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The Black Watch - A Record in Action by Scout Joe Cassells


Derek Black

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First published as "With the Black Watch - The Story of the Marne" in 1917, the book has been reprinted with different titles in the years since. As "The Black Watch - A Record in Action", the abridged "The Black Watch", and the lengthy "Stand and Fall - A soldier's recollections of the "Contemptible Little Army" and the Retreat form Mons to the Marne, 1914".

Joseph Samuel Cassells Joined the Black Watch in 1905. At the outbreak of war in 1914 he was a reservist, whereupon he was recalled and went abroad with the first cohort of the 1st Bn Royal Highlanders (The Black Watch) on August 13th.

Cassells lived in the small town of Crossgates, near Cowdenbeath in Fife. A brief newspaper article mentions his returning home invalided in mid February, 1915. His family and background are unclear. On his American naturalisation papers he gives his date of birth as 1887 at Dunfermline. However no entry in the birth register can be found, not can his entries in the 1891 and 1901 census returns. He may have been born elsewhere in the UK or abroad, or gave incorrect details on his American documents. Alternatively he may have went by an assumed name on joining the army and continued to use it later in life.

Much like the holes in Cassells background, there are questions over his memoirs veracity.

What known is that he returned to the UK in February, 1915,  was discharged from the Army medically unfit due to "sickness" in August, 1915. He then emigrated to the U.S.A. in February 1916, was married in 1917 and published his book while the war was still being fought.

The book is a mixture of memoir and novel. Without the war diary and three other personal accounts to go by, it would be less clear what parts are real events or fabrications.

A look at the events as given in the first two chapters will be suffice to give an idea of Cassells addition to known events, in his six months of fighting.

The arrival at the regiments barracks in Perth as a reservist, their week of training then arrival on the continent aboard the Italian Prince is all correct. The place name of villages passed through and when all add up.

Where things begin to stray is the account of the attack by Uhlan cavalry. A "superior force" chased the retreating Scots Guards across open country, which the Black Watch engaged in a protracted encounter of attacks, while at the same time saving a Scots Guards water cart.
There's nothing to back up this version of events and it seems an exaggeration of a very minor incident, which is recorded consistently by others.

The killing of a cow or calves and its preparation by the battalion cooks is backed up in other accounts, however the interruption of their being able to consume the meat by the landing of shells among them, attack by aeroplanes and hasty burial of their dead in unmarked graves, is not mentioned in other accounts. These merely state it began to rain heavily and the sudden sound of heavy fighting nearby, which was the near destruction of the Munster Fusiliers. This caused the early disposal of their barely eaten meal and the continuation of the retreat. Furthermore no fatal casualties were recorded by the battalion before September, and this occurred on the 27th of August.

Cassells recounts a conversation with a wounded Munsters officer, found lying in the road by Cassells on scouting duty to make contact with the regiment, who ordered him to return to his battalion as it was hopeless to go on ahead. This results in his being put under arrest for disobeying an order to make contact with the Munsters, only to have the Munsters officer explain to the Black Watch C.O. he'd ordered Cassells to not continue on. This seems most unlikely as in other accounts it's one platoon of escaping Munsters passing through their lines that informed them of events.

Evidence of outrages on the civilian population in Grand Reng when they arrived sound a lot like propaganda of the time, a baby hung from a door with a nail, a woman having her breasts cut off and fed to dogs. He describes street fighting there with the Prussians and capturing prisoners. There's no other accounts backing up fighting taking place in the village. They were billeted when first passing through it, then simply retired through the village on the retreat, without any fighting of note.

In summary it's a pity Cassells chose to write a semi fictional version of his war, it would have been a better lasting account otherwise.
It is only of use as a warning to those who read primary sources, that people can and do make things up, even relatively soon after events they experienced.

Joe Cassells died in New York in 1945 aged 57, his wife Charlotte died there too in 1978 aged 91.

Edited by Derek Black

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