France January to July 1916
Wet and dry canteens were opened, and this period was perhaps the most pleasant that the Battalion spent in France. New Year’s Day, 1916, was celebrated in the orthodox manner, but the French villagers, were always friendly towards “les Eccossais”, who, on their part, kept their rejoicings within reasonable bounds.
Much time was devoted to training, which included routine marches, and one day a complete brigade parade was held, followed by a march past the General. The proceedings were enlivened by an incident which somewhat marred their martial solemnity. Major Wylie had just acquired a new horse, and the animal, tired of the long wait, or perhaps bored with the whole ceremony, suddenly lay down, leaving its rider standing, not a little embarrassed, in front of the vast array of grinning troops. The General had a sense of humour. “Does your horse often do that Major?” he asked. “I don’t know”, replied Major Wylie. “I haven’t had him long enough to become acquainted with his peculiarities”. But it turned out that it was a common trick of the animal’s, and it soon occurred again, the Major having eventually to accept a loan of the General’s spare horse.
While at Vaux the battalion was re-joined by Major Alexander, who had been at home for a spell at one of the trench mortar schools. He brought with him two new trench guns, which had been made to his own designs, and which, it may be added, the 6th had subsequently the pleasure of seeing it work on the Huns with great effect. They made no flash and no smoke, and very little noise on discharge, so the enemy was unable to locate them.
After a period of about five weeks at Vaux the battalion received orders to move again, and marched to Corbie, a busy manufacturing town between Amiens and Albert, their brigade the 153rd being lent temporarily to the 30th Division, then in the front line beyond Bray-sur-Somme. On reaching Corbie in the evening not only was a change of scene experienced, but a change in occupation as well, for the men had to turn to and help in unloading shells from railway trucks.
On 8th February they not unwillingly shook of the dust of Corbie from their feet. Unloading shells is a hefty job, and after two nights and a day of it they were quite ready to cry enough. So they set their faces northward again without any very bitter regrets, and marched to the village of Sailly-le-Sac.
If the name was meant to bear its ordinary French meaning, it was an obvious misnomer, for a wetter and muddier place never existed. But it only served as a sort of introduction to what was coming, and when the battalion moved on to a camp outside the town of Bray, where they were quite close to the line again, the men began to realise that the mud of that particular part of France was out, like the tanks at Cambrai, to “do its damnedest!” And it began to dawn upon then, too, that the circumstances were likely to make the immediate future anything but pleasant. For some days they lived in tents which, for the month of February, were a little too well ventilated and then on the 15th it fell to Perthshire’s Own to take over the defence of the village ofMarincourt. Up till a few weeks before Maricourt had been one of the few villages behind the lines where it was good to live. The German artillery ignored it, and the chief occupation of the troops who held it was to make themselves thoroughly comfortable in their billets. But when things got warm as Frise, in the same neighbourhood, the Hun suddenly recollected the existence of Marincourt, and by the time he turned his attentions and his guns elsewhere, the village was practically blotted out of the map.
When the 6th arrived at the place where Maricourt had been they found a heap of ruins, and among these men had to seek shelter. There was no possibility of attaining comfort among tumbled down masses of bricks, layer by a sea of mud, but they made the best of things, as soldiers must always do, until a week passed, when with a heartfelt sigh of relief they again got the order to move.
They did not leave all their troubles behind at Maricourt however, for after marching to a place called Etinhern they were put into tents again similar to those in the bray camp of unhappy memories. In these, during a period of intense frost, they employed in vain all the known arts of keeping warm.
During this time there were ominous sign s that things were livening up all along the line. Terrific bombardments were heard daily. On the south of the Somme the Germans made a gas attack on the French, and on the north heavy shelling was going on in the direction of Fricourt. Listening to all the hubbub, the men of Perth realised that they were destined to be plunged into the midst of it very soon. They had not been brought there for nothing!
So when they were called upon to turn out on the 24th and paraded again for the road they had more than a suspicion that this time was for the front line. Their forebodings were justified for the end of the march found them in the firing line in front of Marincourt. Here again , their hitherto phenomenal luck seem to be out, for their arrival signalled the following day a heavy snow fall. Every available man had to work his hardest to keep the trenches from being filled up, and the only consolatory reflection in the welter of snow and slush was that the Germans were also so busy on the same job that they could spare little time to worry them. The stay was fortunately brief, the 7th Gordon's taking over the position on the third day, and the 6th were marched off along a road new to them. Were they to have comfortable quarters at last – a barn or, eve n a few half ruined houses, where wet and cold old might be kept at bay! Alas! For human hopes! The “resting place” was another miserable camp, among snow three feet deep in the middle of a wood, which the battalion reached about one o’clock in the morning.
At dawn they were up and doing again, for they were called upon to provide a working party to clean the main road between Bray and Corbie. Grumbling was useless – there are no Trade Union restrictions on working time in the army – so the unhappy ones had to turn to with the best grace they could muster. They were a tired lot when the task was ended, and that nights the whole battalion turned in early.
Their slumber was broken, however, about eleven o’clock by an alarm of gas, and the men had to get up and put on their helmets. It was the first time these had been in serious use, for the 6th had never previously experienced a gas attack. As it was they were a good distance from the line, and in the intervening space the gas dispelled itself.
It was anticipated that the battalion would be ordered to return to the same trenches, but in response to urgent orders a move was made at the first streak of dawn towards Corbie, everyone glad to turn his back on the part of the line. IN Corbie the divisional concert party, now known as “The Stripes”, were holding performances, and on the following day the men had an opportunity of sitting in comfort and listening to a capital entertainment of songs, choruses and sketches. A feature of the programme was a turn by “Gertie” and “Long Tom”, the former an exceedingly clever and fascinating female impersonator, for whom swell dresses had been sent from London.
That was butt a brief interlude in the rigours of the campaign, for the next day another long march hd to be undertaken, and at night the 6th arrived back within a couple of miles of Vaux.
On 6th March there began a long and weary trek northwards towards Arras. For nearly a week the battalion was on the road, arriving on Saturday night at the village of Marueil. The battered houses, and the sign of shell fire everywhere apparent, showed that the firing line was again very near. The place was crowded with troops and accommodation for the 6th was difficult to find.
The next night the battalion moved into the reserve trenches at Maison Blanche, taking the position over from the French. The sector included the notorious Labyrinth, where the French had fought so valiantly all through the previous summer and autumn. It was fearful mass of shell holes and churned earth, not a square inch having escaped the battering of shells, and the mud was something passes all belief.
It was in this position that the 6th created something of a record for continuous service in the trenches. They remained there for four months, during the whole of which time they were only out for a total of 19 days, and then they were merely back in reserve. Nor was it a simple task of sitting in dug outs and firing off the regulation number of rifle rounds daily. Hard work was constantly necessary to keep the crumbling trenches right, and there were frequent raids from both sides, while the activity in mining was such as they had never experienced before. Shells were always coming across, too, and they caused several casualties. One landed just before Pte. Forbes, Perth, and Pte Dan Macara, Crieff, as they were coming along the line with a Dixie of breakfast tea. Private Forbes was killed instantly, and his companion was sent to Blighty with shell shock.
The mining warfare that went on was terribly nerve wracking to those in the front line trenches, who could quite often hear the enemy digging under their feet, and who consequently felt as if living on the edge of a volcano. Not long after the 6th took over the position the Germans exploded a mine, blowing up part of the trench system; and on 31st March, about four o’clock in the morning, three enormous detonations were heard in the sector occupied by the 6th Argylls, who were alongside the 6th Black Watch. Retaliation followed promptly, for a seven o’clock that same venting a big mine prepared by the French was touched off under that German line just opposite the 6th, and a thunderous explosion was followed by an energetic bombardment from The British guns and mortars.
Under cover of darkness, Lieutenant McLaren, the scout officer, took a man with him, and went out to try to discover what damage the mine had caused to the enemy. He got close to the German line, and heard the occupants hard at work repairing their trenches and digging out their dead and wounded.
He crept back and got half a dozen more men, each armed with a couple of bombs. The party then made their way cautiously through the barbed wire and across No Man’s Land until they were within range of the Germans, when at a signal from Lieutenant McLaren each man threw his bombs and cleared out. The attack caused further severe losses to the enemy, whose alarm was kept awake by an occasional plum-pudding bomb, dropped as near as possible to the place where they were working. On the whole it was a trying night for the Bosche, whose mining activities in that particular section were thereafter hampered, and later on completely frustrated by the energy and daring of a Colonial Tunnelling Company, who quickly got the upper hand in this underground warfare.
Further variety to the numerous excitements was provided by a thrilling air fight on the morning of 3rd April. A Boche plane attacked a small scout machine just over the lines, and things were looking bad for the British pilot, when suddenly a big battleplane emerged from a cloud and swooped down on the Hun. The latter had no chance to escape before it was peppered by machine gun fire, and in a few minutes it dived downwards and crashed to the ground.
The Labyrinth was overlooked by the German held Vimy Ridge which was of vital importance to them, and it was, therefore, only natural that they made every effort to hold it, and to add to the security of their position. They attempted many raids on the British line, though seldom with much success, and were very enterprising in mining operations. On the 4th April they exploded a big mine in the vicinity, which afterwards became known as the Edinburgh Crater. They immediately followed it up with a determined raid on the trenches. The brunt of the attack was borne by a platoon of B Company commanded by Lieutenant Flett. During the ensuing fight with the raiders Flett had his ankle smashed by a grenade and later his thigh and knee were broken by two successive bombs; but he bravely continued to command his platoon and refused to leave his post until the raiders had been beaten off. For this gallant action Flett was awarded the Military Cross, but shortly afterwards died of his wounds.
In the Labyrinth sector there were the ruins of an old mill, in which the Germans, when they occupied that bit of line, had fitted a steel cylinder for observation purposes. In it am observer was pretty safe from shrapnel and rifle fire, and could watch what was going on in the opposite lines. It was found, however, to be a most unhealthy spot for the Briton, for no sooner did a man enter it than the place became a target for the German artillery. The thing was quite uncanny, and it was generally supposed that the enemy had the ruins under observation. The short spells out of the trenches during this period were spent near the Mill of Bray, from which it was a short walk to the neighbouring village of Marceuil, where the baths were available. The bathing system was on the rough and ready principle as a rule in France, and consisted generally of a few tubs, into which as many men as possible had to crowd. The nearest thing to luxury was the divisional shower baths. There the men, after undressing, were lined up under a row of sprays, and an orderly turned on the water, letting it run for a certain time. It was always a very short time.
Back in the trenches, the Germans, however, were no longer allowed undisputed freedom in their mining operations. The 51st Divisional tunnelling companies undermined their galleries, and in a short time were able to spring several surprises on the enemy. So effective indeed was this work that before the Division left the area, the Germans gave up mining and blew up their half prepared mines in No Man’s Land, an act which did no harm to the British, and in several instances gave the Highland Division the advantage of improved observation. The task of the British was made easier by the great development of co-operation between infantry and artillery. It was the boast of the Division that at this period for every German shell sent into the lines held by the Highland Division, twelve were returned, with the result that in a short space of time the 51st gained absolute command of No Man’s Land.
Maroeuil was again the resting place of the battalion after this turn in the trenches. They found that a cinematograph show had been started in the village in a large structure, which had evidently been a factory in peace time. Half of the building had been set aside for the entertainment, and the other half was fitted out for bathing purposes, both mind and body being thus catered for under one roof. And it may be added that both were largely patronised. The baths were of the shower variety already described, and the only subject for complaints regarding them was the period allowed for ablutions was embarrassingly brief. By a happy division of labour, each man in the line usually soaped his neighbour’s back, this tending to secure expedition; but the smartest soaper would scarcely have removed the first coating of grime before the shower abruptly ceased and room had to be made for another batch to line up, As regards the cinematograph, the organisers had been faced with a difficult problem in excluding the daylight owing to the many gaping shell holes in the roof and walls. They had succeeded admirably however, and were able to provide a splendid entertainment for the modest charge of two pence, which was merely to pay expenses. It was a great treat to come back straight from the firing line and renew acquaintanceship with Charlie Chaplin, forgetful of the hardships of the trenches and of the shells which might at any moment crash through the roof. In this respect it was quite amusing to read notices on the walls of the cinema “hall” warning the men to keep under the veranda and so escape observation from enemy aircraft. A good deal of shelling was actually experienced in this village, and casualties were fairly numerous among the troops stationed there.
On the following Saturday, 3rd June, the 7th Black Watch carried out a very successful raid, which was proceeded by the explosion of two mines. The result was the complete demolition of a projection in the German trenches known as the Duck’s Bill. Prior to the raid a request had come down from Headquarters that if it was at all possible an unwounded prisoner should be brought in. After the scrap a kiltie came back through the heavy shrapnel barrage, walking bareheaded while at his side was a dejected looking prisoner wearing his captor’s steel helmet. “Tak’ care noo” was the Jock’s anxious exhortation. “an; dinna get killed, for God’s sake”. He got his unwounded prisoner safely back to Headquarters.
On Sunday a church parade was held at the back of the white chateau, very close to the lines, the officiating clergyman being Padre Clark, from Farnell.
The two weeks that followed were chiefly noteworthy for the number of mines that were exploded. The 6th had just left the front line, after a fairly uneventful period, when on the 8th June a mine was touched off under the 7th Gordons, who suffered pretty heavily. At 3 30 p.m. on the 12th two mines went up near Claudot Trench; another on the 13th about four o’clock in the afternoon, immediately to the left; and a third on the 14th in the sector which the 6th had again taken over. This demolished a post, and the battalion lost one man killed and another wounded.
Meantime preparations had been in process for the coming great offensive on the Somme, and there were grounds for the belief that the enemy had got wind of it, for on Sunday, two days after the 6th had moved back to billets at Maroeuil, a huge fleet of German aeroplanes came over the lines, obviously in an effort to see what was going on and spot any concentration of troops.
Another visit was made to the trenches on the 20th, and no sooner was the position taken over than a mine was sprung right in front of the line, enlarging a crater that was already there, but causing no casualties. The continual mining, it need hardly be said, was a source of unending anxiety, and the suspense of waiting for the half expected explosions was a great stress on the nerves. In the case of one large mine, however, known as the Zivy Mine, warning of it had been given months before, and protective trenches had been dug right round the area, The result was that when it went up, on the forenoon of the 23rd, it did no harm beyond making the ground rock as if with an earth quake and half deafening the men in the nearest trenches. By this time practically the whole of No Man’s Land between the two lines of trenches had been upheaved by explosions, and formed an impenetrable barrier of mine craters which had to be dug into and consolidated, a task that occupied many working parties through all the hours of darkness. The activity of the British mining engineers seemed to have excited the Germans, for they fired a great many mines, which did very little damage, and only provided their enemies with better facilities for observation – because the force of the explosions raised mounds which were always higher on the British side than on the German one.
Preparation for the Somme battle began, and from Maroeuil the men of Perthshire’s Own could hear the tremendous roar of the artillery away to the south. There was excitement in the air, and all were momentarily awaiting the call to be ready for the grim work. Meantime the enemy was not idle, and in the early morning of the 24th a heavy bombardment was suddenly poured on the front and second lines held by D Company, in the way usually adopted when a raid is about to be carried out. An energetic response was made however, by the British guns, and the Boshe plans were frustrated, no serious raiding effort being made, though at a part of the line called the Pulpit, where the 12th platoon of C Company was on guard, a party of Germans came over. While they were in the act of trying to make their way through the barbed wire, Sergeant Tracey and Private Sanderson, both Crieff men, came up with a supply of bombs, and the enemy had a hot reception. One was killed and the others hurriedly retired. Evidently determined to make things as uncomfortable as possible for the “Jocks”, the enemy sent over trench mortar bombs at frequent intervals, and one of these unhappily landed among a Lewis gun team, nearly every member of which was a casualty. Peter Craig, Abercairny, who had joined the Lewis gun section just before the battalion went abroad, was killed. That afternoon the 6th moved back to the reserve position at Maison Blanche. By this time the British bombardment at the Somme had reached an intensity previously unparalleled, and the explosions could plainly be seen in the neighbourhood of Gommecourt,
All the feverish activity that presages a great battle was now manifest everywhere. The roads were crowded with troops, guns, transport wagons, and all the traffic of war. In order to confuse the enemy as to the objective of the attack, the massed batteries beside the 6th opened a furious fire on the trenches over the front of Roclincourt, the bombardment being accompanied by smoke clouds. This continued for a whole week, and was but feebly replied by the harassed Huns.
It was during this trying and exciting period that a change in the command of the 6th took placed, Colonel Truman receiving orders to rejoin his old cavalry regiment, the 12th Lancers. As the men at the moment were in the trenches, it was impossible to have a send off parade, but the departure of the gallant officer, who had proved himself most capable and had won the esteem of every man in the battalion, was cordially regretted. On the following day the command was taken over by Colonel Jenny, who had seen service in India and with the Royal Scots in Egypt. That same night the 6th once more moved into the front line, and the men had immediately to stand to in order to repel an attempted raid, which was stopped, however by artillery and bombers.
On the 29th June platoons from the second line of the London Territorials began to arrive in support and reserve lines for instruction in trench warfare, and this gave colour to the rumour that the 6th were about to be relieved. It turned out to be well founded, for on the 5th July the welcome order came to move back to Maroeuil, and the men had their last look at the trenches in which they had spent nearly four months without a break of more than a few days. A brief period at Maroeuil was occupied in supplying work parties and in cleaning up, and after one night in the huts (Armstrong Huts) at Bray the 6th marched off at nine o’clock in the morning of the 12th towards the quieter country of the south. It was an exquisite pleasure to the men when, out of reach of bullets and shrapnel, they took off the steel helmets they had worn so long and replaced them with the soft and comfortable Balmoral, proudly adorned with the red hackle, which had just been granted as a tribute to the gallantry of the whole regiment (May 1916). It was a lovely summer day, and every man’s heart was light as he marched in the bright sunshine, with the knowledge of duty done and danger left behind.
The pretty village of Orlencourt was reached in the afternoon, and in comfortable billets the men laid down their packs, weary with the strenuous and exhausting work of the campaign, but confident now that they were to have glorious rest. Without loss of time they prepared enthusiastically to enjoy themselves, and football matches and other sports were arranged, canteens set a going, and all pleasurable activities of a rest camp entered upon.
It was a bitter disappointment then, when on 14th after only one clear day in Orlencourt, the battalion was suddenly ordered to prepare to move. The men were to be conveyed by motor bus and instantly everyone knew where they were bound for – the battlefield of the Somme. If there were any doubt at all it was set at rest by Captain MacRosty, who in a brief address told his men that they were now going straight into the thick of it, and advised them to discard all unnecessary things from their kits.
The journey by motor began at dusk, and was a memorable one. Forty lorries were allocated to the 6th, and it was great sight to see the whole line of vehicles, each carrying its red tail light, winding across the country in the darkness. It was scarcely possible, of course, to carry out so big an operation without a hitch or two, After passing one point where the roads crossed, the M.T. officer who led the way suddenly realised that he was being followed by 1 lorry instead of 40. The column had parted in two, and the bigger part was crawling blindly along in the darkness without its head. The hasty expenditure of some rather explosive energy fortunately put things right, and in spite of many byways that lay in wait to puzzle and trap the drivers the column was got into order again with wonderful expedition.
A halt was called at daybreak at the village of Halloy, on the far side of the Doullena. Here there was no abiding place, however, for on the 16th the battalion marched off southwards, and after a tiring day the men were glad to reach billets – two companies at Fienvillers and the others at Franqueville.
Under these endless marching orders, none of which ever seemed to bring finality, the men passed from excited anticipation to a spirit of indifference, resigned to whatever new demand the Higher Command might be pleased to make. Their travels had certainly not yet ceased, and another and different stage of the journey which was ultimately to end at the Somme was entered upon on the 20th, when the train was taken at Candas, and the 6th went by Amiens to Mericourt, the station at which the battalion had first detrained almost exactly a year previous.
The scene was now very different from what it was in those comparatively quiet days. A great traffic was going on along the railway line, and German prisoners were being employed uploading stores. Everywhere were to be seen all the paraphernalia of war – guns and munitions, artillery captured from the enemy, damaged aeroplanes, tons and tons of food for the troops and horses – all being loaded or unloaded on the railway trucks. On all the roads were troops and transport workers, and just a short distance from the station the 6th met a battalion which had evidently come straight from the field of battle, the men wearing German helmets and jovially sporting the trophies they had taken from the enemy.
After spending the night at Dernancourt, the 6th moved up over country that had been wrestled from the Germans during the proceeding three weeks to Meault, and up into Mametz Wood. The famous wood was reached after dark. Shells were falling pretty thickly all round, and as the battalion drew nearer a particular smell was noticed in the air, and at the same time the eyes of the men began to smart. The place was being peppered with tear shells. Before they had donned their protective masks they were half blinded, and when a by path was reached, after entering the wood, one file lost its way, and took the wrong turning, the battalion being held up until the mistake was rectified. Several shells came dangerously near, and a sergeant and three men of the 7th Black Watch were killed.
The most striking thing about the whole neighbourhood was the tremendous bustle and movement that was going on all around. There seemed not a square yard of ground but was occupied by troops, guns or transport. The last named were everywhere, and the night echoed to the shouts of impatient mule drivers as the lumbering wagons bumped over the shell pitted roads. On every hand, dotted all over the rolling landscape, the lights of innumerable camp fires, lit in defiance of the Boche observers and indicating that the British Army didn’t care a straw for them anyway.
And the activity in the air, like that below, was extraordinary. Wherever the eye was turned the bulky shape of an observation balloon could be seen silhouetted against the skyline. At least thirty of them, British and French, could be counted in plain view along the line.
The roar of the artillery all this time was continuous and terrific, and the German gunners, anxious to hamper British movements as much as possible, maintained a heavy bombardment of the whole sector, dropping their shells wherever they thought would do most harm. There was no same spot in the whole area, and the 6th suffered along with other troops. On Saturday, 22nd July, soon after arrival, twelve horses were killed, and three of the travelling kitchens badly damaged by shell fire.
A ration party under Lance Corporal Brown, Dunning, had a startling experience. While crossing some open country they found themselves under shell fire, and hurriedly made for shelter. After a hasty and good humoured dispute as to which was the most safe looking of the available dug outs, the men bolted into one, while Corporal Brown, sought another for himself. As he entered, however, a shell came right behind him, and he was instantly killed.
Another dug out, occupied by men of a different battalion, was hit, and when the rescuers entered they found the men lying as if asleep, and evidently killed by concussion. So peculiar was the effect of the shell that the bodies, when touched, seemed about to fall to pieces. They could not be taken out, and the dug out was simply filled in, and a wooden cross erected over it to mark their sleeping place.