RECORD OF THE 8th (SERVICE) BATTALION (PIONEERS). 1st July 1917 to 31st December 1918.
BASED ON EXTRACTS FROM THE REGIMENTAL CHRONICLE
On the Balkan Front there was a pause in active operations, from the middle of 1917 until the summer of 1918, when preparations for the great offensive began. The following entries were made in the diary of Captain and Adjutant T. N. Watts-Watts, M.C. :-
July 2nd, 1917.—Company training commenced with B Company. All companies reorganized in accordance with "Training of Divisions."
July l5th-August 30th.—All companies in turn training for the attack, and reorganizing companies not at training were employed at work on the Karasuli-Kilindir road. During this period all company officers were in turn attached to the 7th Berks and 9th Glosters for instruction in trench duties in the sector adjoining the Vardar River.
September 1st-October 1st.—Companies in turn were attached to the 7th Berks for trench instruction in M Sector.
September 13th-15th.—Divisional Sports took place at Caussica; the Battalion was second in the Light Weight Boxing, and in the Relay Race.
October 2nd.—B Company moved to Caussica, to open quarry.
October 10th.—Lieut.-Colonel A. P. Barry (Somerset Yeomanry) assumed command of the Battalion, vice Lieut.-Colonel Dobbs, transferred to the 8th South Wales Borderers.
October 25th.—D Company moved to old winter camp in Gjolajak, near Mihalova. C Company to Vergetor, for work at Divisional H.Q. (hutting). XIIth Corps Boxing Competition: Light Weights won by Private Robinson, H.Q. Company of the Battalion.
October 30th-December 31st.—Battalion H.Q. moved to the old winter camp at Mihalova, where the Battalion remained until the late summer of 1918, with companies on detachment, employed on road work, hutting, etc.
Amongst other things, the Divisional Gardens were provided with an irrigation system, and two lawn tennis courts were constructed at the Officers' Golf Club. These were made with mud, rolled wet; an excellent surface was obtained, and the courts were very popular, providing as they did just that break from the boredom of life which most of us in the Balkans experienced.
The following were Mentioned in Dispatches during the above period : Major A. E. Burt, Captain and Adjutant T. N. Watts-Watts, Captain and Quartermaster W. D. Woolen, Lieut. C. S. W. Rayner, Lieut. N. W. Elliott, Lieut. S. C. Leman, 9188 C.-S.-M. H. Wake, 18252 Sergeant E. A. Bradley, 16496 Sergeant C. Baker, 16124 Corporal W. C. Simmons, 15767 Private W. H. Butler, 233508 Private J. T. Crofts.
August 1918. In camp at Mihalova. — Preparations for the autumn offensive began early. Units and their specialists were put through strenuous training, and by September the question of equipment and disposal of baggage was worked out. Only the barest necessities were to be taken; officers were restricted to 30 lb., and men to greatcoats only. Each man wore skeleton equipment (without pack), rifle and bayonet, 120 rounds of ammunition (except signallers, S.B.'s, and transport men, who carried only 50 rounds), steel helmet, S.B. respirator, khaki shirts, arid serge jackets. The packs and their contents were all left behind, as were all blankets and bivouac sheets.
All surplus kits of officers and men of every unit were stored in tents or huts in the camp of the unit. Afterwards, officers' kits were moved to the Divisional Theatre for storage, and ultimately were sent to the Base Depot at Salonika, whence some were eventually recovered—and some were not!
September 6th.—A Company moved from Caussica to Crow Hill (front line), to carry out the preparation of a track across No Man's Land for the use of transport in the advance.
September 12th-19th.—Battalion H.Q. moved to Grand Ravine (near Caussica), preparatory to the advance; but, owing to the postponement of the attack, moved back again to Mihalova on the 19th.
September 20th.—C Company moved from the Crag at Caussica to Gully Ridge on the Vardar front to operate with the 78th Infantry Brigade, and were joined the same day by B Company from Karasuli.
September 22nd.—B Company moved forward to Bulgar front line, Mulberry Hill, on the east bank of the Vardar, and D Company from Grand Ravine to Watch Ravine in No Man's Land. The advance of the whole force, from Seres Plain to Monastir, had commenced.
THE ATTACK AND ADVANCE. On the nights of 18th/19th September and 19th/20th September Allied attacks took place along the whole front from the Struma River to Monastir. The 26th Division had the 77th Brigade (attached to the 22nd Division) operating on the Doiran Front, and the 78th and 79th Brigades on the Vardar Front.
The attacks were carried out with magnificent courage by troops who had already made two attempts on the same heights, and the losses were heavy. The formidable peak known as the Grand Couronne was captured by Greek troops (with British officers acting as guides), and on the famous P. Ridge a substantial advance was made, in spite of mines, Flammenwerfers, and the concentrated shell fire of the Bulgar artillery.
On the Vardar Front the two Brigades carried, out demonstrations. Meanwhile the Serbs on the west of the Vardar had tremendous success, and finally succeeded in breaking through, thanks to the concentration of large masses of enemy troops on the Doiran Front to resist our attack. On the morning of 22nd September news came through that the Bulgars had evacuated their positions between Doiran and the Vardar.
That day began the great advance into Bulgaria, which lasted continuously day by day—never halting more than a short night— until the Armistice was signed on 30th September.
After the Armistice the Division rested for four days in the neighbourhood of Petralic, and then resumed the advance to occupy Bulgaria—a march of six weeks' continuous movement.
During the advance the role of the Battalion was to keep as far forward as possible, repairing broken bridges, improving roads and tracks, and easing gradients, to enable the supplies for the Division to keep pace with our regiments.
Rations were reduced to bare necessities, i.e. bully beef, biscuits, tea, sugar, and very occasionally a little milk. Fresh meat was only issued when obtainable locally from Bulgar cattle; vegetables were sometimes obtained by "private enterprise"; as also were eggs and pork. Bread, made from Bulgar flour, was sometimes issued, but had to be made under trying conditions, the bakers, recruited from units of the Division, borrowing Bulgar ovens in the villages wherein to do their baking.
Rations for animals were extremely short, and all hay on the line of march was commandeered daily to make up the shortage.
During the first three or four days of the advance Bulgar ammunition dumps were destroyed in large numbers by the enemy as he retreated, and the sky was lighted up by night by the fires of food dumps in process of destruction. Over the narrow mountain passes our airmen did fearful execution during the first week upon the enemy's transport. With bombs and machine guns they rained down destruction, and the passes were strewn for miles with the bodies of dead men and dead and dying animals.
Bodies which had lain in the burning sun for days (and even weeks, during the later stages of the advance, after the Armistice) produced a stench which could only arise in a hot country, and this, together with the clouds of dust, rendered marching extremely trying and arduous. The Bulgarian retreat was a rout; transport columns miles long must have converged in the valleys towards the few mountain passes which were available for wheeled transport, and the congestion in these passes must have been of the densest nature. Apart from the damage caused by our Air Force and Artillery, there were signs on every hand of the tragedies which had occurred through the inability of underfed and overloaded animals to haul their loads up the steep ascents—sometimes five miles long without a break, and always with a precipice on one side.
Overturned carts and wagons, bullocks, horses, and donkeys, with their loads, fallen over the precipice, motor lorries (German, with iron shod wheels) stranded or overturned, loads of equipment of all kinds shot down in heaps by the roadside—such were common objects with us for many days, and no great effort of the imagination is necessary to picture the appalling and unspeakable horror of the days through which the Bulgars and their transport must have passed during this first week of their retreat.
September 23rd.—H.Q. and A Company left Mihalova with the: regimental transport at 0300 hours, and marched to Reselli, camping for the night in No Man's Land. D Company advanced from Watch Ravine to Bogdanci; C Company from Giilly Ridge to Petit Mamelon (an evacuated Bulgaij front-line position).
September 24th.—H.Q. and A Company to Bogdanci via The Nose arid Boyau Hill, passing through the Bulgar front line wire at the latter place. D Company moved to Furka.
September 25th.—H.Q. to Kasariduli; B and. C Companies to Furka; A to Dedeli (to repair broken bridge), and joined by D Company during the day.
September 26th.—H.Q. and D Company to Kosturino; A, B, and C to Rabovo. The Battalion entered Bulgaria on ascending the Kosturino Pass.
September 27th.—H.Q. to Popcevo. All four companies proceeded to the broken bridge south of Popcevo, to construct a detour across the river bed.
September 28th.—Halt and rest.
September 29th.—H.Q. and all four companies to Strumnica.
September 30th.—H.Q. to Petralic ; the four companies to Dabilja, for road work. The Armistice was signed.
October 1st.—Battalion H.Q. "remained at Petralic; B, C, and D Companies returned to Cam (south of Strumnica) to repair the mountain road, which was in bad condition owing to rain. A Company to Jenikoi, to repair roads and culverts..
October 5th.—B, C, and D Companies from Cam to Kuklic.
October 6th.—H.Q. left Petralie and met B, C, and D at Trnovo, being attached temporarily to the 77th Brigade Group.
October 7th.—H.Q., with B, C, and D Companies, remained at Trnovo. The weather very bad; this is the sixth wet day in succession ; every one soaked to the skin; no bivouacs or shelter of any kind. A Company from Jenikoi to Kilo: 24 on the Petric Road.
October 8th.—The Battalion, less A Company, moved to Kilo: 28 on the Petric Road, and on the 9th to Kilo: 23; A Company with the 78th Brigade at Kilo: 6.
October 10th.—A Company moved to Livunovo Bridge (Struma River); the remainder of the Battalion to Kilo: 6 on the Petric Road.
October 11th.—A Company to 3 miles north of Gomendje-Dere Bridge (Struma); remainder of Battalion to Livunovo Bridge.
October 12th.—H.Q., with B, C, and D Companies, moved to the Bistrica River, and next day to the aerodrome east of Gorno Mikrovo, while A Company moved to Han Gradesneca.
October 14th.—C Company joined A (with 78th Brigade) at Han Gradesneca, and the remainder of the Battalion marched to the same village.
October 15th.—H.Q., B, and D Companies stood fast and rested, while A and C Companies moved to Krupnik, by Decauville light railway, through the Kresna Pass.
This Decauville is a fine piece of work, and was constructed during the war chiefly by Serbian and other prisoners. It is about 150 miles long, about 3-foot gauge, and connects the Rupel Pass in the south with Radomir in the north.
The line through the Pass is intensely interesting: on either side are precipitous mountains, and on the west side is the road which continually appears and disappears as it winds round ridges of rock or dips into a cleft in the mountain side. Some of the road gradients are extremely stiff, and all the way through the Pass the east side of the road has a sheer drop—in places of many scores of feet—to the River Struma whirling along below. The scenery is very impressive, and the railway journey through the Kresna Pass was undoubtedly one of the most interesting events of the long trek into Bulgaria.
October 16th.—H.Q., with B and D Companies, moved by rail to Krupnik; the regimental transport by road to Kresna. On the arrival of our train at Krupnik, Ave found an ambulance train (Bulgar) in the station. This was full of wounded Serbs, who had been Bulgarian prisoners of war, and were on the way to our base for repatriation in accordance with the terms of the Armistice. The unfortunate Serbs were in the most deplorable condition; many were half starved, and most of them were dying from neglect and ill treatment.
They had been herded into their train with almost less care than would have been bestowed on cattle, and the timely arrival of the O.C. of one of our Field Ambulances must have been the cause of saving several lives. The train was taken over by our R.A.M.C. immediately it was discovered.
October 17th.—The transport arrived at Krupnik, having broken the journey last night at Kresna. The road through the Pass was strewn with broken down German lorries and Bulgar wagons, some of which had fallen over the precipice, at the foot of which the dead drivers and teams were still lying. A and C Companies moved by road to Simitli (about 5 kilos).
October 18th.—H.Q., with B and D Companies, moved by road to Simitli, in charge of the 77th Brigade transport, of which our C.O., Lieut.-Colonel Barry, was placed in command. This involved a good deal of extra work for him and the other H.Q. officers. A and C Companies marched to Karasukoj.
October 19th.—A and C to Kocerinovo; remainder of Battalion to Karasukoj,
October 20th.—A and C to Slatino ; remainder to Kocerinovo.
October 2lst.—The remainder of the Battalion joined A and C at Slatino. This ended our marching, subsequent movement farther north being carried out by rail.
October 22nd.—The Battalion (less transport) moved by rail to Radomir via Dupnica. This rail journey was undertaken upon the same Decauville line by which we came through the Kresna Pass. We loaded the whole Battalion on two trains together with all equipment. We arrived at Radomir the same day, and encamped for the night in a very boggy field, beside the main broad gauge line which connects Radomir with Kustendil. The transport left Slatino the same day to march to Dupnica, and thence by stages due east through Samakoff to Kosternec, on the main line between Philippopolis and Adrianople.
October 23rd.—The Battalion, less C Company, left by the broad-gauge line for Mustapha Pasha, where it arrived the following day. Here the whole Division (except a proportion of its transport) was concentrated, with a view to attacking the Turks at Adrianople. Full preparations for the attack were made, but on the 31st October Turkey sought an Armistice.
In the meanwhile the Battalion transport had reached Kosternec, the march occupying five days; the limbers and pack mules all travelled without loads, except forage. Parts of the country passed through were found to be exceedingly fine, especially Samakoff, where there is a royal palace. At this place there is also a large American Mission Station, where the British officers, received a warm welcome, and spent a pleasant evening in civilized surroundings.
On arrival at Kosternec the transport was to have proceeded by train to Mustapha Pasha to rejoin the Battalion, but only a portion did so, the remainder staying at Kosternec until we moved north to Rustchuk, on the Danube.
The Division spent three very boring weeks at Mustapha Pasha, weather generally wet and very cold, and the camps all pitched near the railway, in low-lying, swampy ground between the railway and the Maritza River. Training, football, and various physical exercises were practised in order to keep the men as warm as possible, and much time was spent in providing shelters (bivouacs), in view of the possibility of a long stay.
A great deal of work was carried out in this way, and vast quantities of wood cut down for the construction of these wind-screens. Some units suffered severely from Spanish influenza, but our own turn was destined to come later,
November 19th.—A Company moved to Copaceni (Roumania), to repair a bridge damaged by Mackensen's troops (German) in their retreat through Roumania.
November 9th.—B Company moved forward to near Adrianople to repair bridges, etc., but returned next day to take part in a forward movement of the whole Division.
November 13th.—The move of the Battalion by rail to Rustchuk commenced, and all companies, with their transport, had joined H.Q. by the 28th, the actual railway journey from Mustapha Pasha occupying four days.
November 20th.—The Battalion was attacked by Spanish influenza and lost many men, who were buried in Rustchuk Cemetery. The weather now was very severe, and though a large number of the Divisional transport animals were stabled in barns and sheds, many died daily from exposure.
November 28th.—D Company arrived from Mustapha Pasha, having been left behind to do loading and guard duties for the Division. A detachment of A Company visited Bucharest, and took part in the recoronation celebrations of the King and Queen of Roumania.
December 12th.—A Company rejoined at Rustchuk from Copaceni.
December 22nd.—Lieut.-Colonel A. P. Barry proceeded home on leave, and Major A. E. Burt assumed command of the Battalion. H.Q., A Company, and the transport proceeded by rail to Varna, on the Black Sea, arriving on the 23rd.
December 23rd.—B, C, and D Companies proceeded by rail to Varna, where the Battalion remained for the rest of the year.