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This article has been reproduced with the kind permission of Harry Fecitt MBE TD and the Salonika Campaign Society, 1915-1918. For other LNL articles written by Harry Fecitt MBE TD please click here.

The 12th (Territorial) Battalion was raised in August 1915 in the Bolton area.  On 1st September it entrained for Lytham where it was billeted and training began, despite the prevailing shortage of rifles, clothing and equipment.  In March the following year it moved to Norfolk to complete its training in infantry and engineering duties as it was to become a Pioneer Battalion.

British Pioneer Battalions

Initially many in Britain thought that the war would be over before Christmas 1914.  However the early fighting against German troops in France showed that not only was the war going to last longer, but serious thought had to be given to quickly protecting infantry and artillery from the destructive effects of enemy artillery shells and machine gun fire.  Far too many infantry men were being deployed on building fortifications, trenches and shelter bunkers, and many of those men were unskilled and slow at this work.  The Royal Engineer units in the Army needed specialist support.

The Secretary of State for War, Field Marshall Herbert Horatio Kitchener, had earlier introduced a concept into the Indian Army of each Division having one Pioneer Battalion on its order of battle.  Lord Kitchener forecast that this war would last at least three years, and he introduced the Pioneer Battalion concept into the British Army.  The over-riding criteria was that a Pioneer battalion had to contain men capable of fast efficient digging, and divisional commanders could select one of their existing battalions that met this criteria or ask for such a battalion to be posted into their divisions.  The Pioneer battalions were still regarded as fighting infantry units, and each battalion was equipped with rifles and a section of four medium machine guns; also by 1916 eight Lewis light machine guns had been issued.  Often the medium machine gun sections were detached and employed as the anti-aircraft defence for divisional headquarters; the Lewis guns were distributed amongst the four companies.  Each Pioneer battalion had an officer and a senior rank from the Royal Engineers attached to it to provide technical assistance.

Pioneer battalions were expected to dig, shore-up and revet trenches, build dugouts, provide overhead cover and shell-proof walls to gun positions, dig approach trenches called saps towards enemy positions, to tunnel and mine when necessary, and to build track ways for men, pack mules, horses pulling guns and for motor transport.  They had to be able to make roads, fell trees, build bridges, construct barbed-wire obstacles and prepare railway embankments.  The concept called for battalions of organized and competent labour that could also immediately fight as infantry when called upon to do so.

In late December 1914 it was decided that each Pioneer battalion should have at least 16 carpenters and joiners, 16 blacksmiths, 16 masons and bricklayers, 8 tinsmiths and 4 engine drivers and fitters.  These 60 or more tradesmen were to be distributed equally amongst the four companies in each Pioneer battalion.  The typical establishment of a Pioneer battalion was 24 officers and 860 men, but in certain theatres of war the figure for men rose to over 1,000.  In recognition of their specialist status the men received two pence more per day than an infantryman received, and they were eligible for the normal additions to their pay for being classified in relevant infantry skills.

Salonika

Salonika was a large Greek port that was the main entry point for British, French, Italian, Russian and Serbian Allied troops who were fighting a mainly Bulgarian enemy in the hinterland; these troops were named the Allied Army of the Orient and the Front stretched from Albania eastwards to the River Struma.  The Bulgars occupied the tactically important high ground and were supported by German and Turkish units.  Britain was unhappy at being involved in this Front, regarding it as an unnecessary ‘Sideshow’, but France saw the potential political gains to be made by fighting here and the French view prevailed.  The area of fighting was named Macedonia but historically the name Salonika has been used to describe the Front.

Map of the British Macedonian Front, supplied by Harry Fecitt (source unknown)

The 1/12th Battalion disembarked at Salonika from His Majesty’s Transport Menominee on 23rd January 1917; the Battalion strength was 35 officers and 964 other ranks.  The men marched a few miles up the Seres road to a tented camp that was its initial base.  The Commanding Officer was informed that the Battalion would return to the fold of the 60th (London) Division, and for the next few days redundant equipment used in France was handed in and replaced by tools and equipment used in Macedonia; mules and saddlery were also issued to the unit.

We were fortunate also in getting during April the 1/12th Battalion The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, which came to us as our Pioneer Battalion, under a most capable officer, Lieutenant Colonel Beckett.  They were a hard-bitten, thirsty lot of Lancashire miners, but what they could do with a spade was a perfect revelation.  The Division owed a great deal to this fine Battalion for the splendid work they did on the Vimy Ridge, and I attribute our comparatively low casualty returns to the rapidity with which these pioneers, assisted by the various battalions, managed to lower the depth of the trenches eighteen inches in record time.

Major General E.S. Bulfin CB, Commander 60th Division, France 1916.

Deployment into the hinterland

During the second week of February the Battalion undertook a tough march through heavy snowstorms to the village of Snevce, sleeping in rapidly-pitched tents each night.   ‘B’ and ‘D’ Companies then remained in a camp in Snevce working on a road that ran to Karamudli, but Battalion HQ with ‘A’ and ‘C’ Companies marched out to camp at Karamudli where they were tasked to supervise locally hired labour on road formation work, to run a stone quarry and to construct an observation post.  Further moves took place at the end of January when ‘B’ Company marched to Salgrec Avance whilst ‘D’ Company marched to Aracli; both companies were employed on road work.

The rainfall on 1st March was so heavy that road-construction and maintenance was suspended and instead the Battalion dug slit trenches in its camps as protection against the frequent Bulgar and German air attacks.  Road work was the priority and ‘D’ Company marched to Sari Degauli to construct a special road suitable for use by heavy artillery guns.  In mid-March the Battalion concentrated and marched to the Sal de L’Abri area where 60 Division HQ was located.  This was another rough march over three days in heavy snow, a trestle bridge on the route being swept away necessitating the fording of a swollen stream 30 yards wide.  Bivouacs had to be used on the route as the lorries carrying the camp equipment, blankets and men’s kits could not get through the snow on the road. The companies then dispersed again to work on roads, ammunition dug outs, shell slits, horse lines, communication trenches, the Divisional vegetable garden and a camp for the Divisional artillery personnel.  On 18th March an enemy aeroplane bombed Caussica where ‘D’ Company was working and five men were wounded, one of them (No. 265297 Private John Mills Lomas) later dying in hospital.  A typical Sunday routine was a Church Parade followed by respirator (gas mask) drills and inspections of sleeping areas and equipment.

Bulgarian attacks

The 1st April saw excitement on Bowlesbarrow, a low front line feature that a platoon was working on.  After a short artillery barrage during which the platoon sergeant was wounded the Bulgars attacked from adjacent high ground and captured four men from the Battalion who were working in the trenches.  Two men managed to escape as they were escorted back to the Bulgar lines, one (possibly No. 265683 Private Matthew Burrows) was mistakenly shot along with his enemy escort on reaching the enemy lines, and the fourth (No. 265716 Private Richard Robert Roberts) went into captivity in Bulgaria and died there on 9 September 1918.

Bowlesbarrow. © Harry Fecitt

Four days later 12 enemy aeroplanes attacked Karasouli (now named Polykastro) railway station, igniting ammunition dumps there.  Two salvage parties of 50 men each were sent by the Battalion but they could not get close to the bomb damage because of continuous explosions coming from the ammunition dumps.

Lake Doiran and the high ground held by the Bulgars. © Harry Fecitt

On 20th April a large-scale British attack was made on the enemy positions west of Lake Doiran and the Battalion was employed on consolidating the positions captured by 60 Division.  Two days later a platoon from ‘C’ Company was working in the front line trench near a feature named L.4 when a Bulgar night-time artillery barrage hit the trench.  All of the enemy ammunition fired was gas shells and the men immediately donned their anti-gas helmets, preventing casualties from occurring; the Sunday anti-gas training sessions had proved to be invaluable.  The 26th of the month was another day of heavy rain, preventing work; to compensate for this on the following Sunday half the Battalion rested after Church Parade whilst the other half worked.

May started with a flurry of different activities including front line trench deepening, communication trench, dummy trench and fire bay digging, the construction of observation posts, the maintenance of roads, farming activities at the Divisional vegetable garden and the demolition of the burned-out Karasouli station buildings.  As the weather was now very warm work was confined to two shifts in the morning and afternoon, leaving a four-hour break for resting in the heat of the middle of the day.

Typical terrain in 60 Divisional area. © Harry Fecitt

In mid-May the whole Battalion passed through the Divisional Baths for a thorough disinfecting and cleaning.  Pioneer taskings continued and a draft of 145 men arrived to join the Battalion.  In late May the advance party of the 8th (Service) Battalion (Pioneers) The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry arrived to take over the Battalion’s pioneer duties.  On 26 May, the hand over being completed, the Battalion concentrated and made a night march to its new location which had its headquarters on Hill 221 in Vladaja Ravine.  But on the last day of the month the Battalion was on the move again, marching for the next week to a Divisional concentration area at Uchantar camp.

The East end of Vladaja Ravine. © Harry Fecitt

Embarkation for Egypt

60th (London) Division was being deployed to another theatre of war and the emphasis now was on preparation for embarkation and on infantry training.  The men received cholera injections and fired a short range course of ten rounds.  On the 19th June 1917 the 1/12th Battalion (Pioneers) The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment marched out of its bivouac site at 0330 hours, arriving on the Salonika Quayside five hours later for embarkation on His Majesty’s Transport Huntspill.  The Battalion was 35 officers and 1029 other ranks strong.  Three days later the Huntspill docked in Alexandria, Egypt, and the Battalion disembarked to move with 60 Division into the Palestine theatre, where it was to remain until May 1918 when it returned to France.

During its short stay in Macedonia the 1/12th Battalion (Pioneers) The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment performed its specialist tasks in a professional and competent manner and proved itself to be a very useful addition to 60 (London) Division.  A further sixteen months of operational duty in two different theatres lay ahead of the Battalion.

Casualties in Macedonia

The following four men of the Battalion are buried in Greece and Bulgaria:

1.    No. 265683 Private Matthew Burrows, aged 21 years and born in Wigan, buried in Karasouli Military Cemetery, Greece.

Grave of Private Matthew Burrows. © Harry Fecitt

2.    No. 265297 Private John Mills Lomas, aged 21 years from Leigh, buried in Karasouli Military Cemetery, Greece.

Grave of Private John Mills Lomas. © Harry Fecitt

3.    No. 266456 Private John William Pilkington, aged 45 years from Preston, buried in Salonika (Lembet Road) War Cemetery.

Grave of Private John William Pilkington. © Harry Fecitt

4.    No. 265716 Private Richard Robert Roberts, from St. Helens, buried in Plovdiv Central Cemetery, Bulgaria.

Plovdiv Central Cemetery, Bulgaria. CWGC photo, supplied by Harry Fecitt.

SOURCES:

  • Cyril Falls, Captain. History of The Great War. Military Operations Macedonia. Both Volumes. (Battery Press reprint 1996).
  • H.C. Wylly, Colonel. The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment 1914 – 1919. (Naval & Military Press softback reprint).
  • War Diary. 12th Battalion Loyal North Lancs (Pioneers), January to June 1917. (National Archives reference WO 95/4927).

By Harry Fecitt MBE TD

Paul McCormick
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Paul McCormick

Paul McCormick is the creator and administrator for the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment website. Since 2010 he has been researching the soldiers that served during the First World War and sharing their stories on his website. You can contact Paul through the website 'Contact Me' page or on Twitter and Facebook.
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One Response to The 1/12th Bn. (Pioneers) in Salonika

  1. David says:

    Hi guy’s can you tell me where on the western front the LNL pioneer battalion was used as infantry in combat. Thanks for your help, regards David

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