11th Battalion Worcestershire Regiment - 1916
In the first days of the New Year (1916) the weather changed, becoming suddenly fine and warm. For a fortnight the fine weather lasted, the work progressed rapidly and the troops became more cheerful. They were further cheered by the news of the successful evacuation of Gallipoli; which if not inspiring was at least satisfactory. Artillery had been brought up into position, and had "registered" on the ground in front of the defences. By the middle of January the position was deemed fairly secure, and the Battalion was then drawn back into bivouac camp constructed in the gullies and hollows behind the line out of view from the front (in "Conical Hill Nullah").
The Camp in "Conical Hill Nullah" (January to March 1916)
Battalion Headquarters consisted of four caves excavated in a small ravine). Work was continued steadily, while hostile air raids provided an intermittent source of interest throughout the Spring months of 1916.
As gradually it became apparent that the enemy had no intention of making an attack on the fortified positions, the energies of the troops were diverted bit by bit from labour to training. First two days a week then more, were devoted to preparation for an advance.
Apart from that training and from the recurrent air raids, there was little to break the monotony of existence in the Macedonian hills. The troops were out of sight of any sign of civilisation, save indeed the relics excavated from the ancient tombs. Such inhabitants as were in the neighbourhood were ignorant and brutish peasants. The soldiers were thrown back on their own resources for recreation and amusement, while the hardships endured were considerable. Among other minor grievances may be noted the fact that the troops had to get accustomed to having their meat flavoured by an aromatic shrub which was used to supplement the meagre fuel and insinuated its aroma into all food cooked. But the scenery and the strange sights of that foreign land ("The area was alive with tortoises skylarks by the million, bullfinches nearly as numerous, and occasionally blue jays were seen." [Captain T. J. Edwards]) made up to some extent for the discomfort and the privations.
Towards the end of March the 78th Brigade was drawn back from the front line into Divisional Reserve. There, the 11th Worcestershire remained for two months, in camp near Lembet, working and training. On March 27th a big hostile air raid at dawn caused much excitement. A bomb fell near the lines of the Battalion, fortunately without damage. Another bomb detonated a French store of explosives in the town, with appalling effect. Every gun within miles was brought into action and some of the raiders were reported to have been shot down. Later, on May 5th, a Zeppelin, the L71, attempted to bomb the city and was shot down into the marshes of the Vardar.Little else of note occurred during the Spring months, but the climate of Macedonia was fast claiming its victims. Malaria and enteric became rife among the troops, and officers and men went down in rapid succession.
In April, to the great regret of the Battalion, Brigadier-General D’Arcy Thomas was invalided home. After a final inspection of the Battalion on April 21st he left for England, and the officers and men of the 11th Worcestershire shared in the regret expressed in his farewell message, that he, who had done so much for the Regiment (Brigadier-General D’Arcy Thomas had, been Adjutant of the 1st Battalion and subsequently, as Commanding Officer of the 3rd Battalion, had been the main influence in moulding that Battalion to the splendid form which it attained) and who had raised and trained the 78th Brigade, was thus deprived of the chance of leading them into action.
In May the original British Commander at Salonika, General Sir Bryan Mahon, was succeeded by General Milne (General Milne assumed command on May 13th). The new commander put new life into the force, and the hot summer days were devoted to intensive training, till the neighbourhood of Salonika grew to resemble an English training ground. That training demanded a more extensive area than the confines of the defensive perimeter, and on June 7th the 11th Worcestershire marched northward some twelve miles to camp at Pirnar, north-west of Baldza. Thence training was carried on during the ensuing weeks.
Training at Pirnar was anything but pleasant. The camp was pitched in a basin among hills. No breeze seemed to come down into that basin and the heat was great. The heat caused much sickness and took the energy out of all ranks. But, in spite of such conditions, much hard work was done.
While the troops perfected themselves in training, the French and British Staffs had been working out plans for offensive action. The policy of passive defence had been abandoned. It was intended to advance and to gain touch with the enemy, who were known to be strongly entrenched along the Serbo-Greek frontier.
Brig.-Gen. Edward Algernon D'Arcy Thomas(known as "D'Arcy")
As a preliminary measure the administration of Salonika and the surrounding area was taken over by the Allied Commander-in-Chief from the nerveless grasp of the Greek authorities. With the assumption of responsibility for the administration came the duty of husbanding the local resources. The local crops had to be cut and brought in, and on that work of harvesting the 11th Worcestershire were employed during the later days of June. Hardly was that work finished when word was passed round that preparations had been completed and that the force was about to advance.
Already the French forces had pushed forward to the Serbo-Greek frontier. That frontier had been arranged in 1913 to follow the line of a natural obstacle, a series of mountainous ridges. Along those ridges the Bulgarians had entrenched strong positions, and before those positions the French advance had come to a standstill. It had been arranged that the five British Divisions should take over the front covering Salonika on the north and north-east.
On July 24th orders were received by the 26th Division to move northward forthwith. The 78th Brigade marched next day. When the orders came, the 11th Worcestershire were temporarily detached from the Brigade, carrying out a battalion exercise. The Battalion consequently marched independently on the 25th to Ambarkeui, and there rejoined the Brigade. The heat during that march was intense, as an instance it is recorded that, during a halt, the Officers’ Mess prepared lunch by the roadside. When the officers assembled for the meal half-an-hour later they found it impossible to touch the knives and forks with uncovered hands. Then with the Brigade the Battalion marched on northwards, by way of Sarigeul, Haidarli and Vetegor, to Malovtsi, which was reached on the night of the 27/28th. A rest for twenty-four hours followed. The Division was now close up behind the French, who were facing the Bulgarian outposts. On the last evening of July the Brigade moved forward to take over the position from our Allies. The 7th Royal Berkshire and 7th Oxford and Bucks L.I. took over the front line on the night of the 29/30th. On the following night the 9th Gloucestershire and 11th Worcestershire moved forward through rain and darkness into reserve positions near Chuguntsi (this is one of many alternative spellings, including Cugunci).
The 26th Division was now on the left flank of the British Army and lay next to the French. Orders were received that the Division was to co-operate with the French in a forthcoming attack on the Bulgarian positions.
The Bulgarian positions covering the small town of Doiran were established on a series of steep ridges running mostly from north-west to south-east. One such ridge now faced the 78th Brigade. The southern end of the higher part of this ridge was about a mile from the position taken over by the Brigade, and was known as "Horseshoe Hill" ; but from "Horseshoe Hill" a lower continuation of the ridge ran on south-eastward, rising, close to the British lines, to a little eminence known as "Kidney Hill.” That height was faced from the south-east by "The Commandant" which was in British hands. Between "The Commandant" and "Kidney Hill" was a small height— "Castle Hill." This latter was apparently unoccupied, but there was known to be a hostile outpost on "Kidney Hill."
Forward movement was begun as soon as the necessary communications had been established. On the night of August 8th "Castle Hill" was occupied. On the following night a company of the 7th Royal Berkshire seized "Kidney Hill." That same night the 7th Oxford and Bucks L.I., which hitherto had held the left half of the Brigade front, were relieved by the 11th Worcestershire.
The position now taken up by the Battalion (Battalion H.Q. was established at Asagi Mahala) was across the valley which lies between "The Commandant" and a small hill named "Clichy" to the south-west. Away to the right, French troops were pressing forward with much gunfire against "La Tortue" (the French captured "La Tortue" on August 16th); to co-operate with their advance it was decided that the 78th Brigade should attack "Horseshoe Hill."
In that mountainous country preparations for the attack took some time to complete; artillery had to be hauled into position and tracks made for ammunition and supplies. While that work was in progress the 11th Worcestershire held their outpost line (On August 10th a detachment which had been sent on May 20th to guard an aerodrome on Thasos Island [Capt. B. Barton and 50 other ranks] rejoined the Battalion. On August 17th Col. Rainey-Robinson was sent into hospital and Lieut.-Col. Barker took over command) across the valley, shelled at intervals (August 12th, 3 wounded. August 14th, 1 wounded. August 20th. 1 killed) and sending out several patrols. Those patrols had numerous adventures on the rocky slopes; notably one patrol under Captain P. A. Leicester which on the night of August 16/17th carried out a daring reconnaissance of "Horseshoe Hill," and elicited a message of appreciation from the Brigade.
The information obtained by Captain Leicester’s patrol (He found that the hill was not held in strength, and that the enemy’s defences were weak and much damaged by gun fire) enabled plans to be made for an attack on "Horseshoe Hill" on the following night. The attack would be made by the reserve battalion of the 78th Brigade, the 7th Oxford and Bucks L.I. To support the left flank of the attack the 11th Worcestershire would establish a post further forward on a knoll in the valley below.
The operation was commenced at 8.0 p.m. Two platoons of the 11th Worcestershire seized and entrenched the required knoll without opposition or casualties. Away to the right front the 7th Oxford and Bucks L.I., after a long night advance, stormed "Horseshoe Hill" at 2.30 a.m. (August 18th) and entrenched the captured position. The enemy made some attempts at counterattack next day; but they were beaten back and the gains were secured. The post established in the valley by the 11th Worcestershire was named "Worcester Post."
On September 2nd the 11th Worcestershire shifted their position to the right and took over the captured ground on "Horseshoe Hill." The enemy’s guns were fiercely bombarding the lost hill and during the ensuing week the Battalion suffered several casualties (September 4th, 8 wounded. September 5th, 4 wounded. September 6th, 1 wounded and missing. September 7th, Capt. J. G. Reid and 3 men killed, 5 men wounded. September 8th, 2 wounded. Total, 1 officer and 3 men killed, 20 wounded.).
A week later (September 9th) the line was taken over by the 79th Brigade. The 11th Worcestershire were relieved by the 11th Cameronians and then marched back to bivouac at Yenikeui. On the following night a further move was made to Mihailova, where the 78th Brigade lay in Corps Reserve during the ensuing fortnight.
By that time the opposing lines were close-locked. All along the front the Bulgarians had been forced back from their outpost positions on to their main line of entrenchments. But among the rocky ridges and gullies the exact positions of those enemy entrenchments were not easy to locate; and for some further weeks patrols and raiding parties were engaged in testing the strength of the enemy’s defences.
In the valley north-east of "Horseshoe Hill" lies the village of Doldzeli. On the far side of Doldzeli a low rounded under-feature had been named, by the French, the "Mamelon." That height was known to be held by the Bulgarians, but their exact strength there was uncertain.
That part of the front line was taken over by the 78th Brigade at the end of September. The 11th Worcestershire were at first kept back in Corps Reserve, and did not come into the Brigade Sector until October 2nd; on which date the Battalion took over reserve trenches about Hill 420 (Flanks of Battalion line extended from Bujuklu village to Piton des Zouaves). On October 8th the Worcestershire moved forward and relieved the 9th Gloucestershire in the forward trenches near Doldzeli village. The front held by the Battalion extended from the eastern slope of "Horseshoe Hill" to the wooded Vladaja ravine, which was held by French troops.
On October 9th orders were received to make a small raid against the "Mamelon" with the object of capturing a prisoner and thus identifying the troops in front. About 4.30 p.m. while still daylight, the raiding party—Captain P. A. Leicester, Lieutenant C. E. Turner, and 30 other ranks— pushed forward, up the Doldzeli ravine to the slopes of the "Mamelon" The party got within a short distance from a trench held by the enemy, and charged. They were met by a fierce fire from about 70 rifles and by many bombs. One bomb killed PrivateJ.W. Rudd, another wounded Captain Leicester and two of his men. After a short fight it was realised that success was impossible and the raiders fell back behind cover. Then it was found that Private Rudd was missing. Believing him to have been wounded and left behind, Lieutenant C. E. Turner, accompanied by Private W. Hartland, bravely went back. They found Private Rudd dead within a few yards of the enemy’s trench. After running the gauntlet of a sharp fire they rejoined the rest of the party (For their gallant conduct in this affair Captain Philip Austin Leicester was awarded the Italian Silver Medal "for valour," Lieut. Charles Ernest Turner the French Croix de Guerre and Pte. W. Hartland the M.M.).
Next evening (October 10th) further efforts were made to locate the enemy’s position. A patrol under 2nd Lieutenant F. S. Shaw made a useful reconnaissance, with some loss (1 killed, 3 wounded).
It was then decided to make a raid in force against the "Mamelon" with two companies of the 11th Worcestershire. The raid was to be prepared by a sharp bombardment and was to be supported by machine-guns. The main attack was to be preceded by one advanced platoon, which would sweep the wooded banks of the Vladaja ravine as a precaution against surprise.
All day of October 11th the British guns kept up an intermittent bombardment against the "Mamelon." After dark the guns redoubled their fire. The troops moved into position. Half an hour before midnight (October 11/12th) the guns lifted their fire and the attack began.
The raiders were met by an intense fire, which checked the front line. Two additional platoons were brought up in support and, with that aid, the attackers charged forward to the enemy’s trenches. Sergeant H. W. Preedy showed great bravery in leading on his platoon after the platoon officer had been hit (Sergt. H. W. Preedy was awarded the M.M.). A fierce fight ensued. The enemy’s front trench was cleared and the desired identification was secured from dead Bulgarians (proving the enemy to be of the 9th Bulgarian Regiment). Then retreat was ordered (at 15 minutes past midnight) and the raiders fell back to the British trenches.
The losses had been considerable—nearly 60 in all (Killed, 4. Missing, 6. Wounded, 3 officers (Captain A. E. J. Legge, 2/Lieuts. C. L. Godson and C. R. P. Corbin [the latter died afterwards] and 44 other ranks)—but the Battalion was heartily congratulated on its success. To that success all ranks had contributed, and not least the Battalion signallers. Corporal A. Burton earned special praise by his work in maintaining cable communication under very heavy fire (Corporal A. Burton was subsequently awarded the M.M.).
The Battalion held the line for two more days without notable incident. Then on the night of October 14/15th the 7th Oxford and Bucks L.I. took over the line, and the Worcestershire moved back to the reserve trenches. On the following night the Battalion moved back into Corps Reserve.
After a quiet week in Corps Reserve (On October 17th, 6 officers joined—Lieut. R. C. L. Clarke, Lieut. S. A. Stephenson, 2/Lieuts. V. W. Price, A. J. C. Ewen, A. H. Lewis and A. H. Pyne) the Battalion moved back into the reserve trenches near Hill 420. Later the 11th Worcestershire did another tour in the front line (November 8th - 15th) suffering some loss (November 11th Lieut. C. E. Turner and 1 man wounded and on the November 13th 1 wounded) from shellfire. Then the Battalion again went into Corps Reserve.
At the end of November a series of changes of position took place along the Allied front, as a result of which the 22nd Division on the left moved still further towards that flank. The 11th Worcestershire were sent up from reserve to prolong the left flank of the 26th Division, and thus came into a new sector of the front line.
The new positions faced across the valley of the Selimli Dere, where lay the deserted and ruined village of Sejdelli. The opposing lines were some distance away from each other, and constant patrolling failed to evoke any hostilities beyond casual shell-fire (in that rocky country the bursting shells scattered showers of rock splinters, and those splinters were the cause of several casualties). Cold and rainy weather had now closed down on the opposing armies in the hills. Both sides were more occupied in keeping warm and in good health than in trying to harm the other. The situation was too cheerless to evoke much enthusiasm over Christmas Day, which the Battalion spent in the trenches and shelters near the Selimli Dere.
A few days afterwards the Divisional line was altered and the Battalion was shifted further east once more, to reserve trenches and shelters near Chuguntsi. That position was a little more comfortable, and there the 11th Worcestershire saw out the last days of 1916.