We Will Remember Them All

On the centenary of the ending of the First World War, I am proud to remember the service of my grandfather, William Regan.

William was an artilleryman who served mostly in Macedonia with the British Salonika Force (BSF). Sometimes dismissed as a sideshow compared to the Western Front, there were periods of bloody fighting in the mountains and river plains of Macedonia, resulting in almost half a million casualties among the British, French, Serbian and Greek allies, and the opposing Bulgarian and German armies. Moreover, if contending with the enemy was insufficient there was the climate (deadly freezing in winter and bakingly hot in summer) and the Anopheles mosquito with which to contend. The maximum strength of the BSF was about 220,000, yet it suffered over 500,000 non-battle casualties of which 160,000 men fell victim to malaria, many of whose health was ruined forever.

Although William’s war service records were destroyed (along with many others) in the Blitz during the Second World War, this is what I can piece together of his story.

Born in 1894 in Sunderland, County Durham, William was the eldest son of Thomas Regan, a merchant seaman turned labourer and Mary Jane Allsop, a domestic servant to a Sunderland shipyard clerk. The family lived at 80 Ropery Road in Deptford, a row of terraced cottages running along the south bank of the River Wear, squeezed between the Doxford shipyard at Pallion and the Deptford rope works.

Deptford, Doxford works on the left beyond the bridge, ropeworks lower right. Copyright: Footsteps Photographs

With the arrival of more children, Thomas secured a better paying job as a coke screener at a patent coke oven and moved the family to Byers Green, a village close to the River Wear, about six miles southwest of Durham. By the time he had turned 17, in 1911, William had joined his father at the coke oven. Later he worked underground at a local colliery, looking after and driving the pit ponies hauling tubs of coal from the workings to the main shaft.

Byers Green,  Copyright Unknown

Britain declared war on Germany and Austria on 4 August 1914 and William was among the first enthusiastic wave of volunteers, travelling to Durham on 3 September to sign up. Being skilled as a driver and handler of horses he was enlisted into the Royal Field Artillery (RFA) with the rank of driver and service number 34,190.

In the first months of the war, the number of volunteers stretched the army to the limit and it took time to equip, train and form them into viable units. William probably undertook basic training at the RFA’s Number One Depot in Newcastle. Although he was experienced with handling horses, it is unlikely he was able to ride them, there being no place for it down the mine. So one of the first things he had to learn was how to ride. This included riding bareback which, at first, was very painful, and it was common for the men to endure bleeding blisters until their backsides toughened up. 

One of the benefits of training close to home was the ability to visit his family. The above photograph, probably taken in late 1914, shows William wearing his gunner’s uniform, which includes the mounted trooper’s white shoulder lanyard and ammunition bandolier, worn diagonally from the left shoulder.  He is standing at the back of the family group, a pensive expression on his fresh 21 year-old face, his right arm protectively around the shoulder of his 18 year-old sister Jane Ann, and his left hand reassuringly resting on his mother’s shoulder. Seated beside his wife, Thomas is dressed in his best suit and his face carries the careworn expression of a man who has struggled hard to raise and provide for his family through tough times. Grouped around them are their children, which, in addition to Thomas and Jane Ann were, Elizabeth aged 12, Freddie aged 9, Tommie aged 6 and Connie, the baby of the family at 3. By the time this photograph was taken it was clear that the “boys” were not “home for Christmas,” and one can imagine the fears his family felt, but probably did not express, at the possibility that William might not return.

On completion of basic training, William was posted to LXVIII (68) Field Artillery Brigade, and possibly to D (Howitzer) Battery, which, together with several other artillery brigades, was assigned to 13 Division, one of Kitchener’s New Army divisions training around Salisbury Plain. The artillery brigades were stationed at Bulford through the winter of 1914-15 before moving to Fleet in Hampshire early in the New Year where further training took place around Aldershot. 

As the spring weather improved, the artillery brigades left Fleet and entrained for the Royal Artillery training camp at Bronaber near Trawsfynydd in North Wales for live firing training. The camp was a busy centre for artillery practice, and gunners typically undertook a two-week training course during the spring and summer months. Named Bronaber after a nearby farm, it was known locally as Tintown, being mostly comprised of hastily constructed sheet metal huts accommodating the cafés, shops and petrol stations used by the soldiers and local inhabitants. The firing range was a rolling stretch of country in the nearby Cain valley to the east of Bronaber, the guns hauled there by the horse teams along a tortuous, rough track.

Trawsfynydd, hauling the guns to the firing range. Photos Courtesy of Keith O'Brien

As a driver, William was part of a team that hauled and set up a field artillery piece; in his case a 4.5-inch field howitzer. Originally introduced in 1909, the 4.5-inch was widely regarded as the best field howitzer of the First World War. The gun was simple and robust, and over 3,000 had been built by the end of 1918. Mounted on a two-wheel box trail, the gun could elevate to a maximum of 45 degrees and fire a standard 35-pound shrapnel shell a distance of 7,300 yards.

A team of three pairs of horses towed both the gun and its two-wheeled ammunition limber, the ammunition limber being first hooked up to the horses and the trail of the gun hooked up to the limber. A driver rode the left horse of each pair and was responsible for looking after them. Once the gun was in position, the horses were led back to the relative safety of a picket line. The driver’s duties then included feeding, watering and caring for them as well as, in action, carrying ammunition up to the guns, and standing by ready to move them should that become necessary.

 A typical Field Artillery Brigade required about 100 horses to haul its 16 guns (4 batteries of 4 guns) and additional horses to pull ammunition wagons and as mounts for the senior officers, battery commanders and observation officers. So the drivers were an essential element of the brigade. Without them to drive, feed and care for the horses, the guns were helplessly immobile.

After two weeks of firing practice, the brigades were transported back to Deepcut in Surrey, where they remained until early June before being ordered to proceed to Avonmouth. The Allied landings in Gallipoli had begun in April, and 13 Division, together with its artillery, including William, sailed in mid-June bound for the Dardanelles.

HMT Royal George, Copyright Unknown

The convoy carrying 13 Division, including HMTs Royal George and Ivernia, sailed from Avonmouth on 18 June. Leaving Britain would have been a new and remarkable experience for William and the majority of the men, many of whom had probably never travelled far from their hometowns or villages. I expect he had mixed feelings. Was he excited by the thought of what lay ahead, or apprehensive of the dangers? More likely, he was struggling with seasickness as the ships entered the Atlantic. In any event, he would have been kept busy. In the mornings the officers made their rounds and inspections, and the afternoons were devoted to physical training, sports and boxing competitions. William’s principal preoccupation, however, would have been the care of the horses; including shoveling and sweeping their stalls clean of manure and emptying the baskets overboard. It cannot have been much fun, with the smell, the confined space and the movement of the ship enough to turn any stomach.

The convoy sailed south through the Bay of Biscay and along the coasts of Portugal and Spain before turning east past Gibraltar and steaming halfway across the Mediterranean to Malta where it stopped for the ships to refill their coal-bunkers. The enlisted men were not permitted ashore, but some of the ships allowed them to swim in the harbour to cool off from the heat. I doubt William could swim, so this pleasure was probably denied him.

The ships remained in Malta for several nights before sailing on to Alexandria where William stepped ashore on 4 July 1915 (thus entitling him to the 1914-15 Star awarded to all men who served overseas prior to 1916). As a first trip merchant navy apprentice, I remember setting foot ashore in Asia and being bewildered and overwhelmed by my first impressions of Hong Kong. Happily, those feelings soon faded. But it would have been little different for a 21 year-old lad from a small mining village in Durham confronted by the heat, dust, smells, sounds and sights of the ancient Egyptian city. I wonder too if William was disappointed to learn that 68 and 67 Artillery Brigades had been ordered to disembark, leaving the rest of the Division to proceed to Gallipoli without them. In any event, he would have had little time to marvel, as he would have been busy getting the horses ashore, limbering up the guns and marching through the city to a nearby rest camp where they bivouacked for the first night.

The following morning the brigades formed up again and marched to the seaside village of Mamura about 12 miles northeast of Alexandria where they pitched camp. Mamura consisted of the terminus of the railway from Alexandria, a hotel, a mosque and a collection of mud brick houses. European residents of Alexandria would make the journey to Mamura at weekends to bathe in the sea and dance at the hotel. A mile to the north was the village of Abu Qir and to the east stretched the bay of the same name. I wonder if William was aware, or was told by his comrades, that it was the very bay in which Rear Admiral Nelson annihilated the French fleet in August 1798.

68 and 67 Brigades remained at Mamura for three and a half months all through the heat of the Egyptian summer, with little to occupy the men apart from fatigues and the feeding and watering of the horses. The heat was intense, the flies were a torment, sand colic ran through the horses and dysentery through the men. It must have been boring and unpleasant, hardly the adventure they thought they had signed up for, but there were minor compensations. After the 6am morning parade, the men were allowed to swim naked in the sea. And the locals quickly set up drinking dens where the enlisted men could drink as much beer as their pay permitted.

Finally, an urgent order recalled the two brigades to Alexandria. There they were re-embarked into ships for a three-day voyage north across the Mediterranean to Salonika (today’s Thessaloniki) where they were to be assigned to 10 Division, which had been withdrawn from Gallipoli to form the nucleus of the British Salonika Force.

Map courtesy of Salonika Campaign Society

Salonika was an ancient city with a mixed population of Greeks, Turks and other Balkan nationalities. Although originally founded by the Macedonian Greeks, it had been an Ottoman Turkish possession from the 15th century until captured by the Greeks in the First Balkan War of 1912-13. Descriptions of the city by the soldiers vary, with some focusing on the dirt, noise and smells while others were fascinated by its antiquity and its linguistic and cultural diversity. Lt. Hamilton Gibbs, of 67 Artillery Brigade, described Salonika as, “a flashing jewel in a perfect setting. Minarets and mosques, white and red sprouted everywhere from the white, brown and green buildings. Trees and gardens nestled within the crumbling old city wall. Behind it ran a line of jagged peaks, merging with the clouds, and here and there ran a little winding ribbon of road, climbing up and up only to lose itself suddenly by falling over a precipice”. He was less impressed, close up, by “mean streets that smelled worse than Egypt, and a dirty population, poverty-stricken and covered with sores." The city's inhabitants were equally unimpressed, at first anyway, by the sudden, uninvited arrival of thousands of British and French soldiers, with the resulting friction leading to fights and stabbings.

Salonica during WWI, Copyright Unknown

68 Brigade landed on 17 October and marched about 10 miles northwest of the city where it set up camp on the lower slopes of a mountain. Initially, there were no tents or any form of accommodation other than what the men could improvise, and during the night there was a violent rainstorm that turned the area into a quagmire. After the issue of Bell tents, life became more bearable. The respite was only temporary though. After two weeks in camp, they were ordered to move up the Vardar Valley to assist the French and the Serbians resist attacks by the Bulgarians. The subsequent battle at Kosturino Ridge was William’s first experience of warfare.

The British troops traveled north by train with orders to take up position to the west and north of Lake Dojran inside what was then Serbia. They arrived at night and had to set up camp in a rainstorm. The following day the artillery brigades set out to haul their guns by road, northeast to their designated positions near the lake. The rain had ceased and Hamilton Gibbs described the column setting out “through the most glorious countryside imaginable. The autumn had stained all the trees red and fallen leaves made a royal carpet.” The road “went straight on through beds of streams, between fields of maize and plantations of mulberries and tumbled villages.” Despite Hamilton Gibb’s romantic description, the roads were primitive and unsuitable for gun carriages and ammunition wagons, so it would have been a grim struggle for William, his fellow drivers and their horses.

The official history of the war in Macedonia described the area they were to occupy as, “savage, almost trackless country broken up by steep hills and ridges, whereon scant scrub or a few dwarf oaks found an almost miraculous sustenance amid the outcrops of rock.” Although there was little activity in the British sector for the rest of the October and November, the weather became the men’s chief concern. First, they were treated to torrential rains, then it turned bitterly cold with snow, frost and strong icy winds. The men had not been issued with winter clothing and many were badly affected by exposure and frostbite. The worst cases being evacuated to Salonika.

Kosturino Ridge 30 Nov 1915. Photo copyright Imperial War Museum

Fighting finally erupted during 4 and 5 December with Bulgarian artillery attacking the French and British positions along the Kosturino Ridge. 68 and 67 Brigades probably returned counter-battery fire trying to silence the Bulgarian guns. On the morning of 6 December, combined Bulgarian artillery and infantry attacks fell upon on 10 Division positions. Some of 67 Brigade’s positions were overrun, while 68 Brigade, stationed further east towards Lake Dojran, provided fire support for the retreating troops. Further determined attacks in the next few days forced the British and French to withdraw to Salonika. The retreat was confused, the weather was bad and the tracks choked with men, horses and guns. Fortunately, the victorious Bulgarians halted at the Greek border (Greek was nominally neutral despite the presence of British and French troops) leaving the battered, exhausted, mud-spattered British to trudge wearily back to Salonika. Thus ended William’s first encounter with the enemy. He had endured the heat, sand and flies of Egypt, the mud, mountains and freezing blizzards of wintry Macedonia, the baptism of gunfire at Kosturino Ridge and the bitterness of defeat and retreat.

By 12 December, the whole of the British force was back in Salonika and, as a precaution, the infantry were set to work fortifying their positions, constructing what became known as the “Birdcage,” a ring of mutually supporting strong points protected by barbed wire that ran in a semi-circle around the northern perimeter of the city. It was for this that humourists nicknamed the BSF the “Gardeners of Salonika.”

Meanwhile, William and 68 Artillery Brigade had set up camp around Hortiac, an area of steep hills and rolling elevated plateaus to the east of Salonika. While it was cold, wet and windy in winter it was more pleasant in the spring, with spectacular views over the city and, on clear days, it was possible to see Mount Olympus on the far side of the Thermaic Gulf. I am sure William admired the views, though I doubt he would have appreciated that Mount Olympus was home to the Greek Gods.

View from Hortiac across the Thermaic Gulf to Mount Olympus. Photo copyright Phil Simmonds

For William and the artillerymen, the early months of 1916 saw little activity, and as spring turned into summer with nothing to do but fatigues, gun-drill and exercising the horses in the increasing heat, time must have hung heavy. In June, however, 10 Division was ordered to take up positions in the valley of the Struma, a river northwest of Salonika, the far bank of which the Bulgarians had occupied. Unfortunately, malaria made its appearance as soon as the troops reached the Struma valley. Wooden sleeping platforms were erected to keep men well above the ground at night and mosquito nets eventually issued. During July, however, cases of malaria rose to over 100 per day and the troops had to be withdrawn from the Struma to higher ground to the west. It is quite likely that, in common with thousands of others, William first contracted malaria during the summer of 1916, before the army had properly effective precautions in place.

Struma Valley 1917, painted by William T Wood RWS.

In July there was also a reorganization of the artillery and D Battery of 68 Artillery Brigade was transferred to 57 Howitzer Brigade and re-designated as C Battery. From then on William served with 57 Artillery Brigade.

It was not until September 1916 that 10 Division and its artillery brigades were again involved in serious fighting. Early in that month, the British launched a series of raids and attacks across the Struma River, opening with artillery bombardments of varying intensity. Then, on 16 September, 10 Division launched attacks on the villages of Karajakoi Zir and Bala on the far side of the river, intending to capture them and advance on Jenikoi. After two months of heavy fighting in which the divisional artillery, and notably 57 Brigade, played a prominent part, the British had pushed the Bulgarian line further north and east across the Struma Valley. The History of the Royal Regiment of Artillery states that in this period of fighting “the guns and infantry were working well together, better than in many other theatres at this time.” Thanks to excellent artillery fire, attacks often “succeeded with very little loss,” while enemy counter-attacks were “decimated by concentrated shrapnel from the field batteries.” 57 Brigade was especially commended for the accuracy of its fire, allowing the advancing troops to follow within 100 yards of the bursting shells.

At the end of the year there was a further reorganization of 57 Brigade. C Battery was broken up and its guns divided between A, B and D Batteries which were increased to 6 guns each. William and his gun were transferred to A Battery.

There was little fighting over the winter of 1916/17, but then, in March 1917, the Bulgarians used gas shells for the first time. I don’t know if William was caught in this first attack, but I did learn from my grandmother that he was certainly gassed at some point during his service in Macedonia.

There was little further action over the summer, save that, in August, 10 Division was ordered to leave Salonika and return to Egypt. 57 Artillery Brigade did not go with it, instead it was transferred to the command of XII Corps and then, in September, to 26 Division.

Towards the end of the year, William may have taken part in actions conducted by 57 Brigade in support of operations to establish further positions on the far bank of the Struma River. On 4 December, the brigade supported a nighttime raiding party that, according to the official history, met a strong hostile patrol requiring the howitzers to engage several Bulgarian positions. This resulted in counter-battery fire by the Bulgarians with A Battery itself suffering bombardment. The operation ceased at 2.10 a.m., by which time 57 Brigade’s howitzers had fired 607 rounds.

By then, however, William's health had deteriorated, a recurrence of malaria requiring him to undergo 24 days of medical treatment before he was declared sufficiently fit to return to service on 9 January 1918.

For the first half of that year land operations in Macedonia remained at a low level. In March, on the Western Front, the Germans launched their major offensive. While Allied resources and attention were focused on defeating it, Western Front commanders were also keen to see a resumption of offensive operations in Macedonia to ensure that no German forces could be withdrawn for France.

A major offensive was, therefore, planned for September 1918, but William was not part of it. Either because of a recurrence of malaria or the effects of another gas attack, William was sufficiently sick to be repatriated to England for medical treatment. His paybook shows that his field service ended in May and he was discharged from the army at Woolwich on 3 October 1918, “in consequence of being no longer physically fit for war service." He had served for four years and thirty-one days. 

Although a driver was a relatively safe position compared to the infantryman and the gunner, there is no safe occupation in a wartime army. William was gassed, stricken with malaria and, on many occasions, exposed to shellfire. The History of the Royal Regiment of Artillery pays this tribute to all the artillerymen who fought in Macedonia. “The Gunners were never out of the line and when others rested, they remained in their high, cold, wet mountain positions or in the stinking hot malaria-ridden Struma valley conducting attack after attack to keep the Bulgarians alert. The Bulgarians handled their guns well and constantly pounded the British Batteries.”

After his discharge, William returned safely to his family and to being a miner, finding work at the Brancepeth Mine at Willington, Co Durham. He married Sarah Jane Sewell, my grandmother, in August 1919 and between them they raised three children, two daughters and a son, Dennis, my father.

He was never the same man, though. All the later photographs that I have of him show a thinner man, with pale, thin lips pursed in a pained or weary grimace, eyes creased and watchfully wary. The rest of his life was a struggle. A struggle against the scarred lungs and weakened heart that finally drove him from the mine and onto charity. Struggling to find odd jobs and to provide for his family; scraping up sea coal from the beaches of the Durham coast, picking over slag heaps, carting vegetables to market.

Finally, he moved the family to London and found work as a night watchman at Torbars Engineering Works in Willesden. During the night of 30 November 1942 he suffered a heart attack and was found dead the next morning. Family tradition says that it happened during an air raid and on a night on which Churchill delivered one of his famous speeches. The former is unlikely, as there were no reported air raids on London that night. However, Churchill did deliver a speech that evening, his famous “Frontiers of Deliverance” speech in which he allows himself to glimpse the possibility of final victory.

William was only 49 when he died; his life considerably shortened because of poison gas and the malaria he contracted in Macedonia during the First World War.

I never had the privilege of meeting him, but, on the centenary of the end of that terrible war, he is remembered, as we remember all those who have served their country.

Acknowledgments: I am indebted to the Salonika Campaign Society whose resources and encouragement persuaded me to write this article, a version of which first appeared in its journal The New Mosquito in April 2011. Grateful thanks are also due to historian Chris Baker and his website The Long, Long Trail for research and information on the British Army during the First World War. I have also made use of the official History of the Royal Regiment of Artillery - The Forgotten Fronts 1914-18 and the Official History of the War - Military Operation Macedonia. Finally, Cannon Fodder by Lt. A. Hamilton Gibbs is an excellent and moving account of the author's service in the First World War, including with 67 Field Artillery Brigade in Macedonia.


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