Trenches and Trees - Chapter 6, continued

Some days later, having kept the village under observation during every hour of daylight, we were informed that the CO was ready to have a go at taking the village. On the CO's instructions I had made a number of diagrams, showing the village, trenches, barbed wire, etc., and on them I marked out the route to be taken, well clear of the village and the trenches on each flank. The scouts job was to lead the way ahead of the companies and when the advance started we were to follow on providing a rear guard.

The night was fairly dark and we managed to get the companies into position behind the village without being discovered. They moved forward and about twenty minutes later we heard the first rifle shots and a good deal of shouting and commotion. The enemy had been taken completely by surprise, most of them being asleep. Any sentries they had posted either surrendered or after firing a few shots, were either shot themselves or captured. The officer commanding the Bulgars was captured in his pyjamas together with all his maps and papers. The men in the trenches, bewildered at being attacked from the rear, surrendered after firing a few panicky rounds. We returned with this whole company of Bulgars, less those killed in the operation, and we suffered nothing worse than a few wounded men. The next day, and for several days, the enemy shelled the village with all they had, but as we were not there, we quite enjoyed the fun.

Harry and the scout officer spent the next couple of days interrogating this new batch of prisoners. Soon the battalion moved out of the line back into the foot-hills. Harry kept busy making maps of the next sector they were to occupy.

Our next sector at the line differed from all other sectors. Here the River Struma made a wide a wide sweep towards the Rupel Pass and was much nearer to the Bulgar lines than ours and therefore most of our patrol work was done on our side of the river. At one point there was a large tree about thirty yards or so from the river. Ten yards from the tree was a large patch of scrub, five or six feet high and mixed up with a kind at bramble with great thorns which tore lumps out of one's uniform. Unless one negotiated it very slowly and carefully, one's face, hands and knees received nasty scratches.

Bill and I ventured over the river well into Johnnies territory on one occasion and we had to move very carefully and keep a very good look-out for patrols. We had gone as far as we thought safe and were lying peering over the edge of a sunken track to see if there was anything doing in the enemy lines when there came into view a cavalry patrol of about eight men, their galloping ponies raising a little cloud of dust. They did not appear to be aiming directly towards us so we kept them under observation for a time, hoping to find out how far and where they patrolled. We lost sight of them presently and decided that they were following one of the numerous sunken trenches with which the plain was criss-crossed.

When next we saw the patrol they had obviously changed direction and were walking their ponies straight for us; they were only about five hundred yards away. If we had made a run for it they would easily have cut us off as we were a long way from our lines. We decided therefore to let them come closer and then fire on them in the hopes of scaring them off. Bill, as usual, acted as my observer and lay there watching through his glasses and occasionally giving me the estimated range. At four hundred yards they once more broke into a gallop. "Let them get to a hundred and fifty yards," I told Bill, and as he watched he called calmly "Three hundred yards Harry." Pause. "Two hundred yards Harry." Pause. Hundred and fifty yards - right!"

I had the leading member of my patrol in my sights and as I pressed the trigger I saw his pony lunge its forelegs in the air and the rider fall to the ground. My first shot caused panic among the patrol who immediately swung their ponies round and raced away for home, the rider-less horse chasing after them. One member of the patrol stayed to do a circus act in getting his dismounted comrade up behind him and then he too charged off, urged on by the bullets that Bill and I were now sending after them. When they had got well out of range we started back for our lines, Bill still quite calm and unruffled, whilst I was shaking with excitement still. I never met anyone who could keep calm like Bill no matter what happened, he never showed any signs of nerves or excitement. He would lie at my side observing as unconcerned as if were practising on the range.

"That first shot of mine was a rotten one; I completely missed the man and grazed his horse," I remarked.

"Haw! Haw! Haw!" guffawed Bill, "you didn't half put the wind up the blighter though! Haw! Haw! Haw!"

I reported our little encounter with Johnny to the scout officer and he instructed me to keep a good look-out from our out-post for cavalry patrols. The result was that we were able to record much patrolling of the area by Bulgar cavalry. One patrol came as soon as it was light each morning and having crossed the river, made for lone tree on our side of the river. Once there, the patrol dismounted and lazed about under the tree, whilst one, presumably an officer or NCO would climb the tree to have a look at us through his glasses.

Having had the movements of this early morning patrol reported to him and learning that they came at the same time and by the same route each time, our CO decided to do something about it. His plan was simple enough. Three small parties were to go out before dawn and lie in wait for the Bulgar patrol. One party would be hidden in the scrub immediately in front of the lone tree. They were to wait until the officer climbed the tree and then jump out and take the patrol by surprise. The two other parties would be posted fifty or sixty yards away on each flank. I was allocated the centre post and was disturbed to find that I was given only one other scout, Bill, the rest of my party being men from one of the platoons. The rest of the scouts were shared by the officer, who would be on my right, and another scout corporal who would be on my left. I tried very hard to get more scouts in may party but it was no use.

I got my men together on the evening before the ambush and explained with diagrams what we were going to do. The men of the platoon didn't seem keen or particularly interested so I told them unless they carried out my orders properly we stood a good chance of being shot up! I laid particular stress on the need for absolute quite once we were in position and that no one was to fire unless he got a direct order from me. Next morning the officer and the other party moved out first and my party followed twenty minutes later, having given them time to get in position. On the way out I had to stop my party several times and insist that they stop talking and making so much noise. Although they had been told that the Bulgars would cross the river soon after day-light and make for the tree, I could not create any impression on them and they seemed quite incapable of using their imagination. My chief fear was that once they realised that the enemy was only a few yards away, some fool would fire and give as away.

I finally got my men in position and soon I heard a soft whistle which I recognised to be from my officer who had come over to make sure we were properly concealed and in the right spot. He said I was too near the edge of the scrub and ordered me to move five feet further back. I tried to argue that it was essential that I was able to see the enemy when they arrived so that I could pick the right moment to rush out and capture them. He would not have this and so I was placed in the position of having to control five men who had not been trained for this sort of game and at the same time judge the Bulgars position and movement by sound only. As it gradually got lighter I whispered to my men to be absolutely motionless as we should very soon hear the enemy patrol crossing the river. Now that the time was getting near I could sense that they were getting jumpy. Bill was the only one I could rely on and I began to wish that he and I were doing the job on our own.

It was not quite light and presently I tensed as I thought I heard some noise out to our front. Signing to my men to be quiet, I concentrated on listening. Suddenly we could hear quite clearly the horses crossing the river. Some of my chaps made a move to get on their feet but I savagely signed to them to keep down and put my finger over my lips for silence. I was trying very hard to guess from the sounds we could now hear quite plainly, what the Bulgars were doing. I heard them talking together and was about to give the signal to rush out when one of my men lost his nerve and fired a shot. With this, revolver shots came thudding into the scrub around us and before I knew what was happening all my men, except Bill, dropped their rifles and fled, tearing their uniforms and hands to ribbons in the scrub.

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: Commanding Officer.
The Commanding Officer is the officer in command of a military unit. Typically, the Commanding Officer has ultimate authority over the unit, and is usually given wide latitude, within the bounds of military law. In the British Army the title of Commanding Officer is reserved for commanders of major units (regiments, battalions and similar sized units), almost invariably holding the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.


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

Johnny (Johnnie).

Johnny was a nickname for Confederate soldiers by the Federal soldiers in the American Civil War 1861-1865. In this context it is intended as a reference to the enemy.


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.