New Year’s Day came, but there was little chance of doing the occasion anything like justice, a big proportion of the battalion being at work in the trenches. That night, as if willing to pander to “Jock’s” taste for excitement at New Year time, the Germans started a bombardment, the shells falling close to the billets, and forcing the occupants to turn out and seek shelter. It did not last long however, and the men were soon able to return to their interrupted slumbers.
About this time news came that the medical officer of the battalion, Major Haig, had gained the D.S.O., and that the Military Cross had been awarded to Captain Innes. The fact gave great pleasure to every man in the battalion, for both officers were deservedly popular, and had done conspicuously good work ever since the 6th arrived in France.
On 3rd January a move was made nearer to the line, and on the 4th A and B Companies went into the support trenches at Courcelette. Then on the 6th they moved into the front line, the supports being taken over by C and D Companies. It was a lovely clear night, with a brilliant moon, and the Boche probably detected movement of the relief going on, for he started shelling the position. The reply from the British guns was prompt and crushing. A shower of “heavies” was sent across, and could be seen bursting four at a time in the Loupart Wood. Probably feeling sorry they had started the row, the Germans soon quietened down.
Keen frost had hardened the mud and made the ground more workable, and the men applied themselves energetically to getting “dug in” properly, and making the sentry posts more habitable. The conditions were therefore a little more tolerable than before, and it was possible to secure better shelter.
The ground on very side presented an extraordinary appearance under the moonlight. The dense shadows cast by the masses of tossed and shell-churned earth were relieved by patches of light, where craters and depressions lay filled with water, on whose frozen surface the moon gleamed dully. The black outline of the trench parapets could be dimly followed, and one new that men were there; yet there was scarcely the faintest sign of human life, except that now and then the sound of a voice or the crack of a rifle would come from somewhere close at hand to show that in the firing line the sentries were at their posts, keeping their careful watch. Out in No Man’s Land too, working parties were always busy, and one would come on them suddenly, or see their dim figures over the parapet, busy erecting posts, renewing and repairing wire, and performing the tasks that seem never to be done before they have to be tackled again.
Practically no wire defences existed, and one night a runner, Corporal Robertson of Auchterarder, who had missed the Battalion front line and got into No Man’s Land, held up and marched in a German patrol of three armed men. For this act he received from the hands of General Harper, the Divisional Commander, an immediate award of the D.C.M.
This proved to be the final spell in that sector, the battalion being relieved on the 8th, and marching back to the huts at Ovillers, every man thankful to see the last of Courcelette. The hardships they had experienced in that quarter had put a tremendous strain on them. In spite of the most strenuous work, carried on day after day, it had been impossible to keep the trenches in repair, for the ground was so shaken up by the shelling that a shower of rain sent the walls tumbling down again.
After so much fruitless toiling, together with the continuous exposure to cold and wet, the men were very weary, and a change was highly necessary to prevent their being utterly worn out. Illness brought on by the terrible conditions, had also greatly thinned the ranks, the battalion at this time numbering only 176 rifles. Rheumatism, pneumonia, trench feet and all the other ailments produced by living for days in sodden garments were responsible, indeed, for more losses by far than had been sustained in the battle of Beaumont Hamel.
The definite promise of a rest was therefore hailed with immense pleasure and relief, and in spite of their weariness there was a new lightness of step as the men started on the first stage of the march to Senlis. Before arriving there on 9th January a fine draft of men from the Scottish Horse was received. They came at a good time, both for themselves and for the battalion. Had they been a little earlier they would have had their first experience of service life in France in one of the worse pieces of line the battalion had ever been in, so far as shear hardship was concerned. Now they would have time to settle down to the conditions, and to become acquainted with their new comrades. Needless to say, in many cases the newcomers recognised old friends, and there were the usual happy reunions, and the eager questioning as to news from home, and how things were going there,
At Senlis the battalion found waiting for them a big supply of “comforts” sent out from the Fair City, and never anything received more opportunely. The dry socks and other garments were greatly needed to replace sodden and torn ones; and not less eagerly welcomed was the quantity of mealy puddings, a delicacy which could come from nowhere else but the dear old Scottish homeland. The kindly workers in Perth, whose industry had provided so great a treat for the men, would have considered themselves repaid a thousand fold if they could have witnessed the delight and heard the expression of gratitude and pleasure with which the good things were received.
It was at Senlis, too, that the battalion had another curious reminder of home. It had been announced that the Lena Ashwell Concert Company was to be give an entertainment in the “theatre” (a barn) on the 10th; but when inquiry was made it was found that the accommodation was fully “bespoke”, and the Scotties from Perthshire looked like being left out in the cold. At this unhappy juncture a friend at Court was opportunely discovered – Willie Gellatly, a well-known native of Perth, who was out with the company. On learning of his countrymen’s disappointment, he hastened to put things right, and as a result the men of the Sixth were favoured with a special benefit. The whole battalion attended, and the concert party, which included a number of Scottish singers, were fully rewarded for their kindness by the warmth of the reception they got, Mr Gellatly coming in for a great ovation. It might be mentioned that there were no ladies with the party, as they were not permitted to come so close to the fighting; but there was no lack of variety in the entertainment, which was first class throughout.
The real march towards rest billets began on 12th January, the battalion parading about six in the morning, when it was still dark. The roads throughout the whole area were so crowded with traffic that it was necessary to march by companies with a distance of 200 yards between each; and it was a difficult matter to keep in touch in the darkness and amid all the stir.
All that day the men marched onwards, and indeed for the best part of the week they were continually on the move, spending the first night in Puchevillers, and proceeding by Beauval, Gezainocourt and Fienvillers where they would have stayed a while in the excellent billets they had previously occupied.
The whole area through which the battalion marched was a hive of unrest and activity. Transport and guns were in constant movement on the roads, and at Berneuil, owing to the great congestion of traffic, a halt of two hours had to be made before further progress was possible. There was also much movement of troops, and frequently other regiments would be met making their way towards the firing line, the men glancing enviously at the 6th as the battalion swung past, war worn but happy, on the way to rest quarters.
The block at Berneuil necessitated a detour of several miles round by the village of Domart, and it was dark when billets were reached at Longvillers, after a whole day’s march.
Tired as they were the men had but a brief rest, for in the early hours of the morning they were on the road again. They found the conditions very much improved, for frost had hardened the ground and made the going very much more pleasant.
The way led through the interesting old cathedral town of St Requier, and from there it was an easy march to Drucat, where the final halt was called. Here rest, reorganisation and training coupled with the arrival of more reinforcements brought the 6th once more into good fighting trim; the strength which on leaving Coucelette had been reduced to about 200 men in the trenches was now increased to 25 officers and 1028 other ranks.
Towards the end of January, Colonel Booth again took over command, Lieutenant Colonel Wylie proceeding to England, Major Henderson became Second I Command, and Captain Rutherford was appointed adjutant. In addition to Lieutenant Colonel Wylie’s departure, the Battalion lost another officer who had come to France with it, Captain Innes, who left to take command of a Cheshire battalion.
Early in February orders were received for the 6th to move to the neighbourhood of Arras, and there prepare for a forthcoming attack. The journey north, beginning on the 5th, was made by a march route in the coldest weather ever experienced by the Battalion in France. Moving via Argenvillers (February 5th), Maison Ponthieu (6th), Nuncq (7th), Criosette (8th), Ourton (9th) Villers Brulin (10th), the Battalion finally reached Louez, near Marcoeuil, on the 11th, where some of the older soldiers had many varied experiences in the spring of 1916.
The remainder of February, 1917, and the first fortnight of March, were spent in carrying out railway construction in the Anzin-St. Aubin-St. Catherine area, where the 6th replaced the 2nd Battalion Royal Fusiliers.
On March 16th, the Battalion moved into the line at Ecurie, the 153rd Brigade having taken over the Roclincourt section. Preparations for an attack on a large scale, now known officially as the Arras Offensive, were at this time in full swing. These included, among other work, the preparation of assembly trenches, wire cutting, raids for identification purposes, and, most important of all, practising the attack on taped-out ground behind the front area. Throughout the whole of this period the weather was atrocious, frost and snow being followed by thaw and rain, which reduced the trenches to a deplorable state, and made work in them most laborious.
The numerous raids, in which, of course, the 6th took part, and the heavy British artillery activity at the time, naturally brought down heavy enemy retaliation, which made life at the front line still more unpleasant. In addition, the severity of the weather, and the shortness of fodder, caused a serious mortality among animals which added to the difficulties of transport in this shell-torn area.
On March 31st, the Battalion carried out a successful raid and was able to establish the fact that the 51st Highland Division was opposed by Bavarians, who were among the most stubborn troops of the German Army. The raiding party consisting of Lieutenant R. J. Menzies in command, with Lieutenants Scott and Boyd and 64 men, was withdrawn from the line for practice ten days prior to the operation, the plan of the trenches to be attacked being laid out on the south-eastern outskirts of Maroeuil. The raid was most successfully carried out on March 31st. Three officers and 46 men of the 2nd Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment were either killed or captured, thus proving that this regiment was holding the line. (Two weeks later, during the battle of Arras, German documents were captured corroborating the casualties inflicted by the 6th). The raiders lost one man killed, 23 wounded and one missing. Lieutenant Scott highly distinguished himself in this raid and was awarded the M.C,; Military Medals were won by Lance Corporal Menzies and Private Devlin.
The forthcoming operations were part of a plan designed to drive the Germans from the salient into which they had been forced as a result of the fighting on the Somme between the Ancre and Scarpe. The task allocated to the 51st (Highland) Division, XVII Corps, Third Army, in conjunction with the Canadian Corps on the left, and the 34th Division on the right, was the capture of the southern shoulder of Vimy Ridge.
The first phase of the Battle of Arras began on April 9th, and for a week prior to this the 6th Battalion held the line at Roclincourt, during which time it was under continuous and heavy shell fire. For the first time in the history of the 6th, the Battalion Headquarters’ dug-out in which were the Commanding Officer, the Second in Command, the Medical Officer, the Adjutant and Liaison Officer, was blown in by a 5.9 shell. Fortunately no one was injured. Another and more disastrous direct hit occurred on April 1st, just after the Battalion had moved into Maroeuil. A high velocity shell smashed into a crowded billet with fatal results; 21 men were killed outright, and 28 wounded. The 6th took no part in the first phase of the battle, as the 153rd Brigade was in Divisional reserve, the Battalion being in Brigade reserve.
On the night of April 7th, the Battalion was relieved in the line by the 9th Royal Scots Fusiliers; during this relief Captain MacDowell was seriously wounded and died a few weeks later. D company lost in him a gallant and capable commander, and all who knew him, “Micky’s” death was like the loss of a brother. On relief the Battalion moved first to Ecoivres, and then to Ecurie, where it remained during the first phase of the battle. On the morning of the 10th, the 6th moved over the ground just captured and took over the new support line which it held until relieved the following evening by the 2nd Division, when it returned to Maroeuil for a few days, during which Lieutenant Douglas Cable returned from hospital and took over the duties of Assistant Adjutant.
On the 14th, the Battalion was ordered to move on the following day with the 153rd Brigade through Arras to Blangy in the St. Laurent area to take over the Oppy line near Fampoux. Orders were issued at once, and the 6th with transport complete, moved off before midday, reaching Blamgy in the afternoon of the 15th, where it bivouacked in an old factory, going into line at Fampoux that night, relieving the 5th Battalion Cameron Highlanders, Here orders were received that the Division would be employed in what is now known as the second phase of the Battle of Arras, planned to take place on the 23rd.
At this time the enemy held a strong position north east of the River Scarpe on the high ground known as Greenland Hill. Through a deep cutting in this hill the Arras – Douai railway ran in a straight line north east from Fampoux. On the right of the railway were the Chemical Works and the village of Rouex, north east of which lay Hausa and Delbar woods, from which the enemy had magnificent observation. While the Germans had good covered approached to their positions on the high ground, the British line was entirely exposed and troops holding it were under constant artillery fire. The forthcoming attack was, therefore, planned with the object of securing Greenland Hill and the village of Plouvain, north east of Rouex. In addition to being commanded from the German line it should be mentioned that, owing to the marshy nature of the country on the north bank of the River Scarpe, there was little ground available in which the attacking troops could be assembled.
The 51st Highland Division attack was carried out by the 154th Brigade on the right and the 153rd Brigade on the left, the main attack being delivered by the latter Brigade disposed as follows : 7th Battalion The Black Watch on the right, 7th Gordon Highlanders on the left. In the rear of these two Battalions, the 6th Gordon Highlanders (lent from 154th Brigade) were on the right behind the 7th Black Watch, and the 6th Black Watch in support of the 7th Gordon Highlanders, on the left.
There were four objects. The 6th Black Watch was detailed to attack the fourth, or final objective three hours and twelve minutes after Zero, with the 6th Battalion Gordon Highlanders on its right, and troops of the 17th Division on its left. The first three objectives were to be taken by the 7th Black Watch and the 7th Gordon Highlanders, the last being the Gavrelle – Roeux road, on reaching which the 6th Black Watch and 6th Gordons were to “leap frog” through the leading troops and take Greenland Hill and the high ground overlooking Plouvain.
The Battalion held the line at Fampoux for five days prior to the assault, when all ranks made themselves acquainted with the position although constantly harassed by enemy shelling; Major Macdonald and Second Lieutenant Scott were wounded here. On the night of April 20th, the Battalion was relieved by the 8th Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and withdrew to Arras for forty eight hour’ rest. Here it received fighting equipment and moved up to assembly positions in the Oppy line during the night of the 22nd.
Zero hour had been fixed at 4 45 a.m. on April 23rd. Moving off an hour before this the Battalion advanced in artillery formation, but, on reaching the British front line, it had to extend owing to heavy machine gun fire which caused many losses in both the 6th Black Watch and 7th Gordon Highlanders. None the less the latter battalion captured the German front line, although it did not succeed in advancing much further except in isolated parties. After 6 20 a.m. the advance of the 6th became very difficult, and was only carried out by means of short section rushes from shell hole to shell hole. The Gavrelle road was reached about 9 a.m. and the next two hours were occupied in driving off repeated German counter attacks made in force. These offered magnificent targets to the British infantry machine gunners and artillery, who took heavy toll from the enemy. Further advances were consequently slow, and at 11 15 a.m. it was again held up by machine gun fire and snipers on Greenland Hill and in the Chemical Works. In the early afternoon, however, by hard fighting and persistent attack, the 6th was firmly established on the lower slopes of Greenland Hill, well east of the Gavrelle to Roeux road.
From this point enemy machine gun fire from the ridge above made any further advance impossible, and the ground captured was consolidated. While thus occupied the Battalion suffered many casualties, five officers being killed and several others wounded. Time after time during the afternoon the enemy attempted to dislodge the 6th from their position, but on every occasion their attacks were broken up by Lewis gun and artillery fire. About midnight on the 23rd, the 6th was relieved by a battalion of the 34th Division and reformed in the old German front line.
The losses suffered by the Battalion in the action included five officers killed, Second Lieutenants Butler, MacBeth, Garvie, Doe and Glass; four wounded, Second Lieutenants Condor, MacDonald, Gyle and Hepden; 25 other ranks killed, 123 wounded and 48 missing. Total : Nine officers and 196 other ranks.
On the afternoon of the 24th, the 6th was withdrawn from battle and moved to billets in Arras. The following afternoon the Division began moving back to a rest area. The 153rd Brigade entrained at Arras on the 25th and moved to Ligny St. Flochel, whence the 6th marched to Marquay for a well earned three weeks’ rest and for training.
Commenting on this fighting, Major F.W. Bewsher states in the History on the 51st Division :
“So ended a most sanguinary encounter. From most difficultly situated assembly trenches, an attack had been launched against apposition of considerable strength. The men had advanced against a stout opposition and had suffered heavy casualties, had then been systematically bombarded in shallow trenches and shell holes, and had been repeatedly counter attacked. They, however, maintained a portion of their gains against all comers, and had appreciably deepened the area held east of the Scarpe.”
Shortly after being withdrawn from the battle the two following messages were received by the Divisional Commander and communicated to all ranks :
From the Commander in Chief :
“The fierce fighting of yesterday (23rd April) has carried us on another step forward. I congratulate you on the results of it, and on the severe punishment you have inflicted on the enemy.”
From General Sir Charles Fergusson, Commanding the XVII Corps :
“I wish to express to the Division through you my congratulations on the splendid work they have done in the recent fighting, especially on Monday, 23rd April.
Had it not been for the fine fighting spirit of the Division, the result might easily have been disadvantageous to us. I am proud and delighted with the Division, as they may be themselves with the grand fight they put up, and I know when they are rested and reorganised they will be keen to add to their reputation.”
The 6th spent the next three weeks resting, training and re-fitting. Marquay was a pleasant village and had seldom been occupied by troops; the weather was delightful and altogether the rest period passed all too quickly. Attack practices, tactical schemes and musketry courses were carried out, and Regimental sports were held.
Brigadier General D Campbell now left the 153rd Brigade and was succeeded by Brigadier General A Gordon, C.M.G., D.S.O.
Meanwhile the fighting east of Arras continued with results favourable to the Allies. Between the 10th and 13th May the British line was considerably advanced, the Roeux trenches being taken on the 12th.
In anticipation of being required in this fighting, the 51st Division began moving back to the front line east of Arras on the 1oth; two days later the 6th moved up by train to Arras, and on the next day marched to the Oppy line near Fampoux, where it remained in support for two days, being then withdrawn to the railway embankment at Blangy St, Laurent.
On the evening of the 15th, the Battalion was ordered to hold itself in readiness to move up if required to meet and enemy counter attack. About 3 30 a.m. on the 16th, the 6th, therefore moved up by towpath to the Oppy line and came under orders of the 152nd Brigade Commander, This Brigade, which had relieved the whole of the 4th Division on the night of May 12th, had been subjected to a heavy enemy bombardment on the 15th which gave colour to the rumours of a coming German counter attack. Nothing, however, happened on the immediate front of the 152nd Brigade, but elsewhere desperate encounters took place with the enemy at close quarters. The fighting consisted of a series of independent contests in which platoons or half companies tackled the enemy wherever the latter tried to get a footing. Frequently the men faced round to the rear, in order to deal with the enemy who had broken in by way of the railway cutting; many of these were finally caught between two wings of the Highland Division and few escaped.
C company of the 6th Black Watch was attached to the 5th Battalion Gordon Highlanders to clear up the situation near the Chemical Works. This was carried out late in the afternoon, and in the evening the other three companies were moved up in artillery formation to clear out any remaining parties of the enemy, and to relieve the troops of the 152nd Brigade in the front line. The relief was completed and the line securely re-established early next morning. The 153rd Brigade then took over the sector, where the Battalion was kept fully employed in clearing the battlefield and improving the defenses until the end of the month. The 6th was then relieved by a battalion of the 4th Division.