An awful lot of malaria in summer … place was teeming with mosquitoes … especially if you were using a lantern or anything for working at a dump at night if it was near a wet marshy spot, round the fountain of the lantern would just be piling up with dead mosquitoes.

Corporal William Daniel Mowat (1895-1989), Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, was interviewed by Drew Ratter for the School of Scottish Studies in 1982. He recalled a little-known allied campaign from World War One. The initial war between Austro-Hungary and Serbia had resulted in a Serb victory. In 1915, however, a combined assault by German, Austro-Hungarian, and Bulgarian forces had resulted in the decimation of the Serb military and the evacuation of remaining assets to Albania.

In October 1915 the British and the French landed at Salonika (now Thessaloniki) in Greece, in support of Serbia. This was the Macedonian Front. It had all sorts of difficulties. The Greek King was a reluctant host, but an uprising in 1916 installed a pro-allied government. Much of the warfare was static, with trenches and barbed wire systems reminiscent of the war in Western Europe. By 1917 there were half a million allied troops there. It was only in September 1918 that the war in Macedonia moved decisively on behalf of the allies. An offensive begun on the 15th led to the Bulgarians surrendering on the 29th, and thereby playing a significant part in the end of the war.

They started flooding the marshes near the troops' camps with paraffin, barrels of paraffin, the oil floating on the surface… it worked for a little… There was a never-ending supply of mosquitoes.

Non-battle casualties were a serious problem in a marshy land, hot in summer, freezing in winter. Willie Mowat noted that Greek civilians were employed in drainage. More extreme measures were used, such as paraffin. The never-ending supply of mosquitos meant 162,517 malaria cases among the British.

Five Shetlanders died in the Balkans. Robert Andrew, John J. Halcrow, Peter Fraser. Mary Bethia Marshall, who had been born in Gutcher, but spent most of her life in the south, worked as a staff nurse in Queen Alexandria’s Imperial Military Nursing service. She died in an air raid at Skydra, near Monastir. Thomas Inkster, a diaspora Shetlander from Grangemouth, was a non-battle casualty, suffering from dysentery. Willie Mowat named four others who served – Charles Williamson, Lerwick, Walter Mowat of Scalloway, George Cooper of Mossbank, and another Lerwick man, Robert Robertson.

Willie’s war went on into 1919, as the allies supervised the return of the Dobruja district from Bulgaria to Romania. He overwintered in Ruschuk (also known as Ruse, Rustchuk), billeted in a tannery, and saw the Danube freeze. Willie Mowat's recording held at the School of Scottish Studies, Edinburgh University.


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SL00020 Gunnister, Northmavine.
Gunnister, Northmavine, where Willie Mowat was born. Shetland Museum.