Patrolling the Plain

The view that met my eyes once I reached the top was breath-taking. Immediately in front of me the hills rolled away in gradually decreasing heights, down to the vast extent of the plain, lying there like a huge sun-burnt billiard table.

In the middle foreground wound a huge elongated silver serpent, the River Struma. Beyond lay more burnt up plain, like a desert, dotted here and there with an oasis and gleaming white minarets which showed that there were villages there. In the far distance was a huge back-cloth, which from my maps I knew to be the Belasica Mountains, and they seemed to rise straight up like a wall to the heavens. Over to my right the plain stretched as far as the eye could see, whilst to the left it lost itself in another tumbling mass of hills.

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

Half left from my look-out there was a cleft in the mountain range which I knew from previous study of the map to be the Rupel Pass. I was so impressed with that majestic panorama that I quite forgot my party of men, who were beginning to think something had happened to me.

Their reaction to the wonderful view was a bit more practical than mine. After gazing at it for a few seconds one of them said “My God! Will they expect us to chase the buggers over that lot?”

Building the trench line took several months during which time one of the scouts went sick, which gave Harry the opportunity to get Bill into the scout platoon.

When Christmas 1916 came, we were billeted in a village on our side of the Struma. The mud and wattle dwellings with their earth floors were infested with vermin, including some outsize rats. I was sleeping with about six or seven scouts in one of the huts, our packs against the walls to act as pillows. During the night there was a great commotion and a flood of ‘language’. When someone lit a candle we saw ‘Lanky Lancs’ chasing a rat round the place, flinging army boots and lashing out with an entrenching tool handle. The howls of pain proved that his attack was effective but all the casualties were his own pals and the rat escaped unhurt. When things settled down a bit we found that ‘Lancs’ had a piece of one ear missing where the rat had nipped him. From then on we slept with our heads in the middle of the room and we kept our boots on.

When we moved from one part of the line to another, or when we moved back into the hills on reserve, my tent and panniers were carried by a mule. The first time we tried to load the panniers across the mule, he took an instant dislike to them and to myself in particular. He lashed out, bucked and jumped, scattering us in all directions and we had to fetch the transport sergeant and several of his men, who tied a rope round the mule’s tongue and by pulling his head round a tree they managed to get him loaded.

The summer of 1917 was now approaching and the average winter temperature of 35° was creeping up towards 112° so we were very glad at last to be issued with tropical kit, consisting of khaki shorts, sleeveless vests and slouch hats with pugarees. We also had mosquito nets the same shape and size as our bivouacs and during the height of summer we slept under the nets without the canvas outer covering. For night patrol work, we had mosquito netting for our heads and knees. In addition we now started to receive regular doses of quinine. Each time we went on patrol we had to wade across the Struma and, except in the height of summer, this meant stripping off and wading with the water a sometimes up to our armpits, with our clothes tied to our rifles. Even on the hottest day the water was icy cold and in the winter we would be shivering blue when we got across. I didn’t fancy being taken by ambushing Bulgars in my birthday suit so I always split up my party into two so that there was always someone giving cover. Returning from patrol the process was repeated and on reaching safety we had to report to the MO for an issue of rum.

Some weeks later I had a large boil on the back of my neck and as it was very painful I went to see the MO again, this time in our Front Line trench. He said he would have to lance it and I sat down. He was just about to make the incision when, with a tremendous roar, a whiz-bang shell took off the roof of the dug-out, smothering us in dirt and sandbags. This startled the MO who stuck the lance in my boil giving me so much pain I thought for a moment the shell had hit me. He was full of apologies but at least he had burst my boil and having assured himself that there were no casualties from the shell burst, he returned and dressed my neck, which soon healed up. I still have the scar on my neck.

During a rest period canteen stores arrived that included tinned goods, sweets and barrels of beer. The ‘old soldiers’ soon formed drinking schools.

It was during this rest period that we had a real treat in the form of a visit to a show put on by Divisional RAMC chaps. This entailed a good day’s march in the heat to reach divisional HQ but once there it proved to be well worth it. The theatre was a huge marquee and the stage and scenery were obviously fixed up by professionals. The show was a musical and the cast, of necessity, all male, but the make-up people made a wonderful job of the female impersonators so that they got plenty of wolf-whistles and ribald suggestions. The music and singers were excellent and the comedian had the men laughing their heads off. As usual, much fun was poked at the officers, sergeant majors and sergeants, the cracks being greeted with ear-splitting cheers. We camped the night at divisional HQ and marched back the next day. The men talked about the show for a long time afterwards and vowed it was the best they had ever seen.

Busy sketching away one day I heard someone climbing up the ladder but thinking it was Bill coming up with a ‘drum-up’ of char I went on with the job. A voice, not Bill’s said “Don’t you think that spur should be more to the right?”

“I’m drawing what I see and if I thought It should be more to the right I should have drawn it that way,” I replied and turning round found myself face to face with a general. Before I could apologise he pushed himself into the rough seat I had been sitting on and said “Quite right, Corporal, I was looking at the view from a slightly different angle. Have you noticed anything special?” I set the telescope on some freshly turned earth and told him I thought it was a gun emplacement, and then directed it to another spot where I thought a new trench was being dug.

A few days later the scout officer told Harry to go to a battery of six inch howitzers way back in the hills. He was to start out next morning and he would be provided with a mount. Harry could not ride, so he was promised a quiet horse. Harry’s nerves were calmed as the animal looked too fat to do anything but walk.

The first part of my journey was along one of the roads we had made. After a short time I came to a track leading of into the hills, and we started the hard climb. About mid-day and half way to my destination I came to a stream crossing the track so let my horse have a drink and a rest while I ate my lunch. I rested for half an hour, smoked a cigarette and then prepared to push on. I led the horse to a boulder and attempted to mount him. He had other ideas and each time I reached out my leg to cock it over the saddle, he moved away. This went on for some time, me trying all the ways I could think of to mount him but he countered every move and in the end I gave up and, taking the reins I proceeded on foot, dragging him after me, he with a horrible smirk on his ugly face!