France 1915

The spell in the La Boisselle sector ended on 11th September at 9pm, when the 6th moved back to billets at Henencourt, making their first acquaintance with a place which was to be their rest quarters every time they came out of the trenches up till the end of 1915 and where the men made many friends. Henencourt, indeed, became a sort of home from home, the companies always going to the same billets, and being received everywhere with the same open hearted kindness by the French people. Whatever the experiences of other battalions may have been, it can certainly be placed on record to the credit of the 6th that wherever they went in France they soon earned the respect and liking of the people, to who the kilted warriors seem to make a special appeal. It was perhaps a revival of the old days of battling in Flanders, when the Highlanders endeared themselves in a singular way to the people, who loved them for their simple heartedness no less than for their prowess in the fight. This welcome help the 6th forget about the trenches for a time. The billets were clean and comfortable, and luxury of luxuries they were all fitted out with wire beds. These had been constructed by the Engineers, and consisted of a wooden framework with wire netting strung across, raised a couple of feet from the floor. To men who had spent months lying on hard and wet ground, with at best a bundle of straw for a mattress, this form of bed made an ideal sleeping place. Another of the village attraction was that it contained an Expeditionary Force canteen, and a sample of the beer sold therein showed that it was good. It should be explained here, in order that any unhappy misapprehension may be allayed, that occasional references to the purchasing of beer must not be taken to mean that men on active service develop bibulous tastes unknown at home. With the exception of water, generally of very doubtful purity, and the common trench wine, which was not greatly relished by those unaccustomed to it, the men have little to choose other than the beer obtainable at canteens and cafes, and it is so light as to be scarcely distinguishable from the harmless brew known as herb beer. As one man wrote home to his father, “the beer is a penny a glass, but you would need a pound to get foo!!” As a matter of fact, the men generally spent far more of their meagre allowance on fruit, “petit beurre” biscuits, chocolate, tinned fish, omelettes, than they did on beer. The canteen and a cosy estaminet at the end of the main street shared in a most equal degree the patronage of the men. Various concerts were got up by the different companies, and the estaminet was a popular place in which to hold impromptu sing songs. The first stay in Henencourt lasted for six days, at the end of which period the battalion marched up to Authuille.

This village standing quite close to the lines, offered a sad contrast to the one they had left. The German guns had battered it to pieces, and all that remained were piles of ruins with here and there the gaunt and shattered skeleton on a house, within whose walls could still be seen the broken pieces of furniture, pots and pans, scraps of crockery and pictures – all that had made a home for some unhappy peasant, now mingled with the heaps of bricks and mortar and dust. Here the hard life of the fighting area began once more. Fortunately, there were good dug outs available, and where satisfactory shelter of that kind is to be had no one thinks of finding fault with his quarters. And these dugouts were in a high degree satisfactory. They were very roomy accommodating as many as 30 men. The entrance was by steps which descended to a vault like porch constructed of heavy, undressed trunks of trees. Inside was a roof made with massive baulks of timber, the whole buried six good feet under the surface of the soil. The 6th had never previously occupied dug outs so palatial – if that adjective may be applied to anything which at the best is sordid and unlovely – and which gave so complete a sense of security. It would have required a direct hit from a fairly heavy shell to harm the occupants. The sector was taken over from a native Indian cavalry brigade, and the Highlanders took keen interest in the movements of the dark skinned fighting men, and in the way in which they were handled by their officers. On the whole to position was a fairly quiet one, close to the banks of the River Ancre. At night the working parties could perform their tasks in the open with little fear of molestation, though they were always within sniper range, and had to take the usual precautions to avoid being observed when the star shells were sent up. The glowing fuse of a star shell could always be seen as it climbed to the skies, and before it burst in a cascade of vivid white light the men would generally have time to lie down. When taken by surprise, however, the usual course was to stand perfectly rigid, because so long as there was no movement the Boche observers would be very unlikely to see anything. It made an extraordinary spectacle when the members of working party, caught in the sudden ghost like glare of a star shell, instantly froze in rigidity in this way. One man would be standing with arm outstretched, another bent over a wiring post and a third with a mallet poised over his head in the very act of swinging it. The group would form a strange species of tableau. The first Sunday the 6th were there a big church parade was held, the padre of the 5th Gordons officiating. This time the ceremony was favoured with better conditions than those experienced earlier in the campaign at Le Touret, when the effort to hold a church parade was rendered abortive by persistent German Fire. On this Sunday a battery stationed quite near was ranging its guns. Those shells could be heard shrieking through the air on their way to deal death to the enemy while high overhead aircraft flew two and fro, busy signaling to the gunners. In circumstances such as these, where life and death were cheek by jowl, and each man thought of the comrades he had lost, with the consciousness that his own call might come that day or next, the service was followed with close attention, and assumed a peculiar solemnity and impressiveness. On Wednesday 22nd September, the 6th went into the firing line, relieving the 7th Gordons. The particular part of the front now entered was known as the G1 sector, and in it the battalion spent a great deal of time between that date and Christmas. Their first experience of it was one of great activity and no little speculation, for during three days the British guns carried out a tremendous bombardment of the German positions, both at that part of the line and further North; and the men of the 6th, knowing that some big move was in contemplation, were all wondering whether they would be called upon to take part in it. What they were witnessing, as they soon learned, was the preparation for the great attack at Loos, in which the 4th Black Watch suffered so many casualties. The 6th, however, were not required. On the 25th , news was received, that the Loos battle had resulted in a big British victory, and it was arranged that at 5 30 that night, just at dusk, a great cheer would be given right along the whole three mile front occupied by the Division. It was further provided that immediately afterwards every man should take cover. The wisdom of this order was immediately apparent, for no sooner had the three cheers rung out with all the lusty enthusiasm which British lungs could give it than the Germans, piqued, and doubtless feeling very sore, sent across a terrific fusillade of shells, rifle and machine gun fire. This strafe, if it relieved the Boshes’ feelings, certainly did little damage to his foes. An air engagement was one of the memorable events of the first days in these trenches. A German aeroplane was seen approaching, and suddenly from a low cloud there emerged a British machine, which promptly tackled the Taube. The fight that followed was plainly seen by the men of the 6th, who watched it with great interest. The rattle of the airman’s machine guns was plainly heard above the hum of the engines, and the little spurts of flame could be seen as each antagonist, circling and diving and wheeling, emptied his magazine at his adversary. Then suddenly the German machine burst into flames, the petrol tank having been pierced; and after hovering for a moment longer it dived headlong to earth, burning furiously, and leaving in its course a long trail of smoke. It fell behind the British lines, the men cheering loudly at the satisfactory finish to the fight. The 8th Argylls shared with the 6th the duty of holding this sector, the battalions relieving each other at intervals; and both put in hard work improving the trenches and evacuating new dug outs, in preparation for the winter and for the events which were to transpire during the following summer.

By way of lending piquancy to what might otherwise have been a quiet time, the Germans introduced a new form of frightfulness here in the shape of ‘oil can’ bombs, which he sent over at intervals. These were huge ungainly canisters filled with high explosives and all sort of rubbish, intended to scatter on bursting. They came over quite slowly, and it was no uncommon thing to see several of them hurtling through the air at one time. Then would follow an anxious moment, for one was never certain on which side to dodge. The regularity which the Huns threw them over suggested that they had great faith in their destructive powers, but as a matter of fact, they did much less harm than their thunderous detonation gave reason to expect. Major Alexander caused some consternation by walking up the trench one day with a huge ‘oil can’ bomb on his shoulder. It had fallen without exploding, and he picked it up and prized the end out of it to see what it contained. The Bosh got more than he gave in the interchange of front line greetings. A battery of 5” howitzers were brought up close to the line, and when it was thought that a taste of shelling would do the enemy good he got it. The battery was an old one, that had been in the Egyptian campaign, but it did good work nevertheless and sent over some magnificent lyddite shells. One day the officers was ranging his guns, and in response to the observer’s signals “Five minutes more right – five minutes more right,” shell after shell was sent over. At last a Brigadier, whose headquarters were close at hand, and whose attention had been attracted to this apparent waste of ammunition, appeared on the scene, and demanded angrily, “How many rounds do you usually need to get your range?”. “Oh, four or five sir, as a rule. Replied the battery officer. “How many have you fired?” “About thirty!” “Then what the devil does this mean?” “I don’t know, sir” was the cool reply, “but my observer wants five minutes more right after each shot, and he gets it!”. The explanation was the first shell had landed dead on the German trench, and the forward observing officer had kept the range moving slightly to the right, until in about a quarter of an hour the gun had wiped out about a hundred yards of Boche parapet, to the vast delight of the infantry, who watched the bombardment from the British lines. When the battery commander went up later to see the result of his work he got quite an ovation from the men in the trenches.

During one of the periods of rest at Henencourt a great treat was enjoyed in a concert was given by a divisional pierrot troupe known  as “The Balmorals” at Senlis, a neighbouring village. A roomy barn had been converted into a very close resemblance of the conventional theatre by means of plenty of canvas and paint. A stage was constructed with all the usual appurtenances – curtains, floodlights, side wings etc – and the Divisional band fulfilled the duties of an orchestra. Seated there and listening to a first class programme of songs and sketches, brightly and splendidly rendered, it was difficult to realise that one was not in the peaceful surroundings of home, and that but a short distance away the guns of war were thundering.

Another notable event of this period was an inspection by the King, who was then on his visit to the front. The 6th Battalion of the Black Watch was selected to represent the Brigade, another tribute to the fine appearance and the efficiency of Perthshire’s Own. The inspection, which was held on the 25th October, took place near Buire, and but a short distance from the firing line. All the troops that could possibly be released from duty marched passed His Majesty, and the scene as the serried ranks swung along, battalion after battalion, was imposing and impressive.

The closing months of the year saw the battalion in some pretty nasty parts of the line, and most of the men will remember with particular vividness the period from the 4th to the 16th November, which were spent in a sector running through Thiepval Wood.  The weather was now very cold and very unsettled, with frequent falls of snow, and the men had their first real opportunity of experiencing the misery of the trench life in the winter. At every step the feet would sink deep into the churned mass of mud and snow, that found its way through to the skin after the first minute or two. Among this the men on guard had to stand, chilled to the bone and with chattering teeth.

In the Thiepval Wood sector there was one place known as the Hammerhead because of the way in which it jutted forward, where the German lines were very near. The enemy was hidden among the trees, but at night, when the guns were quitter, the Germans could be heard speaking and coughing. One night the garrison of the Hammerhead took into post with them a gramophone, and setting it up on the parapet treated the Bosche to a musical selection from “Lohengrin,” and finished with songs from Harry Lauder’s repertoire. On the following morning the enemy sent over a shower of rifle grenades, which, however, did not explode, and on examination they proved to be copies of German comic papers, tied into tight bundles with wire. The fact that they contained numerous cruelly libelous cartoons on the British Army did not detract from the amicable spirit in which they had been sent. An exchange of messages of a very different kind took place on another night at the same place. The Germans could be heard working industriously not far from the British trenches and a bombing party, in charge of Sergeant Dann, crept out under the wire till they came within easy range of a German working party. They scattered the crowd of Bosches with their bombs, causing several casualties, and safely returned to the British lines, followed by a brisk rifle and machine gun fire. This was a prelude to many night “scraps”  in that neighbourhood, which became in consequence pretty lively. The Higher Command had expressed a desire to know what was going on in the German lines there, and patrols were constantly on the prowl to get the necessary information.

It was a short and uneventful period that was spent in the line in front of Authuille during which the 6th was accompanied by the 17th Battalion H.L.I., then getting a first experience of active service. It was a very unfortunate time for a first introduction to trench life, for the weather continued to be cold and wet, and conditions were as unpleasant as they could be; but they were a plucky lot of fellows and they “stuck it” well. Later on this battalion did some magnificent fighting in the same neighbourhood during the Somme offensive.

On the 21st December the 6th was again relieved by the H.L.I. and left Authuille for what was to be an entire change of scene. Every man in the battalion was now looking forward to a period of rest, for all were more or less jaded and worn out. They had been either in the firing line or very close to it practically the whole time since they arrived in France nine months before and were feeling the strain of continuous active service.

The first night was spent at Martinsart and then followed a long march back to Vaux, within four miles of Amiens, where the battalion arrived on 23rd December.

On Christmas Day the 6th suffered a severe loss when Sir Robert Moncreiffe, the deeply respected commanding officer, whose health had become so bad, consequently on hardships of the winter campaign, that he had to return home.

To the battalion, paraded for the occasion, Sir Robert addressed a few words, dwelling on the deep regret he felt at parting with the 6th, a regret which was shared by every one of the men. Sir Robert’s unwillingness to leave the battalion was expressed in a letter he wrote home on that occasion, which may be quoted as showing how much he valued his men, and how great a wrench it was to give up the command :- “Here we are at last (he wrote), a good many miles back from the firing line, after two days marching, in rest billets, out of range and hearing of the big guns, the first time since we came out on active service. We arrived yesterday, and are now more or less settled down, and the men are having a chance to get cleaned up and some of the mud washed off, not before we needed it. I hope we will be here for a month, or rather the battalion. I am going home, as I have reached and considerably overstepped the age limit to command a battalion on active service. I have been recommended for a command at home, which I may or may not get, as the authorities think fit. I think it due to myself and also the battalion that a younger man should get command, as the winter life in the trenches is very hard, and the strain great on a man up in years like myself. I hate giving up the command, but it has to be done. No man had ever a better battalion or a finer lot of boys to look after than I have, always willing to do their bit without grumble, and always cheery. It is a privilege that few men have had, and I would not have missed it for anything, and thank God, on the whole, we have been wonderfully lucky, considering the experience we have had, and I trust the same luck will continue till the end of the war. Our last turn in the trenches we only had a few slightly wounded, but the time before we had a bad spell, and one night had between 20 and 30 casualties, four killed or died of wounds and several severely wounded. We were shelled very heavily with aerial torpedoes, trench mortars and shells, and the mud was so deep that the men could not get out of the way of the torpedoes or trench mortars.”

Thus Sir Robert bade farewell to the 6th after having been in France for about eight months, during the whole time he was constantly on the move with the battalion. He was succeeded by Colonel C. M. Truman, an officer of the regular army, with a great deal of experience both in India and in France. He came to the 6th from the 12th Lancers, and it was soon recognised by the men that the battalion had again been complimented in getting so able a successor to Sir Robert Moncreiffe.

Christmas and New Year were spent at Vaux in as happy a manner as the circumstances permitted. On Christmas morning a church service was held, and in the evening there were concerts and sing songs. The Padre made an effort to organise a choir, and on announcing his intentions, invited all those who thought of becoming members to be his guests at ten. The number of candidates for the honour of singing was extraordinary, and the good man was astonished and gratified beyond measure when about half the battalion turned up for tea. But, alas! When the time fixed for the first practice arrived he was sadly disillusioned by the appearance of about half a dozen vocalists!