Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Eyewitness: Serbians Storm Kajmakčalan, September 1916, Part I

Editor's Introduction

E.P. Stebbing (Scottish Nat. Mus.)

Edward Percy Stebbing (1872–1960) was a pioneering British forester and forest entomologist in India. He was among the first to warn of desertification and desiccation and wrote on "The encroaching Sahara". He spent 1916 on the Macedonian Front as a transportation officer for the Scottish Womens' Hospital volunteer ambulance organization supporting the Serbian Army.   He was just behind the front line at Ostrovo during the most critical operation of 1916, the capture of Kajmaktcalan Peak, today  located almost precisely on the Greek-Macedonian border.  After the war he published an account of his service at the Serbian Front in Macedonia.

The Battle of Kajmakčalan resulted in a victory for the Allies against the Central Powers.  The Serbs, led by General Živojin Mišić, commander of the Serbian First Army, were victorious against the Bulgarians, finally taking the key position, but at a huge cost to the Serbs. Few battles have been fought at such heights. Kajmakčalan, with its twin peaks, is, at its highest point, 8200 feet. And once a certain height was reached, the battle was hand to hand.  (Heroes of Serbia Website)

Stebbing's Description of the Fighting

About the middle of September the real attack on  the Kajmaktcalan [ed. note–Stebbing is using a rough transliteration of the Serbian] and Starkov Grob positions began.  The fortified crest of the former mountain, with the  equally strong Starkov Grob one to the west, formed the key to the whole position. Once taken it meant that the Serbs could descend on the other side in the direction of the Monastir plain, though there would be plenty of hard fighting to undertake on the Cherna before they reached that point. It was on September 18th that I saw the real commencement of the attack on Kajmaktcalan.

Serbian Troops on the March

Something took me into Ostrovo on a brilliant morning. We had beautiful autumn weather for the most part during the next month. The slopes of the great mountain lay bathed in sunlight with fleecy cloud masses here and there, in part composed of smoke from the batteries. These were hard at work. The bursting shrapnel from the Bulgarian guns could be distinctly seen, as also our batteries firing up over the ridge searching for the Bulgar batteries on the far side, hidden in almost impenetrable ravines ; their guns hauled up to this great height at the expense of almost superhuman labour. To get our own batteries into their present position, as I subsequently saw for myself, was a task which no one would have dreamt of attempting before this war. The bombardment on this morning was very severe, much more so than it had been for many a week past, on and off. Away to the west the cannonade was also very heavy. This was to culminate in the assault on Fiorina which fell on this night. The Kajmaktcalan mountain mass rises sheer up due north of Ostrovo at a distance of about a couple of miles. It looks an impossible place to get troops and guns up into.

Italian, Serbian, and Russian Officers Assigned to the Sector

The battle of Kajmaktcalan is usually given as having been fought and won on September 18th. But this is not the date upon which the final summit was won. I describe this battlefield in a later chapter from notes made at the time of visiting it. The taking of the three successive lines of trenches on the slopes and crest of Kajmaktcalan and the Starkov Grob position to the south-west took the best part of ten days or more. Being encamped so close and within sound and view of the mountain, I daily recorded the various phases of the battle as the news came in to us by telephone. Also many of the seriously wounded from the battlefield came direct to us, brought down from the field dressing station on the Drina immediately below the fighting line. I had the good fortune to become great friends with a colonel of one of the infantry regiments, Colonel Stojchitch, who was badly wounded in the arm in one of the fierce fights up on the great mountain side. The actual crest was taken on September 30th. Truly was it a fight fit for gods up there, far above tree level on the stony and rocky slopes in the bitter cold of late autumn, and all honour to the men who fought it. It was the Army to which we belonged that was fighting up there,  and we followed the fortunes of the great contest, as they waxed and waned, with close attention and anxiety ; for until the Bulgarians were turned out of there, the fortunes of our hospital were still in the balance. Retreat would be impossible for us and none were keen on becoming prisoners to the Bulgars.

Kajmakčalan Viewed from the Village, Peak Obscured by Clouds & Artillery Smoke

The following daily record as jotted down in my diary is of interest :

September 19th.—Artillery fire broke out heavily during the night.

September 20th.—A severe action was fought tonight up on Kajmaktcalan, preceded by heavy gun fire, with the first machine-gun, bombing, and rifle fire heard up there.

I was told that the Serbians were attacking the first of the three lines of trenches protected by wire entanglements. For three hours the turmoil continued. The Serbians were enfiladed by machine-gun fire and lost heavily. My little bell tent faces north over Kajmaktcalan, and I lay on my cot looking across to where the great mountain mass cut the dark vault of the heavens, studded with brilliant stars. The slopes were flickering with the flashes of the guns and the star shells, whilst the crest gleamed dull red. One hoped to see it all a bit nearer one day. Some progress was made, we heard.

September 21st.—A stormy wet thundery day. Kajmaktcalan is hidden in dense cloud masses. It must be bitter cold work for both sides carrying out modern war at that elevation under such conditions. A lull in the firing. It is quite strange to be without the sound of guns in our ears.

September 22nd.—The guns commenced firing again this afternoon, the visibility having improved. The check, owing to the mist, has been rough on the Serbians, as it has enabled the Bulgarians to strengthen their positions.

Bulgarian Counterattack Against the Peak

September 23rd.—Guns have been at work all to-day, and to-night a fierce engagement, the hottest we have had for several nights, is taking place up on Kajmaktcalan. 

Sunday, September 24th.—Heavy fighting took place on the mountain this afternoon. The progress is slower than was anticipated.

Part II of this account will be presented tomorrow. . .

1 comment:

  1. From Wikipedia:
    "Today, there is a small church on the peak of Prophet Ilia where the skulls of dead Serbian soldiers are stored, and it is regarded as a cultural site and is a tourist attraction."