A “Mention” and Malaria: 2

I was very ill for some time in the canvas hospital in the hills outside Salonika, but when I had recovered a little (though not enough to walk), I, together with about fifty other Malaria victims, was moved down to the docks and embarked in a hospital ship to be taken to Malta.

Map showing relative positions of Salonica (Greece) and Valletta (Malta)

When we were being carried off the ship on stretchers at Valletta we were welcomed by a number of English ladies in lovely summer frocks and presented with cigarettes, sweets and fly-swatters.

Not having seen any woman for over two years, we thought those girls really beautiful. I spent some weeks in hospital there in a great stone building which had obviously been army Barracks at some time. When we were on our feet again we were allowed to go to the beach and bathe in the sea. The spot we used was a lovely sandy bay, where St. Paul was said to have been ship-wrecked, and we could wade out quite a long way in safety. I learned to swim and thoroughly enjoyed my convalescence. The decent food, beds with clean sheets and freedom from the chores of army life after three years in the Front Line, made a wonderful change and was sorry when the time came to leave and return once more to my battalion.

I was still rather weak when I rejoined my unit and the fever had reduced me to a bag of bones so that at first Bill and my other pals did not recognise me until I spoke. Bill soon brought me up to date as to what had happened while I had been away. There had been no major developments, just the usual run of patrol and small skirmishes. Several more members of the scout platoon had gone down the line with malaria; otherwise they were all still going strong.

His bouts of malaria were not officially recorded so when the ‘Y Scheme‘ was started his name was never included. After the War he did not receive any extra pension for suffering the fever. It continued to affect his health and for many years after the War he had to have several weeks off work each year, usually in January or February.

Map showing relative positions of Salonica and Serres (Greece) Dorian and Belasica (Serbia) and Struma (Bulgaria)

About the middle of 1918 our division moved away from the Struma Plain and took up new positions on the right of the Doiran Front. Here the foot-hills gradually closed in until they met and there was no more plain.

The Front Line trenches were much closer together here and the work of the scout platoon completely changed. From patrolling large areas of the Plain and doing out-post work we were now restricted to short night patrols and listening posts much the same as we had experienced in Flanders. Our casualties became more frequent and more numerous and we soon became aware of the fact that the troops on the Doiran Front had been having a tougher time than we had.

Throughout the next month or so, Bill and I were ‘sweating on the top line’ in the leave stakes, knowing that we were among the few left who had been through the ‘Whit-Monday do’. We suffered terrible pangs of doubt and despair when rumours were bandied about, presumably by those who were not in the running, that all leave was stopping because of a big push. Eventually when we were listed to go with the next leave party we could hardly believe it and the last two or three patrols we did after the good news were just agony.

There was a very strong superstition in the trenches that those about to go on leave and those just returned from leave were prone to get bumped off and there were many cases in my experience where men, and particularly officers, just back from leave, got killed almost immediately. However, nothing terrible happened to Bill and me and we duly marched away from the battalion with a great feeling or relief and joy. It didn’t seem real to us at all until we found ourselves on a troopship with hundreds of other elated troops on the way to Blighty, after three and a half years in the Front Line. I had been away from the front twice before, once when wounded in Flanders and again with Malaria, but Bill had never been away for a single day so he must have felt the relief and change much more than I did.

Map showing relative positions of Salonica (Greece) Taranto and Faenza (Italy) and Nice (France)

The ship took us to Taranto where we entrained in cattle trucks and spent nine days and nights travelling the length of Italy and across France. The journey was tiresome and wearying as the train would pull into a siding and stay for hours without moving.

Once the train stopped there would be a mad rush to the water hydrant with towels and soap to get a wash, whilst those who put their bellies before cleanliness would go to cadge hot water from the engine-driver to brew up. Sometimes, when there was a stop the cry would go up, “Rations up!” and one man from each truck would madly dash off to the QM stores at the end of the train to draw bread and bully or jam, which he would carry in a blanket. On one occasion, the train having stopped for the day’s rations, one poor chap, struggling with a blanket full of loaves and tins of bully, spilled the lot and before he got going again the train started and the last we saw of him was a frantic waving of arms. He was left behind but at least he wouldn’t be hungry like the forty blokes still waiting for their rations!

Somewhere along the French coast, some said it was Nice, others said it was Cannes, the train stopped just outside a large resort and before anyone could stop them, several hundred Tommies threw off their uniforms and raced in a mad rush into the sea, completely naked! It must have been very awkward for the lovely ladies strolling by; they wouldn’t know which were NCO’s and which were ordinary Tommies! Bill and I had been very wary of moving far from our particular truck in case we got left behind but in this case the temptation was too strong and we had our first and only bathe on the French Rivera. This incident was one of two which remain vividly in my memory after fifty years. The other was a stop at Faenza in Italy where we left the train and were given a jolly good meal seated at tables in some large hutments.

The war we have just been through,
though it was shot through with terror,
is not to be compared with the war we would have to face next time.

Woodrow Wilson (1856-1925) US statesman.