The following is a transcription of a personal diary that appeared in the pages of the Dundee Advertiser in serial form in March, 1915. Also later published in its sister paper the People's Journal, slightly abridged, the following month.
The author, referred to a "Scout", is a reservist in the Black Watch. The diary covers the period from his return to the depot at Perth on the 5th of August, until his wounding and return to Britain on the 22nd of November 1914.
All place name spellings are left as the author wrote them.
Dundee Advertiser Tuesday 23rd of March, 1915
APPROVED BY CENSOR FOR PUBLICATION BY THE DUNDEE ADVERTISER
WITH THE GALLANT 42nd
THE FIRST BLACK WATCH IN FRANCE & FLANDERS
1. THE ROAD TO MONS
To Scottish readers there is probably no arm of the service whose doings are of greater interest than those of the gallant regiment to which I am happy to belong - the Black Watch. One of the first among the regiments to set foot on the continent, it has since seen some of the thickest of the fighting, only the merest details of which have reached home; and it is with the view of giving some faint idea of what the glorious 42nd had gone through that I relate these experiences. I have told the story in narrative form, extending it from a rough diary I kept from day to day, and it gives a true and accurate description of the campaign so far as any one soldier can see and describe it. It should always be kept in view, however, that I and the company of which I was a member were but insignificant units in a great force, and that our operations, which are all that I can pretend to describe, formed a small part of the tremendous and hazardous work of the campaign. I may add that it is merely our company which is usually implied, in what follows, by the pronoun "we," and that when it is used in any narrower sense it includes along with myself my inseparable companions, Bill, Sandy, Pete, and "Ginger." We were invariably together on scouting patrols, and were popularly alluded to in the company as "the fighting five." Only Pete now remains in the field. Sandy has been killed, and Bill, "Ginger," and myself have been invalided home, though none of us is so badly wounded that we will not be able to return.
I will pass over briefly the incidents that followed immediately after the declaration of war on August 4. On the general mobilisation being ordered next day, I left Dundee for Perth, where I was given my uniform and field kit, leaving the Fair City at 9.30pm for Aldershot. On our arrival there early next morning we had a great reception, the whole regiment turning out to welcome the returning reservists. Our Commanding Officer, Colonel Grant Duff, greeted us all cordially, and we were posted to our different companies. I, and the others of the "fighting five," were placed in platoon No. 5 under Captain M.C.A. Drummond, Company Officer.
So much for introduction. We were six days at Aldershot, drilling and skirmishing and doing field firing to keep ourselves fit; and it was not till August 13 that we got orders to leave for the Continent. We paraded and marched to Farnborough, where we entrained for Southampton and embarked on board the Italian Prince. Our journey to Southampton and our embarkation, were marked by scenes of great enthusiasm, which have been sufficiently described already, and on which i need not therefore dwell.
We sailed at six o'clock in the evening, and had scarcely left port when we were reminded in a somewhat sensational way that we were now entering in earnest into the grim business of war. The lights of Southampton were still dimly visible behind us, and some of us were looking at them, and wondering if we should ever see them again, when a gun suddenly boomed out close by our bows. The ship was stopped, and in a few minutes we heard a voice hailing us from the darkness.
"Ahoy! What ship is that?"
"The Italian Prince."
"Well, why is your mast-head light not burning?"
There was a moment's silence, and then there came the mortified reply from the bridge, "Oh, it's gone out!"
"Then get it on again!" was the sharp order.
The lamp was lit, and we proceeded on our way, only to be stopped again in exactly the same way midway across the channel. The incidents were a tribute to the watchfulness of our fleet, and the remark of a man standing beside me, "They'll no' let much past them, thae lads!" was an expression of the pride and confidence we felt in our navy.
It was a slow and tedious voyage. Sleep for most of us was out of the question, for the steamer was so crowded that it was impossible for all but a very few to find a decently comfortable place to lie down. So we spent the long night moving restlessly about, speculating on what lay before us and trying to guess at our probable destination - for in that matter we were still entirely in the dark.
As we neared the other side, however, rumour began to get busy, and when we at last came in sight of the land in the early forenoon of the 14th August we knew that we were going to disembark at Havre.
The steamer lay off the port for a while, and it was mid-day before we steamed slowly in and moored alongside the quay. It was crowded with French people, who received us with immense enthusiasm. They were particularly interested in the kilted regiments, and cheered us loudly as we marched ashore.
No time was lost in disembarking. In a shed on the quay we were all served out with a small glass of hot and very strong black coffee, which we all appreciated as an expression of French good-will, though few of us could drink it. After a brief rest we were formed up, and set out at once on the march through Havre, with the pipes playing bravely. It was one of the last times we were to hear them on that journey.
A Glasgow steamer was laying alongside the quay, and as we passed the crew, clustered along her side, sang "Auld Lang Syne." The familiar old melody, heard under such circumstances, brought a lump to my throat. In the streets of the town huge crowds watched us pass, and to their continuous shouts of "Vive las Ecossais!" we replied with snatches of the "Marseillais," sung in our best French. But our favourite song then and throughout the rest of our march was "Sing a Song of Bonnie Scotland," varied by the familiar "Tipperary."
For about two hours we followed the road inland. Climbing as we went on of the steepest hills I ever saw a road ascend. We arrived at last at No. 7 Rest Camp, tired and very hungry. Everything was ready for us in the way of field equipment, but we waited in vain for anything to eat. It turned out afterwards that our cookers had stuck on the hill, and they did not put in an appearance till dawn next morning.
Meanwhile we were glad enough of the chance to lie down on the bare ground under the tents, and soon we were fast asleep. I awoke suddenly to find myself soaking wet, and shivering with cold. It was pitch dark, and I could hear the rain descending in torrents. A fierce ejaculation from Sandy told that he had been awakened by the same cause, and the whole squad of us were at once on our feet. We found that the tent had been pitched right across a shallow depression that ran from one side of the camp to the other, and along this ditch the water was running like a millrace, flooding the tent and making further sleep impossible. Fortunately we had not much longer to wait till daybreak.
Our first morning on the Continent broke on a fearful day of rain, with all its discomfort and misery. But we were all in good spirits, and when as last the cookers came lumbering into camp, and started at once to make breakfast, we felt quite cheerful. It was an excellent meal of hot bully stew we got, and we were more than ready for it, having had nothing warm since we left Southampton except a drink of coffee.
Off for the Firing Line
The whole of that long, wet day we spent in camp, moving about over the ankles in mud. We made our tent as watertight as possible, and then sat inside singing songs to pass the time away. All this time we had no idea where we were going, or how long we would stay in camp. But we were all eager to get to the front in the shortest possible time.
We were not sorry, therefore, when we got the call to move at two o'clock next morning – August 16th. It was still raining, and intensely dark, when we fell in and prepared to march. We learned that we were going back to Havre, where we would entrain, probably for the firing line. This definite news gave us fresh enthusiasm, and our songs had a new spirit in them as we swung light-heartedly along a dark road. It was just a quarter-past four, I remember when we reached Havre Station, after marching through streets whose quietness, at that time on a Sunday morning, was a strange contrast to the lively scenes that had marked our arrival there less than two days before.
The carriages into which we were packed were for all the world like the goods vans on our home lines. Forty of us were crowded into one compartment, leaving us scarcely room to breath. So long as it was cool the discomfort was of no consequence; but when the sun broke through the clouds, and the temperature in the carriage climbed up till it resembled that of a lime-kiln, the place was like the Black Hole of Culcutta.
About one o'clock the train reached Rouen, where the journey was broken for a brief spell while some more of the strong black coffee was served out. We did not care for the stuff, however, and the tea which I made when we halted at Amiens, with hot water from the engine, was much more enjoyable, even if we had to take it without sugar.
At every station along the route we were cheered by large crowds of the civil population, and there was hardly a man among us who was not sporting the tricolour ribbons, flags, and flowers that were showered on us. The climax was reached at Arras, where the entire population was out to give us a reception, with bands playing. They called us "the famous Waterloo Black Watch," and it was clear that they looked upon us as having come to deliver them from the German menace. During this part of the journey I travelled over a hundred miles seated on the buffer of the carriage. It was a risky business, and half a dozen times I was nearly jolted off; but it was cool there, and anything was better than stewing among the crowd inside.
At two o'clock on the morning of of the 17th we arrived at La Nouvain, and bid farewell to the railway; and were glad enough to get out of that collection of horse-boxes and stretch our legs. We marched to a field just outside the village, and lying down on the bare grass, almost immediately fell asleep. It was a brief rest we had however, for in less than three hours we had to get on the move once more, marching to a concentration camp. This was clustered round a small village, and along with thirty others I was lucky enough to get billeted in the one and only hotel, where our host and his three buxom daughters were most assiduous in their efforts to make us comfortable.
For four days we remained in that camp, passing the time in bathing, route marching, and learning French. Lieutenant Louis Cumming, one of the gallant officers we afterwards lost, and one of the kindest and best of men, was our teacher, and he found us all eager enough to learn. The weather during this period was very warm, and in consequence the brigade marches and tactical exercises by which we were kept fit took a tremendous lot out of us.
On 21st August we left the concentration camp and marched about twelve miles to a town on the Belgian frontier, where some of the men were again billeted, though most of us had to sleep in the open. Here we received our first field pay. It amounted to only five francs each - a very small proportion of what was due, for evidently there was not enough money to go round.
At two o'clock on the following morning we were again called out, and, after being served with breakfast, prepared to march. Our destination was supposed to be unknown, but as we formed up in the darkness and the bitter cold, we were all well enough aware that we were now on our way to the actual firing line. It was all very unromantic. There were no bugles calling, no beating of drums, or flaring of trumpets – just a body of men lining up quietly in the darkness. But in it all there was something curiously impressive.
The Sound of Battle
In the distance we could hear the artillery rumbling off, and then we got the order to march. It was a weary journey we set out upon, and long before we came to the end of it we began to hear the booming of the guns. The sound reached us first at St Aubin, where we halted for a short rest after marching for eight hours. It was not the only reminder we had of the nearness of battle. Streams of refugees were meeting us, and in a field near by we saw a number of German prisoners under guard.
All the rest of the day, and right on till halfpast one ext morning, we kept steadily on, passing through Beaufort, Dompierre, and Maubeuge, and arriving at last at a village in Belgium called, I think, Grand Reng. I was billeted in a general store, and after being treated to wine and biscuits, together with cigars and cigarettes, by the proprietor, I was to be almost immediately awakened, however – at three am, to be precise – so tired and sleepy that even the significant order to "stand to arms," which would at any other time have sent a thrill of excitement through us, failed to rouse us to complete wakefulness.
At 3.30 we were on the march, and knew definitely the work that was before us. It was to cover the troops then engaged in the Battle of Mons. When dawn broke the thunder of the guns began, and as we got nearer and nearer the noise was deafening. We were halted at nightfall, and began to "dig ourselves in" close by the main road to Mons. Three of us – Lance-Corporal Baird, Private McIntyre, and myself – were detailed for patrol duty, and ordered to go forward and find out where the enemy were, and how they were moving. We set out at once along a rough path we found on our right, making our way cautiously in the growing darkness. It was a varied bit of country we were in. On our right hand a path branched off towards a deep quarry, with a thick wood surrounding it. Behind us was the Mons road, and on the left stretched cultivated fields, in which we could see the German shells bursting. Beyond that lay the city of Mons, and somewhere near it were the British troops, engaged in a deadly struggle with the advancing German hordes. How far they had advanced in our direction it was now our task to discover.
Our little party, then, proceeded along that path, with our bayonets fixed and our rifles ready, conscious that at any moment we might meet a party of the enemy engaged on the same errand. We had just come within sight of the houses of a village looming in the darkness ahead, when there suddenly rang our the challenge-
"Qui va la?"
I knew enough of French to understand that, and shouted the reply, "Un soldat anglais." I approached the sentry, not without some misgiving, for I was well aware that the French challenge was one of the German tricks, and that the Germans spoke French well, and for all I knew I might be running straight into a trap. He was French all right, however, and after I had managed to explain the presence of myself and my companions - not without a good deal of difficulty, for I spoke little French, and he was no better student of English – he told me that it was useless and dangerous to go further. We therefore returned to headquarters and reported to the O.C. Company, and were then glad of the chance to have a decent sleep at last. We lay down with our kit on our shoulders, and our rifles ready, prepared for instant action.
About two o'clock in the morning I was called again, and, along with the "fighting five" went out on observation patrol. This was now August 24th, an eventful day for us. Our party searched the wood around the quarry, and found it clear, but on climbing a knoll we saw the Germans coming on en masse on our left flank. The whole stretch of low-lying ground was filled with them, and in the early morning light we saw the smoke and the flash of their guns, the noise of which was loud and incessant. The British troops were far on the left, slowly retreating, and it seemed to us that the direction that would bring them straight upon us, with the intention of enveloping the British right flank.
"Scout's" story will be continued in to-morrow's "Dundee Advertiser," and will contain graphic details of a desperate fight with the enemy. (On page 3 will be found a pictorial map illustrating the position of the Black Watch at Mons, as described above).
Dundee Advertiser Wednesday 24th of March, 1915
APPROVED BY CENSOR FOR PUBLICATION BY THE DUNDEE ADVERTISER
THE GALLANT 42ND.
BLACK WATCH IN FRANCE AND FLANDERS
2. THE GREAT RETREAT
As we stood on that hill in the early morning and watched the German shells bursting in the distant fields, we were really looking on at the beginning of the historic retreat. General Smith-Dorrien's army was then very heavily engaged with the enemy, who were attacking in overwhelming force. We hurried back to headquarters and reported the situation, and immediately afterwards the brigade got the order to move, and set out to the assistance of the 2nd Army Corps. There was no time to wait for breakfast. We moved back in the direction of Grand Reng, then, describing a detour, marched towards Mons, and cut in between the British Forces and the oncoming enemy. Continuous and heavy artillery firing was going on from both sides, and as we advanced the shells began to scream over our heads.
Our own brigade of artillery had taken up a position just overlooking the road in front of us, and they started blazing away furiously to keep back the Germans who were pressing up on our flank, and who were already occupying the place we had left.
We expected every moment to be attacked by the enemy, whose extreme left were indeed almost in touch with us at several points, and but for our guns and cavalry they would have been upon us more than once. There was not a man among us but was eagerly wishing they would, and the inclination was strong upon us to face round and engage them in defence of all discipline. I don't mean to pretend that we were all brave as lions, anxious only to do or die; but this constant facing of danger, without ever coming actually into touch with it, had excited an exasperated feeling to get at the worst and have it over. Besides, there is no doubt that a retreat is a galling thing, even when it is plain that any other course would be suicidal.
We went steadily on, however, right through the line of fire, with these infernal shells always roaring over our heads. It was quite nerve-wracking. The noise of one shell is horrible enough – I don't think there is any more sinister sound in the world, and the man who says it does not trouble him is a stranger to the truth. Imagine, then, the effort of hundreds of them flying above us, with their weird, whistling, deafening din. They dropped and burst all around, sometimes perilously near; but not one struck us, for the range at which they were fired was a considerable distance beyond.
On the Retreat.
It took us a while to get out of the danger zone, and when we did we swung off to the left, leaving Mons, and the worst of the firing, behind us. Evidently the circumstances had so changed that our services would not be needed after all, and we were once more on the retreat, every one of us feeling disappointed and discontented. Here we were doing what should have been one of the most strenuous and dangerous tasks on the field – covering a retiring army – and we had not yet been given the opportunity to fire a shot. We learned, subsequently, that while we were hurrying through the hail of German shell, the Gordons and Middlesex had been very badly cut up. That, of course, is now history.
Shortly before midnight we reached Longueville, and our company were billeted in an orchard, in which we were delighted to find plums, apples, and other fruit. We were ordered not to touch them, but after having eaten nothing all day, and with the certain knowledge that sooner or later the Germans would be there to get what we left, we found it easy to convince ourselves that plucking a few apples and pears would be a sin readily forgiven.
Then followed about two hours of welcome sleep, and at thee o'clock on a very dark and cold morning we were once more on the march, passing by Maubeuge, and arriving about four o'clock in the afternoon at Dompierre. It should be understood that all the time we were practically under fire. I cannot hope to convey any idea of the impossible way in which those German hordes were pressing after us, nor can I describe the deadly pertinency with which they followed every move of the British Army with their fearful long range guns. It was not till we learned the extensive use they were making of motor transports that we understood how their infantry kept so closely and so constantly at our heels. I have not yet mentioned their aeroplanes – we could see them almost all day long, picking out our positions and signalling by means of coloured lights to their gunners.
At Dompierre, having again shaken off the activity of their pursuit, we stopped for a rest. My half company was billeted in a loft above the schoolroom, and finding some straw in a corner we proceeded to make ourselves comfortable. I was raking over some of the straw to make a bed, when my hands encountered something loose. Investigation brought to light two German rifles and a sabre, which I took at once to the company commanding officer. We heard afterwards that the schoolmaster had been arrested as a spy, though what happened to him I do not know. Two other spies caught in the vicinity that same night were condemned by a brief Court-Martial and shot out of hand.
Rain came on heavily soon after dark, and the satisfaction we had felt on taking up our quarters disappeared when we found the roof letting the water through like a sieve, not in mere drops, but in little trickles and runlets that sought us out wherever we lay, and soon drenched us thoroughly. It was a disturbing night altogether, for, shortly after seven o'clock a tremendous fusilade of rifle-firing started quite near at hand, and at once we got the call from the Company-Sergeant Major "Come on, boys, stand to!" So out we got into the pouring rain, waiting for over an hour, with fixed bayonets, for an expected attack that never came. It was only a patrol of Uhlans that had tried to penetrate the trench lines, an had been beaten off.
There was precious little sleep for any of us that night after all, for about three o'clock we were aroused again, and formed up for a march. Imagine us, therefore, on this morning of the 26h August, all of us wet, all of us tired, and all of us exasperated beyond measure by this constant necessity of moving without striking a blow. Our grumbling was plain enough to the officers, and we were assured with grim emphasis, "Oh, you'll get all you want of it yet!"
In the Thick of It.
We were told that we were matching to Landrecies, where the Germans were attacking in force, and with the idea that we might be in it soon, after all, we set out in great spirits, my company doing flank guard. Our artillery were in advance, and when we halted for dinner they were in position just beside us, blazing away for all they were worth – for it so must be remembered that during all these days we were never beyond artillery range of the enemy. In fact, we lived in an atmosphere of battle, with the roar of the guns constantly sounding in our ears, shells bursting, and rifles and machine guns volleying all round. We were near enough to it all here, shrapnel bullets were coming among us, and one struck the ground between my legs, the vicious "spit," just as I was opening my tin of bully-beef. When I heard the hum of the thing I made a dive for it, with the vain idea of catching it as it flew. While sitting here we saw one of the British aeropanes under fire, and counted no fewer than 37 German shells bursting around it, yet the daring pilot escaped unwounded. We found afterward that he was Lieutenant A.E. Borden, of our own regiment. We gave him a rousing cheer when we saw him galloping past on horseback later on to report his observations. Our captain shouted an offer of a drink of tea to him, but he replied, "Haven't got time - too busy," and galloped on. Messengers having reported to our Commanding Officer that French and British troops were falling back, we had perforce again to follow suit, and started off on another route that landed us at Oisy about midnight, the whole battalion being quartered in a huge barn.
Next day (27th August) we had our first brush with the enemy. It was raining when we turned out at six o'clock in the morning, and moved back through the village to a field about half a mile beyond. We caught five calves in that field, and preparations were at once made to cook them for dinner. But just as we were about to be served with the meat, which we had been welcoming eagerly as a capital change from "Mr Bully," Germans were reported in the near vicinity, and we had to move at once. Our object was to assist the Munster Fusiliers, but before reaching the place where they were engaged we learned that they had been badly cut up or captured by the terrible odds against them, only about 200 of them coming back out of a whole battalion.
The brigade was ordered to entrench, and while the men were digging themselves in Lieutenant Cumming and a few of us went out to a canal on our right to watch the flank. I wish I could adequately describe our surroundings, and give some idea of the whole scene on that sunlit day. There was that canal, stretching away in front of us, with flat cultivated ground on either side, rising to low hills in the distance; and behind us the roofs and the quaint spire of Etreux. A peaceful enough scene itself; but in front, on both sides of us, there was an incessant firing of guns, ominously threatening, and wherever the eye turned there could be seen the faint haze of the battle smoke, puffing up in little white clouds where the shells were bursting. On every hand too, were streams of refugees, old men and women and children, literally flocking along the roads in their feverish haste to get away from the threatening danger, while on the horizon behind them lay in heavy masses the smoke of their burning villages.
While we waited there we saw a party of Uhlans approaching in the distance, and prepared to give them a warm reception. But before they got near us a Scots Guard patrol opened fire on them, and they beat a hasty retreat. Shortly afterwards we were told to return to our battalion, which was again under orders to retire.
The Germans were now coming rapidly into touch with us, and their attack soon developed. We were on the march at the time along an open road, and the first intimation we had of their presence was the scream and the bursting of their shells as they opened on us with their artillery, while a machine gun started to spit death at 600 yards' range. We took cover at once in a depression, which, luckily for us, ran parallel with the road, and started to return the compliment with a hail of lead. The men were in great spirits, joking and laughing at the turn affairs had taken, and they went at their work with shouts of "Let them have it!" and "That's for the Kaiser!"
Thanks to our promptness in taking cover, we only lost one man and had seven wounded. After holding the position for a while we left the gully and retired to the level ground beyond. Those of us who had been out on the scouting patrol lost our full field kit here. We had left it in a small ammunition cart which had to be abandoned, as the horses were killed.
A Refugee in Distress.
Over the rise we found ourselves crossing a cultivated field. It was hard going, but we went at the double, with German shells chasing us all the way. If they had been well placed our losses would have been very heavy.
Halfway over the field a refugee woman with two children was trying to get out of the danger zone. Heaven knows how the poor creature go there; but there she was, carrying one baby in her arms and dragging another mite along by hand; absolutely crazed with terror and hurrying towards the very spot where the shells, always lengthening their range, would be bursting thickly in another minute.
I stopped and offered to help her, but when I tried to take the child from her arms she held on to it and looked at me with wide, terrified eyes. I tried to make her understand that I would do the baby no harm, but had to give up the attempt in despair, and I would have been forced to leave her to her fate if Lieutenant Cumming had not seen us and explained to the woman we only desired to help her. Her gratitude when she understood was pathetic to see, but her terror never left her, and she hung on to my arm in a half-hysterical way. I fancy she had been through some terrible experiences before we saw her.
For the rest of that day we kept on the retreat, passing through Guise – a large town, with only half its population left, and that half in a state of terror and excitement – and, blowing up a bridge behind us, on to Mont d'Arigny, arriving there dead beat about half past one in the morning.
Our company halted in an orchard, and we dropped to the ground at once (among masses of nettles), and went to sleep. One hour later we were aroused again by the command, "Come on, lads, fall in!" and dragged ourselves to our feet, only half-awake.
"Hurry up, you fellows – the Germans are close behind us!"
A soldier has no opinion but to obey; so we were soon on the road again, cursing the Germans, whose rapid approach had been intimated by our cavalry. All that day we did nothing but march, march, march, under a broiling sun and through clouds of dust, past Ribemont and on to La Fere. Here we anticipated a rest, but the order was given to go on, and with hardly a stop we continued through the big Foret de Retz.
German cavalry were in force in this neighbourhood, and all the way through that forest we momentarily expected an attack. We arrived at St Gobain about eleven o'clock at night, and lay down at once for the first decent sleep we had had for days.
Up till the evening of next day, 29th August, we remained at St Gobain, and a few of us had the luxury of a bath, washed some of our grimy clothes, and started to make soup. Before it was ready, however, our company was ordered to take duty as escort to the Divisional Convoy, and we went off in advance of the battalion, marching all night, with bayonets fixed, through the forest of St Gobain. We lost a good deal of time through having to halt at the side of the road for two and a half hours while a French army corps, with its guns and baggage, passed us. The halt was not unwelcome, because it gave us an opportunity to lie down and get a rest. We stopped at Laddoux, but had to return two miles to rejoin our battalion, which had halted for the night at a farm.
The two following days, 30th and 31st August, were not marked by any outstanding incident, beyond the capture of a spy dressed up as a Belgian. Like all his kind, he had short shrift. We were always retiring, with the Germans close at our heels all the time. It had been anticipated that the retreat would cease at the River Aisne, but we were told to keep going.
On 1st September, after a hurried start at 2.30am, we reached the town of Villers Cotterets. We had to be constantly on the qui vive, and scouts were out all the time on our right flank. The brigade halted in a field for dinner, but an urgent message came that the 4th Guard Brigade were hotly engaged in the rear, and out company were ordered to go back at the double and assist them.
We had over two miles to go at the run and it was no light task after all the marching we had been doing. On the way we passed a wounded Guardsman, limping slowly towards headquarters.
"You'll never keep them back, Jocks," he called out to us. "They're coming like sheep!"
"Let them come!" we cried, and with eager anticipation our lads dashed forward to meet the enemy.
In the continuation of his diary, in tomorrow's "Dundee Advertiser," our correspondent describes how they ran into a German trap and drove out the enemy at the point of the bayonet, after a desperate and costly charge.
Dundee Advertiser Thursday 25th of March, 1915
APPROVED BY CENSOR FOR PUBLICATION BY THE DUNDEE ADVERTISER
WITH THE GALLANT 42nd.
THE 1st BLACK WATCH IN FRANCE AND FLANDERS
3. CAUGHT IN A TRAP.
The order to go back and engage the enemy along with the 4th Guards Brigade was keenly welcomed by our company, for the men were all chaffing under the constant necessity to retreat.
Our weariness seemed to fall away from us, therefore, under the stimulus of the anticipation and excitement, and we set off at a smart run, followed by the cheers of our envious comrades. For nearly to the whole distance of two long miles we laboured on, getting nearer and nearer to the noise of battle. Then we were halted to wait for orders, and to get a breath before, as we expected, rushing into the thick of the fighting. That it was heavy enough we had plenty of evidence in the terrific din of cannonading and rifle fire in front of us, and in the number of stragglers who passed.
Suddenly a messenger galloped up on horseback, and the shout went round, "Get ready, boys – now we're for it!"
There followed a moment of tense waiting, and then came the order, "Company, attention! Right-about turn – quick march!" We were not needed after all! The Guards had got out their difficulties, and we had to return, disappointed and crestfallen.
That night saw us near the village of La Ferte Melon, where we bivouacked in a field. We had the usual midnight call, moving away at one o'clock in pitch darkness, and almost sleeping as we walked. When we stopped for breakfast at eight o'clock we had another proof of the kindness and thoughtfulness of our Commanding Officer, Colonel Grant Duff, who moved the battalion off an hour in advance of the brigade, so that we had time to bathe in a stream and rejoin the brigade when it came along. Only those who have marched day after day, through dust and heat, weary and sleep-laden, can realise how keenly that bath was appreciated. Let me say here that bath was appreciated. Let me say here that in many other ways Colonel Grant Duff endeared himself to his men; and a better, kinder, or more gallant officer never laid down his life for his country.
We finished that day's march at Chambry, and had the unusual luxury of billeting in a field of newly-cut corn, the sheaves making a capital bed. On the following day we had another stroke of good fortune, marching to La Fert Jouarre and settling down for the night in a farmyard. The place had been deserted, and we killed all the hens and rabbits for next day's dinner, stripped the orchard (with permission), and helped ourselves to the good wine we found in the farmer's cellars, for it was better lost than left for the Germans.
At four o'clock next morning, 4th September, we started again, and after a short march halted in the market square of Coulommiers. I went off, along with a few of the other fellows, to see if I could get some bread, and while walking through the street I was stopped by a French officer in uniform, who shook hands with me warmly.
"Vous etes Ecossais?" he asked, then indicating a house near by, invited me to enter. I did so somewhat charily, with visions of German spies; but I found my caution quite unnecessary, for my officer friend, along with his mother, a white-haired old lady, and his sister, made me very welcome indeed, pressing wine and biscuits and cigars upon me. On learning what I had been in search of they gave me a quantity of bread and butter, which I subsequently shared with my friends in the company.
The battalion moved to the canal, where two of the men had a narrow escape from drowning. They had gone in bathing, and got entangled among the weeds with which the water was filled. One of them managed to struggle ashore, but the other would have been drowned if another man had not gallantly jumped in, with full uniform on, and brought him to the surface.
What with bread and butter, and the hens and rabbits we captured the previous day, dinner was a feast fit for the gods. Shortly after it had been served out we had to start digging trenches on the east side of the town. We were busy at this when the Company C.O. Came along and told me to take two comrades and go out on a scouting patrol. I took Sandy and Bill, and we went off in the dusk, crossing the canal by a narrow bridge ad climbing over a series of barricades. We had only gone something like 500 yards past our furthest picket when we spotted a number of German cavalrymen on the road in front of us. There were seven of them, and all were dismounted, having evidently left their horses somewhere behind and advanced on foot to reconnoitre, while along with them was a cyclist scout.
They saw us at the same moment, and the Uhlans slipped among the shadows of the trees. As for the cyclist, I never saw anything so cool as the way in which he calmly carried his machine to the side of the road and disappeared – for it must be remembered that the light was fading fast, and a man's figure just melted away among the shadows. The fellow moved so deliberately, however, that it would have been the easiest thing in the world to drop him with a bullet, especially at so close a range, and Bill was lifting his rifle to do it when I stopped him. A shot then would almost certainly have brought a storm of lead from behind us, and we would probably have been the victims.
It was out of the question for the three of us to tackle them, so we returned to report. There presence, however, was ominous, and made constant watchfulness necessary, so I was told to go out again and keep my eyes skinned. During the whole of that night, therefore, I skulked about the fields and ditches around Coulommiers, and I hope I never spend another night so long-drawn and so full of anxiety. When I returned at dawn, glad to be safe, I learned that No.1 Company had captured an officer and three of the men we had seen.
The Turning Point.
During the past few days we had been wondering anxiously when the retreat would end, because we had crossed the main road to Paris, and that great city was now little more than 20 miles away. Our uncertainty came to an end next day. We had halted at Nestles, and were served with the queer mixture of rice and bacon for dinner. Then we were given to understand that we would march no further that day, and that we would now have to prepare to take up the offensive.
That short march on 5th September, therefore, ended the great retreat from Mons. Since we set out we had covered 258 miles, menaced all the while by the German armies, yet never coming into real grips with them. On one occasion we covered 36 miles without a stop, while during the 24 hours on 27th August we travelled 51 miles, fighting a rearguard action part of the time.
As an instance of the heroic way in which our officers by their example encouraged their men, I may mention that for a great part of the march Lieutenant Wilson, of our platoon, suffered acutely from swollen and sore feet, But he kept steadily on, never faltering and never complaining.
We were now opportunely joined by our first reinforcements, which had left home 14 days after we did. Included among them were the two brothers, Sam and Stewart Yule, from Dundee, two old friends, whom I was glad to meet, and who brought out fresh news from home.
It was on a Sunday, then - 6th September – that the offensive began. So far as our brigade was concerned, it started at six o'clock in the morning, when, in better spirits than we had experienced for days, we left Nestles on the march for the Marne. Right away we were under the German artillery fire, and we immediately extended, and continued our advance in open formation, the Coldstreams, who acted as advance guard of our brigade, going ahead. At mid-day we got orders to dig trenches, an attack in force being anticipated, and the artillery fire became very heavy. Our own guns got to work, however, and, the fire of the Germans easing off, we set out again. The Coldstreams had suffered badly from the shrapnel, and we passed many dead and wounded men.
While going forward in this extended line we approached a farmhouse, and were astonished when someone suddenly opened fire from it with a revolver, several of the shots grazing Ginger. We started to surround the place, but before we reached it a German Major, in full uniform, was seen running from the back of the house. He got clear away, though he was followed by a shower of bullets, and we proceeded to demand an explanation from the farmer. He protested, with tears running down his cheeks, that the officer was no friend of his; but the man actually spoke more German than French and the circumstances were too suspicious altogether, so we sent him under guard to Headquarters.
That night we lay down in a field. Our battalion had got off very lightly in the scrap, having only two men wounded.
On the following day we crossed the Marne, with the Germans in full retreat before us. To explain this sudden change of front on their part, it might be as well to describe briefly the situation, so far as I could understand it. While we were retiring before them the Germans had reached the north bank of the river, and some of them had crossed. Had we continued on the retreat they could have got over in force, and the chances of our assuming the offensive at all would have greatly diminished. But our unexpected stand had placed them at a disadvantage, because our guns commanded the whole stretch of ground on the other side of the river. Our Commander-in-Chief had thus chosen the right moment, and whenever we started to oppose them they had to withdraw hurriedly or risk something like annihilation.
The Fight at Bellot.
Our brigade followed them across the Marne, and that night bivouacked in a field. We slept peacefully enough, and a good many of us slept to waken for the last time - for the next day, 8th September, saw us in one of the most disasterous fights of the campaign as far as we were concerned.
We took the road at 2am, and our company went off on advance guard. By this time we had left the comparatively level ground along the banks of the Marne, and soon we were climbing a steep road to the village of Bellot. The grey light of dawn was falling, when we passed through the village, and, crossing a bridge over a stream, came to a fork in the road.
In front of us the ground swelled upward in a tree-covered slope, the wood being thick towards the left, Behind us was the hill, up which we had just climbed, with the lower ground between it and the slope in front, forming a wide valley. Along the bottom of this valley ran the stream we had just crossed, and the road skirted its bank on the north side, running along the base of the rising ground, and bending further on around the shoulder of he hill, beyond which was the village of Sablonniere. I describe the scene thus closely because the incidents that were soon to occur made it memorable to me.
We halted for a while, and No. 5 Platoon was sent along the valley, on the south side of the stream to reconnoitre. They returned to report it free from Germans, and our company thereupon proceeded along the road to the left, observing every caution against surprise. We had got perhaps half-way to the bend, when, with startling suddenness, a couple of concealed machine guns, placed to command the road, opened on us, the range being about 800 yards. The company immediately darted for the shelter of the trees on the slope above, and divided, advancing with No.7 and 8 Platoons on the left, under the command of Captain C.D.E. Dalgleish, and Nos. 5 and 6 Platoons on the right further up the hill. I was with the latter half-company, which was commanded by Captain M.C.A. Drummond and Lieutenant E.H. Wilson.
We were in open formation, firing at the enemy entrenched in front, when Sergeant Aikman (who will be remembered in Dundee as an instructor of the Territorials) called to Captain Drummond that two machine guns were enfilading our right flank. Captain Drummond turned, with the query "Where?" and just as he spoke he went down with a bullet through his right side.
Lieutenant Wilson immediately took command, and shouted the order to advance. Next moment he fell forward on his face mortally wounded. That left Sergeant Aikman in charge, and he ordered us to move downhill, which we did under raking fire, with many men falling. Badly wounded though he was, Captain Drummond was able to struggle to his feet and come with us. He asked us to tell Captain Dalgleish to take charge of the whole company. At that moment Captain Dalgleish was dying, having been one of the first in the other half-company to fall.
A Desperate Situation.
Our two platoons assembled on the lower slope, and Lieutenant Blair, noticing the absence of Lieutenant Wilson, asked me where he was. I could hardly bring myself to speak, and replied simply, "Up there, sir."
"Come on with me," said Lieutenant Blair quietly, "and we'll find him."
The two of us dashed up the hillside, and found the Lieutenant lying where he had fallen. He had been struck by no fewer than five bullets, one of them entering his forehead. He was still alive, however, and as tenderly as possible we carried him down the hill, and laid him on the grass. He was quite unable to speak, though when I offered him a drink of water he thanked me with his eyes. He died at twenty minutes to twelve. I took his personal belongings to hand over to the Commanding Officer, and gave his money to my superior officer on the spot. His belt I still have, and wear it as a memento of a young officer who, in common with every other man in the company, I admired and loved.
All this time we were being peppered at by the machine guns and by the Germans entrenched on the hillside in front. And now the situation had taken on a new phase of dreadful consequences to us.
It is to be remembered that behind us the main body of the brigade was coming up. It too had divided after passing through Bellot, part keeping on by the right while the other part followed the stream along the valley. Both these arms of the brigade had opened fire on the German position, and our unfortunate company was thus effectively boxed up. We could not retreat without running into the British fire, both behind us and on the left flank, while ahead of us, and up the hill on the right were the entrenched Germans with their machine guns.
There was only one thing to be done, and when the order came to prepare for a charge we knew we were going to do it. Sergeant Aikman was leading our platoon (No.5). We opened out, spreading in line up the hill, and then there came the ringing shout "Charge!"
We were then about 300 yards from the German trenches, and perhaps a hundred more from the machine guns that were pouring an enfilading fire on our right flank. In this fight there were no artillery engaged. Without a word we darted forward at the double, taking what cover we could from the trees. What does it feel like to be in a charge? One is conscious chiefly of a devouring, feverish, intense desire to be pushing his bayonet into one of the enemy. There is no idea of fear in the matter at all. Men were falling all along the line, but I don't think there was one of us who noticed it at the moment. We were all too intent on what was in front. Besides, there was five yards of space between each man and his neighbour, and in the excitement of the moment one was not missed when he dropped.
In a few minutes we reached the German trench; and I quite believe that to them the sight of that line of kilted men rushing at them, with their fierce, grim faces, and their gleaming bayonets ready to strike, must have been terrifying enough. For our part, we had a glimpse of the Kaiser's Guards, with their heads showing above the trench, and their rifles spitting fire; then with a yell of absolute rage we were hurling ourselves at them.
They did not wait for us. Dropping their rifles and scrambling out of the trench – some of the cowards actually screamed with fear – they bolted through an orchard on the top of the hill and down the other side towards Sablonniere, with our men close at their heels and firing as they ran. We chased them as far as it was safe to go, then halted, having captured 43 of the stragglers, and counted up our own losses. In our platoon (No. 5) thirteen men had been killed and many wounded, while Lieut. Wilson had been lost, and Captain Drummond was out of action. It was a disasterous day for us.
Read the continuation of "Scout's" story in tomorrow's "Dundee Advertiser." It shows how the British aggresively threw back the German line, and tells the thrilling story of the battle of the Aisne.
Dundee Advertiser Friday 26th of March, 1915
APPROVED BY CENSOR FOR PUBLICATION BY THE DUNDEE ADVERTISER
WITH THE GALLANT 42nd
THE 1st BLACK WATCH IN FRANCE AND FLANDERS
4. THE BATTLE OF THE AISNE.
After driving the Germans out of their trenches, we formed up and marched with the brigade to a field about six miles in advance, the remnant of No. 5 platoon having the honour of escorting the prisoners. It was now raining in torrents, and when we bivouacked it was under circumstances of the utmost discomfort and misery, despite our efforts at hut building with stocks and branches of trees. Late that night we were joined by our second reinforcements, which were needed.
During 9th, 10th, and 11th September we continued our onward march, meeting with no opposition. On the 12th Corporal T. Elliot, of our battalion, was accidentally shot by a comrade who was cleaning his rifle, and died early next morning.
It was now on into autumn, and we were getting a touch of the weather we had to expect later on. There was a great deal of rain, and the nights were cold.
We spent the night of the 12th at Coincy in one of those open sheds in which straw is stored, consisting merely of an iron roof supported by a few pillars. The cold was intense, and the rain, driven by the wind, swept right through the place, so that everything was soaked. To make matters worse, no food was available for us, as we had been marching so rapidly that we had got far in advance of our base, so we were ordered to use our emergency rations.
Neither comfortable in body nor contented in mind, we formed up next morning (Sunday, September 13), and got the order to march to Paisey, where the 2nd Brigade were hotly engaged with the enemy. Two companies were sent to reinforce them, while we set out up the hill to Paisey, with artillery firing on both sides of us. We were in a very perilous position. The rough path ran through a dense wood, and among the trees the shells were roaring and crashing, making fearful noises and bursting with a curiously dull and muffled sound. The projectiles, however, were passing over our heads and did little damage.
At Paisey, where we halted, I was sent out along with six other men to reconnoitre the hill, and spent the night on its cold slopes in pouring rain. My post was about 300 yards from a church, whose tower I could dimly see to the left, while in front of me stretched the wide expance of the valley of the Aisne, where daylight was to see us in a fierce and disastrous fight. I was on the extreme flank of the British Army, and on my right, within speaking distance were the outposts of the French.
I got back to Paisey at four o'clock in the morning, just in time to move with the battalion, so that I got no breakfast. Descending into the valley, we marched on through Moulins, where the Loyal North Lancashires had about 400 German prisoners, including four officers.
And now let me try to describe our surroundings, because we are marching to one of the heaviest engagements of our campaign. We had, as I said, descended from Paisey, and were now making our way along the bottom of a narrow valley with steep hills on either side. It was still raining, and the hills were veiled in mist, from among which German snipers were firing. Some of our men had narrow escapes, and a sergeant of the Camerons was killed. All the while from in front of us we could hear the sound of terrific big gun-firing, and knew that hot work was going on.
Some distance past Mouins the valley began to open out, and as we climbed up from a small depression, a vast plain opened before us, and we found ourselves looking on the battlefield of the Aisne. In the distance was another range of hills, whose whole front, far as the eye could see, showed a line of belching smoke from German guns. On the flat stretch immediately below the British Army was advancing to the attack against that inferno of bursting shells, the smoke of which lay heavy in the rain-laiden air.
The first three battalions of our brigade advanced, the brave Scots Guards taking the van, followed by the Coldstreams, and then the Camerons. The Black Watch waited in reserve. It would not be easy to describe our feelings as we lay there on that rain soaked ground and watched our gallant comrades march into the hail of death-dealing shrapnel, swinging along as quietly and steadily as if on parade. We saw them deploy in the plain below and extend in open formation, with shells already bursting around and over them; and as they moved forward, their khaki figures growing more and more indistinct, we could see the men falling. It may seem strange to say that there was nothing at all terrifying in that thrilling scene. As we waited our turn to come, it was with feelings of maddening impatience, and there was not a man but was desperately anxious to cross the space below and get into grips with the enemy.
At last we saw a messenger on horseback approach at the gallop, and instinctively we sprang to our feet. In a few minutes the battalion was in marching order, with Colonel Grant Duff at his place in the centre of the line – his head uncovered as usual, and his white hair blowing in the breeze. Then came the order we were expectantly awaiting, "The Black Watch shall advance!" and the men raised a loud cheer as the Colonel shouted, "Forward the 42nd!"
For the first time in the campaign we were marching as a battalion into battle. On the hills before us we saw the guns belching out their clouds of smoke, and somewhere in the plain immediately below them was, we knew, the German Army we were expected to drive back. On a clear day they would have been easily enough seen, but now they were hidden beneath the blue-grey haze of mist and rain.
We moved on in dead silence, every man filled with the indescribable battle lust. When an advance had started there are no sentimental thoughts of home. All the most violent passions seem to surge into a man's breast – fearce hatred, and a desperate longing for revenge, together with a fearful excitement which leaves no room for thought of bullets or wounds or death. So with this excitement ___wing upon us we reached the level ground of the valley. It was swept by a continuous fire from rifles and machine guns, and almost at once shells, both shrapnel and lyddite, began to burst among us. As we opened out ___man close in front of me staggered, and I ___ him fall to his knees, remain for a moment with his hands on the ground and his head dropping forward, and then roll over quite gently. The whole field, as we advanced, was covered with the bodies of dead and wounded men; latterly we were stepping over them every few yards. They wore the uniforms of the Scots Guard, the Coldstreams, and the Camerons, each of those regiments (though we did not know it at the time) having been forced to retire. On the ground behind us we were leaving, alas! Many of our ___.
Our line, steadily being mown down, advanced rapidly by a series of rushes till we reached a large but shallow quarry, about mid-way across the valley, which gave us shelter till we rallied. In the quarry we found a man of the Scots Guards, with a bullet in his forehead and a gaping wound in his leg. He had propped himself into a sitting position when I saw him, and calmly lit a cigarette. It was another instance of the wonderful fortitude that characterises all our men when they are wounded.
A Gallant Officer's Death.
From that point I had no personal part in the attack, but I know that our splendid fellows rushed the ground till they were within three hundred yards of the German trenches, and then charged them with the bayonet. Just after leaving the quarry, about two o'clock in the afternoon, our gallant and beloved Commanding Officer, Colonel Grant Duff, fell mortally wounded, to die in a few minutes. Let me, a humble soldier, pay a small tribute to his worth as an officer and a gentleman. Through all the hardships of our campaign his courage was an inspiration to his men, to whom he endeared himself by his unfailing kindness. He ranked their welfare above his own at all times. When he died he was carrying no fewer than seven loaded bandoliers on his shoulder, ready to hand out to the men.
As for me, during that final advance I was engaged in a task no less thrilling and hazardous. While the battalion was sheltering in the quarry, Lieut. Cumming came and told me to go with him on a scouting expedition to see what forces the enemy had on our left. On that flank, and close beside us, grew a fairly thick wood, and we made at once for its shelter, getting safely across the fire-swept zone between. We had hardly entered it when we came across one of the Camerons and one of the North Lancs., both terribly wounded. There was really no time to spare, but it was impossible to leave them lying in their agony, and Lieut. Cumming told me to dress their wounds. I did so, using the field bandages from their tunics as well as my own. Then with a word or two of encouragement to them, we hurried on our mission.
The wood sloped gently down towards a rough road, which led to a farm and then ran on to the tiny village of Chivy. This road and farm, with the houses and the village clustering at the bottom of a tree-clad slope, presented a peacefully rural appearance, and formed a strangely incongruous setting in the scene of carnage and destruction.
While we looked at it we saw a force of men hurrying over a ridge some distance on the left. They were too far away to be distinguished clearly, but through our glasses we recognised them to be British, and Lieut. Cumming ejaculated a heart-felt "Thank God!" - for we knew that our gallant fellows behind us were attempting a task they could not achieve alone.
We reached the road safely enough, because the trees afforded good shelter, and crossing it hurriedly, with bullets humming past our ears, entering a thin belt of trees that left the road at right-angles and ran straight up towards the German trenches, making our way with extreme caution, crawling at full length from tree to tree.
We reached the furthest limit of the wood and raised ourselves on our elbows to reconnoitre. We were not more than a hundred yards from the German lines, and we saw their reserves waiting in readiness to reinforce the men in the trenches. Having taken careful stock of the position, the two of us started to make our way back. It was then that Lieut. Cumming was killed. I don't know whether we had been observed or not, but we had just reached the outermost of the trees, and rose to a stooping position, when with a sound my companion suddenly fell forward on his face. I dragged him behind the tree and raised his head from the ground. He had been struck full in the throat, and I knew he had only a few minutes to live; indeed he merely opened his eyes for a moment, and I saw his lips move as he ordered me to "Go back." Then he died.
I had to leave him there, and made my way back through the trees, crawling beneath a continual hail of bullets, towards Chivy. Near the village I met one of our lance-corporals, who had seen me go out with Lieutenant Cumming.
"I'm all alone now, George," I said briefly.
He told me it was too late to rejoin our own battalion, so we hurried back through the wood to the sloping ground beyond, and here we encountered the 3rd Brigade advancing to attack the Germans on their right flank. The 2nd Brigade, I may add, was meantime marching to engage them on their left. I attached myself to the Sussex, but was ordered to go back and join their reserves. On doing so, however, I was told where the headquarters of the Black Watch were, and I hastened back to report myself. In the outskirts of the little town I came across an old comrade in the telephone squad, who had been making tea, and he gave me a drink of it.
"Do you know where our battalion is?" I asked him,
"It's up there somewhere – what's left of it," he said.
I hurried in the direction he pointed out, and came across the remnant of our regiment. They had, I learned, driven the Germans out of the trenches they attacked, but had been too weak to hold the position, and had to fall back. In all that was humanly possible they had achieved a victory, and had completely smashed up the flower of the famous German Guard. But it was at a heavy cost. We had lost our Commanding Officer and 16 other officers, and 323 non-commissioned officers and men had been put out of action, killed, wounded or missing.
I might fittingly conclude my account of the day's events by quoting an address subsequently made to the Black Watch by Field Marshal Sir John French.
Sir John French's Tribute.
"Black Watch," he said, "you have suffered great losses, on which I condole with you. You have suffered also great hardships. I condole with you on the loss of your gallant Colonel, Colonel Grant Duff, who fell, as I am certain he would have wished to have fallen, in the forefront of the battle. The Black Watch – a name we all know so well – have always played a distinguished part in the battles of our country. You have many well-known honours on your colours, of which you are naturally very proud; but you will feel as proud of the honours which will be added to your colours after this campaign. At the battle of the Marne you distinguished yourselves. They say that the Jaeger of the German Guard ceased to exist after that battle. I expect they did. You have followed your officers and stuck to the line against treble your numbers in a manner deserving the highest praise. I, as Commander-in-Chief of this force, thank you, but that is a small matter. Your country thanks you, and is proud of you."
Tired and hungry as I was, I had neither rest nor food that night, having to go out at once in search of stragglers – of whom there are always a great many after a battle. I searched the woods in the vicinity, meeting a number of men, whom I directed to headquarters; and on my return I was ordered out in front to watch the movements of the enemy.
I wish I could convey some idea of the loneliness of that task. The guns were silent then. Overhead was a starry sky, while around me stretched the black darkness and the stillness of a death-strewn plain. As I moved cautiously forward, feeling my way round the holes that had been made by the heavy shells, I encountered every now and then the bodies of the slain, sometimes stumbling over them or groping them with my hands. I had thought myself hardened to it all, but this intimate association with the dead, some of whom might be the men I had known and joked with yesterday, was a gruesome ordeal that made me imagine all sorts of horrors. I never saw the end of any task with greater relief than I felt when dawn broke at last, and I could return to headquarters. I had nothing to eat since the morning of the previous day, and was glad to get a biscuit from a comrade – who is now, I may say, wounded and home from the front. He holds a license in Dundee.
That day - 15th September – saw the beginning of the trench fighting as it is at present being carried on along the banks of the Marne. The British Army had driven the Germans out of the valley, and we now "dug ourselves in" along the south side, and prepared to hold the ground we had gained. On the other side of the valley the Germans were similarly entrenched – and across the intervening space it was death for British or German to go. We named the plain "No man's Land," and it was left in melancholy possession of the dead.
This position, then, we were destined to hold for nearly a month, losing men day after day by the persistent fire of the Germans. We returned it, of course, with interest, backed up by our artillery in position on the heights above us, and the loss on the Germans side must have been at least equally as great. The details which follow deal very largely with this trench fighting, and may be taken as a description, by one who has gone through it, of the sort of thing that is going on at the present moment.
It had now become very cold, with almost continual rain, and our greatcoats, which were given out to us on 17th September, were very welcome. On the 20th we heard that we were going to be relieved, and on the same day the Notts and Derbys took our place in the trenches.
How can I express the relief we felt as we marched off to a village three miles back? The fearful strain of being under fire day after day caused in most of us a serious nervous exhaustion. We were looking forward now to a rest from it all, during which we would no longer be the target for German shot and shell. But bitter was to be our disappointment.
In the continuance of his diary in tomorrow's "Dundee Advertiser" our soldier correspondent gives a capital description of trench fighting, showing with what grim determination and at what cost the allies hold the ground captured in the battle of the Aisne.
Dundee Advertiser Saturday 27th of March, 1915
APPROVED BY CENSOR FOR PUBLICATION BY THE DUNDEE ADVERTISER
WITH THE GALLANT 42nd.
THE 1st BLACK WATCH IN FRANCE AND FLANDERS.
5. THE TRENCHES AT VENDRESSE.
All day on 21st September we remained billeted in the village to which we had retired on being relieved from the trenches, enjoying a rest in comparative quietness, though we were within easy reach of the German artillery, and they kept sending an occasional hail of shells among us.
We were expecting every moment to get the order to move further south, because we were still in the fighting area, and had to stand at arms nearly all the time ready for instant action. It seemed, however, that we were only waiting for our reinforcements (who included a gigantic officer, standing nearly seven feet high), and on the following day, 22nd September, we were ordered back to the trenches to relieve the H.L.I.
Here we found ourselves in a remarkable position. Owing to the nature of the ground our trench described half of a circle, like the hub of a wheel, while scarcely six hundred yards away the German trench curved round us like the rim. I was housed with the Headquarters Staff in a cave.
As soon as night fell I was ordered to go out scouting with four comrades, and in the darkness we crept out across the ground in front of our trenches. The enemy remained quiet all night, but their picquets were very active, and we ran into them several times We would be moving forward for instance, crouching as low as possible, when one of us would give a low warning, and we would hear scuffling footsteps, and sometimes we dimly saw the figures of the Germans. If they had blundered upon us there would have been a lively scrap; but we were far better pleased that they did not, for it is the duty of a scout always to avoid firing unless he sees that a great deal more than the safety of his own life requires it.
We had a brief rest on returning to headquarters, and at eight o'clock a comrade and I were sent out to reconnoitre a road leading to a quarry which we could see from our position, and which might b sheltering some of the enemy or their snipers.We had a good deal of open ground to cross, and it soon became evident that we had been seen, for our German friends began to pay us particular attention. Bullets whistled around us, and shells burst close at hand, but we got to the shelter of the quarry unhurt, and later on made our way safely back.
The Germans never failed to honour us with a salvo when they detected any of us on these expeditions, and that day we had one of our scouts injured by shrapnel, while another – Private Scott – was killed. He was brought to our cave on a stretcher, unconscious, and riddled with bullets, and died about an hour later. We buried him that night. It was an impressive scene in the faint moonlight, with our little party standing round bareheaded while an officer read the burial service, and the guns of the enemy thundered their grim salute.
Meantime we had been very doubtful about the security of our headquarters, fearing that if one of the big shells from the German heavy guns reached it the place would be penetrated and blown to pieces. So we set about making dug-outs in safer quarters. Before we could use them, however, we were relieved by the Camerons, and next day (25th September) we marched out of the trenches and billeted in a cart-shed some distance back. We arrived in our new quarters about four o'clock in the morning, and three hours later we heard news that sadly confirmed our fears concerning the cave we had just left. The Camerons also had made it their headquarters, and one of the terrible German "Jack Johnsons" had found it, blowing it in, and burying alive 32 officers and men.
For the two following days I was continually on scouting duty, sharing the perilous work of hunting for spies among a number of caves and subterranean passages. Then at eight o'clock on the night of Sunday, 27th September, we marched back and took over the same trenches we had originally occupied after the battle. On the way we passed by the roadside the bodies of two Uhlans, who had evidently tried to penetrate our lines and been shot. The trenches were by this time partly filled with water, and the discomfort of the men who had to occupy them, in cold and wet weather, may be left to the imagination.
I was on guard all that night at headquarters, and consequently had no sleep, but I was given an opportunity to rest during the next day, not being called for duty till night, when I was again sent out scouting with a comrade. It proved to be an eventful outing. We advanced cautiously over the level ground, making first for the cover of a couple of stacks of straw which were still standing, in a tumbled condition, on the left and then proceeding to where three trees stood in a line. We halted there for a while listening, and continued in a direction parallel with the trenches for about 50 yards. Here there suddenly came to us the sound of low voices, unmistakably German, and the soft tread of feet. We were just on the brink of one of the big holes made by a "Jack Johnson," and in this we immediately took cover, but it was only for a moment, for the footsteps were coming stealthily and steadily nearer, and in such numbers that only one conclusion was possible - it was a German attack.
Our duty was to warn the men in the trenches behind us without a moments delay. The two of us scrambled out of our hiding place, and had only got a few yards away when hand grenades burst in the hole. They had been thrown at us by Germans, who had either seen us dimly or heard our hurried retreat. That, of course, alarmed our men, and they were already prepared for eventualities when we got within hailing distance.
With the Germans, then, close at our heels I started to negotiate our own wire entanglements, and in crawling through I stuck, with my face no more than a couple of yards from the trenches. My struggles naturally attracted attention, and in a twinkling a rifle was levelled at me. So intent, however, was I on escaping from the peril behind that I never noticed that in front, until I heard someone shout -
"Don't fire, for God's sake. It's the scout!"
That warning saved my life, and I tore myself through the wire just as the German's opened fire. It was a short but sharp fight, and resulted in the defeat of the enemy, who withdrew into the darkness.
September 29th was what we had come to regard as a "quiet" day. There was constant firing on the part of the Germans, and a great many of their heavy shells dropped around, but most of their force was expended in digging holes in the ground. I had a thrilling experience with these shells next day, when it came to my turn to go out and watch for any movement on the part of the enemy. I had got well out from our own lines when our artillery suddenly began to pour an active fire on the German batteries. I found myself right between the two fires, and hurriedly sought shelter in one of the yawning shellholes, where I had to remain until darkness came, and with it a cessation of the firing.
The first few days of October were spent mostly in this work of scouting, all of us having many narrow escapes. On one excursion we were harassed by some snipers, their bullets whistling close by us, and we had to stalk them and dislodge them from their positions. As far as the fighting was concerned things were quiet, the Germans making no threatening move beyond occasional violent artillery firing. On the afternoon of the 7th October their gunners were unusually busy, but most of the shells fell into the soft ground and wonderfully little damage was done. It was their usual custom to batter away at us like that previous to making an attack, so we were not surprised when an attempt was made in the early hours of the morning to rush our trenches. Our fellows were ready for them, and when daylight broke a few more German bodies were lying on the ground in front.
A Narrow Escape.
That night we had an example of the activity of their spies. Just as darkness was falling a light was seen on the slopes near by, on our side of the valley, quite obviously signalling to the enemy, and "Paddy" and I were sent out to investigate. The artillerymen whom we encountered on reaching the higher ground eagerly joined us in the hunt, and we searched the spot as closely as we could, but without success. Before daybreak on the morning of the 10th we saw the same light, and compass bearings were taken to fix the exact spot. A patrol was then despatched to examine it, but the shells were falling so thickly that they were forced to return. Soon after breakfast a column of smoke was seen rising, and immediately afterwards our headquarters became the centre of a wicked storm of shell fire.
The circumstances were altogether too significant. Again it became my duty to locate the mysterious author of the signals, and I set out at once – to find that I had been forestalled by the artillery, who had captured two spies. In full German uniform, they had managed to creep through our lines in the darkness , and taking up a position from which they could overlook our trenches and watch everything that was done, had kept their artillery properly informed. They paid the last penalty in due course.
The enemy made another unsuccessful attack that night, and kept up a constant fusilade with their artillery. It was thrilling and quite fascinating to watch the shells coming towards us in the darkness. It may sound incredible, but we could see them leave the guns with a bright red flash, and then travel through the air, a lurid speck of light, till they landed and burst.
Thanks to their spies, they had got a very accurate range of the roadway on which we had made our dug-outs, and they kept us pretty lively. It will be understood that we were on the slope of a valley, so that the road was on a higher level than the trenches some short distance in front. There was, however, a fairly substantial bank of earth running along the side of the road, and we had dug ourselves, like so many rabbits, into this bank. It had become highly dangerous to venture on to the road, which was swept by shell fire, and was also closely watched by snipers on the surrounding heights.
On Sunday night (11th October) tea was distributed from the cookers, and Brown, who was along with "Paddy" and myself in a small dug-out, stepped out to fetch our tea. Just as he emerged from the opening we both heard a bullet land with a thud, and, thinking it had come in at the door and struck a biscuit tin on which "Paddy" was sitting, I said, "That was a narrow shave for you, Pat. It's in the tin." As I uttered the words, Brown, not more than a couple of yards away from us, swayed and fell to the ground. We dragged him inside, and did what we could for him, but he was dead before I got his tunic loosened. The bullet had penetrated the lower chest, smashing the aorta.
The remaining days of our stay in the Vendresse trenches were full of exciting incident. We were awakened in the early morning by violent artillery fire from the German side, but our guns replied vigorously, and partially silenced it. Later on Paddy and I were ordered to reconnoitre the valley, and see if the enemy were in occupation of an advanced trench. We found that they were, and after we reported the fact our company cleared the trench at the point of the bayonet – all very thrilling and deadly work, costing many lives on both sides. I spent nearly the whole of that night in front, watching for any threatening move on the part of the enemy.
On Observation Duty.
Returning to headquarters whenever daybreak began to show in the sky, I had breakfast, and then went out at once to an observation post. The place dignified by that name was simply a hole in the ground, from which it was possible to see any ominous development on the German side. I had not long been in it when shells began to drop around in ever increasing numbers, the horrible things often coming quite close to me. The shrieking as they passed was loud and continuous , and every now and then one would land close by with a terrible crash, sending up clouds of black smoke and earth and stones. One of them came so near that I could almost have reached over and touched the brink of the yawning hole it left. The concussion deafened and almost stunned me, and I was half buried under the shower of earth. The storm ceased at last, however, and I was able to crawl back to the safety of the dug-out, where I promptly fell asleep. That afternoon the comrade who succeeded me in the observation post was wounded while returning.
The order of events was reversed next day, the Germans taking things quietly in the morning, and becoming very active towards afternoon. Our road was swept with shrapnel fire, and on returning from Vendresse, where I was sent with a headquarters' message, I found that my chum Paddy had been struck by one of the bullets and slightly wounded in the leg. That evening we got the cheerful news that we were going to be relieved by the French, and I had the task of finding a spot where the battalion could muster.
It was eleven o'clock before the French infantry appeared, and their arrival was marked by a significant incident, a heavy fire of shrapnel searching the road, and causing many casualties. One of the men who came into our dug-out, and traded with us for a pot of jam in exchange for a tin of French bully-beef, explained indignantly that "ze spies Bosches zey see us, zen ze cannon boum-boum, et les pauvres francais sont tues." Which was undoubtedly quite true.
The Black Watch left the Aisne trenches on the morning of 16th October, a thick mist favouring our departure by hiding our movements from the enemy. We were not in the least sorry to leave "Shrapnel Villa," as we had named our dug-out, nor did we shed tears on parting from anything but quiet "Coal Box Avenue," in which it was situated. After marching through the hours of darkness we reached Blancy, thoroughly tired out, and had a delightful billet in some farm buildings. Anything in the nature of a billet is now delightful.
Off to Flanders.
On 17th October, after a heavenly wash and clean and rest, we continued our march to Fismes, where we again went through the operation of entraining. We were once more on our way to an "unknown place" – which, I may state at once, was Flanders, The British Army had won the Battle of the Aisne, and having handed over to the keeping of the French the ground it had taken, was off to win other battles elsewhere. I need not dwell on the railway journey, which took us round Paris to Amiens, and thence by Etaples, where we saw some of the London Scottish, just arrived. We continued by Boulogne and Calais to Hazebrook, where we were glad to get out of the crowded carriages as 2am, and have freedom to move.
Our billet was a new building of brick with neither windows nor doors to keep out the biting cold. We were now well used to hardships of that kind, however, and spent a tolerable night, being permitted during the ensuing day to "see the sights" of Hazebrook. On the 20th we were on the road by five o'clock in the morning, bound for Poperinghe, where lodgings had been found for us in a barn, along with a party of French aviators. There was another early morning start next day, when the road led to Bhoesinghe – and here we were once again in the thick of the fight.
The job we had in front of us was to clear the enemy out of the Forest of Haulhaust, where they were in strong occupation. We halted for the night at a farm north of Pilkem, and from there we could see something of the circus we were on our way to take part in. On the near horizon was the town of Langemark, in the unhappy position of being bombarded by both sides. It was occupied by the Germans, and the British artillery was endeavouring to make the place too hot for them. They were succeeding in a very literal way, for the flames from the burning buildings were glowing fiercely in the darkness. On the other side the Germans were trying to silence the British fire, but they were at a long range, and most of their shells were falling on the unfortunate town. It was a striking spectacle by night, and impressed on one a vivid idea of the destructiveness of war.
The next instalment of this thrillingly graphic diary, appearing in Monday's "Dundee Advertiser," gives an excellent idea of the sort of fighting which the Black Watch is doing in Flanders at the present moment.
Dundee Advertiser Monday 29th of March, 1915
APPROVED BY CENSOR FOR PUBLICATION BY THE DUNDEE ADVERTISER
WITH THE GALLANT 42nd.
THE 1st BLACK WATCH IN FRANCE AND FLANDERS.
6. THE BATTLE FOR THE WOOD.
From Pilkem, where we had halted on our forward march, a couple of companies were sent on hurriedly to assist the Camerons, our advance guard, who were in an awkward position somewhere near Bigshute. The trenches they occupied were stormed by an overwhelming force of the enemy, and a good many of the Camerons were taken prisoners. But next day the Queen's after a determined attack recaptured the trenches, and the prisoners were released.
The landscape all around us was very flat, intersected by tree-lined roads, and gave excellent opportunity to the snipers, who were incessantly busy. Scouting therefore, became a duty more than usually risky, and when it fell to me to go out along with a patrol we had to face death from a perfect hail of bullets. We were busy in the afternoon cooking our dinner of bully beef and tea – no sugar – when the Germans opened fire upon us. It was necessary to silence them, so we were ordered to prepare to make a charge. For the best part of a mile we had to advance across a country that offered us little cover, under a constant and withering fire, until we got near enough to charge. Then we drove the enemy out of their trench. These few words conceal a hundred times more thrill and tragedy and excitement than could be expressed in the most glowing language. Our success cost us dearly, for we lost many men, while Captain Hore Ruthven, D.S.O., our company commanding officer, was wounded. Among the wounded also was Lieutenant Hay, a magnificent specimen, standing 6 feet 11 high. Another of the "fighting five" was put out of action in this charge, too, our comrade Ginger being struck by shrapnel. His face was badly smashed, walking all the way to headquarters; and his only regret, expressed with difficulty because of his shattered jaw, was the "he couldn't get a smoke now." Included in the list of killed was another comrade, Corporal Scott, from Perth.
A Narrow Escape.
An equally trying ordeal awaited us on the following day. We had moved forward on the Dixmude-Langmarck main road, and the enemy turned a number of machine guns upon us. We scattered at once, and advancing in extended line across the open country took shelter behind three cottages. From here further progress had to be made along in snakelike fashion to a safer position half a mile away. The machine guns poured a steady fire at us, and numbers of the men were hit. My own escape from injury, if not death, was due to the trifling fact that the strap of my pack worked loose, and while in the ditch I had to push it in front of me. Two bullets struck my water bottle and smashed it, just in front of my face. I got through all right, but the two fellows immediately behind me disappeared and I found afterwards that one of them was wounded and the other was missing.
There were a great many dead Germans about, and now and then we would come across literal heaps of them where they had been mowed down in attempting to rush the British trenches. "Paddy" and I had an uncanny experience with them after nightfall, when we were sent out together on patrol. The moon was shining faintly over the plain, giving sufficient light to enable us to distinguish things a few yards away. We came across a number of these dead bodies lying close together, and among them was a man reclining on his elbows, and with his rifle levelled full at us. With a hurried step aside we both raised our guns to fire, but my companion cried in a half-incredulous voice, "Wait – he's dead!"
It was almost impossible to believe it, so natural was the man's attitude, and it was not till we had approached, with our rifles ready to shoot, that we were convinced. The man had been killed instantaneously, and had remained rigid with his gun menacingly at his shoulder.
On returning to our quarters I had the melancholy duty of taking out a party to bury two of our comrades. Private Cairns, of Edinburgh, and Private Graham. It was a noteworthy experience for more reasons than one, for during the whole time we were subjected to shrapnel fire. The graves we were digging and the mounds of earth we threw up had at times to serve us as cover from the bursting shells that came shrieking towards us. But we completed our sad task, said a few words of humble but sincere prayer, and left our comrades there in their lonely graves, each with a simple cross to mark his resting-place.
It was four o'clock in the morning before I got a chance to rest, and two hours later we were called again, and were soon hard at work digging trenches. We had just got deep enough to have decent cover when the enemy got our range, and we were subjected to a fearful shelling.
At three o'clock next morning a relieving force reached us, just after we had borne the brunt of a determined German attack. When we were at last withdrawn from the trenches and our places taken by a French force, we had lost six officers and 99 men, the officers including Captain Urquhart and Lieutenant Bowes-Lyon.
Our removal from that warm corner did not bring us the rest we had fondly anticipated. The battalion were given about one hour's sleep, our company finding acommodation in a cowshed, and then we were marched off to support the 7th Division, starting right away under a grueling fire. It seemed the fate of the 1st Brigade to be always moved into the very thick of the fighting. At Gheluvelt we came into contact with a big force of the Germans, who hurled themselves at us in a persistent attempt to break through; and again we lost heavily, among the killed being Private Drummond, of Bridge of Allan.
Killed in Cottage.
In the course of all this marching and fighting I was almost constantly on scouting duty, and had some thrilling experiences. Our scouting party was being steadily reduced, and by this time there were few left of those who originally crossed the channel with the Brigade. We lost other two of them on the 24th, including our officer, who was struck between the eyes by a ricochet, and severely though not, mortally, wounded. My other comrade was killed at my side. While out in front, the two of us together, we came to a cottage, and approached it with the object of watching the movements of the enemy, so far as we would be able to observe them, from the window. The door on our near side was standing half-open, and we crept towards it with due caution, half expecting to find a sniper inside. The place however, was deserted. It had all the appearance of having been left in a great hurry, the few sticks of furniture being strewn around the floor, together with cooking utensil, broken dishes, and articles of clothing. It should be remembered that the whole of the area in which the cottage stood was the centre of a storm of shell-fire, so that we felt safer to be within the shelter of its walls for a brief spell. Our sense of security was sadly misplaced. We had just approached the only window in the room when a shell burst immediately outside with a frightful report, and a hail of bullets shattered the panes of glass that had still remained unbroken. I heard them thud on the walls and floor around me, and turned to my companion, wondering in a dazed way if either of us had been hit. I saw him sway slightly, then he collapsed in a heap at my feet. He had been struck by a number of the bullets, and was killed instantaneously. By one of those miracles that are so common in warfare, I had escaped without a scratch.
A couple of days later I was out after nightfall with my comrade Paddy, and we actually made our way right into the German lines. We discovered our perilous position by hearing German voices close by, and next moment, in the dim moonlight, we saw the figures of a party. We got back safely, and, having reported, expected to get off duty and have a rest. But I was immediately ordered to find the Grenadiers, who were "somewhere on our right," and with these vague directions I set out. I was making my way cautiously through the silent night, when a shot suddenly rang out, and the whiz of a bullet informed me that I had become the target for a German sniper. I was able to locate the fellow at once, however, and dropping on my knees, proceeded to stalk him. This is the work I should like to see some of out home sportsmen engage in. The knowledge that instead of a harmless bird there is a man behind a gun ready to shoot at sight, gives the eye and ear an acuteness that comes from nothing else. Fortunately for me, I was first in this case, and fired from a distance that made a miss impossible. The man was only a few paces away, and I saw him roll over and lie still. I walked to his side, observing all the precaution which experience of German trickery has shown to be necessary. He was still alive, and opened his eyes with a groan. Then he gasped, in good English, "I wait for you, but you see me first. You fire just in time!" I don't know where my bullet got him, but I think it was in the upper part of the chest. He died in a few minutes.
On the 27th October, while our brigade was under heavy fire in the trenches, I had another narrow escape. I was sent along the trenches with a message to Captain Sir Stewart Richardson, and while he was handing me the reply he had written a shell burst close by, and he was hit, the part I held being bespattered with blood. The gallant Captain subsequently died from the wounds he received. Later on I made another journey to the trenches, accompanied by Sergeant Carr, Bridge of Allan, who will be remembered as a well-known amateur athlete in military circles. I saw him then for the last time. He has since been missing. That night we left that position, which we had named "the death trap," and were succeeded by the West Yorks, while we, after a hasty meal on the roadway, marched to relieve the Irish Guards at Le Chateau. We left two companies to fill up a gap, and they were cut up considerably, only about 70 men all told of the companies rejoining the headquarters on the 30th.
The New Trenches.
The trenches at Le Cateau were surrounded by woods, and there was only a distance of about 150 yards between our own and those occupied by the Germans. On the way to the position we were vigorously shelled, and again had the weird experience of being bombarded among trees. There is something particularly terrifying in hearing the missiles crashing their way through the wood. It suggests Death walking with hobnailed boots, so to speak, and you never know which way he is coming.
That night our headquarters company was billeted in a stable, but there was little sleep for any of us, much as we needed it. At three o'clock we had to turn out and stand to arms, while the enemy made another desperate effort to drive our men back. These frequent attacks night and day were most harassing, and cost us many men. The German losses must have been frightful. This sort of fighting went on day after day, and on 1st November we retired some little distance with the object of shortening our curved line of defence. On that day Lieutenant-Colonel C.E. Stewart, our Commanding Officer, arrived and took command of the battalion.
On the following afternoon our company was sent to assist the Scots Guards, and I was given the task to find out what was happening. The firing was incessant from both sides, and all along our lines shrapnel was falling literally in showers. While crossing a field I was suddenly hit on the back and hurled to the ground, and next instant a bullet struck a root just in front of my face, which was covered with the smashed pulp. I found that a piece of shrapnel had gone straight into the pack strapped on my shoulders, and ws stopped by a tin of bully beef.
When I reached our company I learned that nearly half of the men had been lost. Lieut. Nolan was killed, Captain Amery wounded in four places, and Lieut. Rennie also wounded. I had to remain in the trenches with the company til darkness set in and gave me the opportunity to return to headquarters.
For the whole of that first week of November, and for most of the second, we were a constant target for the German artillery, with an attack at odd moments to vary the monotony. On the 9th I had a heavy blow by the death of one of my closest chums, Sergeant Fleming, whom I have referred to throughout as Sandy. The Sergeant, who hailed from Glasgow, was shot right through the head. It was a sad shock to Pete and me, who were all that were left now of the "fighting five."
A Surprise Attack.
Meantime the Germans had been showing an increasing activity, and on the 11th an attack on a huge scale began to develop. It opened with fearful artillery firing from dawn till about 9.30, so accurate and so persistent that it was courting instant death to show a head above the trench. It is quite impossible to describe the awful screaming and crashing of the shells, with the whistling of the scattered bullets a they flew over the surface of the ground.
Suddenly it ceased, and while we were still wondering what was going to happen next we were astonished by the startling appearance of a big force of Prussian Guards. I say startling, because we had no reason to anticipate a charge of that kind, as there were trenches in advance of ours occupied by two regiments of our brigade. What had happened was that they had retired without letting us know, and this unexpected attack was our first intimation that the Germans were upon us.
The scene that followed was indescribable. The enemy were in enormously superior numbers, and our lads had no possible chance against them. They leaped from the trenches and started for the cover of the wood. The carnage was appalling, for the enemy were taking no prisoners, and men were shot down and bayoneted absolutely in cold blood. A few minutes of awful hell. We were scattered all over the place when it finished, every man looking after himself.
Making my way through the wood, I attached myself to the South Staffords, who were already advancing to retake the position. I was pretty badly knocked up, however, and an officer kindly advised me to seek out our own headquarters and have a rest. I did so, to find our brave lads rallying and preparing to hold a farm against the anticipated German advance. It was heart-rending to see the battalion left with only one officer, Capt. Fortune. Second-Lieut. Lawson was among the killed, having been blown to bits by a heavy shell. To add to the horror o the whole business, a fearful thunder storm burst as we advanced to take up our position. Frequent and vivid flashes of lightning lit up the murky darkness of the sky, and the crashing of the thunder mingled in a sinister chorus with the incessant booming of the guns.
After assisting the medical officer to dress some of the wounded, both British and German, I was sent out on observation duty. It was a terrible experience. Dead bodies were lying everywhere, sometimes piled up in heaps in a way which would be uncredible to those who never saw it. The only consoling feature was that the Germans suffered worse than we did in the end, very few of the Prussian Guards who made the charge escaping. The remnant of the Black Watch was still defending the farm when I returned about 1.30am, and soon afterwards we were told off to lead an attack, but it was abandoned owing to Brigadier Fitzclarence having been killed.
The end of that awful night came at last, and with it a brief cessation of active hostilities, the Germans having been driven back to their original lines. At ten o'clock on the night of the 13th we were relieved by the Camerons, and what remained of the Black Watch marched out of the immediate firing line towards Hooge, the enemy shelling us heavily as we went.
The roll-call that morning was answered by one officer and 194 men. Since leaving home the total losses of the battalion in killed, wounded, and missing amounted to 47 officers and 1680 men. In our company alone we had lost no fewer than seven Commanding Officers in succession, killed or wounded. They were Captain Dalgleish, killed at Bellot; Captain M.C.A. Drummond, Captain Crook (at one time Adjutant with the Dundee Territorials), Captain Hore Ruthven, D.S.O.; Captain Mowbray, Captain E.M. Sprot, and Captain Kiddie. We had also lost Lieutenant E.H. Wilson, Lieutenant Cumming, Lieutenant Hay, Lieutenant A.V. Holt, and Second Lieutenant A.S. Lawson (at one time my old lance-sergeant, who had now received his commission). Some of these, fortunately, have recovered from their wounds, and are back on active service.
On 14th November we were joined by further reinforcements, which included Lieutenant K. Buist, a native of Dundee, since killed. While here I have another rough time when sent on a message, snipers having pot-shots at me continually. On the following day we moved off towards Ypres and thence we continued on the march through Westoutre and on to Balliule. While at Westoutre we had the pleasure of taking off our boots, the first time since the start (three months and three weeks).
Here the campaign terminated, so far as I was concerned, for I had been developing severe illness for a considerable time, and the medical officer now diagnosed it as colites and appendicitis. On 22nd November, therefore, I was sent down to No. 1 Field Hospital, and from there taken in a motor car to Hazebruck to entrain for Boulogne. Two days later I was lying in a quiet hospital in England, glad to have a respite from the hardships I had endured for nearly four months.
It is unclear who the author of the diary is. The most likely candidate is Joseph Cassells, he being a Scout, a reservist and from Dundee. The problem being Cassells wrote a book in 1918 which is not the same as this account. It could still be by Cassells, as his published book is mostly fiction, whereas this one can be tied up with other accounts and records. This version may be his original one before being fictionalised for publication in book form.
Edited by Derek Black