Frank Canning

Francis George Canning was born at Weston in 1887, the youngest son of William, an agricultural worker, and his wife Mary.  He followed his father and brothers into farm work, and the 1911 census shows Frank living at home at Weston, age 24, with his occupation given as ‘farm labourer’.

Frank enlisted at Newbury for service with the Royal Berkshire Regiment early in the war, becoming a Private in the 7th Battalion, regimental number 16305.

The 7th was a Service Battalion, formed for the duration of the war at Reading in August 1914 as part of 26th Division in Kitchener’s 3rd New Army.  It was composed of volunteers from all over England, chiefly the Midlands and South Wales, but still with a large proportion of Berkshire men.

Until September 1915 the 7th Royal Berks were training and organising in various locations, including Reading, Salisbury Plain and Sandhill Camp near Warminster, at which point they were ordered to France.  Frank Canning embarked with his Battalion at Southampton on 15th September 1915, arriving at Le Havre on the 20th.

However, they were destined not for the Western Front, but Salonika, as part of the combined Franco-British force sent at the request of the Greek Prime Minister to help the Serbs in their fight against the Bulgarians.  Thus, following an uneventful period learning the techniques of trench warfare at Aubigny near Arras in northern France, they entrained for Marseilles on 9th November.  Two days later they sailed on the Arcadian, with a strength of 25 officers and 906 other ranks, and after a peaceful voyage reached Alexandria on the 18th.  On the 20th they sailed for Salonika under escort of HMS Magnificent, arriving there safely on the 24th.

The story of the 7th Royal Berks’ activities in the Macedonian theatre of war has been told in detail in John Chapman’s recent (2012) book, Friends and Enemies.  To many people in Britain at this time, the ‘war’ meant the Western Front and units like the 7th Royal Berks were to become part of what, in a sense, was a ‘forgotten army’ in one of the ‘sideshows’ (as they were nicknamed) to the main war effort.  The campaign Frank and his comrades were involved in was resented by many senior staff as taking away much-needed men and resources from the main focus of the war in France and Belgium, and was also mainly ignored by the press at home.

From their arrival until June 1916 the Berkshires, in common with the rest of the British Salonika Force, were almost entirely engaged in creating and fortifying a bastion known as the ‘Birdcage’ about eight miles north of the city, with the intention of making Salonika a huge entrenched camp.  Their days consisted of road-making and trench-digging, with no sight of the Bulgars.  Finally, in July they began a northward march of some 50 miles to advance to the front line, relieving French troops in part of their line between Lake Doiran to the east and the river Vardar to the west, on the Serbian border.

August saw their first contact with the enemy, the next few months being characterised by patrolling duty in various parts of the line, trench raids by both sides, and periods in reserve undertaking road building.  In general, and in marked contrast to what was happening on the Western Front at this time, operations were very limited and consisted of ‘harassing’ the enemy in their positions.  However, as from April 1917 offensive operations were commenced; the attacks became of a more serious nature, and inevitably, casualties became proportionately more severe.

Tours of active service on the Doiran Front tended to be of much longer duration than those of troops in France and Belgium, and it is therefore likely that Frank Canning was with the Battalion continuously throughout this period. 

In May 1917 the 7th Royal Berks were moved to Cakli, north-east of Lake Doiran.  This was a generally quiet area, for the Bulgarian positions here were generally regarded as impregnable, and consequently the fighting was limited to encounters between the opposing outposts in the broad valley between the Allied lines and the mountain ranges to the north which contained the Bulgarian positions.

In June, the battalion began a move to a new area near the river Vardar known as the Crag, north of Causica, on the extreme left of the British line.  The summer weather here was unbearably hot and the men (and their food) were plagued by mosquitoes, flies and ants.

Sanitation became a priority to try to keep typhus, malaria and dysentery under control.

There was insufficient drinking water, and the poor supply chain from the ports to the front-line positions meant the men’s food was limited to the bare minimum most of the time – bully beef and biscuits.

The 7th Royal Berks reached the Crag on 14th June, and were given a day of rest before training was due to commence the next day. 

On 15th June, an enemy aircraft flew over their positions and dropped two small bombs on the transport section, killing one man and wounding 16 others.  Frank Canning was one of the wounded, and was evacuated to Number 28 Casualty Clearing Station situated at Karasouli, on the Vardar valley railway line.

Shortly after these events, Mr and Mrs Canning received notification by telegram that Frank was in hospital in Salonika suffering from serious gunshot injuries (‘gunshot’ in this context meaning shrapnel).  This telegram was followed by official confirmation that Frank had died of his wounds on 15th June 1917, at Number 28 Casualty Clearing Station.

Frank is buried in Karasouli Military Cemetery, on the edge of the town of Polykastro (formerly Karasouli) about 56km from Salonika (now Thessalonika).  This cemetery was begun in September 1916 for the use of Casualty Clearing Stations on the Doiran Front, and was greatly increased after the war by burials being brought in from other cemeteries in the region.