Grouses in Greece: 2

Apart from being very conscious of any lack of ‘know-how’ on army procedure and drill, I enjoyed the responsibility my unpaid stripe gave me.

As compared with civilian life the responsibility put on the shoulders of young lads was very great indeed. Once a youngster put up even a single stripe he was entrusted with tasks requiring a great deal of wisdom and courage, not the least of his troubles being the forcing of his will on men who took little interest in the job in hand. On patrol for instance they would move like elephants crashing through the under-growth, they would stand exposed on the sky-line and do a thousand daft things which would give them away to any enemy patrols or look-outs unless continually checked and controlled by the NCO in charge.

When we finally left the camp at Ijvatli it was like leaving home. We had made ourselves so comfortable in our dug-outs that it was a sad day when we had to walk out for the last time.

The the poor rations and lack of tropical kit for protection from the sun caused the the men to complain. They were convinced that those responsible for sending them to Salonika had forgotten all about them, they were a forgotten army.

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

Once we left the Serres Road there lay between us and the Struma Plain about ninety kilometres of continuous mountain, hills and valleys with no roads, the only tracks being those made by generations of sheep.

Donkeys seemed to be the main means of transport and the way the locals used to load up these poor beasts used to anger us. In the distance we would see what looked like a haystack slowly moving towards us and as it got closer we would see four little hooves moving along underneath. Behind would be a Greek or a Turk prodding the animal’s rump with a sharp pointed stick.

Harry and his comrades took pity on the donkeys, removing it’s Turk ‘master’ from the saddle and putting one his wives astride the donkey making the ‘master’ take up the woman’s bundle. Some old Turks were reluctant to co-operate until persuaded with a bayonet pointed at his tummy.

All the villages in Macedonia were inhabited by a mixture of nationalities, Greeks, Turks, Serbs and Bulgars, so that there was a variety of mosques and minarets, gleaming white in the bright sunshine and looking very picturesque, especially from a distance, for as one got nearer the smell detracted somewhat from the beauty. The sanitary arrangements in the villages were very suspect and the flies thrived in droves. The villages seemed immune to the irritation of the flies, not bothering to brush them off their faces. They would sit with several flies crawling round their mouths, eyes and noses. Dogs of all shapes and sizes and of very mixed origin abounded in the villages and were the official scavengers.

The most numerous inhabitants of the hills were the tortoises. There were literally thousands of them, some the size of a thumb nail, others, which we called ‘Granddads’ were huge things, possibly a hundred years old. When resting it was not unusual to see a group of Tommies holding a race meeting with tortoises and gambling quite heavily on the result. There was little by way of entertainment in the life we were leading so those who could get a little fun and excitement out of such simple things were very lucky indeed.

About this time we lost our CO. He went on leave and in his place we got a much older man, red faced and white moustached, a typical, regular army colonel of the old school. He was reputed to have been a secret service agent up on the Persian Gulf. His name was Colonel Smythe and he was nicknamed ‘Doggie’, though no one knew why. His particular fad was a keenness for patrol work and scouting. He instituted a scout platoon attached to HQ’s. This platoon did none of the routine work of the battalion, but set about training for the specialised work of scouting, patrolling, sniping and observation post work.

The platoon also got another new officer, straight out from England. He spoke with a very posh accent, they soon had him weighed up as a complete dud. The men would do anything for a good officer but for this clot like they did everything with bad grace.

Word came through that the Divisional General was going to test our defences by trying to get through our out-post so we were all told to be on the ‘qui-vive‘. The three men I had with me did two hours on look-out and four hours off. They were keen enough at first but by mid-day their interest flagged and the heat got the better of them and when not actually on look-out they slept.

I never took my eyes off the area under observation so it came as a great surprise when in the late afternoon my platoon officer with his sergeant appeared on the scene. He proceeded to tell us off in no uncertain manner for letting the general and his staff pass through my sector without being challenged. When I got the chance to put a word in I told him that I had never taken my eyes off the sector for one minute and that I was certain no one had gone through. It was no good. He told the sergeant “Take his name and bring him up at defaulters”.

I had always to remember that I could have lost the war in an afternoon.

Lord Jellicoe (1859-1935) British admiral.
Referring to the Battle of Jutland, 1916.