WW1 British Troops fighting with the Serbs -The Macedonian Massacre

WW1 British Troops fighting with the Serbs -The Macedonian Massacre

An old Article written by Bob Black who gave permission, he thought it would be of interest and could poss. conjuror up some odd scenarios for games .......



The Macedonian Massacre




The very title South Wales Borderer’s conjures up an image of men in red coats standing beneath a hot African sun, defiant behind their meelie bags against the outnumbering Zulu impis. But it was not only in Africa or in red tunics that the SWaBs earned glory or medals.


They followed the Greeks, and when the Greeks were cut down the few survivors joined them as they fought their way up the Grande Couronne. When they reached the summit they waited for their own barrage to lift, and then found themselves caught in a murderous close-range crossfire; heavy machines and trenches full of riflemen opened up on them, killing most of them in the first few seconds. Those that were left rose up from the mountain peak and charged, only to be cut down. Only one officer and eighteen soldiers survived. They had followed their orders and reached the peak, and there on an unknown mountain in Macedonia the South Wales Borderer’s died.


The story of the SWaBs, the Cheshire’s and the other British Regiments fighting along the Macedonian border began three years earlier in 1915. The Serbs had already beaten back two invasion attempts when in September Field Marshall Von Makensen led three hundred thousand Austrian and German troops, with an equivalent number of Bulgarian allies against the Serbians. Outnumbered, weakened by typhus, and short of ammunition supplies, food and weapons, the Serbians put up a heroic resistance, but one that never had a chance of winning.


The Bulgars split the country and the Serbian forces in two, keeping the main forces in the north. These Serbian army groups fought their last defensive battle at a place well known in Balkan history - Kossovo. Five hundred years earlier in the fifteenth century the Turks had won a great victory here, and a century earlier had defeated a Christian army on the plain that was known as the Field of the Blackbirds. Now a modern army faced defeat here.


The 1st Serbian Army Group fought desperately to keep open an escape route to the South, and it was down this route that thousands of refugees, and what few fighting men were left staggered. It was a long march through the mountain passes, with little to eat and death and disease as constant companions. The Serbian monarch King Peter a cripple from rheumatism walked with a stick until he could walk no further, and his aides carried him. The Crown Prince was carried on a stretcher, after being taken into a peasant's cottage to be operated on for appendicitis. Also carried, but this time in a sedan chair because he was too old to walk was Putnik, the Chief of Staff. With them went Priests, peasants, women and children. The route was easy to follow; it was marked on both sides by the bodies of those too weak, too cold, too ill to move any further.






To buy time the Serbians stood at the head of the Babuna Pass and fought, five thousand against twenty thousand. For a time the Moravian division held back the Bulgars, but again they knew that defeat was inevitable. The 14th Regiment and the 2nd Regiment - the 'Iron Regiment' - were detailed to hold the pass and cover the withdrawal of the remnants of the Moravian division.


They fought until they had no ammunition left, leaving the pass blocked with Bulgarian dead, but still the Bulgars attacked. So the Serbians met them with empty rifles, knives and bayonets, bare hands and their own courage. It was battle with no lines or formations, the Serbians attacked as a mob, and each man fought his own fight. It was more than the Bulgars could stand and they fled in panic.


But there was no ammunition and no reserves, and no way to follow up their temporary victory. The men of the two regiments could only wait for the order to retreat. A few hundred miles south of Babuna lies another pass, where a small group of men fought a delaying battle against an invader. For twenty four centuries the story of Leonidas and his Spartans has stood as an example of how men will fight and die rather than give in to oppression and tyranny. The men of the 'Iron Regiment' and their comrades in the 14th Regiment were no lesser men than Leonidas' Spartans.


The remnants of the Serbian army finally made it to the coast of the Adriatic, and to Corfu. Here they recovered from their ordeal and refitted. Now, in September 1918 they were going home. And this time they did not fight alone. With them went their allies, the British, the Greeks and the French, who brought not only regular troops but Zouaves and colonial troops; men from Africa and the men from the Far East wearing San Pans came to fight with the Serbs.


This time they would win. They had to. When the Austrians had invaded Serbia in 1914 the Serbian army had 650,000 men. Now less than 84,000 were preparing to go home.


For the General Staff the problem was similar to that on the Western Front; infantry could not survive against heavy machine-guns and entrenched riflemen. The Bulgarian-German defences were formidable and based on three major peaks - Koziak, Dubropolje and Sokol. Steep mountainsides with a network of trenches and miles of barbed wire, with only one weakness. Because of the impregnability of the defences they did not extend in any depth. If a breakthrough could be made the enemy would be rolled up.


The plan was simple. A barrage would open up along the entire front, and numerous diversionary attacks would be made. The breakthrough would be made by British troops in the Doiran sector to the east.



If you want to know where the Battalion is, I know where they are,


I know where they are, I know where they are


Western Front Trench Song





On 14 September the barrage begun, and continued for four days. The British were recovering from a severe outbreak of influenza, which had reduced their numbers by half, but they were still ready. The time for the attack was set at 105 minutes before sunrise, or 05.08 hours. A coded message was sent to all troops telling them '508 bottles of beer will be sent to you.'


There was so much smoke and dust from the barrage that the Gunners could not spot their targets, and so the Royal Air Force was called in. Planes of 47 Squadron flew into the barrage and directly over the targets to observe and gather information. These spotting runs were often done at a height of just 200-300 feet, making the planes targets for enemy fire. The planes then turned homewards, dropping vital information to the artillery.


Then at eight minutes past five on the morning of the 18th the British attacked. The 12th Cheshire’s started up a slope leading from what the British called Jackson's Ravine. The first company reached the ridge, met a small party of forty Bulgars and engaged them. Thirty-seven Bulgars were killed and the remaining three taken prisoners. But the fighting had alerted the Bulgars and as the remaining three companies moved up a dozen heavy machine-guns fired on them. Within minutes the Cheshire’s had ceased to exist as a fighting force.


Behind them came Lieutenant-Colonel Bishop leading the 9th South Lancs up the same slope. His battalion met the same fate, cut down in a murderous crossfire from the same heavy machine-guns. The South Lancs were followed by the 8th King's Light Infantry who died just as quickly and just as usefully. Now the Bulgars came down from their positions to attack, and the remnants of the 66th Brigade met them in hand-to-hand combat in a short and bloody battle. Two thirds of the brigade had been killed within a few minutes - eight hundred soldiers and thirty-seven officers - and all for nothing.


But they were not the only casualties. The 3rd Greek Regiment charged the enemy positions, and hidden in a morning mist reached the top of the ridge. Despite it being heavily defended they were able to take it and capture eighty Bulgars. But the morning sun dispersed the mist and the Greeks found themselves alone and in full view of the enemy. Again the Bulgarian heavy machine-guns and rifles took their toil and the 3rd Greek Regiment was slaughtered.


But the attack still went on. Now it was the turn of the Welsh regiments making up the 67th Brigade on the right. The Welsh Fusiliers fought their way to their objective and took it. But every officer and NCO save two had become casualties, as had over half their numbers. The enemy came down from the heights and the Welsh could not stop them. The 11th Welsh then attacked, but fared no better and were beaten back.


The Greeks moved up to attack and the South Wales Borderer’s followed them. The Greeks were virtually annihilated and the few survivors joined the Welsh. Together they fought their way up until they reached the top. When their own barrage lifted the Bulgars cut them to pieces. Their commander Lieutenant-Colonel Burgess was wounded three times but continued to the top where he collapsed. He was captured by the Germans who tended his wounds, and later recaptured by the British. He was the only officer to survive, and one of only nineteen men who lived to say they had climbed Grande Couronne. He was to be awarded the Victoria Cross for his part in the battle.


But it was crucial to break through the enemy position and so the attack continued. The Greeks were relieved by French Zouaves and on the right the 65th Brigade took its place. Where the Welsh had been beaten back it was now the turn of the Scots. The 12th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders attacked, followed by the Royal Scots Fusiliers and the Scottish Rifles. Their courage and determination was no less than the Welsh, but the result was exactly the same. The Argyll’s lost three-quarters of their numbers whilst their comrades in the Fusiliers and Rifles lost over half.




It was the end of the attack. The British Brigades, English, Welsh and Scottish had all been beaten back with severe casualties. There were no more troops left to attack again. For a gain of precisely nothing 3,871 British and 1,350 Greek soldiers had died on and around unknown slopes in Macedonia.


But even as the British and Greeks were dying the two other peaks were being taken. Sokol and Dubropolje were over five thousand feet high, but the Serbian and French troops had used scaling ladders. They had thrown themselves at the enemy positions and the Bulgars had broken. Three thousand of them were prisoners, along with thirty-three guns and the conquerors quickly moved on to take Koziak. By noon they were in position and able to repel the Bulgarian counter-attack. A breach sixteen miles had been made in the enemy line and now five Serbian divisions moved through the gap. If they could keep the enemy on the move, they had won.


They kept the enemy moving, keeping the pressure on the Bulgarians. All day they drove them before them, and at night when the Bulgarians turned to face them they held them at bay. They were aided in their pursuit by the same squadron that had flown low-level reconnaissance for the artillery barrage during that preceded the attack.


Forty-seven Squadron RAF machine-gunned and bombed the Bulgars as they fell back. On 21 September 25 planes dropped a total of over 5,000lb of bombs on the retreating columns.




The Bulgarians never recovered from the defeats on the mountains; two months later the armistice was signed and the war was over. But the cost of the breakthrough had been high. Apart from the British and the Greeks the French lost seventeen hundred and the Serbians two hundred men taking the peaks of Sokol and Dubropolje.


During World War I British troops fought on all fronts, with a variety of allies. The numbers killed on the Western Front dwarf those in Macedonia, but the courage and determination of the British soldier, and his French, Greek and Serbian allies was the equal of any of his comrades-in-arms who took part in any of the more well-known battles from Europe.


'If you want to know where the Battalion is, I know where they are,


They're hanging on the old barbed wire.


I saw them, I saw them, hanging on the old barbed wire, I saw them,


Hanging on the old barbed wire.' Anon. Western Front