The Salonika campaign

Page 6 – Hidden Anzacs

A number of New Zealanders served in the British imperial forces at Salonika rather than with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF). They did so for a number of reasons: some were in Britain and it made practical sense to do so, or they had a family connection to a British regiment. Others had been rejected by the NZEF, or joined specialist units or voluntary organisations such as the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA).   

Among the first to arrive in the Balkans were the volunteers of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals, sent out to assist the Serbian Army in 1914. With them was Dr Jessie Scott from Brookside, south of Christchurch, who had been practising medicine in England. She served through the desperate conditions of winter 1915 until she was captured by advancing Austrian troops in late November and became a prisoner of war. Released in February 1916, Scott later transferred to Switzerland. Awarded the Serbian Order of St Sava, 3rd Class, she was attached to the 61st British General Hospital at Salonika in 1919 and also saw service in France. After returning to New Zealand she worked at Christchurch Hospital.

Another New Zealander, Dr Agnes Bennett, served as commanding officer of the 7th Medical Unit, Scottish Women's Hospitals, which was attached to the Serbian Army from August 1916. After malaria forced her resignation in October 1917, she was awarded the Order of St Sava, 3rd Class as well as the Cross of Honour of the Serbian Red Cross. Bennett then worked on troopships and later at the Royal Infirmary, Glasgow and in a military hospital near Southampton. She returned to New Zealand in 1920 and continued her medical practice. Bennett was awarded an OBE in 1948.

New Zealanders also served with the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in Salonika. Lieutenant Edgar Thomson Shand of Taieri had initially joined the NZEF but transferred to the RFC as an observer. He arrived in Salonika with No. 17 Squadron in August 1916. Shand was wounded in the arm while flying with a French pilot on 19 August. After recovering at Malta he returned to New Zealand and was sent on a lecture tour of the country. Captain Henry Daniel Williams of Meremere also served as an observer with No. 17 Squadron during 1916 and later trained as a pilot, winning the Military Cross on the Western Front.

On the ground, New Zealanders were in the thick of the fighting and some paid the ultimate price. Lieutenant Florence Crimmin from Te Karaka, near Gisborne, was farming in Argentina when war broke out and he hurried to Britain to enlist. He was commissioned into the North Devon Hussars in September 1915. He was sent to Salonika in 1916 and posted to the 10th Battalion of the Devon Regiment. On 24 April 1917, he was reported missing during the first Battle of Doiran. Sergeant Alfred Hooper of Morningside, Auckland died on the same day in the same unit and action. Neither of their bodies were recovered and both men are commemorated on the Doiran Memorial which overlooks the battlefield.

Another New Zealander to lose his life in the campaign was Private John Francis Egan of Westport. A journalist at the Dominion prior to the war, Egan enlisted in the Lovat Scouts and served on Gallipoli. He later transferred to the 10th Battalion, Cameron Highlanders. In December 1916, he was gravely wounded in fierce fighting near Tumbitza Farm in the Struma Valley. He died on 8 December and is buried in Lahana Military Cemetery.

At least one New Zealander was captured by the Bulgarians. Private Thomas Grove Helyer came from Woodville, Manawatū. Living in England, he joined 2/20th Battalion of the London Regiment. In September 1917, his parents in New Zealand were told he had been killed in action. Later they learned he was a prisoner at Phillipolis Camp in Bulgaria, where the conditions were appalling. Helyer contracted pneumonia and died on 5 March 1918, aged 21. He lies in the Central Cemetery at Plovdiv, Bulgaria.