Robert and James Otterson
 World War I: The Balkans, 1915-1916

The First World War - known in the years following as the Great War - broke out in August of 1914. Very soon a recruiting campaign covered the length and breadth of the British Isles and extended to the rest of the British Empire as the country anticipated the need for the biggest army in its history.

As it turned out, there would never be enough men to replace the appalling toll in human life that characterized the trench warfare of continental Europe and other fields of battle. Britain alone lost nearly a million men. France lost substantially more, and the Germans nearly twice that number. Names like the Somme, Ypres, Passchendaele and Gallipoli have come down to us associated with this tragic loss of an entire generation of young men.

On December 12, Robert Otterson joined the line of volunteers with brother-in-law Jacob Forrest, the husband of his eldest sister. They were issued sequential numbers - 18491 for Jacob and 18492 for Robert. The following day, Robert’s brother James also joined up - his number was 18497 and all were posted to 3rd Battalion of the Green Howards Regiment on 4 January 1915. The 1st and 2nd Battalions were regular army units. The 3rd Battalion was a militia regiment raised because of the war and was sent as replacements and reinforcements to the 6th Battalion.

Green Howards 
Regimental History

The Green Howards Regiment has a long and distinguished history, beginning in 1688 when it was raised in the county of Somerset to serve under William of Orange in the final phase of the English civil wars. Its name, given at a time when regiments were identified with their colonel, was named after Col. Charles Howard. But since another regiment also served under a Howard, they were distinguished by the green facings to their uniform - the Green Howards.

The regiment first became associated with the North Riding (a Riding was a geographical area) of Yorkshire in 1782 as the 19th (First Yorkshire North Riding Regiment) of Foot - a title given on return from the American War of Independence. Not until a century later, however, would the regiment be officially based in Yorkshire.

Among the battles and campaigns fought by the Green Howards up to World War I are:

1690  Battle of the Boyne, Ireland
1695  Siege of Namur, Netherlands
1709  Battle of Malplaquet, Flanders
1761  Capture of Belle Isle, France
1775  American War of Independence
1794  Siege of Ostende
1796  Campaign in Ceylon
1854  Crimean War (to 1856)
1857  India (to 1871)
1885  Sudan
1899  South African War (until 1902)
1914  World War I (to 1918)

"The men are a fine, well set-up, hardy lot, mostly miners and very keen…They look on it as the finest holiday they have ever had in spite of the 7½ hours hard daily work.”

Report on inspection of recruits at Grantham, England

The following account on the movements of three individual soldiers of the Green Howards is based on information extracted by Margaret Otterson Seabourne from war diaries at the Green Howards Museum, Richmond, Yorkshire, in 2006.

On July 6 the great ship passed Gibraltar, and the next day another submarine was sighted and the men again stood to the lifeboats. On July 8 they passed Malta, but remained on board until August 6 when they disembarked to the southeast of Nibrunesi Point at a location designated as B beach.

History has recorded this landing at Suvla Bay in some detail, and an account of it can be found here.

The men’s first taste of action followed almost immediately. In an attack on Lala Baba, they drove the enemy NE to Hill 10, but at a loss of 250 men, 16 of them officers. The Yorkshire Regiment lost one third of its men and all but two of its officers on the first day. The war diaries record the following timeline, but give little hint of the ferocity of the fighting, the blunders of Allied military commanders and the general confusion and chaos:

  1. Bullet  7 Aug Took up outpost position Hill 10

  2. Bullet  8 Aug Moved forward between Hill 53 & Sulajik

  3. Bullet  9 Aug Back to Hill 10 & forward again to Sulajik. Heavy rifle fire.

  4. Bullet  8 Sep Officers & 491 OR (other ranks) joined from 3rd & 11th Bns.

  5. Bullet  29 Sep reinforcements - 2 2nd Lts 297 OR

  6. Bullet  8 Oct Violent hurricane 8 - 10 pm

  7. Bullet  20 - 31 Oct Working parties daily on support & communication trenches.

  8. Bullet  2 Feb 1916 Officers and 239 OR embarked for overseas

  9. Bullet  3 Feb Embarked in Aliki Bay on Redbreast

Those few closing lines barely hint at the cost in the lives of brave men in the unsuccessful Dardanelles campaign of World War 1 against the Turks. Sir Ian Hamilton's Mediterranean Expeditionary Force failed in its attempt to capture the Gallipoli peninsula, and a withdrawal was ordered in January 1916. The failure of the campaign damaged the reputation of Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty under whose oversight the plan had been formed. There were around 180,000 Allied casualties, and 220,000 Turkish casualties before the Allies withdrew.

Go to:

  1. Bullet Next stage of the war for Robert and James: The Somme and Ypres

  2. Bullet Return to Robert Otterson and Lizzie Abernethy

The first few months of the war had a strange unreality about them for those still in England. There was an air of excitement, of patriotism and optimism that the war would be short lived. On the march to the city of Rugby in England from April 5-8, 1915, the men passed through Leicester to a wonderful reception. Work for the city’s inhabitants was suspended as they lined the streets to cheer the passing troops and shower them with gifts.

On 3 July, after months of orientation and training, the men embarked on the massive four-funnel Aquitania, a Cunard ocean liner converted to troop ship, and sailed for Lemnos, a Greek Island in the North Aegean Sea close to the Turkish coast. Lemnos was the staging ground for the coming assault on the Gallipoli Peninsula between the Aegean Sea and the Dardanelles Straits. The idea was to push through the straits and take Constantinople, which would have removed the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire from the war as German allies.

Because the service numbers of Robert, James and Jacob were virtually sequential and their service records show the same postings, it is assumed all three shared the experiences in the Balkans recorded in the war diaries.

Only one day out, the men were ordered to “stand to boats” as a precaution when a German submarine was detected in the area. A torpedo passed close under the stern but missed its target.

Lemnos staging area


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