Winston Churchill, commenting on the fighting that took place in Macedonia during World War 1, said that “it was upon this much-abused front that the final collapse of the Central Empires first began”. Thus, the beginning of the end, as he would have put it, took place in the Balkans where, history tells us, it all started with Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination. It is also where Lustleigh lad, George Bunclark, was to lose his life.
George was born at Moor House, Hennock on 2 March 1893, the first of 10 children of Eliza Ann and James Bunclark, a carter at a stone quarry. Shortly after George’s birth, they moved to Wreyland where a second child was born, Mabel, who was later to become the first May Queen following the tradition’s revival by Cecil Torr in 1905.
As with most of his siblings, George attended Lustleigh County Primary school; after the turn of the century, the family moved from Wreyland via Lone Park (near Casely) to Lower Coombe; but by 1911 he had moved away from the village and was employed as a garden boy in Teignmouth.
When war broke out, George travelled to Exeter to enlist in D Company of the 10th Devonshire Regiment. In so doing, he was following in the footsteps of his father who had served in the Devonshires for 12 years, largely in India where he was awarded the Burma Clasp 1889-1892, and who rejoined at the outbreak of the Great War, aged 45, serving at the Dardenelles, in Egypt and in Palestine.
Yet more Bunclarks were to join the fight in WW1. George’s brother Percy was a private in the Prince of Wales 5th Devon (Territorial) Regiment, which was immediately sent to India at the start of the war; later he went to Egypt, Palestine and France. Another brother William joined the Royal Navy, initially in the Boy’s Service but was put to sea as soon as he was of age and continued in the service after the war. Two cousins also served with the Devonshires: another William who served with the Regiment at home and John who was a sergeant in the Devonshire Regiment and sadly lost his life in November 1918.
George wasn’t sent to the front until 1915, arriving in France on 22nd September. Before reaching the trenches, however, his battalion was diverted via Marseilles to the Macedonian Front, arriving in Salonika on 21st November: the allies needed to counter any Bulgarian aggression following their alliance with Germany and Austria.
His time there would have been both frustrating and unpleasant. In the beginning, they were perceived to spend more time digging trenches than fighting, an image which earnt the French-led allied forces the nickname “The Gardeners of Salonika” by France’s war time leader, Georges Clemenceau (an interesting label considering George Bunclark’s earlier profession). On the other hand, it was an inhospitable environment leading to nearly one third of his battalion being admitted to hospital with either malaria or dysentery.
By October 1916, the 10th Devons had taken up a position opposite the Petit Couronne ridge. Due to the rocky terrain and topography of the area, the Bulgarian line was almost impregnable and deterred our men from all but occasional skirmishes. It was, however, seen as a strategic objective: its capture would split the enemy’s front line and open the way to an advance on Bulgaria. Consequently, there were occasional forays, more for gaining intelligence than gaining ground.
A raid to test the Bulgarian defences was planned for the night of 9th February 1917, but a violent blizzard delayed the offensive to the following night. It is thought that enemy intelligence predicted the action on the 10th February and launched a heavy barrage at the planned ‘zero hour’; thankfully the attack was delayed by 30 minutes and saved many casualties. Boosted by this fortuitous error, the Devons pressed on and begun to make headway. After two hours of fighting and inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy, the battalion could not capitalise on their progress and, running out of ammunition, were forced to withdraw. During the course of the operation, the Devons lost over 30 men, including George Bunclark.
“Your boy was by my side when he was hit and fell asleep apparently without any suffering”, wrote the head of his platoon to his mother. “It is all the more sad as he advanced as a stretcher bearer and was consequently unarmed. He died doing his duty. We shall all miss him as he was very popular”. His popularity was further reinforced by the large congregation which attended his memorial service in Lustleigh church; two notable absences, though, were his father and brother Percy, also a stretcher bearer, both of whom were still at the front.
Private Bunclark, No 12006, is today commemorated on the Doiran Memorial which stands roughly in the centre of the line occupied for two years by the Allies in Macedonia, and marks the scene of the fierce fighting of 1917-1918 which caused the majority of the Commonwealth battle casualties.
The Keep Military Museum, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, FindMyPast, Lustleigh and the First World War, Mid-Devon Advertiser, The Book of Lustleigh, Book of the Devonshire Regiment