This post was written by Don Rhodes and has been published here as part of the Tameside remembers veterans heritage project.
In September of 2016 I was visiting friends in Northern Greece. David and Christine live on one of the northernmost Greek islands. David and myself served together (more years ago now than we both care to remember). Age not having wearied us too much, and with me having an interest in ancient Greece, I persuaded David (he didn’t need a lot of persuading) that we should do a “bucket list” road journey, a round trip of almost 1400 km, to Delphi the most important religious centre of ancient Greece, taking in Thermopylae and the memorial to Leonidas and the 300 Spartans on the way.
Having completed a memorable trip we departed Delphi, intending to take in Thermopylae on the return journey. Hurtling along the E65 (about the same as our A roads but straight and in open countryside), I caught a glimpse of a road- side sign: “British Cemetery”. Sadly, due to time and other constraints we were unable to stop. On my return to UK the thought of this cemetery, alone in Greece, in the middle of nowhere, intrigued me and with the help of satellite mapping and street view I was able to find it and name it as the Bralo British Cemetery, and with the help of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website I found that the cemetery holds 101 graves, one of which is:-
7th JANUARY 1919
Visiting the cemetery
When my 21 year old Grandson Thomas expressed a wish to visit, with me, Delphi, Thermopylae and Athens, this gave me an opportunity in 2017 to retrace my steps and this time pay my respects at Bralo. Thomas and I, on our journey to Thermopylae, stopped at Bralo and paid our respects to Private Burns and the others buried there. The cemetery is very well laid out, immaculately kept and in a very pleasant country location. I don’t believe that the cemetery has ever been visited by relatives, we could find no visitors book, and only casual passers by would see it, and believe me, in its location interested passers by would be few and far between.
Who was T. Burns?
The 1911 census indicates a number of people in Ashton–under-Lyne called Burns but non with the initial ‘T’, perhaps someone else will take up the baton and find out more about Private Burns. It appears that official accounts of the campaign (probably as it was considered unsuccessful) are sparse, and my account below, of only one battle, is a potted version taken mainly from an eyewitness account.
Why was the British Army in this sparsely populated part of Greece?
In October 1915 a combined Franco-British force consisting 2 large brigades was sent to Salonika, (modern day Thessaloniki) at the request of the Greek government to help the Serbs combat Bulgarian aggression. In fact, the Serbs were beaten before the force landed. Against Greek opposition it was decided to keep the force in place. The Greek Chief of the General Staff pro-claimed “You will be driven into the sea, and you will not have time even to cry for mercy.” Even the Greek King Constantine was pro-German. Part of the reason for keeping the force in place was more pragmatic, there was a lack of shipping due to the Gallipoli campaign being underway which had tied up the navy. In early 1916 the Bulgarians, with their Austrian and German allies had fortified the hills around Salonika, and the British had laid so much barbed wire to the north of Salonika it was nicknamed “the birdcage.”
What was the 13th Battalion of the Manchester Regiment?
- 13th (Service) Battalion Sept 1914 Formed at Ashton-under-Lyne as part of the Third New Army (K3), then moved to Seaford, East Sussex.
- Originally part of the Army troops of the 25th Division but soon joined the 66th Brigade of the 22nd Division. Nov 1914 Moved to Eastbourne then back to Seaford and on to Aldershot on May 1915.
- Sept 1915 Mobilised for war and landed in France. Oct/Nov 1915 Embarked for Salonika, Greece in order to support the Serbian forces and against the Bulgarian army.
- June 1918 Left the 22nd Division and moved to France arriving at Abancourt July 1918, transferred to the 66th Division and was engaged on the Western Front.
- 13 August 1918 Absorbed into the 9th Battalion of the same Division.
What happened next?
Greece was technically neutral when the Manchesters arrived. It soon came to light that King Constantine was a German Field Marshal and his wife was the Kaiser’s sister. The King realized that going against the allies would put Athens and his coastal areas at the mercy of the British fleet, nevertheless in May 1916 he surrendered the important Rupel Pass to the enemy. The Bulgars massively fortified the mountain range along most of the British front making an infantry attack almost impossible. The Allied front line was next to the frontiers of Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia and the most important part was the lake and the town of Doiran. About 100 miles to the west of the town is Lake Prespa which marked one end of the line. The other end, to the south east of Doiran, followed the River Struma valley, which had a high incidence of malaria, for about 50 miles to the port of Stavros. About 40 miles south of Doiran, is Salonika through which the Allies were supplied. This became an Allied camp known as ‘The Bird Cage’. The British front line streched from the River Var-dar, west of Doiran, to the Orfano/Stavros area. The 13th Manchesters joined the campaign, which was to last about two and a half years. They were involved in a night attack and four-day battle and only withdrew on account of lack of success by accompanying divisions. They performed routine patrols into the enemy’s mountains, from which some never re-turned, whilst watched by the Bulgars and often under artillery fire. The battalion suffered greatly from malaria, which ensured that the numbers of sick exceeded battle casualties. Roads were almost non-existent and a great deal of man and womanpower was required to construct a network of 445 miles to enable the supply of food and ammunition. Rainfall created a sea of mud which could overwhelm an army lorry. These were the conditions the Manchesters encountered.
Conflicting accounts of the battle
The casualty figures for the 13th Manchesters, show that they were involved in fierce combat during the 24th to 28th April 1917. The Manchester’s objective was a heavily defended steep slope called Pip Ridge, about two miles south west of Lake Doiran. Their attack commenced at 08.00 hrs. on 24th April and the Official History of the Great War reports that the Manchesters achieved their objectives. However the following anonymous account of the battle tells a very different story. It is taken from the a paper ‘I saw the Futile MASSACRE at Doiran, a Plan that was doomed to Failure’ by ‘An Unprofessional Soldier’ on the Staff of 28th Division’ published in 1939:
In the early light of an almost unclouded morning the British and Greek forces advanced in order of battle. The noise of our guns had abruptly ceased before daybreak, and there came that awful pause in which defenders and attackers are braced up to face the ordeal, with fear or desperation, with cool courage or with blazing ardour. Slowly the pale grey smoke lifted in layers of thin film above the ridges, blue shadows deep in every fold or hollow and a dim golden glow on scrub, rock and heather. No one could tell what had been the effect of our gunfire upon those fortified hills. The infantry soldier relies upon the guns behind him, trusting in their power to smash a way for his advance by killing or demoralizing the enemy and cutting up his defences. In this case, if he had any hopes or illusions, the infantry soldier was quickly un-deceived. Our attack on ‘Pip Ridge’ was led by 12th Cheshire’s. The battle opened with a crash of machine-gun fire, and a cloud of dusty smoke began to blur the outline of the hills. Almost immediately the advancing battalion was overwhelmed in a deadly steam of bullets which came whipping and whistling down the open slopes. Those who survived were followed by a battalion of Lancashire men, (Manchesters?) and a remnant of this undaunted infantry fought its way over the first and second lines of trenches – if indeed the term “ line “ can be applied to a highly complicated and irregular system of defence, taking full advantage of every fold or contortion of the ground. In its turn, a Shropshire battalion ascended the fatal ridge. By this time the battle of the “ Pips” was a mere confusion of massacre, noise and futile bravery. Nearly all the men of the first two battalions were lying dead or wounded on the hillside. Colonel Clegg-Hill and Colonel Bishop were killed; the few surviving troops were toiling and fighting in what appeared to be inevitable and immediate death. The attack was ending in a bloody disaster. No orders could reach the isolated cluster of men who were still trying to advance on the ridge. Contact aeroplanes came roaring down through the yellow haze of dust and smoke, hardly able to see what was going on, and even flying below the levels of the Ridge and Grand Couronne (nearby mountain at the top of Pip Ridge and fortified). There was only one possible ending to the assault. Our troops, in the military phrase of their commander, “fell back to their original positions” Of this falling back I will say nothing. There are times when even desperate heroism has to acknowledge defeat.
After falling back the 13th occupied a new line, and repelled four massive counter-attacks by the Bulgars and pushed the enemy back to his own positions, inflicting heavy casualties. The 13th suffered approximately 50 OR’s and one officer killed. The campaign now fell into a stalemate, and nothing is heard of the 13th until they were withdrawn with eleven other battalions in June 1918 and sent to France. They moved by train from Salonika to Bralo, by lorry to Itea, ferry to Taranto and on to France by rail. In France, probably due to the epithet “Gardeners of Salonika”, it was thought that the Salonika Force had never fought. “Have you been over the top?” was the question. Another thing the army didn’t understand was the degrading effect of malaria on the battalions from Salonika. The Official History of the Great War, indicating that the apparent inaction of the BSF was due to its being allocated an excessively large section of the front, and coupled with the fact that the BSF was not expected to give any trouble or cause its distant campaign ever to be talked about, it’s no wonder our knowledge of the campaign is limited. The ‘Unprofessional Soldier’ continues:
Strange how we try to slaughter poor fellows who have no real enmity towards us and whose only fault is obeying their leaders. So back we came to Macedonia, even unto Sarigal, where we bivvied among the mule lines in the mud. Here, on a certain November night, the Greeks on our left sent up rockets and flares and a bugle quavered a call we had never heard before. Our sergeant, coming back from the canteen and his potations said ” Don’t you know the Cease Fire when you ‘ear it!”
Casualty evacuation was originally via ship from Salonika to Malta. In 1917, due to German submarine activity, an evacuation route was established by rail from Salonika, via Bralo, to Itea in the gulf of Corinth, thence by ship to Taranto. Eventually the 49th stationary hospital withdrew to Bralo and it seems that the cemetery was for those unfortunates who died in the hospital, mainly of malaria or the influenza epidemic which struck Europe after the war, claiming more lives than the war itself.
In this 100th anniversary period of The First World War, names are being spoken, dignitaries are visiting, Standards and Flags are dipping, bugles are blowing and honourable words of tribute are being said in France and Belgium, and rightly so. I am thankful that I was able to do my bit to honour one of The Heroes of Salonika.