Well, the actual point of this trip was to explore and find out more about the battlefield where my grandfather fought the Bulgarians in 1915 (as opposed to the Turks earlier that year or in 1918). To guide me I had the maps below (respectively, from the books by Cyril Falls and Wakefield and Moody, and a modern one), some reminiscences written years after his death, and the excellent description of the battle itself by Ward Price. (A nod also to Alan Palmer who is informative on the geopolitics.)
Relating the map – especially three different maps – to the situation on the ground is tricky, and coming from Valandovo through Rabrovo I missed the crucial turning for Tatarli (because it was signposted for Čalakli) and was halfway up the pass to Kosturino before I a) realised my mistake and b) was able to turn on the narrow and twisting (though well-surfaced) road. There was a policeman at the junction, and I wondered if I had also somehow driven past the Irish war memorial that was supposedly in Rabrovo. Using my best efforts at mangled Macedonian and Serbia I asked him if he knew where the ирски споменик was. He looked blank, but then offered me a Greek military cemetery, only a few hundred metres away. I left the car and investigated. Sure enough, there it was:
The setting is pretty spectacular, looking across the plain to the mountains, the Greek cemetery to the right, the road (which is actually signposted to Greece and Turkey) heading due south to Lake Dojran and the border. As you can see, it is fertile territory.
Encouraged, I returned to the car, waved to the policeman, and began the next stage. My hope was that I would be able to drive up the track marked on the map towards Memešli, in the valley east of the peaks marked as Crête Rivet and Crête Simonet. According to both Price and Falls, my grandfather’s regiment had held out on Crête Rivet for a day after the rest of the front line had pulled back to Crête Simonet; which made me feel pretty certain that that was the location of the anecdote passed on by my grandmother.
However, at this point the utter inadequacy of the maps in detailing the situation on the ground let me down, and I began wishing I had invested in a GPS system. I found myself in a clearing with numerous charcoal pits in varying stages of use. And at this point fate took a hand, with a local man, Bekir, offering to take me up the hill to show me the landscape.
Bekir spoke some German, which is how we communicated (my German is fairly fluent); we discussed the local vegetation, the resignation of Tony Blair, climate change, and the shocking state of the Macedonian economy as we climbed. As it turned out, he is actually an ethnic Turk, and he told me that all the villages nearby (apart from Sobri, across the valley) were largely Turkish-speaking; a legacy population of the Ottoman empire, kicked out of these parts by the Bulgarians in 1912, themselves kicked out by the Serbs in 1913, with my grandfather part of an unsuccessful attempt to save them from the Bulgarians again in late 1915 before they went back to Serbia in 1918. (Back and forth again during the second world war, and of course in independent Macedonia since 1992.) The landscape alternates between rocky and bushy; junipers and yew, mostly, but it smelt lovely.
Bekir guided me through the scrub to the top of the peak called Crête Simonet on the allied maps (I asked if there was a local Turkish name for it; he looked blank; the names were presumably given to the features by the French who had occupied the area in a counterstrike against the Bulgarians in early November 1915, handing over to the Irish at the end of the month) and I satisfied myself that I was in the right place. Here is the view north to Crête Rivet.
Was it from here that my grandfather ordered his men to descend diagonally, guessing that the Bulgarians would fire straight down into the valley and so miss them? Certainly if Crête Rivet is like Crête Simonet, a diagonal descent on the southern edge is favoured by the rock formations. (Presumably also the houses they allowed to be shelled belonged to Bekir’s wife’s relatives – he himself was from further north. He told me that the village of Kajali is completely deserted with barely any buildings standing; I guess we know why.)
One of the stones appeared to have been drilled and had traces of cement:
My first feeling was that this surely must have been constructed by the Allies, not the Bulgarians; it was open to the south, and clearly facing north. But on reflection, I think it may instead be what is left of the trigonometric beacon marked both by Falls and on the modern map just inside the 400m contour, a kilometre or so north of the village. (Which, incidentally, Bekir tells me is now generally called Čalakli, Tatarli being only one small part of it.)
I was too tired and the weather too hot to press on to the northern peak; also my short-sleeved shirt was inadequate protection against the scrub, so we declared a partial victory and, like the 10th Division in 1915, beat a tactical retreat. I had not been to the gym all week due to my travel, but this certainly made up for it.
Bekir invited me in for a cup of Turkish coffee, and recommended that I should come back some time to do both peaks, which should take us about four hours; he also hoped I would bring someone who spoke decent Macedonian or Serbian, though I felt we had managed OK in German. I gave him what I hope was a decent tip, and drove off, feeling pretty triumphant. This expedition was something that had started out as a castle in the air, and ended with the kindness of a charcoal-burner. I do hope I get back there some time to do the fuller version.