Oban man’s sac­ri­fice in the Salonika Cam­paign

The Oban Times - - HERITAGE - MHAIRI LIV­ING­STONE ed­i­tor@oban­times.co.uk

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...

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