It was the 25th September 2015 and I was on another trip following in the footsteps again of the 5th Battalion Connaught Rangers. Fresh from their annihilation in Gallipoli in August 1915, they were sent to Lemnos, a Greek island in the Aegean, built up to full strength with willing enlistees and sent into another campaign in October 1915. This was to Salonika where the British Army half-heartedly committed 228,000 soldiers in a quintuple alliance with France, Serbia, Greece and Russia who all contributed to a greater or lesser extent in keeping the Bulgarians from overrunning Serbia.
Bulgaria decided to throw their lot in with the Central Powers of Germany and Austro/Hungary on 14th October 1915 and the British Army prematurely placed XII Corps of the 10th Irish Division, 22nd Division and 26th Division and XIV Corps of the 27th, 28th and 60th Division at the disposal of the alliance. The 10th Irish were there first arriving after some delay on 10th October 2015 and disembarked from the aptly named SS Aeneas in the port of Thessalonika in Northern Greece. It was a war far removed from the idea that the Irish soldier had for enlisting in September and October of 1914. Home Rule and poor little Catholic Belgium were a million miles from the mountains of Northern Greece and Southern Serbia, but here they were and determined to help their good old friend Serbia in their hour of need.
I set out from Boyle in the late morning bound for Dublin and having one stop to make en route to pick up my travelling companion Mr OF in a remote part of South Leitrim. We had been invited by the Salonika Association to accompany them on this arduous pilgrimage in the southern Balkans. Our first stop was Dublin Airport for a late flight to Gatwick Airport entailing an overnight stop in a very functional hotel, The Bloc. The Bloc was situated in the South Terminal metres away from security and passport control. Our rooms were tiny but with an excellent wet-room and a comfortable bed.
Up early, through security and on the plane for the 5.55am flight to Thessaloniki, to give it its native spelling. Gatwick was heaving with people at that early hour and we were glad of the ease with which we were processed and deposited just prior to noon local time in Greece’s second city, the home of a million people consisting of Greeks, Turks, Macedonians and a mish-mash of Serbs, Bulgars and Romanians.
Flying into Thessaloniki from the north west over fields set out in geometrical patterns as though designed by a teacher of mathematics than a farmer; we approached over water until the water stopped and the tarmac began. We arrived in blazing sunshine of about 30C after seeing nothing but cloud on our flight across Europe. As we settled into our hotel we were bombarded by rain, the streets of Thessaloniki were running with water. The rain was incessant and stopped our exploration of this city, although we did try and got soaked for our troubles whilst looking for a friendly bar.
We eventually washed up in the Dubliner, surprise, surprise, owned by a Mayo man from Ballinrobe. The rain continued, Manchester United beat Sunderland 3-0 on the television and went top of the Premier League. South Africa overcame Samoa and we were almost overcome with local ale as we waited for our local guide, as it turned out, a garrulous Greek by the name of Apostolos, who was to take us to his cousin’s restaurant. He arrived and after a walk of about two miles we arrived at this second rate cafe specialising in basic, cheap Indonesian cuisine. The food was eatable but Apostolos’s presence unbearable and by luck he sat next to me. Words poured out of his mouth in no particular order. I ate my main course and made a bolt for the door, two others followed. It wasn’t just the car crash of words it was the volume I hated . He was talking at least 100 decibels louder than our combined tones.
We three jumped in a taxi and decamped to the hotel bar, where the drinking of a couple of glasses of wine caused the hotel to run out of stock. We retired to our various rooms and to sleep. Day 1 was a long but not a good day.
Day 2 started with a telephone call to wife of many years who has not been in the best of health but had agreed to look after herself although hardly able whilst I skimmed off on this trip. It was reminiscent of Davy Bowie at the Alamo in the film Davy Crockett, wounded, he told everybody to vamoose whilst he held the marauding Mexicans at bay with his trusty knife. As I have found out since their were more Irish in the marauders than Mexicans and I knew she could withstand them easily. However it was heartening to hear that Daughter No 3 fresh from second child and trip to Marakech was flying over from Manchester to administer to her in my absence.
Our party of 12 0r 13 were a decent bunch of good natured English people with myself, OF and a father and two sons from Wicklow Town. There was an entertaining and incisive lady from Morpeth, born a Scot but with travels in Sheffield, who called a spade a shovel and had a few few exciting adjectives to go with her choice of nouns. There was a quiet 60 odd year old widower from Lichfield but who had come from Cambridge originally, a very friendly couple of bell ringers from Warwickshire, the wife especially the most positive person I have ever met. A man, his wife and son from Strensham in Worcester who I gelled with because of our common interest in cricket and a man from Manchester Airport who I never spoke to and who left us after a couple of days. The staff of the expedition were our tour manager AC of Barnet association, an Indian girl from the British Museum, a girl from Bucharest who seemed only remotely interested in proceedings, our Greek, Apostolos and his Macedonian counterpart, Romeo and our driver Dragee, another Macedonian completed the party.
The night between Day 1 and Day 2 had been arduous, the AC device in the room did not work properly, the mosquitoes were in abundance and I was bitten in several places, even though anti-insect juice had been applied liberally. The breakfast was about as bad as it could be and I was glad to get into our air-conditioned Macedonian Mercedes coach for the trip up to Polycastro for a very important ceremony at the five nations monument representing the five nations that formed the alliance in this campaign against the encroaching Bulgarians.
There was lots of speeches, lots of wreaths and lots of people. An almost no-show by the Russian youth who led his delegation of two and did not speak, enlightened the proceedings a little. The whole show went on at the top of a hill in driving winds and pouring rain. Two Greek soldiers had been detailed to stand either side of the monument dressed in traditional military dress of black pumps, white tights, white tutu, a fancy waistcoat and shirt and a beret with a long black tassel that came down to the waist. These two soldiers had to remain still throughout the proceedings whilst the wind blew their black tassels around their heads and up their noses and a young lieutenant in modern uniform had to keep climbing the steps to rearrange the tassels in correct order every few minutes. Our leader AC gave a speech in English depicting the work of the British Army, the other three nations did the same and laid wreaths galore. The Russian youth laid a wreath. It was about the same involvement as the Russian Army had in this campaign 100 years ago.