Oban man’s sacrifice in the Salonika Campaign
STRUMA Cemetery, north of Thessaloniki in Greece, is a peaceful place.
Surrounded by elegant Cypress trees and far enough away from the friendly taverna and barking dogs of Kalakastro, it is tended meticulously and with respect by the local people. It is a fitting place for the dead of the Salonika Campaign to lie.
Among them is a boy from Oban. He was a member of the 1st Argyll Mountain Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery. He was 22.
William John McRae was born in Argyll Square, Oban in 1895, the fourth son of William McRae and Annie MacIntosh. His father was a joiner who had come from the McRae heartlands of Kintail to find work and had met and married Annie MacIntosh, whose roots were on Lochawe-side.
William had built a fine, two-storey villa for his growing family on Glenmore Road and named it Balmacara after his own family home in Ross-shire. However, by the outbreak of war in 1914, three of their seven children, including their only daughter, were already dead.
Young Willie was enrolled in Rockfield Road School as pupil 3378 and, following family tradition, attended the Free Church. He was an enthusiastic member of The Boys’ Brigade, attending weekly meetings in the Memorial Hall adjacent to the Congregational Church and taking part in parades and church services. During his formative years, he, like his brother Alister, became an accomplished piper and when he sailed from Greenock on a stormy August day in 1914, his pipes were stored safely in the hold between horses, guns and kitbags. He and his comrades were confident of being home by Christmas.
With training completed at Bedford Barracks, the men from Argyll sailed for war through the Straits of Gibraltar, stopping in Malta briefly and on to the island of Lemnos, off the Turkish coast for quick training in amphibious landing. They arrived at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915.
Incredibly, the Nominal Roll of 271 N.C.O.s and men of 4th Highland Mountain Brigade, including the Argyll Mountain Battery, has survived and is in the safe keeping of Argyll and Bute Council Archives in Lochgilphead.
It was in the pocket of a Warrant Officer when he went ashore at Gallipoli on the 25th April. The stains of the salt water are clearly visible and it contains the names of all the men from the Brigade who took part in that catastrophic campaign. Among them, William John McRae.
As part of the 29th Divisional Artillery, the 4th Mountain Brigade was first ashore on West Beach, Cape Helles. Being highly mobile and carrying relatively light artillery, they were to provide the first cannons on the ground once the beaches had been secured.
The mountain gunners were in continuous action until August when they were withdrawn to a nearby island, refitted and returned, as the first artillery ashore, for the second wave of landings at Suvla Bay to the north.
From August till December 26, they fought on at Suvla, though this action was also doomed to fail. Most of the men were still wearing the uniform, boots and kit they had on when they first landed in April. Here, as in the south, they suffered indescribable deprivation, were constantly in jeopardy from sniper bullets, artillery shells or the new menace, aerial bombs, and suffered from extremes of heat and cold, rain and frost, shortages of food and water and disease.
The Allied offensive of autumn 1916 had captured more than 400 square miles of territory but had failed to destroy the enemy, so a conference was held in Rome in the new year to discuss the Balkan Front.
General Maurice Sarrail’s plan was to mount the main assault by Serbian forces from the Moglena Mountains, the French and Italians were to hold the road along the River Crna and the British would advance towards Serres in the Struma Valley. This aimed to prevent the Bulgarian forces moving westward to regroup against the main Serbian attack.
Sarrail’s previous autumn offensive had seen the Argyll Mountain Battery providing direct artillery support for the attack, which advanced its guns with the infantry. Under Major E.G.W. Carter, the brigade had been equipped with new 2.75-inch mountain guns and animals and all available field artillery was dug in along the River Struma. Adding might to this firepower were the six-inch howitzers of XXXV11 Heavy Group.
To ready themselves for the attack, men from 2/Cameron Highlanders, 1/Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and 1/ Royal Scots established bivouacs – tents using a combination of waterproof sheeting, sticks, string and pegs – between the Serres road and the village of Mekes. As the fighting started, the pipe-major picked up his pipes and ‘walked quite calmly at the head of his unit. The poor chap had not gone very far when he was hit, he fell but went on playing his pipes as if nothing had happened.’
For the last few months of the Salonika Campaign, the Allies successfully held back the Bulgarians along the Struma.
Various records, including war d iaries, have survived from these dark days. Eye witness accounts also provide an insight into the desperate living conditions for the men. In the Struma Valley, life could be very unpleasant as the river frequently broke its banks, flooding the surrounding plain.
‘The trenches were full to their brims with water, the dugouts were full to their roofs. All we could do was to bivouac on the occasional patches of dry ground that appeared above the floods. The weather was bitterly cold. It was impossible to dry anything. The ground all around our line was overgrown with long grass, brushwood and, occasionally, with small patches of jungle. The enemy sharp-shooters had constructed frequent pits, just deep enough to hold one man, who, by standing upright, could fire, under cover of the long grass, right into our posts.’
From time to time, whale oil was issued to be rubbed into the feet, offering some protection from the cold and wet. Mosquitoes and flies were legion and made life a misery. Ants and beetles, three-four inches long, added to the infestation. Summer resuscitated the snake population and wild dogs were endemic. Even cats had to be eliminated as they got into the cook houses and stole food.
Throughout the campaign, therefore, disease, rather than the enemy, would claim the most casualties. The ratio in the British Salonika Force of non-battle to battle casualties was 20:1.
By the summer of 1918, the Salonika Army was full of listless, anaemic, unhappy, sallow men whose lives were a physical burden to them and a material burden to the army; who circulated backwards and forwards between hospital and convalescent camps, passing only an occasional few days at work with their units, then being sent away to do the round of hospital and ‘Con. Camp’ again.
Having survived shelling and gun-fire, dysentery and malaria, searing heat and bitter cold, William John McRae died of an intestinal obstruction in a casualty clearing station in the Struma Valley.
On his gravestone, his parents paid this tribute: ‘Dear Willie your life was lovely and pleasant and you died in glory’.
He died on November 9, 1917, 100 years ago. He was 22.
Clockwise from main photograph: William John McRae is pictured here fourth from the left, middle row; William John McRae’s gravestone in Salonika; The Nominal Roll of 271 N.C.O.s and men of 4th Highland Mountain Brigade, including the Argyll Mountain Battery, has survived. It was in the pocket of a Warrant Officer when he went ashore at Gallipoli on April 25.