In this season of remembrance, when many will gather at local memorials, and even more at national ones, it is important to remember that there are those who gave their lives far from these shores and even far from the Western Front.
One such soldier is George Piercy of the 2nd Bn. East Yorkshire Regiment, the son of George Holmes Piercy and Mary Piercy, of High Street, Market Weighton. He was injured in Salonika and was evacuated, on his way to Malta on board the hospital ship HMHS Braemar Castle, it struck a mine and he was killed.
He died on 24 November 1916 and according to his service record he ‘Died at sea from a fractured skull and multiple wounds after an explosion on HMHS Braemar Castle’. He is remembered on the Doiran Memorial in Greece, signifying no known grave. He is the only recorded East Yorkshire Regiment death on the Braemar Castle.
It was the practice to bury any casualties at sea (usually within a day) but the Braemar Castle departed from Salonika on the evening of Wednesday 22 November, carrying 375 invalids, a medical staff of 56 and 130 crew. By dawn the following morning the ship was in the Skopelos Channel and rounding Livada Point on the island of Tinos. The explosion occurred at approximately 11.15am when the ship was approximately one mile off Ioannis Point but while the ship was evacuated with the assistance of the destroyers HMS Honeysuckle and HMS Jonquil, along with the French trawler Marie Rose, it was still possible to beach the ship on the island of Tinos.
The casualties were relatively light, with three bodies later reported found in Hold No. 3 (C Ward) but the ship was only grounded and was successfully re-floated on 30 November and towed into Tinos Bay before being ordered to Malta for full repairs. It could be that the three bodies were therefore interred somewhere on Tinos, and as many of the casualties scattered around the Aegean were transferred to the Syra New British Cemetery (on the island of Siros, right next to Tinos) in 1921, where there are currently 45 unknown graves, perhaps George Piercy could be one of them.
Most of the battalions of the East Yorkshire Regiment, such as the Hull Pals’ Battalions, fought on the Western Front but the 2nd battalion, part of 28th Division, was sent to Salonika, eventually landing there on 4 January 1916. Where is Salonika and why were they sent there? Salonika is better known to us now as Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, and a destination for sun-seeking tourists but in 1915 the port became the focal point of a new front in the Great War. Anglo-French forces began landing at the Greek port of Salonika on 5 October 1915. The troops were sent to provide military assistance to the Serbs who had recently been attacked by combined German, Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian armies. The intervention came too late to save Serbia and after a brief winter campaign in severe weather conditions on the Serbian frontier, the Anglo-French forces found themselves back at Salonika.
At this point the British advised that the troops be withdrawn. However, the French - with Russian, Italian and Serbian backing - still believed something of strategic importance could be gained in the Balkans. After preparing the port of Salonika for defence, the troops moved up country. They used large amounts of barbed wire and a bastion about eight miles north of the city was created connecting with the Vardar marshes to the west, and the lake defences of Langaza and Beshik to the east, and so to the Gulf of Orfano and the Aegean Sea. This area was known as the ‘Birdcage’ on account of the quantity of wire used. The Bulgarians and Austrians also fortified the heights of the hills surrounding Salonika during the same time which had dire consequences later on. During 1916, as well as the 28th and other British divisions, further Allied contingents of Serbian, Italian and Russian troops also arrived and offensive operations began. The Bulgarian attempt at invasion of Greece in July was repulsed near Lake Doiran. At the beginning of October 1916, the British in co-operation with her allies on other parts of the front, began operations on the River Struma towards Serres. In November, Monastir fell to Franco-Serb forces.
A second offensive during the spring of 1917, the British part of which was the First Battle of Doiran (24-25 April and 8-9 May 1917), made little impression on the Bulgarian defences. The front-line remained more or less static until September 1918, when a third offensive was launched. During this the British attacked at Doiran for a second time (18-19 September 1918). With a breakthrough by Serbian forces west of the river Vardar the Bulgarian army was forced into a general retreat. The campaign concluded with the surrender of Bulgaria on 30 September 1918. Salonika was different from the Western Front in that the majority of casualties were not as a direct result of combat, in particular Malaria proved to be a serious drain on manpower during the campaign. In total, the British forces suffered 162,517 cases of the disease and in total 505,024 non-battle casualties.
The Doiran Memorial stands near Doiran Military Cemetery, which is situated in the north of Greece close to the Macedonia border and near the south-east shore of Lake Doiran. The memorial stands roughly in the centre of the line occupied for two years by the Allies in Macedonia, but close to the western end, which was held by Commonwealth forces. It marks the scene of the fierce fighting of 1917-1918, which caused the majority of the Commonwealth battle casualties.
From October 1915 to the end of November 1918, the British Salonika Force suffered some 2,800 deaths in action, 1,400 from wounds and 4,200 from sickness. The campaign afforded few successes for the Allies, and none of any real importance until the last two months. The action of the Commonwealth force was hampered throughout by widespread and unavoidable sickness and by continual diplomatic and personal differences with neutrals or Allies. On one front there was a wide malarial river valley and on the other, difficult mountain ranges, and many of the roads and railways it required had to be specially constructed.
The memorial serves the dual purpose of Battle Memorial of the British Salonika Force (for which a large sum of money was subscribed by the officers and men of that force), and place of commemoration for more than 2,000 Commonwealth servicemen who died in Macedonia and whose graves are not known. George Piercy is one of those men. Let us remember him.
With thanks and acknowledgements to the Imperial War Museum, the Commonwealth war Graves Commission, the Great War Forum, the Salonika Campaign Society and Chris Baker’s The Long Long Trail website.
If anyone has any information about any of the men commemorated on the Market Weighton War Memorial then I would be pleased to hear from you. I can be contacted on 01430 871112 or at The Mortgage Advice Centre/Yorkshire Building Society agency in Market Weighton.