The Suffolks in Salonika during WWI

When we think of the Great War, everyone knows about the trench warfare, many people know about Gallipoli  –  very few people know about the Salonika Campaign… but the Suffolk Regiment was there.

The Suffolk Regiment (aka “The Suffolks”) were part of the British Salonika Force.  The Allied forces had been asked by the Greek government to help the Serbians against the Bulgarians and they started to arrive, many straight from Gallipoli, in the autumn of 1915.

But conditions in ‘Muckydonia’ (as it was referred to by the British troops) were appalling.  In summer, the Struma river plain was covered with stagnant pools and in winter the surrounding hills were bitterly cold and the few tracks through the hills were muddy.  As many, if not more, soldiers died of disease as in battle – mostly malaria, but inevitably dysentery and other disease-related outcomes of poor sanitary arrangements.

Suffolk Record Office’s very own Carol Henwood has uncovered the stories of several Suffolks from the Salonika Force.  She has worked with the Suffolk Regiment archives at the Bury branch of the Suffolk Record Office, and has spent four holidays in that part of Greece with her husband, visiting a friend who shares an interest in this aspect of WWI.  As a result, Carol knows quite a bit about Salonika and shares that knowledge with us here, including her own photographs of the terrain where the Suffolks fought, the cemeteries where they are buried, and many if not all of their grave-stones.

Her other sources include:

October 1916

September 1916

During the whole of September 1916 the 1st Suffolks were based near the Orljak bridgehead. They were either improving the defences and the trenches or making advances towards the enemy.  The pattern seems to be that an advance was made towards a village on the east side of the River Struma. The Bulgars were driven out and the village was occupied, then the troops were withdrawn back to the defences on the west side in the hope that the Bulgars could be enticed to follow and could then be shelled.

It was during the preparation for one such advance that the Bulgars attacked D Coy and the war diary reports that one was killed. That would be Private Rolfe. For the 24th September there is a plaintive entry stating that the river rose 3 ft during the night and flooded part of the defences. It doesn’t take much imagination to conclude that would leave cold stinking water, and mud, in places that the troops were temporarily considering ‘home’.

Three Suffolks died in Salonika in September 1916, and 2 of those had lived in Suffolk.  The numbers involved may seem tiny compared with the carnage on the Western Front. But these men also played their parts.

A view of the Struma valley from the Old Serres Road. The river follows the line of trees crossing mid picture. The Serres Road is a faint white line visible beyond the line of trees and leading to Jenikoy (now Provotas), which can be seen in the distance, mid picture

A view of the Struma valley from the Old Serres Road. The river follows the line of trees crossing mid picture. The Serres Road is a faint white line visible beyond the line of trees and leading to Jenikoy (now Provotas), which can be seen in the distance, mid picture

The Suffolks were not alone. There is mention in the war diary of the 2nd Cheshires and the 5th Fusiliers. If the war diary cannot be found for the regiment being researched, the war diary of any other regiment involved will still provide a picture of the activities and daily lives of all.

And another snippet from the war diary reads: “Two scouts returned with a red flag which had been planted by the Bulgars, in the area of the advances, and with a message “written in very bad French to the effect that the enemy wished us to go back to England as our interests were not here”.

Click on the links below for details of casualties from September 1916:

Private Arthur Edward Rolfe

Lance Corporal William Watson

August 1916

Here, Suffolk Record Office’s Carol provides an account of the activities and events of the Suffolk Regiment in Salonika for August, 1916.

“During July and August 1916 the Bulgarians had advanced into Greek territory, proceeding south along the Struma valley, on the east side of the river where the Allies were on the west. Over 2 nights (31st July and 1st August) the 1st Battalion Suffolk Regiment marched from the camp near Big Tree Well to the Orljak area and set up camp at the 64 kilostone. The Serres Road was an important link from Salonika on the Aegean Sea north east to Serres, a town in the foothills of the range of hills now known as Oros Vrontous. It was one of the few better constructed roads in the area and it had stones to mark the kilometres, as we would the miles; the 64th representing the distance from Salonika. The Orljak Bridge is where the Serres road crossed the River Struma, just short of the 76th kilostone.

Matching the names in the war diaries to the current names on the ground is extremely difficult. Many of the names 100 years ago were Bulgarian or Turkish. Since then, villages have disappeared – or moved – or established out of nothing – and most have been given new Greek names. To which we add that the trench maps drawn up during WWI

are of far better quality than any maps published today. Our Greek friend doesn’t possess a road map, or even a satnav, he just goes roughly in the right direction then asks a pedestrian.

The Old Serres Road has been bypassed but, comparing the trench map with the current map I can make a good guess as to where the 64th kilo camp was – a flatter area part way up from the Struma valley into the hills.

Old Serres Road close to location of 64 kilostone

Old Serres Road close to location of 64 kilostone

Typical view on the Old Serres Road near Lachanas, formerly Lahana

Typical view on the Old Serres Road near Lachanas, formerly Lahana

On 19th August the 1st Suffolks moved to a gully near the town of Orljak. This was the start of their involvement with defending the Orljak bridgehead and the subsequent advance into the villages beyond. During this last part of August they occupied trenches near the bridgehead and the only activity was shelling by both sides.”

Orljak, now Strimoniko, from the Old Serres Road

Orljak, now Strimoniko, from the Old Serres Road

Click on the links below for details of casualties from August 1916:

Private George Merrington

July 1916

The 1st Battalion were on the Struma front in July 1916.  They had relieved the 1st Welch on 7th, making their base at Big Tree Well.  They were responsible for the right bank of the Butkova River, from the junction with the Struma River to the western end of Lake Butkova, a distance of about 7 ¾ miles.

looking north east, over the Struma River valley, towards the hills above Sidirokastro, formerly Demirhisar

looking north east, over the Struma River valley, towards the hills above Sidirokastro, formerly Demirhisar

Click on the links below for details of casualties from July 1916:

Lance Corporal Herbert Gilbey

Private Harry Parr