Trenches and Trees - Chapter 5, continued

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. Nearly every donkey we saw had a raw open wound on its rump where it had been prodded. Sometimes we came across a big fat Turk stride a small donkey followed by a number of veiled wives carrying huge loads on their heads, up hill and down dale. We would stop the Turk and make him get off the donkey, then we would put one of the wives astride the donkey making the 'master' take up the woman's bundle. The old Turk would make a great fuss and would have to be persuaded with a bayonet pointed at his tummy. If possible we would escort the party for a while to make sure the Turk didn't topple his wife off and resume his usual place.

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. Our platoon also got another new officer, straight out from England with no active service behind him. He spoke as though he had a large plum in his mouth and with a very posh accent. We soon had him weighed up as a complete dud and a terrible snob so he got no respect from the platoon and we only obeyed him because we jolly well had to. The men would do anything for a good officer but when they came under the command of a clot like our new officer, they did everything with a 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".

Written by Harry Williams 1965, 2010. All rights are strictly reserved. This publication may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, typescript, recording or otherwise, without prior permission in writing. Scanned from the original typescript and edited by Leigh Graham.

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abbreviation: Non-Commissioned Officer.
An NCO is a soldier who has been given authority by a commissioned officer. The NCO corps is the 'junior' management of the military. Typically NCO's serve as administrative personnel, as advisors to the officer corps, as trainers and as supervisors of the lower-ranking or less experienced personnel.


A member of an ancient Finno-Ugrian tribe that settled in what is now Bulgaria and adopted the Slavonic language; a Bulgarian.

Tommy or Tommy Atkins.

Tommy Atkins (often just Tommy) has been used as a generic name for a common soldier for many years it is particularly associated with World War I. German soldiers (equivalent nickname: Jerry) would call out to Tommy across no man's land if they wished to speak to a British soldier. French and Commonwealth troops would also call British soldiers "Tommies". The origin is a subject of debate, but it is known to have been used as early as 1743; A letter sent from Jamaica about a mutiny amongst the troops says "except for those from N. America ... ye Marines and Tommy Atkins behaved splendidly".

Qui vive.

A condition of heightened watchfulness or preparation for action.
[French, (long) live who? (a sentry's challenge to determine a person's political sympathies): qui, who + vive, present subjunctive of vivre, to live.]