Saturday, 22 April 2017

Battle of Doiran

I find it interesting to peruse family history from time to time, and my grandmother's extensive memoirs are a treasure trove. Something in those memoirs that has caught my attention, it being both nautical and naval in nature, is a short mention of a 1913 visit of HMS THETIS to her hometown of Walls, Shetland. Her brother, my great-uncle, Robert (Bertie) Andrew hosted some of the officers at the Manse where the family lived (their father was the Church of Scotland minister in Walls).

Four years later, and one hundred years ago, saw the culmination of the Battle of Doiran in northern Greece. This battle against the Bulgarian Army raged from April 22, 1917 to May 9, 1917, and its loss ultimately cost the British 12,000 killed, wounded, and captured. One of the over 1,200 who died was this same great-uncle, now Lieutenant Robert Andrew. He was killed in the final attack on May 8, 1917, at the age of 24. His name joins those of 700 Commonwealth soldiers on the Doiran Memorial, whose final resting places are unknown.

Lieutenant Robert Andrew, Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders, 12th Bn. As a child, this picture of my great-uncle was on the wall first at my grandparents, and then after they passed away, in my parent's house.
It is probably best to simply repeat the words from my grandmother's own memoirs on the subject:

"Meanwhile in the remote north of Greece, near the border of Yugoslavia and Greece at Lake Doiran, our eldest brother Bertie has his resting place. He was 24 years old when the troops in that northern campaign had to make their first retreat in a night action 8-9 May 1917, from which over a thousand men failed to return (repeated in the autumn of that year when another thousand similarly laid down their lives). Some part of the debacle was due to the dreadful intestinal troubles which  pervaded the swamps, but also the campaign was a complete failure and it looked as if very many lives were lost needlessly. Bertie had just returned (8th May) from a long-awaited leave in Shetland and we gleaned from quiet talks he had with his father that he was going back without much hope for the success of the final campaign. Certain platoons who took part in the 8/9 May battle had orders - No retreat - hold back the enemy while the main body retreats. Bertie, though just returned from leave, would normally have had a day or two to recover from the journey. However, there was a scarcity of officers as well as of men owing to dysentry, and so the 12th Battalion, "C" Company, went into action knowing full well they had little or no chance of survival. As the Captain had been invalidated back home to Britain, Bertie acted that night as "acting Captain", as we learned later, and as one returned soldier told my folks, he refused to accept the double rum ration offered, saying he wanted to face his end without the rum's deadening effect. However that may be (we know he was teetotal), he was among those who never returned, and there he lies. A large monument there testified to the memory of over 2000 men who in the disastrous retreats lost their lives, and whose graves are unknown. On one of our later trips to Greece, Sandy [my grandfather] and I had the privilege of visiting this monument." - From the memoirs of Vaila Mowat.

My grandmother, Vaila (Andrew) Mowat, was very fond of her eldest brother, and I'm told missed him terribly. Even knowing he was dead, she apparently went to the dock to greet the ship bringing soldiers back to Shetland, hoping he might be one of them (and as I recall didn't tell anyone of this until many years later).

Lake Doiran (also apparently spelled Dojran) is split in two by the border between Yugoslavia (now Macedonia) and Greece, and apparently photography was not allowed at the time due to border tensions. Ever resourceful, my grandfather painted a picture of the memorial from memory. 

My grandfather's watercolour, from memory, of the memorial at Lake Doiran. I believe the row of buoys in the lake represents the border between then-Yugoslavia and Greece. Painting by Alexander (Sandy) Mowat.
It is interesting to compare this painting to a photo from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) website. Although located near the south end of the lake, from the painting I assumed it was nearer the north end. While the central monument is not the spire from the painting, and rather is flat topped, he got the general layout correct with the four smaller plinths and a low wall surrounding it. Much better than I could have done, I must say.

The Doiran Memorial is located in the north of Greece not far from the Doiran Military Cemetery, and it stands on a landscape feature formerly known as Colonial Hill. Designed by Sir Robert Lorimer, and with sculpture by Walter Gilbert, the memorial stands roughly on the line occupied by Commonwealth forces during the war.

A CWGC photograph of the memorial at Lake Doiran.
The CWGC cares for memorials at 23,000 locations in 154 counties around the globe, and coincidentally they also have their centennial in May 2017.

As for THETIS, she didn't survive the war either. Although she outlived Bertie, almost a year later on St. George's Day in April, 1918, she was filled with concrete and deliberately sunk as a blockship in a raid on Zeebrugge.

Four blockships fitting out at Chatham (THETIS on right). I have copied (rather incompetently) the photo from the 1958 book "Zeebrugge - St. George's Day, 1918" by Barrie Pitt.


  1. Thanks! This is the first time I heard this history. Lt. Robert Andrew was my Great Uncle from my Mother's family. His brother was my Great Grandfather from Alberta (East Coulee?).
    Lt. Colonel Scott Bullock
    U.S. Army Chaplain

  2. Your great-grandfather must have been Alfred then?