lines of barbed wire and other fortifications designed as much to ward off the possibility of a Central Power attack as to actually deal with one. This lack of military activity soon had the soldiers based there derogatorily dubbed the “Gardeners of Salonika” by others serving in more active fronts. So non-existent was warfare, that it seems the opposing sides entrenched closest to each other had an informal “live and let live” arrangement.
As such, the primary enemy that the Irish, and the Allies, had to deal with was nature. Those working in the early months of the year had the bitter Balkan cold and frostbite to deal with as they laboured in higher altitude areas, but things were as bad or worse when the weather improved, and then became scorching, unleashing plagues of malaria-carrying mosquitos on the armed forces. If heatstroke didn’t get you, the stings of the insects would, and rapidly spreading disease was the inevitable result. While a quiet posting in terms of bullets and shells, at times the Salonika front was almost as deadly for units as France and Belgium, and all in a manner that had many questioning why they were dying there at all.
Bulgarian pressure on Greece had resulted in some fighting in the narrow valleys approaching the encampment, but it was not until Romanian entry into the war in August, on the side of the Allies, that things really heated up again in the Balkans. The Romanian declaration would result in huge portions of the country being occupied by Germany, but caused the opening of another nearby front and a potential aggressor on the northern Bulgarian border. Sensing that the Allies would quickly take advantage of the situation, German-Bulgarian forces launched their own invasion of mainland Greece (they were mostly Bulgarian of course, with the Germans occupied with the Somme, Verdun, Romania and counter-offensives from Russia all through that time). They got roughly 80km’s into Greece – thanks in part to the Greek King ordering his troops not to resist – before stalling, and the act would eventually lead to Greece joining the war proper in 1917, after a coup by pro-Allied military officers.
The planned Allied offensive was meant to be French-led with the British in a supporting position. Indeed, there were elements of the British leadership that did not want to be in Salonika at all, seeing the whole front as a pointless operation, and so they were happy to let the French, always more gung-ho about the Salonika front, take the lead. But the initiative of the Bulgarians, followed by a new counter-attack by the French in September, meant that the British, and Irish, were forced to take a slightly more pro-active role in affairs instead. French, Serbian and British forces were all thrown into the fighting.
After victory in the Battle of Kajmakcalan the Allies achieved a breakthrough, and the Central Power military presence was forced to withdraw to a northern defensive lines. This withdrawal allowed an opportunity for British forces to expand and consolidate a hold on the strategically vital Struma River Valley area to the east, where numerous towns and strongpoints existed to impede progress. One of these was the village of Yenokoi, modern-day Provatas. It was here that the 10th and 27th Divisions were given the chance to do some actual war duty.
The attack was primarily carried out by battalions of the Royal Dublin and Royal Munster Fusiliers, with the Royal Irish Rifles, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and Royal Irish Fusiliers also taking part. In the early hours of the 3rd October, they crossed the Struma, attacking Yenikoi from a south-easterly direction. The village was bombarded by a sudden artillery assault, before the infantry went forward, their advance coming against the flames of the village buildings.
The Bulgarian defenders offered brief resistance to this initial assault, turning tail as soon as the Irish had entered the village outskirts. The advance and capture of the village had been so quick that British artillery still fired down on Yenokoi even after the Bulgarians had retreated. The enemy had trench positions just to the north of the village, and so were easily able to regroup.
The Irish, fully aware that a counter-attack was inevitable, dug-in as best they could in what time they had available. Within a few hours, the Bulgarians came back, in a series of attacks that would last the rest of the day. The Irish had entrenched just outside the north of the village as their furthest point, but were inactive for the first two attacks, that failed in the face of British artillery.
It was not until the third Bulgarian counter-attack, in the afternoon, that enemy progress was made. The most casualties that the Irish had taken had been from friendly fire; now they faced a more difficult challenge. The Bulgarian artillery, up to then largely immaterial, finally began to make a difference, and the Bulgarian infantry, despite heavy casualties from small arm and artillery fire, were able to re-establish a foothold in the village. This success was the signal for a larger offensive from multiple battalions, and soon the Irish were extremely hard-pressed.
The situation became confused, as some Irish units were ordered backwards while others, kept in reserve, were ordered forwards. The Irish were able to hold a loose line around the centre of the village for a time, but elements of command did not feel that the village could be held. Artillery was still inflicting plenty of casualties on the attackers, but the Irish were taking heavy casualties themselves and were now exhausted (important to remember that all of these units were weakened owing to illness before fighting had even started). By the time night fell, most of them had withdrawn, some on the basis of orders that were countermanded too late.
But the British still retained a foothold in the village, and in the early hours of the following morning, moved to advance again, only to find that the Bulgarians, minus a few snipers and their wounded (and dead) had decided that Yenikoi was not worth fighting for anymore. The village was taken without opposition, and the next domino in the Struma River Valley fell. However, the British would do little more during this phase of offensive operations.
Instead, it was the other Allies nations that took up the slack, with Russian and Italian troops added to the French and Serbian that were already engaged, with Ottoman reinforcements for the Central Powers briefly making the region a true representation of the nature of World War One’s alliance systems. The Battle of the Crna Bend in October/November ended the offensive with a partial Allied victory, as the key city of Monastir (modern day Bitola) was occupied, but with expected gains elsewhere thwarted. Much like the end of fighting in 1915, both sides had reasons to be happy: the Allies as they had expanded the front-line and were on the doorstep of Serbia, and the Central Powers as they had withstood the worst of the offensive and now maintained strong mountainous positions. 50’000 Allies and more Bulgarians were casualties from the fighting, but many more were forced back to base owing to malaria and other diseases.
For the Irish, the end of the campaigning season largely meant that it was time to return to Thessaloniki and the maintenance of defensive works for the entrenched camp. While there was still some small-scale fighting for the 10th Division to do, their future experience of the war would be largely away from Salonika: the entry of the Greeks into the conflict proper in 1917 would free up some of the British units for service elsewhere. The western front always needed more men, but there were other theatres of war too, and more Irish would soon be fighting in the Middle-East.
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