Memoirs & Diaries - The End of Bulgaria
After nine months in France, I joined the East Lancs. at Gugunci, travelling overland from Cherbourg to Taranto, thence by steamer to Itea, and finally by motor and rail across wild Greece to Salonika. On disembarking at Dudulah, an enemy aeroplane greeted us with its heavy drone, but proceeded on its way to bomb an ammunition dump some distance away.
After going through the usual routine (bound by broad red tape), at Summer Hill Camp, I was, along with sixty or seventy others, duly despatched to my unit. I was thankful to find the unit at rest, occupying dug-outs in the base of a large hill.
As it was early March, the weather was cold but fine. Occasionally the cold was accentuated by the laziest wind I have ever known - "the Vardar Wind". Our "rest" was short-lived: orders to return to the line awakened us to our senses, kits were soon packed, and we moved off in good time, to reach our objective about dusk.
In Pearce's Ravine we were joined by a squad of Greek muleteers who carried our rations and rum. "A" Company, led by a dour Scotsman, then branched off and took a direct route over the top. On we ploughed our way in silence, meanwhile breaking up into platoons with 50 yards or so between, until the line was in sight. I was marvelling on our good fortune so far, when the serenity of my thoughts was rudely shattered.
There was a terrific series of explosions. I had barely time to throw myself flat, and take cover behind my steel helmet. I felt the ground tremble beneath my body.
Pandemonium reigned. The company was scattered as if by magic, and the cries of men and mules rent the air.
After what seemed to be an eternity. we pulled ourselves together and reached our sector. Instead of going to posts as arranged, we were picked out haphazard. Specialization qualifications did not count; signallers, Lewis-gunners, bombers, and riflemen were jumbled together, sorted out in threes and fours, and sent to various posts.
Along with two others, I was found a post in No.3 bay, and, feeling much like a jelly, I took first turn on the fire-step. My rifle I placed on the parapet, and I peered out into beyond for the next two hours. My turn over, I paced the bay in an effort to speed up my circulation, but with little success.
Few words passed between us until midnight, when a corporal ordered us to relieve an outpost in Jumeaux Ravine. We slouched off and wended our way down a sap until we reached our destination and relieved our comrades, who made all haste back.
Our physical position was uncomfortable, having to stand on sloping ground; all on sentry together, one facing half-right, ready to call for artillery assistance by means of a Verey light pistol, the other facing his front, rifle in position with one "up the spout", whilst the third turned half-left, holding two icy-cold Mills' bombs that were to be thrown to cover our retreat in case of attack.
Our cover consisted of sand-bags piled breast high in two rows. Long before time for returning the cold had numbed our bodies, our tongues were silent, and, had the enemy chosen that particular time to pay us a visit, our resistance would have been feeble indeed.
The hours dragged wearily on, and as dawn pierced the blackness of night we turned about and scrambled back to our trenches. We all "stood to", and I peered beyond the parapet, waiting expectantly for the full light of day, which revealed the magnificent Belachitza Mountains, standing grim and gaunt frowning upon us from afar. Lake Dorian rested at their feet in quiet repose, a haven of rest for thousands of wild birds that met in wailing congregation each morn.
Directly in front of us stood Petit Couronne, backed up by its parent, Grand Couronne. Both had been bombarded incessantly, and they seemed to tower over us hurling their defiance in our teeth. Away on our left the "Pips" arrayed themselves, five in number, all in line, each succeeding one taller than the other. They glared at us with their bulk and seemed to say: "Five sentinels are we, Pass us if you can."
I was awakened from my reverie by the terse order "Stand down!" A rum issue followed; we didn't get drunk off it either: and breakfast consisted of tea with no quality excepting a high temperature, bacon which had been fried to the crispness of a frosty morn, and bread.
After devouring our portions, we recovered our composure to some degree. 'Tis a wonder to me we ever recovered anything after the happenings of the previous night. Not being required for further exertions, we found sleeping places, mostly small dug-outs capable of holding three or four at once, and "got down to it".
I was awakened by a sergeant ordering me to fall in at 6.30 for burial fatigue. My whole being revolted against the necessary reminder of last night's jolting; I never could face the gruesome task of giving the last rites to fallen comrades.
I ascertained the casualties from unofficial sources: these being nineteen killed and wounded, along with four mules; among the dead were one sergeant and two other ranks who came out with me. Poor devils! They never had a chance to fight, being put out before seeing the front line or the enemy.
I duly fell in and was one of the party detailed off to dig pits to bury the carcases of the four mules. We laboured through the night. A drizzle set in to our discomfort, and our greatcoats felt like lead casing. Interruptions were many; a machine gun kept us bobbing up and down at irregular intervals.
We left off at dawn, but the results of our work would have made a decent navvy laugh. Four nights it took us to complete our job, including the dragging of the carcases a distance of 80 yards; and how they stunk as their bellies burst when we rolled them into the pits! If it took us four nights to excavate those pits, we filled them up in less hours, relieved to get away and return to normal trench duties.
Winter gave way to summer, and the weeks lengthened into months. We held the front line, reserve, and finally a short spell of rest. We returned to the fray looking the worse for our exposure to the merciless rays of the sun, with faces and knees resembling the colour of mahogany.
Horse Shoe Hill proved to be our residence, and from there a good view was to be obtained from Doldzeli in the west, stretching along the front beyond Dorian and along the Belachitza Range. How different they looked after casting their winter mantle, donning a covering of magical light; beauty of an untamed variety was there, even to my hard-baked eyes.
The "pips" stood up in front of us, not unlike a huge railway embankment reaching to the clouds. Many hours have I spent in roaming the lower and nearer ones, in the darkness of night or by the light of the moon.
Owing to a large decrease in strength caused by the playful antics of Johnny Bulgar, who treated us to many displays of accurate shooting with trench mortars, crumps, grenades, machine guns, and a few personal visits, these, coupled with malaria, played havoc amongst us - despite all precautions, including nets for bivouacs and faces.
I was posted as linesman to "A" Company and I thought myself in for an easy stretch, but I was soon to have my illusion dispelled. For a few days everything went smoothly, until one day, after a "strafe" on our right, the line of communication was down. Waiting until early dusk I ventured out without rifle, but kept my helmet and gas-mask.
Running over the wire with one hand, it led me a dance, down ravines and up again, over and round much scrub until I found a dug-out at the other end. After introducing myself and the nature of my visit, I turned about, baffled, but determined to trace the wire more carefully.
In ceasing once or twice to regain my breath I could not help but admire the beauty of the scene. The silvery moon, spreading out her beams of light to play in phantasy among the hills and ravines, held me momentarily enraptured. My breath regained, I eventually discovered the cause of my wanderings. Having found both ends of the wire, I sat down close to some bushes and a path.
So engrossed was I that the challenge, "Who goes there?" startled me out of my wits. I managed to mumble back, "East Lancs."
These spirits proved to be a party of pioneers led by an officer who were out on wiring duty. They passed by. I completed my job and took a circuitous route back to our lines. I was pleased with myself on returning, every line being in order, and I snatched a short sleep before I took myself off to the cook-house for an early drink.
On popping my head through a doorway a corporal bawled at me. "Who was out on the b-- lines last night?" "Me," I replied. "Why?"
He answered, "You lucky b--. The colonel received a complaint concerning a shady looking suspect on the wires. He immediately collared me and two men and sent us out to shoot at sight, but nothing could we see of him."
I then informed him of the route I had taken in returning. A jolly good job for me that I had entered into the spirit of the night that whispered of peace and tranquillity. The incident passed over, and I made my way back to the dug-out with a firm resolve that never again would I attempt alone the dangerous duty of repairing broken lines (and I never did).
Some time later, just as we were about to be relieved, the line running out to Pip 4.5 was down, so it had of necessity to be repaired before handing over. We were short-handed and no one could - or would - go with me.
I waited, during which time our relief came up. Upon explaining the situation, one of them volunteered to accompany me. Off we went, like two hares, intending to be as sharp as possible; we found the break and, kneeling down, started to work, when a hail of bullets whizzed past.
We threw ourselves flat. After a few minutes' wait, we crawled about to find the ends we had let go. It was an eerie experience, and fraught with danger, for each time we arose bullets zipped past us uncomfortably close.
We hugged the ground in our efforts for safety, and stayed there until our task was completed. Beads of sweat stood out on my forehead as we crawled to a knoll about 100 yards away. There we paused to recover our equilibrium and made a dash for our line.
It was no joke being out in front of our lines open to attack by raiding parties of Bulgars, who knew every inch of the ground.
We arrived back at our starting-point panting like a couple of old cab-horses and looking like ghosts. I wasted no time in clearing off, after thanking my comrade for his valuable assistance.
Arriving at our camp rather early I was able to pick a comfortable place to sleep, and did so like a dead man.
The following day we were sorted out and put in order, just like a lot of papers put into their respective files. Some were sent to a special rest camp at Gramatna for a fortnight, whilst I was despatched along with two other signallers for a course of heliography at the brigade headquarters.
To me this was a stroke of luck: it meant a good time, good grub, and no fatigues. It was a great time I had for a month, but little did I know what lay beyond it all. The ways of the General Staff seemed at all times peculiar to the average Tommy, but no doubt they had method in their madness.
During our last days there many rumours gained currency. "We are going to attack" was the gist of them; but where and when was matter for speculation. I felt in a state of perturbation, knowing that the moment was at hand when the giant bulwarks that had looked down upon our forces for three summers and two winters had to be taken.
It was the inevitable, and the prospect could hardly be faced with a smile.
In the meantime our brigade was attacked by a severe epidemic of flu and malaria that swept men off their feet, so that, instead of being shock troops, they had to be withdrawn. I was returned to my unit and soon after my arrival I was laid low, for I too had succumbed to the prevailing malady.
The M.O. sent me to the field ambulance. I lay helpless for days, my body trembling like a leaf and wanting nothing, not even food or drink. I lost all desire to live, but my time was not finished. I slowly recovered, and within a fortnight I was pushed out to rejoin the battalion and take part in the pursuit of the enemy.
The Serbs (gallant fighters) had smashed their way through the Bulgar line, causing them to retire, and we held the mountains that once were theirs. From stretcher to sleeping out under the open sides, on the move all the time, was drastic in the extreme. I felt a sense of novelty in the pleasure of seeing the other side of Macedonia right up to Bulgaria.
After the surrender of Bulgaria we returned to the scene of our former struggles and I stole away one day to visit the Devil's Eye on the summit of Grand Couronne.
It was an impregnable O.P. with a mighty view stretching down to the Gulf; even the shipping could be plainly seen, along with every position in front of it.
We eventually turned our backs upon our newly won territory and marched day after day, weary and weak, towards Stavros. I stuck it until Janesh was reached. My feet had swollen and my toes were like stumps of raw meat. I reported sick the following morning and was left behind to be sent down to hospital suffering from septic poisoning.
In a way I felt glad, but the knowledge that my comrades were equally sick and weary of it all pained me not a little. Hospital was reached; I was popped into a bath and a bed, and indulged in a comfortable sleep, to be awakened by a sprightly nurse requesting me to suck a thermometer.
Recovery was slow, the Armistice was signed, and when the sister announced the fact not a cheer or murmur came from anyone in response. I was too full for words and so were the other inmates. The only thing left was to wait for the ship, home, and loved ones.
Private N. C. Powell joined the 3/5th East Lancs Regt. on April 27th, 1915, at the age of seventeen years. Drafted to the 7th Battalion of the same regiment in France when he reached the age of 19. Served on the Somme and Flanders until the Messines Ridge Attack on June 7th, 1917. Wounded whilst advancing with the first wave over the German third line. Invalided home, June 13th, 1917, until Christmas Eve the same year. Arrived Salonika, January 1918. Served with the 9th East Lancs Regt. on Doiran sectors until February 1919. Demobilised the following month on St. Patrick's Day.
First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.
Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.
Russia mobilised 12 million men during the war; France 8.4 million; Britain 8.9 million; Germany 11 million; Austria-Hungary 7.8 million; Italy 5.6 million; and the USA 4.3 million.
- Did you know?