The 5th and 6th Inniskillings arrive in Salonica, Greece, October 1915
The 5th and 6th Battalions of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers were in 31 Brigade, 10th Irish Division. Their sister battalions in the Brigade were 5th and 6th Royal Irish Fusiliers.
In October 1915, the Division was sent to Greece with a view to defending Greece from a Bulgarian attack and to go to the assistance of Serbia. It arrived in Salonica much under strength after its three month campaign in Gallipoli. The men were in poor physical condition for the trying climate of the Gallipoli Peninsula had sapped their strength. An eye witness said, the faces of most of the men were yellow and wizened and their bodies thin. The 5th Inniskillings’ roll recorded 21 officers and 676 Other Ranks. (the normal OR roll would be around 1000).
The Inniskilling Battalions arrived on board HMT Aeneas on 16th October 1915. An officer of the 6th Battalion wrote his impressions: As one enters the harbour of Salonica the scene is very impressive – a fine looking town surrounded by mountains in rear, and on either side; but upon landing and having a closer observation of the town and its human and material contents, one is immediately struck by the tawdry squalor of the whole place, with the possible exception of one street and a few respectable houses on the sea front.
After about two weeks in camp, re-equipping and receiving some new drafts, the Battalions entrained on 8/9th November to move north to cross the Greek frontier into Serbia.
An example of the many tasks being undertaken is that on 15th November, 125 men and one officer of 5th Inniskillings were detached to guard and assist French cavalry clearing inhabitants from five villages
The Bulgarians drive the 10th (Irish) Division back.
The defensive line the Division was to take up was in the mountains between Serbia and Bulgaria. It was wild hill-top country broken by deep ravines, barren rock and scree with little vegetation.
As they marched to their first defensive positions in these mountains the Battalions could hear artillery and rifle fire to their front and left as the French engaged the Bulgarians near the frontier. Francis Ledwidge of 5th Inniskillings commented: Being a mountainy country, we suffer much from rain and cold. A goodly few of us have rheumatism badly —. It poured on us all the 90 miles we had to march and, what with sleeping in wet clothes, sweating and cooling down I got an attack of bad back —-.
On 16th November the 6th Inniskillings received instructions on improving their defensive positions: emphasis was placed on concealing trenches, and if trenches were impossible, stone Sangers were built, faced with earth. A few days later this Battalion was ordered to a new position forward of the front line. It was on an isolated mountain, called Rocky Peak, 700 ft above the surrounding ravines. On the first few days there was occasional action by Bulgarian snipers and artillery and a trickle of Bulgarian deserters crossed over.
Then, on 27, 28 and 29 November, a severe blizzard hit the lines. Temperatures dropped to 30 degrees below; three feet of snow covered the ground, which soon froze. An officer wrote: The drenched skirts of greatcoats stood out stiff like a ballet dancer’s dress It was impossible to go down to the bottom for our dinners or have them brought to us. All our belongings were buried in the snow and the cold and the wet were intense. The Bulgar occupied a similar mountain, not more than a stone’s throw away, but it was too cold for either him or us to shoot, and both armies were too much occupied in trying to keep the circulation of the blood in their bodies. Fires at night were not allowed, so sleep was impossible. When woollen underwear arrived the cold was such that the men would not undress to put it on but instead wrapped it round their necks like scarves.
When the Battalion was relieved on 28th from this exposed position (by 5th Royal Irish Fusiliers) four officers and 65 men were admitted to hospital suffering from frostbite.
The Battle of Kosturino 6th – 12th December
Although the High Command had decided to withdraw from these exposed positions as soon as the French forces on the left had completed their withdrawal, the Bulgarians pre-empted this by launching a full scale attack, in overwhelming numbers, on the whole Division on 7th December.
Fusilier Ledwidge’s description epitomised the experiences of all the Battalions in the front line. The Bulgars came on us like flies and though we mowed them down line after line, they persisted with awful doggedness and finally gave us a bayonet charge which secured their victory. We only had about 200 yards to escape by and we had to hold this until next evening and then dribble out as best we could. Another soldier commented that, in the mist and fog, it was difficult to distinguish friend from foe because the Bulgarians’ head gear was so similar to their own. The 5th Battalion, Connaught Rangers had particularly heavy casualties, with 138 killed and 130 taken prisoner. The Inniskilling Battalions were in reserve and lost 11 killed.
The Division’s fighting withdrawal took account of the need to keep in touch with the hard- pressed French on the left and allow them the time to get their men and supplies back into Greece.
At the height of the fighting, Brigadier King-King of 31st Brigade, which was on the right flank of the Division, fearing that his men were about to be outflanked, on his own initiative, ordered a withdrawal to begin. The Divisional Commander, Brigadier General Nicol, had little alternative but to order a further withdrawal of the whole Division back south and eventually across the frontier.
By 10th December the 31st Brigade was back on Greek territory and by 17th the Division was back in Salonica. Men were so exhausted by the gruelling fighting and the forced marches that many of them could not eat the hot food supplied. However, it was said that the 6th Inniskillings arrived back in Salonica as if they had only been on an ordinary route march!