RECORD OF THE 8th (SERVICE) BATTALION (PIONEERS). August 1915 to June 1916.
BASED ON EXTRACTS FROM THE REGIMENTAL CHRONICLES
EMBARKATION FOR FRANCE. 18th September 1915. Total strength complete to establishment on inarching out of No. 1 Camp, Sutton Veny, Warminster, Wilts:- 30 Officers. 1,008 Other Ranks. 12 Riding Horses. 60 Draught Horses. 9 Heavy Draught Horses. 17 Pack Mules. 9 Bicycles. 4 Lewis-guns. 4 G.S. Wagons. 4 G.S.L. Wagons (R.E.). 10 G.S.L. Wagons. 1 Maltese Cart (M.O.). Officers' Mess Cart. 2 Water Carts. 4 Travelling Kitchens.
The Battalion left Warminster Station in three train loads at midnight on 18th/19th September, arriving at Southampton (at intervals of 2 hours between each train) from 4 a.m. onwards. Embarkation took place the same evening on the 2 boats "City of Chester" and "Queen Alexandra," the former boat carrying all the transport.
September 19th.—Disembarkation at Havre 8 a.m. Marched to Havre Rest Camp.
September 20th.—Battalion entrained from Gare des Voyageurs at noon, and detrained at Longueau 10 p.m. After assembling transport, Battalion marched off at midnight for the village of Clery-Saulchoix, arriving there 3 a.m., and bivouacking in the open. After the confinement of the trucks, in which practically all ranks of the Battalion had been travelling, this march in full kit proved exceptionally trying to the men, who found no difficulty in sleeping in the open on this their first night of active service. At this village the first German aeroplane was seen flying high in the early dawn; to a newly arrived unit this proved itself of great interest, aeroplanes at that period of the war not being an object of every day.
September 21st.—The Battalion moved into billets in the village, where it stayed until 25th, the interim being spent in organization, inspections, and route marches.
September 25th.—Marched from Clery to Villers-Brettonneux, distance about 16 miles, passing through the outskirts of Amiens. This was the first long march of the Battalion in France, and was accomplished in a manner worthy of the reputation of the Regiment, not one man, being left behind on the march. Arrived at Villers-Brettonneux, accommodation was provided for the men in the stabling of a large cavalry depot, the officers being provided with billets in the town.
October 2nd.—Battalion (less one platoon under 2nd Lieut. P. Y. Brimblecombe) marched to Warfusee-Abancourt, and went into tents in the village orchards. Work was commenced upon the third line system of trenches near Morcourt, to which place companies marched each day.
October 4th.—A Company returned to Villers-Brettonneux to fell timber in the wood near the town (1 mile N.); this occupied 2 days only, A Company on 6th leaving V.B. and marching to a new camp, under canvas, in a large wood 1/2 mile S.W. of Morcourt, where D Company were already in occupation. The remaining companies and the H.Q. of the Battalion joined A and D Companies here in the following 3 days, and the whole Battalion was employed in improving and rebuilding the trench system at Morcourt, which formed a part of the defence system of Amiens. Large quantities of timber were obtained locally for revetting work on these trenches, and all ranks worked with the greatest keenness on this their first real task of construction on active service. The weather at this time was often very wet, and marching to and from work became trying at times. The camp in the wood, however, was one of the best the Battalion has made, and all ranks lived, off duty, in a degree of comfort. Occasional shelling was experienced during this period, but no casualties occurred therefrom.
October 21st.—Battalion moved back to billets at Villers-Brettonneux, the men being housed in a bonnet factory, and the officers in the same quarters as previously.
October 22nd.—Battalion marched to Vignacourt, a distance of 25 miles, in full kit. The day was fine, and it had been intended to stay the night at Flescelles, but on arrival there no billets were available; after a long halt for tea the march was resumed, and the Battalion arrived at Vignacourt about 8 p.m., only 6 men having fallen out. No finer march than this can be recorded in the history of the Battalion; it was accomplished in 12 hours, including halts for meals, and the last 3 miles into Vignacourt were taken with a swinging stride and the whole Battalion in song. On the following morning the G.O.C. of the Division (General Mackenzie-Kennedy) congratulated the Colonel on the fine performance of the Battalion.
October 26th.—Battalion moved to St. Gratien and billeted the night, marching on the following morning to Morlancourt, where C, D, and H.Q. billeted. A and B Companies marched on to Bois des Tallies in pouring rain to a hut camp in the woods. The approach to this camp was across half a mile of water-logged ploughed clay land, and the difficulties for both men and transport at the end of a long march were disheartening and trying to a degree. The hut sides were of green waterproof (?) canvas, and, being placed under trees, afforded little or no shelter from the heavy weather. An extremely cold wind at this time added to the general discomfort. Meanwhile the other half of the Battalion was attached at this period to the 18th Division, and A and B Companies to the 5th Division. The whole Battalion worked on a system of reserve line trenches, marching to and from the work daily. The works overlooked our own trench line and that of the Germans; shelling was visible all day.
October 31st.—A and B Companies moved from Bois des Tallies to Sailly Laurette; here billets were taken, but work was continued upon the same trench system, these 2 companies having an additional march of 5 miles daily in consequence. The weather, however, was so continuously wet that to remain longer in the huts in the wood was an invitation to disaster in the matter of health.
November 2nd.—The concentration of the Division (which was the cause of the long march to Vignacourt on October 22nd, the cancellation of this order being responsible for our return to Morlancourt on October 27th) was again decided upon. The Battalion accordingly marched in 2 bodies, from Morlancourt and Sailly Laurette respectively, meeting at Corbie, and proceeding together from that town to St. Gratien again. Here was spent a pleasant fortnight, during which we knew orders were impending for a move to another front, possibly another country, but no definite information being to hand for several days. The Battalion was accommodated in the same billets as on its previous visit, but the weather continuing wet and cold, parades of any kind were difficult to hold. Route marches were resorted to in the fine intervals; Lieut. J. E. Pogson-Smith took classes of instruction for officers and N.C.O.'s in the use of the Bar and Stroud Range-finder. Lieut. C. S. W. Rayner, an officer of considerable ability as a lecturer, gave lectures on the Balkans, life in Serbia, and Balkan politics. At this time, towards the end of the second stay at St. Gratien, maps of the Balkans were distributed to all officers, but no definite information was obtainable as to our movements in the near future, the issue of the maps confirming the "wise" in their opinion that the Balkans was not the destination of the Battalion.
November 15th.—At 11.40 a.m. orders arrived for the entrainment of the Battalion that night at Longueau (Amiens). At the time of the receipt of the order all companies were out on route marches; at 2 p.m. the Battalion, with all transport, marched out of St. Gratien, and, with only one halt on the way, arrived at Longueau at (5.0 p.m. This was a very trying forced march, and proved very exhausting to all ranks. In 40 minutes the whole Battalion, with vehicles (but less the animals, who returned to St. Gratien under 2nd Lieut. Curtis), was entrained. At 7.25 p.m. the train steamed out of Longueau ; all officers, except H.Q. and the Company Commanders, were in 2 trucks, the men being allotted 40 to each truck, and 3 days' rations being carried on the train. The journey, via Paris, Dijon, and Lyon to Marseilles, was completed in 44 hours, halts being arranged on the way, where coffee was distributed by the French authorities to all ranks.
November 17th.—Battalion arrived at Marseilles at 2.30 p.m., detrained immediately, marched through the city to the quay, and embarked on H.M.T. "Alaunia" (Cunard Line) at 6 p.m. The 4th Battalion Rifle Brigade was also on board for the voyage. Colonel Justice was in command of the troops on board ; Lieut. Gifford, Adjutant; and Lieut, and Quartermaster Woollen, Ship's Quartermaster. No incident of note occurred on the voyage, with the exception that for 3 days the sea was rough and much indisposition resulted. The boat was escorted until we reached the Aegean Sea, and our sole means of defence against submarines consisted of Lewis-guns mounted fore and aft. November 24th.—The "Alaunia" arrived in Salonika Harbour at 4 p.m. on November 24th, but disembarkation did not take place until 5.30 p.m. 25th, when the boat was berthed alongside the quay. The Battalion marched out to camp under canvas at Lembet, 3 ½ miles N. of the town. The following day a blizzard began, and an exceedingly cold wind with rain blew until the 30th, when a thaw set in, and the whole camp area became a bog. During this first week parades were impossible; no regimental transport being available, all rations had to be carried about a mile by hand daily.
December 1st.—Colonel Justice admitted to F.A. and subsequently invalided to England. Major F. Llewellyn assumed command.
December 1st-16th.—From December 1st to 16th several officers were engaged on reconnaissance work in the neighbourhood of Lajna, Tumba, Jajladzik, for reporting on tracks and grading of same with a view to their use for wheel transport. The Battalion generally was employed upon roads through camps in the Divisional area.
December 16th-17th.—B Company, under Captain A. H. Lowe, went to Galeku Bridge by rail to repair damage to line by railway collision. A detachment of 60 O.R. proceeded to R.F.A. camp on Monastir Road on 8th instant under Lieut. A. Calder for well sinking.
December 17th-31st.—Battalion engaged on improving the old mule track from Lembet to Jajladzik with a view to providing a means of transport for supplies to the positions to be occupied by the Division on the range of hills N. of the town, which later became a part of the defensive position of the town of Salonika. At this time only two made roads existed in the country, viz., the road to Monastir and the road to Seres. Everywhere roads had to be made for transport of supplies and guns. The track to Jajladzik (commonly called Yellow Jack) was of prime importance, and on its completion as a passable mule track (width about 5 feet) it was immediately decided to rebuild it as a metalled limber road.
Meanwhile one company at a time was employed cutting a track from Jajladzik to Lajna, and then from Kireckeui to Stanovan. For all of this work, with the exception of the latter track, the Battalion continued in its camp at Lembet, companies marching out daily to work, and frequently doing 16 miles, in addition to the time spent actually working. Tools and rifles were always carried, and much of the route lay through the rain soaked Lembet plain, the remainder being over very hilly country. The work was exceedingly hard, but it is probably on this account that everyone kept so fit, and that sickness was uncommon.
In order to be nearer the work the Battalion moved to a camp near Lembet Village on December 20th, and in this camp was spent the first Christmas Day in Macedonia, a day of glorious sunshine, like an English summer. On December 21st the transport vehicles of the Battalion arrived (in a very bad condition); these had been left behind at Marseilles, and thoroughly rifled during their six weeks' stay on the quay there. No animals, however, came with the vehicles, so they were of little use, and had to be man handled when required for work of any kind.
As the Battalion had little experience of serious road work, the construction of the Lembet-Jajladzik road was put into the hands of 2nd Lieut. T. N. Watts-Watts (A Company), a municipal engineer and surveyor in private life, under the direction of the C.R.E. (Lieut.-Colonel Hunter).
Six hundred men daily for five weeks worked on this, every available man being on parade to secure an early completion of the work. On January 20th the last bridge (below Jajladzik) was completed, the G.O.C. Division driving there in his car to celebrate the occasion, and, incidentally, to be an occupant of the first car in history to visit this remote hill village of Macedonia. As the road progressed nearer to the village the Battalion moved camp, by companies, to a site S. of Jajladzik.
1916. January 19th.—Lieut. Curtis arrived from Marseilles with the transport animals of the Battalion.
January 21st.—About this date companies moved independently to a new camp site near the peak known as Gil Tepe, close to Kireckeui Village (position of camp about 4 miles S.E. of Jajladzik, and 1 mile N.E. of Kireckeui), to work on small defensive positions; this work involved a good deal of marching each day over very hilly country. As an indication, however, of the health of the Battalion during bad weather, under the worst conditions, and with exceedingly hard work, at the end of the first six weeks in Macedonia only 5 evacuations to hospital had taken place.
During the last few days of the stay at Jajladzik Camp very severe weather was experienced. Snow walls were built on the Battalion transport lines to protect the animals from the bitter wind. When the first Company (D) moved to Gil Tepe Camp it was isolated and cut off from the remainder of the Battalion for 24 hours owing to snow drifts on the track. A relief party with improvised sledge succeeded in getting through with an issue of rum, and in marking out the track with snow heaps and flags for the guidance of the transport on the following day.
February 1st.—In order to be nearer the work on the Langaza Plain C and D Companies moved to a new camp site, l ½ miles S. of the village of Tumba; A Company joined C and D on 4th, and B Company, with Battalion H.Q., on 9th. The camp was situated on the side of a gorse covered ravine, and much work had to be done to render the site suitable for a battalion. As sufficient water was not available for all purposes, the whole of the transport remained in the camp at Gil Tepe under the Transport Officer, Lieut. S. C. Leman, and communication was established by telephone, the distance being about 1 ½ miles.
February 4th.—Major F. Llewellyn, who had been in command since December 1st, was recalled to England, and Captain A. E. Burt (D Company) assumed temporary command.
Since the completion of the Lembet-Jajladzik Road (afterwards named officially Oxford Road) the whole Battalion was employed daily upon the new defence lines. These consisted of front trench lines, strong points, machine gun emplacements, barbed wire entanglements, support trench lines, communication trenches, bombing posts, and 2 reserve lines of defence, one at the foot of the hills and one on the crest, the latter consisting of groups of independent strong points, termed officially "forts." This work occupied the Battalion for several months, and was finally completed in June (1916).
February 19th.—Major B. Cruddas. 2nd Northumberland Fusiliers, assumed command, with rank of temporary Lieut.-Colonel.
About this time work was relaxed in the plain, Sundays were observed as a day of rest (so far as routine would allow), and 2 days training each week were allotted. One day was for Battalion training and one for Brigade training; being in the 78th Brigade area the Battalion was attached to that Brigade for this purpose, and for several weeks represented "the enemy" on the Brigade day.
March 27th.—German aeroplanes raided Salonika and dropped one bomb near the Battalion camp on their way back, but no damage was done. One of the planes was damaged by aircraft fire, and was forced down at Guvezne, on the Seres Road (25th kilo).
March 28th.—78th Brigade relieved by 79th Brigade, and Battalion attached to latter Brigade from this date.
April 6th.—The trench line on Langaza Plain was occupied by the Battalion and by units of 79th Brigade, detachments from the 7th Oxfords (78th Brigade) operating as enemy.
This "practice occupation" was for 24 hours only, but was made as realistic as possible by the use of snipers, Very lights, patrols, etc., and proved useful as an instruction to all ranks. At this period night, training operations were practised, including night wiring and reconnaissance.
Climate and Dress.—The very cold and wet weather which was experienced at intervals throughout the winter of 1915-16 changed to exceedingly warm days and cold nights about this time, and felt slouch hats of Colonial pattern, with puggarees, were issued to all ranks. These hats were not a success, and a few weeks later were replaced by khaki helmets, with puggarees; shorts (drill) were also issued, but serge jackets remained the regulation summer wear until the summer of 1918, when drill jackets were issued in lieu. Other standard articles of clothing were waterproof capes and leather jerkins for winter use.
April 20th.—The Battalion, less C Company, joined 79th Brigade in a 6 days trek on pack transport. (Wheeled transport was replaced by pack in March 1916. Establishment : 14 riding horses, 208 mules; of the latter, 18 mules per company were allotted for pioneer tools, remainder for water, Lewis-guns, baggage, etc.) (C Company moved to Corps H.Q. at Lembet to construct shelters, dugouts, and transport lines on this date:)
The Battalion marched out (leaving a few details in camp) at 08.45 hours, and camped at Sarijar that night, having marched about 12 miles.
This being the first trial of pack transport the troubles encountered on the march were many. Mules not yet trained in carrying pack loads gave endless trouble throughout the march, kicking off their loads, and greatly delaying progress.
April 21st.—Battalion marched all day over exceedingly difficult and quite trackless country, as part of the advanced guard of the Brigade, unloading tools at various spots en route, and clearing a track suitable for the passage of Brigade transport. This involved hard digging in addition to the marching, and proved so arduous that a halt was made for the night at a point 3 miles S. of Visoka, at which village the Battalion should have bivouacked.
April 22nd.—In order to arrive at Visoka in time to move off with the Brigade, an early start was made; a long day's march, in which the Battalion acted as Brigade reserve, brought the force to the village of Zarova, where the night was spent.
The country around this village was noticeably more agricultural than any previously passed through, and a number of recently erected brick houses (also a school), presumably provided by the Greek Government since the last Balkan War, were objects of general interest. This was the first village of civilized aspect encountered in Macedonia, all those previously passed through being composed of small groups of irregularly placed mud, or mud and stone, huts, and nothing which could be called a street or road.
April 23rd.—The Brigade retired S.W. to the village of Janik, passing en route close to the town of Likovan, on the Seres Road. The Battalion bivouacked for the night at Janik, nothing of interest having occurred during the day. Certain Battalions of the Brigade formed the rearguard, but the Pioneers were not called on. The heat was excessive, and great difficulty was experienced in the matter of water supply. Rigid march discipline was enforced to prevent the men from drinking polluted or doubtful water.
April 24th.—The Battalion acted as rearguard of the advance guard by day, marching in great heat over difficult country; at night the Battalion did outpost for the Brigade, on the heights above Arakli.
April 25th.—The Brigade marched via the town of Langaza and the village of Lajna back to their various camps, being inspected by the Corps Commander, Lieut.-General Sir H. F. M. Wilson, K.C.B., at the latter village. This march proved extremely trying to the Battalion, and a long halt had to be called after the march past before completing the journey. The total mileage for the day was 16, and the shade temperature about 100° F. The Battalion returned to its original camp above Tumba, where the comforts of a fixed camp were more thoroughly appreciated than they had been a week previously.
April 26th, 27th, 28th were spent in rest and recuperation, and were marked by heavy and continuous rain.
April 29th.—Work resumed upon the fortifications on the plains and hills, and continued daily, training days excepted, until June 2nd. During this period Battalion training was carried out one day each week, Company training one day, and Brigade training one day. The latter exercises were usually performed about the k in Orendzik, and on the high ground between Kireckeui and Jajladzik.
June 4th.—Work on the Salonika defence system being now completed, the Division was ordered to advance N. towards Serbia to relieve a French Division which had established a line of defence S. of Doiran. The Battalion accordingly struck camp on the night of June 3/4th, and sent all tents and heavy baggage on by regimental transport to the new camp site, 4 miles N.W. of Dremiglava, and adjoining the village of Rahmanli (point 1445/1462 Salonika 1/100,000 sheet). For this move wagons had to be obtained on loan from the A.S.C., as pack transport could not deal with the heavier baggage, such as tents, etc. The transport made three journeys between the two camps before all baggage was cleared.
On the night of June 4/5th the Battalion marched as far as a point about half-way between Stanovan and Lajna in order to shorten the next day's journey, bivouacking on the Langaza plain. An early start was made the following morning, and the new camp reached before midday; total distance between camps about 12 miles. At Rahmanli the Battalion stayed one month doing road work, quarry work, Battalion training, and a good deal of work also in camp providing sun shelters for the men. These were constructed of reeds, from the marshes of the River Galiko, supported on rough poles and wire. Great heat was experienced here, no work could be done between the hours of 09.00 and 16.00, and diarrhoea and malaria became common complaints. A rifle range was constructed in the vicinity of the camp, and musketry practices were gone through by the Battalion; special classes in Lewis-gunnery were commenced to train men to complete the new establishment for Lewis-guns, which had now been increased to 2 per company.
June 30th.—The camp narrowly escaped being destroyed in the middle of the night by a gigantic grass fire with a front of 1/2 mile, which swept towards the camp at a rapid pace. The whole Battalion was turned out to deal with it, when a sudden change of wind diverted the course of the fire, and a disaster was thus narrowly averted. The mountain known as Deve Kran (generally known as "Gibraltar"), a razor backed peak 1,600 feet high, rising sheer from the surrounding plain, was blazing throughout its length with burning grass at the time, and the combination of the burning mountain, the burning plain, and a terrific hurricane and thunderstorm, was an awe inspiring spectacle which will remain long in the memory of those who witnessed it.