H. Collinson (Harry Collinson) Owen.

Salonica and after, the sideshow that ended the war online

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ing hills, and at one p>oint, at Horseshoe Hill, passed
over the lower slope of the same long hill, the famous
"Pip" Ridge, whose higher undulations, or Pips, were
held by the enemy himself. Our position there was
much as if one lay precariously in the gutter of a roof
top while one's enemy lay on the apex of the roof
shooting downwards. For over two years we held on
to this particular position, and at one time — to con-



tinue the metaphor — estabhshed ourselves a little way
up the roof tiles, a position which we never abandoned,
although what became for a time part of our trench line
was held afterwards only as advanced posts, owing to
the cost of maintaining them.

For weeks and months on end the same infantry man-
ning our trenches up in these hills would wake to the
same scene ; the tumble of brown stony hills stretching
for miles on either side ; with the two main Bulgar bas-
tions, Pip 2 and Grand Courorme, ever frowning down ;
with entrancing peeps down towards the ruined town
of Doiran and the big circular lake, reflecting the most
wonderful colours at early morning or at sunset ; and
beyond the lake the 5,000 feet crests of the impressive
Belashitza Range, standing up like a purple wall. On
all the nearer hills, amid which the scene of the fighting
was set, there was not a single tree, hardly a green blade
of grass. Only in the ravines was there to be found
occasional scrub clothing the steep sides. And yet with
all their unvarying barrenness it was a magnificent pros-
pect amidst which our men lived for so long ; with a
view that extended far beyond the shining ribbon of the
Vardar on the west, away to the mountains overlooking
Monastir; with the broad valley running eastwards
from the lake, bounded by the Belashitza and the
Krusha Balkan Hills and, behind, the fiat plain as far
as Janesh, with the heights that enclose Salonica to be
seen on clear days. One forgot the absence of trees after
a time. The effect of light was so magical that there
was beauty and to spare, of a wild untamed kind, even
for English eyes. In that little classic of the B.S.F.,
known as The Song of Tiadatha, the author, Captain
Owen Rutter, pays a tribute to the beauty of the scene
he so often saw from the trenches of the 7th Wiltshires
down near the Lake :



*' Very lovely is Kyoto

In the days of cherry blossom ;

Very lovely is the splendour

Of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains;

Lovely are the coral islands

Strung like jade in the Pacific;

And the palm trees of Malaya,

Black against an orange sunset.

Lovely are the long white breakers

On the beach of Honolulu,

Even as the Thames Embankment

On a misty day in Autumn.

Gib. at dawn, Hong Kong at evening,

Lights of Rio, in the darkness.

And the Golden Gate of 'Frisco,

All of these are very lovely.

Yet I know a sight still fairer,

Doiran red and grey and yellow.

Clustered on the Serbian hillside.

Gleaming in the morning sunlight,

Ever gazing like Narcissus,

Down upon its own reflection

In the lake that laps its houses."

But one may at last have one's fill even of beauty,
especially when that beauty conceals within its fair
bosom the constant menace of sudden death, and when
the fortune of war forces one to gaze upon the same scene
of exile for one year, two years — nearly three years.
During nearly the whole period in Macedonia the 22nd
and 26th Divisions shared this front between them,
and from their trenches saw fair Nature's changes ;
her wonderful, infinitely varied box o' tricks, during
three long baking summers and two winters. And
always Grand Couronne and the Pip Ridge looked down
on them, impregnable, barring the way. They knew
that some day they would have to try and take them,
and no infantryman on the Doiran front could con-
template that eventual prospect with a smile.

From the arid plain that spread behind our line, the
hills rose steeply in a formless jumble. Our lines were
planted well into this welter of stony heights and
ravines, but ahead of us where the Bulgar was en-



trenched the hills rose ever higher and higher. And
all this great expanse of treeless, tumbled earth, in
which twenty hills looked exactly like twenty other
hills, and one depression exactly resembled another,
had to be mapped most exactly, and every feature had
to be named. The French had christened some of the
outstanding features before we came, but afterwards
we added scores of names to the map — The Hilt, The
Knot, The Blade, The Tassel, Sugar Loaf, The Tongue,
Dorset Ravine, Trout Back, Roach Back, Whale Back —
and very many more. The most striking feature in our
own front line was the long rounded bulk of Tortoise
Hill, whose name exactly suggests its shape. It was a
big feature in the landscape, and yet, from the Bulgar
heights beyond, it seemed one modest hump amongst
a hundred others. How safe they must always have
felt up there, on top of the roof. No wonder they
laughed during some of our attacks, and cried derisively
to our men as they toiled up the slopes towards them,
" Come on, Johnny, goddam you ! " (The Bulgar who
spoke American English was by no means a rare bird.)
From our own trenches running along the crest of
Tortoise Hill one looked immediately across a great ex-
panse of ravine to where, some six or seven hundred
yards away over the gulf, ran the Bulgar trenches along
the summit of Petit Couronne, a steep hill of about the
same height as Tortoise Hill and the main bastion of
the Bulgar front line. This deep cleft which separated
the two strongholds was known as Jumeaux Ravine — a
name and place of evil memory, where many of our men
laid down their lives. Often after the heavy battles of
1917 our night patrols, scrambling in and out of the
rocky bed of the tiny stream that meandered along it,
would come across the remains or the smashed equip-
ment of some of our poor fellows. It was a grim place



to patrol in at any time, with the steep side of Petit
Couronne running sheer up to the enemy trenches some-
where above. But on the occasions when it was filled
with the flame and roar of high explosives, so that in
that confined space men were killed without even being
touched by the hail of jagged fragments of eight and
twelve inch shell, it must have been the gaping, roaring
mouth of Hell itself.

There was much else to be seen from the trenches on
Tortoise. To the right and left serpent^d our own
line ; down towards the lake and up over the crest of
Horseshoe. Ahead, looking over and beyond Petit
Couronne the ground rose in fold after fold cut across
by innumerable ravines running in all directions until
at last the eye was arrested by two outstanding sum-
mits — on the right near the lake Grand Couronne, and a
little to the left of it (joined by the saddle known as the
Koh-i-noor), P. 2., the vital point of the Pip Ridge.

As mountains go, these two main Bulgar strongholds
were not enormous to look at. In the great panorama
stretched before one they were backed by high snow-
topped mountains which made the nearer heights look
exactly what they were ; rolling, rounded hills such as
you might find in Cumberland, but as bare of vegeta-
tion as the Downs of Sussex. The highest point of Pip
Ridge was somewhere about 2,200 feet, and Grand
Couronne was some two or three hundred feet less. It
needed more than one visit to the front, and more than
one study of that rolling panorama, for their full signi-
ficance to sink in. And then at last it began to be
plain that the two bald crests, with the tumble of
smaller hills leading to them, constituted, as one
General who had much to do with them said, " the
strongest natural fortress in Europe." I have seen
Messines Ridge, and Vimy, and Achi Baba, but they



do not begin to compare with Doiran, although the
famous hill at the Dardanelles is a smaller edition of
Grand Couronne. All the way up to the crests the
ground in front makes a natural glacis. Each succeed-
ing ripple or height is dominated by the next above it.
The Grand Couronne, securely based on the lake, helps
the Pip Ridge, and from the Ridge overwhelming artil-
lery or machine-gun fire could be — and was — directed
to smother anything happening on the slopes of Grand
Couronne. Every detail in the whole position interlocks
with all the others, and running westwards from the
Pip Ridge down towards the lower ground, in the direc-
tion of the Vardar, were two spurs, Dolina and Little
Dolina, which diabolically completed Nature's perfect
scheme of defence and made any attempt to advance
up the narrow, elevated causeway on top of the Ridge
a thing as near the impossible as anything can be.

From many miles away one saw the great hump of
Grand Couronne, always in view as one crossed the last
plain towards the hills of the front. At its crest was a
great white scar, due to the continual pounding of our
guns which smashed and re-smashed and then disinte-
grated the rocks near its summit. And just above the
white scar could be discerned a tiny black dot. This
represented the narrow look-out slits of the iron and
concrete observation post built at the summit. Some
body named this the Evil Eye, and nothing could des-
cribe it better. Everything we had and nearly every-
thing we did was overlooked by this baleful O.P.
Practically the whole of our lines were an open book
to the enemy. They could look down on all our trenches
zig-zagging across the landscape ; look into them even,
so that every corner had to have its leafy screen, and,
behind, our roads up which the transport came had to
be similarly screened at all sorts of points which at



first one would never dream were overlooked. But
nothing could screen the plam beyond, and it was an
open book to them, and on the clearest days they could
trace our roads practically to the edge of Salonica itself
and with glasses could pick out what was coming up
them. We looked up and saw only their roof top. They
looked down and saw everything that was going on in
our drawing-room or garden. We should have been lost
indeed without our splendid aviation service which,
here as in France, completely outclassed the enemy in
individual work and dash and whose photographs, taken
by the thousand, were the only offset we had against
the Bulgar's superiority of positions. And the big
white scar on top of Grand Couronne showed the only
method we had of temporarily blinding the Evil Eye.
Our shells that burst there in the crumbled and pul-
verised rock threw up clouds of dust which hung in front
of the watchers embedded in their concrete and steel.
We put many direct hits on to the O.P., but we had
nothing heavy enough to destroy it, as one realised when
the opportunity came to examine it. On top of the Pip
Ridge was another O.P. much less easy to see, but our
gunners knew exactly where it was, and at one time
and another dropped hundreds of shells round it.

But much as one realised the strength of the enemy
positions by looking up at them, it was only when —
after the victory — we were able to ascend them and
look down on ours that it became apparent what a tre-
mendous, if not impossible, task we had been " up
against " in trying to storm these hill fortresses streng-
thened as they were by ample heavy artillery, by every
device known to the science of modem warfare, and
manned by strong garrisons of picked troops, who lived
for the most part in security in their great dug-outs
blasted in the solid rock and who wanted for nothing,



either in clothing, food, comfort, munitions or equip-
ment. Some time after the vict<)ry I spent three days
in clambering up and down the ground over which our
men had fought. And as two of us stood on the summit
of the Grand Couronne, just in front of the famous O.P.,
looking away down the slopes to what were once our
lines, my companion, an artillery Colonel, said, " Well,
no wonder the Bulgars used to laugh at us and say we
were mad ! "

Those three days were really hard work, although the
weather was cool and we were travelling light. And
throughout them I thought of our poor chaps fighting
over the same ground in grilling hot weather, encum-
bered with their equipment and their bombs, gasping in
their gas masks, and knowing that when they arrived
breathless at the top of a slope they would, if they were
not shot down immediately, have to fight at close quar-
ters with a hardy Bulgar peasant who had only been
lying down on the top of the ridge, working the bolt of
his rifle or helping to fire a machine-gun. One's legs
ached with the climbing and scrambling, but one's heart
ached more at the idea that after their three years of
sticking it through the campaign so many of our lads
from the English shires or from Wales and Scotland
should have fallen on these barren slopes ; weary men,
burdened with their loads, gasping in the heat, perhaps
almost welcoming the bullet that added their clay to
the clay of this alien land.

To explore Grand Couronne, the little Ford van took
us along the lake road, through mined Doiran Town,
and so up the steep winding road to the back of the
fortress. There were heaps of every kind of munitions
and equipment still lying about — treasures for a whole
army of souvenir hunters. Then we explored the mas-
sive dug-outs with their huge timber baulks support-



ing the roofs of solid or piled-up rock. For the officers
there were wonderful little houses, steel-lined, solid and
comfortable ; the sort of place a British battalion com-
mander would have blushed to live in, feeling that he
was even better off than the gorgeous people who fought
their war in Whitehall. For all the men, too, there was
accommodation infinitely better than ours dreamed of.
The Bulgar is generally a brutish, low-grade peasant,
but in the war of positions at Doiran he was a much
more favoured individual than our men — with the ex-
ception that in the cold weather he suffered more from
the north wind.

But it was when we had climbed up the winding,
rocky communication trench up to the O.P. at the sum-
mit that we realised what Grand Couronne meant.
There lay what for so long were our positions, an aver-
age of a thousand feet below. Between us and them
were three strong Bulgar lines, clearly defined, the near-
est only a couple of hundred feet below us down the bare
slope with its smashed rocks. And there, just imme-
diately in front of the final Bulgar line, v/as the position
known as the Rockies, to which a few of our men fought
their way in the final offensive, and where Lieut.-Colonel
Burges, of the 7th South Wales Borderers, won his V.C.
We clambered down the slope, and at everj'^ step kicked
against the fragments of our own shells ; marked the
steeply rising ground cut across by ravine after ravine
up which our men had come on to the attack, and mar-
velled again how they had managed to win so far with
scores of securely placed machine-guns playing on them.
From where we were the rounded Tortoise Hill seemed
a very modest eminence. It was not a very clear day,
but the whole of the Janesh plain was open to view, and
at one moment we caught a glimpse of the sea near
Salomo?. One could imagine how on one of those

22 J

n =1 S

M o H Si


startlinirly clear days which are frequent in Macedonia
the whole of the British territory was laid bare to the

But impressive as it was in its overpowering strength,
Grand Couronne paled before the sinister perfection of
the Pip Ridge as a place to defend against attacking
troops. The day after visiting Grand Couronne, we
climbed up to v/here our trenches crossed over Horse-
shoe Hill at a height of a little over 1,500 feet, the same
trenches won by the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry
in August, 1916. Out of these we scrambled on to the
smashed, scarred ground which had been pounded by
thousands of shells, trench mortars, bombs and aerial
torpedoes, whose fragments (with a considerable ad-
mixture of " duds ") were lying everywhere. Horse-
shoe Hill is really a part of Pip Ridge itself. We walked
on through the tangles of wire up the Ridge, churned
up, every foot of it, by explosives, until we came to the
knolls known as P. 5. and P. 4>^. This latter was the
furthest point up the ridge on which we were able to
establish ourselves in the Spring offensive of 1917, and
for a time this murderous spot was part of our trench
line. But we had to withdraw from both positions as
contmuous trenches and retain them only as strong
points; not only because of the cost of holding them,
but because it was impossible, owing to the exposed
position, to run communication trenches directly back
to our line on Horseshoe, and communication had to be
maintained obliquely up and down the steep sides of
the ridge.

Just beyond here, to the right, the hill-side runs down
steeply through the Corne du Bois (an isolated patch
of stunted trees) down to Jackson's Ravine, a bit of
country hidden from the enemy, and on the hillside we
could see the lines of white tape still lying there which

225 Q


marked out the assembly points in the 1918 attack.

And here also were even more touching relics of an
attack which was a sacrifice in order that victory might
be won elsewhere. There were many British graves,
with sad, gruesome reminders of what we all return to,
sticking up out of the soil. Most of our troops fell at
P. 4^ and P. 4., but far onwards, up the Ridge towards
P. 3., were found the bodies of some of our men who
had gallantly struggled forward.

The Pip Ridge is an inclined causeway up in the
clouds, in parts no more than forty feet wide and with
the sides dropping steeply away to right and left. It
may be fairly likened to a railway embankment lifted
up to a great height, and with one end tilted up so
that a heavy gradient is formed. Up the sides of the
hill, over the narrow crest and down the other side, our
advanced trenches ran, the Bulgar wire beginning at
P. 4^., five or six hundred yards or so further on. It
can be imagined what it was like to charge up this
steep road, with the Bulgars barring the way with
machine guns. It was hard work even walking up the
Ridge. At P. 4^., the scene of several desperate hand-
to-hand encounters, we found the Bulgar trenches prac-
tically obliterated. Hundreds and hundreds of tons of
metal had been thrown up there by our guns far below.
The trenches at P. 4. were also badly smashed. Here the
heaviest fighting and our heaviest losses occurred in the
opening attack of 1918. A further 500 yards upwards
and we came to Pip. 3. Here, to the left, runs out and
down the spur of Little Dolina, seamed with Bulgar
trenches, an extra buttress to the defences of the Ridge,
and if this combination were not enough, a little way
beyond runs out the bigger and parallel spur of Dolina
which was the final touch of perfection in the defence
of the ridge. It was an amazingly formidable combina-



tion. At P. 3. the deep trenches were badly smashed
by our artillery, but not almost entirely flattened out
as were those on P. 4|. Many of the deep rock-cut
dug-outs were still intact, even though some of our
heaviest shells had thudded on them, and from out of
these the machine-guns came which largely caused our
attacks to wither away. An unobtrusive little chimney
or ventilating shaft poked its nose up above the ground.
One traced it down below, and there, thirty or forty
feet under the surface of this high stronghold, the enemy
sat in comparative security from the " heavy stuff "
(eight-inch was the heaviest we had) which we flung
from miles away down below.

A further stiff walk and at last we were up on P. 2.,
long known as Hill 535, although its height in metres is
really 692. This was the chief objective of the British
attacks, both in 1917 and 1918, and standing on it one
realised the appalling task set any troops in trying to
capture it. From here even Grand Couronne is domin-
ated, away across the saddle of Koh-i-noor, and if we
had gained it and held it firmly, the whole Bulgar
defence system from the Vardar to Doiran would have
fallen. But in spite of repeated bravery and sacrifice
of the highest order, in which our precious, sparse bat-
talions lost up to sixty and seventy per cent, in casual-
ties, we never succeeded in driving him off these twin
strongholds. They were held in strong force by picked
troops who, when our barrage had lifted, came out of
their rocky dungeons and raked our men with machine
gun fire ; our poor pigmies labouring up those vast hill-
sides. But the attacks had to be made both in 1917
and 1918, and without the sacrifice paid there victory
could not have been bought. But as one stood on the
battered observation post at the summit of P. 2. and
looked across at the parallel slopes of Grand Couronne,



one felt sad to think tliat men who in 1915 could not
have told you where Macedonia was, should have to lay
down their lives in such an unfriendly and hostile place
in attempting the impossible. In January, 1919,
General Henrys, the Commander-in-Chief of the French
Army in the Balkans, visited this ground in company
with Majdr-General Duncan, commanding the 22nd
Division. I talked to him shortly afterwards of his im-
pressions up there, and he agreed that he had never
seen ground so wonderfully adapted for defence, and so
hopeless for tJie attacker.

A third day we devoted to an exploration of the
Jumeaux Ravine, Petit Couronn^, and the ground im-
mediately around it. And in quite a different fashion
this was as impressive as the Pip Ridge. When at the
bottom of the Jumeaux Ravine, you are in a deep V-
shaped cleft whose walls run up the sides of the Tor-
toise and Petit Couronne to a height of three or four
hundred feet. At other times it might attract as a
jolly place to explore ; the sort of wild spot in which
an adventurous boy would feel jast a little scared
if alone. But as a battleground, a place where men
were caught under a barrage of heavy shells, it is too
dreadful to contemplate. All along the sandy floor of
the ravine we saw the remains of Bulgar heavy shell,
eight-inch and twelve-inch, and various unexploded
trench-mortar bombs as big as footballs. In no place
could one imagine the blasting and rending power of
modern projectiles being so terrible as down at the
bottom of this gorge, in the darkness of the night with
the air split by blinding light and the rocky walls re-
sounding to the deafening crash of high explosive. In
the 1917 attack our men came down the tributary
ravines — Dorset, Hand, Claw, and the rest — leading
from our positions on Tortoise. Each narrow tributary



gully was heavily barraged, but the main enemy fire
was reserved for Jumeaux, and this was a blazing,
crashing Hell. And yet they crossed it and swarmed
up the steep sides of Petit Couronne and captured the
trenches, and remained there until well on in the next

Having explored the entire length of Jumeaux, we
climbed up to Petit Couronne itself, and walked along
or near the trenches on its crest ; in and out of the wire,
stumbling, jumping. To our right yawned the deep
Ravine, and rising up from it on the other side was the
steep flank of Tortoise. The Bulgar never attacked us
on our chief stronghold. It was our grim fate to have
to try four times to drive him from his.

It was in such country as this, down and across these
deep ravines, and up the sides of the opposing hills,
and on the long slope of Pip Ridge, that the British
Forces had to make their Spring offensive in 1917. The
conflicting factors which go to make up an Allied Com-
mand, which is in turn one small branch of a world-war,
willed that we should attack this iron, impregnable
front at a time when no operations were going on else-
where in the Balkans. The enemy knew that we were
going to attack, and made elaborate preparations to
receive us. Our new preparations, such as the regis-
tration of the artillery, inevitably gave him a pretty
shrewd idea of what we were about to attempt. His
formidable positions were now organised to the highest
pitch of perfection. We knew that his artillery was
at least as strong as ours, and that he had far more
heavy guns than we possessed, our highest calibre at
that time being six-inch. But the battles that followed
revealed that he was much stronger than we ever
thought ; that he had been keeping quite a lot of artil-

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Online LibraryH. Collinson (Harry Collinson) OwenSalonica and after, the sideshow that ended the war → online text (page 17 of 23)