An Irishman’s Diary on the 10th (Irish) Division and Salonika

War in the mountains

“In memory of those of the Xth Irish Division who fell on Gallipoli and in defence of Serbia”

“In memory of those of the Xth Irish Division who fell on Gallipoli and in defence of Serbia”

 

The Irishmen who arrived in the Greek port of Thessalonica and then marched in appalling weather into a land of steep ravines, mountains and minarets must have wondered to themselves, “what on earth are we doing here?”

Thousands of Irishmen fought and died in modern-day Macedonia, yet the Salonika campaign, as it is known, is almost entirely forgotten.

It only exists in Irish popular memory through the bawdy ballad of the same name. Typically, the song is not about Salonika at all, but about separation women, the ones left behind while their men were away at the front.

Less than 18 months after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, Irishmen found themselves defending the very country accused of the atrocity.

No country suffered more in the first World War than Serbia. The trigger the Bosnian-Serb Gavrilo Princip pulled on the archduke and his wife would eventually lead to the death of 16 per cent, or one in six, of all Serbs.

The country was facing annihilation in the autumn of 1915 when a combined force of Austrian and Germans invaded from the north. Seeking its share of the spoils, Bulgaria joined the Central Powers in October 1915 and invaded Serbia. Alarmed by the escalating situation which threatened his own country, the Greek prime minister requested help from the Allies.

The French committed a division and turned to the British for help. The British were reluctant to commit to any more misadventures in the Mediterranean area after the Gallipoli debacle.

Salonika

Thus did Irishmen in British uniforms find themselves fighting alongside the French on behalf of the Serbians against the Bulgarians in the mountains of Macedonia.

The 10th was the first division to be raised in Ireland after war broke out in August 1914. These were the most enthusiastic volunteers. They signed up to fight the Germans in France or Belgium. Most of them had never left Ireland before. Macedonia must have seemed as remote as the moon.

Many of the men who served in the Salonika campaign were from my hometown of Carrick-on-Shannon in Co Leitrim. “No matter where you go you meet the mountains and they are higher than Sheemore,” James Doherty wrote home to his mother. Sheemore, “that fairy hill where wild flowers grow”, dominates the topography of my part of south Leitrim.

James Doherty signed up in late 1914 with the 6th battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.

The men arrived in Salonika in the late autumn of 1915 wearing just their summer clothes. Before a shot was fired more than a thousand men from the division were treated for frostbite. Summer brought its own hazards.

“It’s very hard to sleep at night for our dugouts are swarmed with mosquitoes and they can sting too, worse by far than the ‘clag’ (midges) at home in summer time,” Doherty wrote home to his mother. “You’d also want to be on your guard for snakes”.

The 10th (Irish) Division’s biggest engagement of the Salonika campaign came 100 years ago this week at the Battle of Kosturino in Macedonia, close to the borders of Bulgaria and Greece.

The 10th had been sent to guard the only mountain pass across the Varder valley. The division was posted on the right flank of the French who in turn were trying to protect the retreating Serbian army which was fleeing from the Austrian attack.

The battle culminated in an all-out assault in the mountains by the Bulgarians who attacked, bayonets fixed, through the mist. Two brigades of Bulgarians fell on the 5th Connaught Rangers.

December 7th, 1915, was the worst day of the war for the Connaught Rangers. Some 138 men were killed in mostly hand-to-hand fighting. A further 130 were taken prisoner.

Among the Connaught Rangers killed that day was Pte Michael McGee from my home town, one of three Leitrim men who died at the Battle of Kosturino. His name is on the Doiran memorial in northern Greece with that of 117 other Connaught Rangers. The telegrams came to homes in the west of Ireland with bad news from a place most of us would still struggle to locate on a map.

His friend Paddy Moran, who had signed up with him, survived the battle. He was known in later life by his nickname “Bulgaria”. The 10th (Irish) Division suffered 1,500 casualties, including 300 dead at the Battle of Kosturino.

The terrain where the Irishmen fought is so steep that a tour party from the Connaught Rangers Association this autumn had to be taken up the mountains in a tractor. Yet Irishmen 100 years ago had to traverse these mountains in summer clothing and full pack in the depths of winter.

The 10th (Irish) Division managed to fight their way back across the border into Greece. The division spent a further two years in Salonika. The front settled down. Salonika became, as the Germans described it, “the biggest prison camp in the world”. In the 1920s three crosses were commissioned to remember the Irish dead of the first World War.

In Macedonia near Lake Dojran there is a Celtic cross. Its inscription reads: “Do cum gloire Dé and Onóra na hÉireann. In memory of those of the Xth Irish Division who fell on Gallipoli and in defence of Serbia and of all Irishmen who gave their lives in the Great War RIP”.