Confronting the British troops lay a circle of hills which might or might not be tenanted by the enemy. Lord Methuen followed the established military course of shelling these hills from a long range, preparatory to an advance. Unfortunately it served no purpose, for the enemy retired temporarily, only to return when the bombardment was over, knowing that after the artillery had concluded their futile expenditure of shells, the British infantry would, in the course of things, advance. It was on Sunday, December 10, that the Highland Brigade set off early in the afternoon under a deluge of rain. When they came within a few miles of the Boers they halted, and darkness began to fall.
At this point Lord Methuen communicated to the Brigade commanders his plan for carrying the enemy’s position. The attack would be launched by the Highlanders at break of dawn.
At midnight, under a lowering sky, and in the black darkness of an African night, the Highland Brigade set out upon its tragic march. The men were drenched to the skin, carried no food, and were formed in quarter column. On the right the Black Watch, then the Seaforths, the Argyll and Sutherlands next, and in reserve the Highland Light Infantry. The Gordons, who had only arrived before the march began, remained in camp. It is important to follow out the plan of attack as indicated by Lord Methuen in his despatch.
“The night march was ordered for 12.30 A.M., the bearings and distance having been ascertained at great personal risk by Major Benson, Royal Artillery, my Deputy-Assistant-Adjutant-General. The distance is two and a half miles, and daybreak was due at 3.25 A.M. I may remark that two rifles went off by accident before the march commenced, and it is pretty clear flashes from a lantern gave the enemy timely notice of the march. Before moving off, Major-General Wauchope explained all he intended to do, and the particular part each battalion of his brigade was to play in the scheme, namely, that he intended to march direct on the south-west spur of the kopje, and on arrival near the objective before daybreak the Black Watch were to move to the east of the kopje, where he believed the enemy to be posted under shelter, whilst the Seaforth Highlanders were to march straight to the south-east point of the kopje, with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders prolonging the line to the left, the Highland Infantry to be in reserve until the action was developed. The Brigade was to march in mass of quarter column, the four battalions keeping touch, and if necessary ropes were to be used for the left guides. These ropes were taken, but, I believe, used by only two battalions. The three battalions were to extend just before daybreak—two companies in firing line, two companies in support, and four companies in reserve—all at five paces interval between them.”
It is not our business to criticise the scheme of attack, but only to deplore the fact that so many brave men should lose their lives in such an abortive attempt. It would have been impossible to reach the Boer lines in anything but disorder had the Highland Brigade not advanced in close column: the blunder appears to have been that they maintained close formation too long. Long before, in the year 1746, the Highlanders, who might be expected to have an intimate knowledge of the country through which they were passing, set out upon a similar night attack, only to find themselves hopelessly lost—and that not so very far from Inverness. At Magersfontein the distance was a short one, but the difficulty of ascertaining how far the Boer trenches were from the foremost columns led to chaos. No one has described the situation more graphically than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in The Great Boer War. “With many a trip and stumble,” he writes, “the ill-fated detachment wandered on, uncertain where they were going and uncertain what it was they were meant to do. Not only among the rank and file, but among the principal officers there was the same absolute ignorance. Brigadier Wauchope knew, no doubt, but his voice was soon to be stilled in death. The others were aware, of course, that they were advancing either to turn the enemy’s trenches or to attack them, but they may well have argued from their own formation that they could not be near the riflemen yet. Why they should be still advancing in that dense clump we do not now know, nor can we surmise what thoughts were passing through the mind of the gallant and experienced chieftain who walked beside them…. Out there, close beside him, stretched the long trench, fringed with its line of fierce, staring, eager faces, and its bristle of gun-barrels. They knew he was coming. They were ready. They were waiting. But still, with the dull murmur of many feet, the dense column, nearly four thousand strong, wandered onwards through the rain and the darkness, death and mutilation crouching upon their path.”
The end came quickly enough. Within a few hundred yards the Boer rifles opened fire upon the massed columns of the Highlanders. They fell in solid ranks and companies. The destruction inside a few moments has been rightly enough compared to the fall of corn before the reaper. Out of the darkness there was one single lurid blaze of light, a prolonged roar of musketry, and the Highland Brigade was decimated as it stood.
Just as the fire opened, the order had been given for the men to deploy, but the extension never took place. Wauchope was one of the first to fall. As his biographer has finely said: “General Wauchope fought and fell as a man and as a soldier, carrying out his orders loyally to the end. He died where he would have wished to die—at the head of his gallant Highlanders, with his face to the foe.”
It was impossible for the Highland Brigade to advance in any order: their officers were killed, their ranks were broken, they were confronted by barbed wire and strong entrenchments, and yet it came hardly on them that they should have to retreat. F. G. Tait, the famous Scottish golfer, who was destined to fall at the Modder River, remarked in a letter home: “General Wauchope and our Colonel, and Captain Bruce and young Edmonds were all killed, with the lot of men that I accompanied. General Wauchope is in no way responsible for the fearful loss of life amongst the Highland Brigade: he got his orders, and had to carry them out, and he was killed in front of his brigade. I feel certain that if we had been led up in line we should have rushed the position with probably a quarter of the loss that we actually suffered. As it was, we arrived rather late, and in mass of quarter column…. You might imagine the effect of a tremendously hot rifle fire into that compact body.”
According to F. G. Tait the first orders that emerged from the chaos and noise and the groans of the wounded were those of, ‘Lie down, fix bayonets, and prepare to charge.’ This, unhappily, led very little farther. Tait writes as follows: “We got along a hundred yards or so when we got into the dreadful flanking as well as frontal firing, and lost very heavily. I could now see that the enemy were in trenches about 200-250 yards off. We managed to get 50 yards nearer, losing heavily all the time, and there we lay down (what was left of the lot with me) and began firing. I was about 15 or 20 yards in front, and had just got up to get back in line when I got a bullet through my left thigh. I was able to turn over on my stomach and fire at the Boers. A quarter of an hour later it was quite light, and then we began to get it properly. The men on each side of me were hit straight away, and in a few minutes very few were left unhit. It was quite impossible for any ambulance or doctor to advance, so all our wounded lay within 200 yards or so of the Boer trenches all day in a broiling sun, being shot at whenever they moved until seven o’clock at night, most of them without a drop of water.”
And yet out of this dismal event, despite their terrible position, the Highland Brigade did not lose their prestige. Trapped, bewildered, unable either to advance or retreat, they held their ground and died without fear. Many, indeed, perceiving that no officers were left to lead them, advanced on their own initiative through the hail of fire, and were discovered in the morning suspended on the barbed wire before the Boer trenches. A section of the Black Watch, it is recorded, refused to retire, and entrenching themselves as far as they could, carried on the combat throughout the long terrible day, until when night fell there was not one single survivor left. All through that desperate day the Highlanders lay exposed to the Boer fire, refusing to surrender, without food or water, wounded and unwounded together, awaiting the support from the artillery and the reserves, which was so difficult to give. It has been recorded of the Argyll and Sutherlands that their claim to the pledge, “We die, but we do not surrender,” was most nobly earned that day. At Magersfontein the regiment that had provided the ‘thin red line’ at Balaclava remained steady under the terrific fire, and it was owing in a large degree to the 93rd and to the Coldstream Guards that their unfortunate comrades, who had led the advance and suffered more terribly, were enabled to hold out during the day.
To return to the actual conflict. It is stated that within a few moments of the opening of the Boer fire at least 600 men were out of action. Less courageous or disciplined soldiers would have broken and scattered wildly to the rear, and none could have called them cowards; but the Highland Brigade, assembling as far as was possible within their own units, had by the break of day made some attempt at following up the belated attack. Unfortunately the Boers were so securely entrenched that it was a very one-sided affair. The rising sun brought the Horse Artillery up at the gallop, and under cover of their fire the Highland Brigade were enabled to get some respite from the deadly Boer marksmanship. As day advanced reinforcements were hurried up, the Gordons coming with the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Coldstreams, and the gallant Yorkshire Light Infantry to protect the flank. In the afternoon the Highland Brigade—who had tasted neither food nor water for twenty-four hours—made a pitiful effort to charge the Boer position. The fire that was opened upon them was, at so short a range, almost annihilating. It was inevitable that they must remain out of action until they could fall back and reassemble. The Gordons, who came fresh into action, did what was possible to distract the Boer fire from their unhappy comrades, and when the evening came the merciful darkness enabled the wreckage of the Highland Brigade to creep back to the rear.
The bitterest day in the story of the Highland regiments was, at last, at an end. The disaster at Magersfontein brought with it a loss of nearly 1000 men; out of the Highland Brigade 57 officers had fallen, and in the Black Watch alone 19 officers and over 300 men. Never in the annals of that regiment had there been such a loss since the action at Ticonderoga in 1757.
In his report of the action, Lord Methuen sums it up as follows: “The attack failed. The inclement weather was against success. The men in the Highland Brigade were ready enough to rally, but the paucity of officers and non-commissioned officers rendered this no easy matter. I attach no blame to this splendid brigade. Nothing could exceed the conduct of the troops from the time of the failure of the attack at daybreak. There was not the slightest confusion, though the fight was carried on under as hard conditions as one can imagine, for the men had been on the move from midnight, and were suffering terribly from thirst.”
The next morning the Boers awaited a British attack, which never came. It was evident from the disaster that had overtaken the Highland Brigade that it would be almost impossible to storm the Boer position by a frontal assault. Lord Methuen, feeling that he could not carry out a flanking movement without reinforcements, decided he would rest his troops, and postpone for the present the advance on Kimberley.
In the meantime various engagements had taken place elsewhere, and a curious condition of stalemate was gradually setting in, during which the British troops kept in touch with large bodies of Boers, but were in most cases quite unable to advance and relieve the beleaguered townships of Ladysmith, Mafeking, and Kimberley. The whole situation gradually formed itself for the long-awaited advance of Sir Redvers Buller, with all its unfortunate contingencies. But we must first deal with the engagement at Stormberg. It has been narrated, in a former chapter, how General Gatacre—or General ‘Backacher,’ as he was called in the Service—was the first to reach the thorny entanglements of the Dervish camp at the Atbara. He was a man of the greatest bravery, but by no means a skilful general, relying solely upon the courage of the British soldier. In a country like South Africa, where a pound of personal bravery was not always as fruitful as an ounce of strategy, optimism of this kind was only overloading a willing horse. It was magnificent, but it could not stop a rifle bullet at a thousand yards. Unfortunately, too, the forces under General Gatacre had been largely drawn upon for the assistance of Lord Methuen and Buller. On the night of December 9 he discovered that the Boers were in position at Stormberg, and with his little force of 3000 men set out for a night march, intending to storm the Boer trenches at dawn. The whole scheme of attack, on a lesser scale, was painfully similar to that at Magersfontein. It was so splendidly obvious.
By the time the men had come within reach of the Boer position they were so tired they could hardly drag their feet along. To Gatacre fatigue was nothing. At the break of the dawn he alone was full of zeal and courage, and spurred on by dread of a reverse to storm the position. Unfortunately it was the Boers who opened fire on the British, when a deadlock instantly ensued. It was difficult to carry the hill under such conditions; for on such occasions, when aeroplanes did not guide artillery fire, our own guns played as much havoc among our own infantry as among the Boers.
In a similar plight at Dargai the Gordons carried the position and enabled their comrades to move; but here it was impossible to extricate the men, and this led to a miserable surrender of a good many and the forlorn retreat of the rest.
Gatacre fell back after the action, and was shortly reinforced, but the incident had in no way improved matters for the prestige of the British arms. Within a week Methuen had suffered a crushing reverse at Magersfontein while Gatacre had been again beaten.
Fortunately by this time great numbers of troops were arriving in South Africa, and soon after Sir Redvers Buller prepared for the crossing of the Tugela River. On Friday, December 15, he advanced from Chieveley Camp to storm the Boer position. It was the first step towards Ladysmith. As none of the Highland regiments took part in this action, it is merely necessary to record that the battle of Colenso took place, and despite the heroism of the British soldiers, and in particular the Irish Brigade, the action was lost, and our troops, after a loss of 600, fell back on Chieveley Camp.
The first advance to the relief of Ladysmith had been severely and ignominiously checked.
The Christmas of 1899 was as black as any through which our nation has passed. The repeated defeats of the British forces flung a gloom over the country that for a moment almost paralysed it. More and more troops had been despatched to South Africa, and numbers only seemed to magnify our disasters. At such a moment Britain turned to her sons in this country and throughout the Empire.
But it was necessary to do more than raise new armies: the whole country required reassurance, and the name of one man instantly rose before the public mind. When Lord Roberts was asked to take supreme command in South Africa, with Kitchener as his Chief of Staff, he accepted with the same readiness that Sir Colin Campbell displayed at the time of the Indian Mutiny. “It is God’s will,” said Roberts, now heartbroken at the death of his son, and two days before Christmas he left London for the front.
His very name was half the battle, for, to recall the familiar lines:
There is something that’s audacious
In the very name of ‘Bobs,’
There’s a dare and dash about it
Makes you sort of want to shout it,
So that all the world can hear it
As you cheer.
On January 10, 1900, he landed at Cape Town, and appreciated at once the extreme gravity of the situation. The successes of the Boers were encouraging signs of revolt amongst the Cape Colonists, and to crush these symptoms at once Roberts set out towards the Orange Free State, anxious at the same time to distract the pressure upon Kimberley and Ladysmith. But there were many other things to do. In such a country as South Africa great numbers of mounted troops were a necessity. No attempt had been made so far to work upon the material that was already to hand. Regiments were formed of South African colonists, and mounted forces such as the Yeomanry and the Australian and Canadian Horse were to prove one of the most potent influences in the later stages of the campaign.
In the meantime there was continued bad news from the seat of war. Again Buller had attempted to cross the Tugela River, and had met with utter defeat. The forlorn capture of Spion Kop, with a loss of men amounting to forty per cent, had only proved a futile engagement and a barren victory.
Buller, who was courageous as a lion, admitted that his heart failed him after Spion Kop, and that he feared the relief of Ladysmith had become an impossibility. But Roberts telegraphed to him that whatever the cost might be, Ladysmith must be relieved. In the meantime Roberts set out upon the road to Bloemfontein with the hope of relieving Kimberley by the end of February. On February 8 he reached Methuen’s camp on the Modder River, and knowing so well how sore the Highland Brigade must feel over the disaster at Magersfontein, he made them a little speech stating that he had never campaigned without Highlanders, and hoped he would never do so, and it was the Highlanders in India and Afghanistan who had brought him his success. He then wired to Kimberley the three words that were to mean so much, “We are coming.”
It was all like a rushing of clean wind in a parched land. Now for the first time the Boers found themselves baffled as to the intentions and plans of a British leader. They had hitherto taken it for granted—and rightly so—that they would be forewarned of every move that was to take place, and had acted accordingly. Lord Roberts gave them the impression that Bloemfontein was his objective. Instead, on February 12 he instructed General French to make a dash on Kimberley, while he would follow with the infantry. French, the only general to make his reputation in South Africa, and almost the only one who did not lose it, set out with his cavalry, made his way round the Boer position, and pierced the Boer lines. Then, hastening on, he broke through the enemy, and that same evening entered Kimberley.
The genius of French was even more apparent at Koodoostrand Drift, where he cut off Cronje’s retreat toward Bloemfontein. It was a piece of military daring as great as the sudden appearance of Montrose at Inverlochy, or Jackson at Manasses Junction. Speedily Cronje entrenched his men, but the arrival of the infantry rendered his ultimate surrender inevitable.
Inside the laager Cronje, despite the bitter recriminations of the Boers, did his best to put up a stout resistance, while outside our troops crept nearer night by night, until on February 27—the anniversary of Majuba—the Gordon Highlanders, to whom such a task was naturally very acceptable, advanced upon the Boer trenches under a heavy fire, and won a position controlling the inside of the laager. Cronje, realising that further resistance was impracticable, sent in a notice of his surrender to Lord Roberts. The meeting of the Boer commander and the hero of Kandahar must have been one of the most graphic incidents in the war. An eye-witness has narrated: “Presently the body of horsemen came past the hospital tents into the camp. A heavy bundle of a man was lumped atop of a wretched bony little Boer pony. Was this the terrible Cronje? Was it possible that this was the man who had held back the British army at Magersfontein?… Lord Roberts stepped forward, saluted, shook hands, and handed his fallen enemy a chair: ‘You have made a gallant defence, sir; I am glad to meet so brave a foe,’ was his greeting.”
Thus within a brief fortnight Roberts had entirely altered the whole aspect of the war. He had inflicted a heavy defeat upon the Boers, relieved Kimberley, and captured Cronje, together with 4000 men. From now onwards his swift advance, his unerring judgment, and the services of his mounted troops not merely gave fresh heart to the Empire, but broke the confidence of the enemy.
We must now return to Ladysmith. It was on October 30, 1899, after the humiliating disaster at Nicholson’s Nek—a disaster that can be compared to the surrender of the Duke of York’s troops in Flanders in the eighteenth century, that Sir George White made what preparations he could to defend the town of Ladysmith. On November 2 the last train had left, and the long siege commenced.
White had some 10,000 men under his command, and although the Boer commandos numbered a very large force, the defenders managed to give throughout the siege of four months an exceedingly good account of themselves. Ladysmith was a place of considerable military importance, and it would have been a signal disaster if it had fallen into the Boer hands with so large a number of men. At the same time it was a very difficult position to hold, being commanded from every side by kopjes, and lying, as it were, in a saucer. The Gordon Highlanders, who were the only representatives of the Highland Brigade to serve in the siege, were old comrades-in-arms to White. He had led them in the advance upon Kabul and Kandahar. With him was Sir Ian Hamilton, who had been with the 92nd at Majuba.
From November 3 onwards the progress of the siege was marked by daily fighting and increasingly short rations. Each regiment was given a certain section of the circumference to defend. Time dragged on, until by the beginning of December, news came that Buller had reached Frere Camp, while, in the far distance, could be heard the booming of his guns. Later, it was borne in upon the garrison that the British force must have suffered a reverse, and that relief was probably farther away than ever.
Enteric and typhoid were thinning out the ranks, food was running short, and things began to look very hopeless when, in the first gleam of light on January 6, 1900, the enemy launched a formidable attack. The defeat of Buller had enabled the Boers to send reinforcements from Colenso. They were full of confidence, and at the initial assault carried everything before them. It very soon became a case of hand-to-hand fighting, in which the Gordons were called up with Ian Hamilton in command. The Boers were determined to capture Ladysmith, knowing the great moral effect that would be produced following upon their victory at Colenso. The Manchesters, nearly overcome at Caesar’s Camp, put up a magnificent resistance, until the Gordons came up. It was in this advance that Colonel Dick-Cunyngham was killed.
The British were determined that their positions should never be taken by the enemy while they survived, and in one place defended by sixteen of the Manchesters, at the end of the day fourteen lay killed, the remaining two out of action. Throughout that day this fierce fighting continued, until at last the Devons, with the Gordons and the Rifles, cleared the ridge of the enemy. It had been touch and go, but at the last extremity the Boers could not face the gleaming steel of the bayonet, and a few minutes later were falling back from their trenches. A fight lasting for twenty-six hours was over at last. “But the end,” says Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “was not yet. The Boer had taken a risk over this venture, and now he had to pay the stakes. Down the hill he passed, crouching, darting, but the spruits behind him were turned into swirling streams, and as he hesitated for an instant upon the brink, the relentless sleet of bullets came from behind. Many were swept away down the gorges and into the Klip River, never again to be accounted for in the lists of their field cornet. The majority splashed through, found their horses in their shelter, and galloped off across the great Bulwana Plain, as fairly beaten in as fair a fight as ever brave men were yet.”
This was the final attempt to take Ladysmith by storm, and it cost the British 13 officers and 135 men killed, with 28 officers and 244 men wounded.
Meanwhile it had been rumoured that Ladysmith was on the point of surrender, but the famous heliograph had bravely answered, “We have not come to that yet,” and, indeed, rather than hand over their arms the garrison would have fought their way towards the Tugela. Each day found things more desperate, and relief came only in time. Buller drove his way to within a few miles of the town, and in the heart of the battle sent his message, “Doing well.” It was in the night of February 28 that the Boers could be heard saddling up and leaving Pieter’s Hill, and just before dawn Lord Dundonald, accompanied by some cavalry, reached the British lines.
“Halt! Who goes there?” rang out the familiar challenge, at which the dramatic and long-prayed-for answer was returned, “The Ladysmith Relief Column.” Quickly the news spread through the town, the good tidings that after all they had passed through, their defence had not been in vain.
The sentiment that was uppermost both in the minds of the garrison and throughout the Empire was best expressed by Sir George White himself. “I thank God we have kept the flag flying,” he said in his address to the soldiers; and it is recorded that an old Kaffir woman remarked as she watched the troops entering Ladysmith, “These English can conquer all things but death.”
After the siege 2000 of the garrison, refusing to take a well-deserved and altogether necessary rest, set out upon the tracks of the retreating Boers, surely one of the most pitiful spectacles in history. “It is God’s mercy,” wrote Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “that they failed to overtake them.”
Mafeking and Bloemfontein were the only towns still to be relieved, and the former suffered from no shortage of food.
To return to the Highland Brigade, we have not dealt with the part that they took in the advance upon Kimberley. With the hope that he would distract the Boers, Roberts despatched the Black Watch, the Argyll and Sutherlands, the Seaforths, and the Highland Light Infantry, with Hector Macdonald, popularly known as ‘Fighting Mac,’ at their head. Macdonald crossed the Modder River, seized Koodoosberg, and sustained an attack from the Boers the next day. For a long time it fell to the Black Watch to resist the furious onslaught of the enemy, who were by no means satisfied to leave the situation undisputed. It was here that Lieutenant Tait—one of the most popular men in Scotland—was mortally wounded. There is an interesting letter that not only records his death, but also shows how the Highland soldiers had fallen into the manner of Boer fighting. A private writes: “I got down beside our officer, Lieutenant Tait, on his right hand. He said, ‘Now, men, we will fight them at their own game.’ That meant that each man was to get behind a rock and just pop up to fire and then down again. And we found it a good way, for we were just as good as they were at it, and we did not forget to let them know it either, for whenever one showed himself, down he went with half a dozen bullets through him. After firing for about half an hour the Boers stopped, and the order was given not to waste our shot. Lieutenant Tait’s servant came up with his dinner, and he asked me if I would like a bit, and I said I would, and thanked him very much. He gave me and another man half of his dinner between us…. Just as we finished he said, ‘I think we will advance another fifty yards, and perhaps we will see them better and be able to give it them hot.’ We all got ready again, and Lieutenant Tait shouted, ‘Now, boys! We were after him like hares. The Boers had seen us, and they gave us a hot time of it. But on we went. Just as our officer shouted to get down he was shot.”
Lieutenant Tait was one of the most beloved men in Scotland. Thousands had seen him upon the green, and few in Scotland could read of his death without a sense of personal bereavement. In the middle of June 1915 another eminent golfer of equal fame and no less popularity, Captain John Graham, of the Liverpool Scottish, was fated to give his life for his country. No two finer men and finer sportsmen ever brought fairer honour to the name of Scotland in peace and war.
The action continued all day, and eventually, on the approach of the 9th Lancers, the Boers fell back and the Highland Brigade returned to the Modder River, having lost some fifty men. There followed afterwards the relief of Kimberley, and from thence onwards to the end of the war the part taken by the Highlanders was peculiarly arduous and without many distinguished features. Month after month they were employed in hard marching, holding positions that the mounted troops had carried, uncomplaining as always, and winning back here and there some of the losses that they had suffered at the hands of the enemy at Magersfontein. We have seen how the Gordons were instrumental in the capture of Cronje, despite the heavy fire with which they were met from the Boer trenches, and it is a notable fact that the Highland Brigade, for all their handling at Magersfontein, appear to have suffered in no way in prestige, and were only too anxious to make good. “On the 18th,” says General Colville, speaking of the end of Cronje, “the courage and determination shown by the Highland Brigade in their advance over some fifteen hundred yards of perfectly open plain, and their passage of the river, both under heavy fire, are beyond all praise.”
It was during the halt at Bloemfontein that the Highland Brigade received reinforcements from home, and no praise could be too high for the volunteers who formed additional companies to the regiments of the regular forces. To-day, when thousands and hundreds of thousands are trained soldiers who a year ago had never held a rifle in their hands, it would be futile to belaud the qualities of the amateur soldier. But until the Boer War no one had taken unprofessional soldiers very seriously. Just as the Territorials won the esteem of the Regulars in Flanders, so the companies of Volunteers earned the admiration and gratitude of the country in the Boer War.
The great need at this time was still for mounted troops and more mounted troops, and it is interesting to note that the Gordons were to a large extent mounted to prove more effective. Our soldiers have always been able to fit themselves for whatever was required of them. The infantry were mounted in the South African War, and the cavalry in the German War were placed in the trenches.
It was on May 3 that the British Army left Bloemfontein and set out upon the road to Pretoria. De Wet, who was now to take the ascendance in Boer generalship, and to lead the British troops in wearisome pursuit for many months, was in command of a mobile force moving swiftly across country, gathering food where it could. With the utmost patience our Highlanders covered over twenty miles a day, “winning their way,” as some one has said, “at the expense of their boots and not of their lives.”
Lord Roberts was in command of the main division and General Ian Hamilton was over the right column. With him were the Highland Brigade, including the Camerons, new come from Egypt. The Brigade, as a body, never reached Pretoria, though the Gordons and the Seaforths entered the Boer capital. It is the march on Pretoria with General Hamilton that we must first follow.
The Commander of the Highland Brigade was an old Gordon officer, by training and heredity a soldier. Born in 1853, he first saw service in the Afghan War. He was wounded at Majuba, losing the use of one hand. He received the D.S.O. for gallantry in the Soudan, fought in the Chitral and Tirah campaigns; and in this chapter we will accompany him on the march to Pretoria, in which he covered four hundred miles, fought ten engagements, and took five towns. After the Boer War he accompanied the Japanese army to Manchuria, and upon his return was made General Officer Commanding-in-Chief Mediterranean and Inspector-General Overseas Forces in 1910.
No finer, more experienced, more brilliant soldier could have been placed in command of our forces in the Dardanelles.
It was at Thabanchu Mountain that the Gordons brought additional distinction to their name, linked with that of Captain Towse. The British troops were having it all their own way when the Boers were reinforced by a party of the foreign legion commanded by a Russian, the majority of them being Germans. The situation was a very curious one. The German troops advanced in their customary close formation, and with their usual deliberateness, and for some time it was not realised that they were part of the enemy’s forces. At the same time Captain Towse, with a party of the Gordon Highlanders, was moving in their direction, but concealed from view behind the shoulder of the hill. The Gordons could not see the enemy any more than the enemy could see the Gordons, and it was seen that the two forces would confront each other at the brow of the hill. “At last,” says Winston Churchill, “with suddenness, both parties came face to face at fifty yards’ distance. The Germans, who had already made six prisoners, called loudly on Captain Towse and his little band to surrender. What verbal answer was returned is not recorded, but a furious splutter of musketry broke out at once, and in less than a minute the long lines of the enemy recoiled in confusion, and the top of the hill was secured to the British.”
Unhappily, however, a chance shot deprived the gallant Captain Towse of the sight of both his eyes. For this action he received the Victoria Cross he so richly deserved.
The advance now proceeded on the road to Pretoria. The town was stated to be heavily defended, and regarded as practically impregnable. President Kruger had established himself there, and it was thought that a very long siege would await the British. On May 29 the Gordons encountered the Boers at Crow’s Nest Hill, very close to the place where the Jameson raiders had surrendered to Cronje, and here the Gordon Volunteers had their chance. The Highlanders, “in perfect discipline and with disdainful silence,” drove the Boers out of their position, and it is worth while recording, in the words of an eye-witness, the manner of the attack. “It was not without a thrill that I watched this famous regiment move against the enemy. Their extension and advance was conducted with machine regularity. The officers explained what was required to the men. They were to advance rapidly until under rifle fire, and then to push or not as they might be instructed. With impassive unconcern the veterans of Chitral, Dargai, the Bara Valley, Magersfontein, Paardeberg, and Houtnek walked leisurely forward.”
At eight hundred yards they came in for a heavy fire from the Boer rifles. “But the advance neither checked nor quickened. With remorseless stride, undisturbed by peril or enthusiasm, the Gordons swept steadily onward.”
The Boers were never able to tolerate that kind of advance, and finding that rifles would not stop the Highlanders, they hastily retreated, and soon afterwards General Ian Hamilton rode over to congratulate the battalion on their exploit. Lord Roberts was not long in sending his praise. “Tell the Gordons,” he wrote, “that I am proud to think that I have a Highlander as one of the supporters of my coat-of-arms.”
During this action the fourth Victoria Cross was given to the Gordons, being awarded to Corporal Mackay, who “repeatedly rushed forward under a withering fire at short range to attend to wounded comrades, dressing the wounds, while he himself was without shelter, and in one instance carrying a wounded man from the open under a heavy fire to the shelter of a boulder.”
On May 31 the Union Jack flew over Johannesburg. At this point General French arrived, and as senior officer took command. General Sir Ian Hamilton then thanked the Gordons, “the, regiment my father commanded and I was born in,” for their support. On June 3 the army set out for Pretoria, when suddenly the whole contemplated resistance of the Boers faded away like smoke. President Kruger, not forgetting two millions of money, but leaving his wife instead, hurried to Delagoa Bay, and with his departure came the unconditional surrender of Pretoria. It had been a long and arduous march, covering forty-five days and some four hundred miles of country. The Highlanders engaged in nine actions, and occupied five towns. It must have been a dramatic and inspiring spectacle to see the Gordons and the Camerons, gaunt and lean with all the fatigue through which they had passed, in tattered clothes and soleless boots, marching into the Boer capital. It might have been thought that the fall of Pretoria would have brought with it the conclusion of the Boer War. But the fall of Pretoria held no special significance to the Boers. Many of them had probably never seen the town, and took no interest in it. They resorted to a manner of warfare peculiarly suited to their habits of life, and which, developing over an extensive country, threatened a hopeless stalemate. They hoped by a guerilla warfare to weary the British forces into a favourable peace. From this point to the end of the war that agile leader De Wet was to make his name familiar as a kind of military will-o’-the-wisp.
Every week brought with it news of some minor engagement in some isolated part of the country. Here a position had been attacked or there a convoy had been seized. Often it was a raid on the long line of railway running from Capetown to Pretoria, but always De Wet, despite the efforts of the British, would manage to elude capture and fling his burghers upon another part of our lines.
On July 11, 1900, the Gordons won their fifth Victoria Cross, and established a record in the history of the Army. An officer who was present has recorded the incident. “The enemy’s position,” he says, “consisted of two long hills, with a ‘nek’ between them about five hundred yards long. In front of, and about six hundred yards away from the nek were two small kopjes. The guns galloped up between these kopjes, which were one hundred and fifty yards apart, and opened fire on the big hill on the right. The Gordons were advancing behind the guns in open order. The guns fired a few shots, and then suddenly the enemy opened fire from the hill on the left, which was only eight hundred and fifty yards away. Very soon fifteen out of the seventeen British gunners were wounded, so that the guns could no longer be worked. The Gordons by this time had reached the kopjes, and were about one hundred yards from the guns, the intervening space being in the enemy’s line of fire. At this moment orders were signalled by the General in the rear, from Lord Roberts at Pretoria, telling General Smith-Dorrien to retire. The Colonel of the Gordons, reluctant to leave the guns to fall into the enemy’s hands, sent up the teams of horses to fetch them, but the Boer bullets were raining around, and two of the horses were shot. Colonel Macbean then shouted for volunteers to fetch in the guns. Captains Younger, Gordon the Adjutant, and Allan called on the few men around. They ran out under heavy fire, and with the greatest difficulty they dragged back the gun along seventy yards of the way, but it would not even then have been saved if three more men had not run out and helped for the remaining thirty yards to the kopje. As it was, one of the men was hit only ten yards from the kopje, but he was got in all right. Captain Allan was now ordered away with his company to the left flank, where they were kept for the rest of the day, but Captain Younger, with several men, ran out to try and save the second gun. It was got in, but not before Captain Younger was shot dead.”
This incident is interesting, not only as a record of a gallant feat of arms, but also because this Captain Gordon who won the Victoria Cross was later on to command the Gordons in the present war, and unhappily to fall a prisoner with many of his men.
At the end of August Lord Roberts met Buller and French at Belfast. Botha, a very able general, and the future conqueror of German South-West Africa, was beaten at Middelburg, and this defeat added the Transvaal to the British Empire. The news that Kruger had fled to the Portuguese was another disappointment to the enemy, but their determination to resist the British was so strong that they refused to surrender, for a long time carrying on the unequal contest.
To return to the history of the Gordons in South Africa, the Volunteer companies assisted Buller against the Boers in Natal, and came into action against Botha. Throughout their engagements they acted up to the highest traditions of the Highland regiments. Early in September there was a dramatic and picturesque scene, when the two battalions of the Gordons came face to face. “The old 75th, with their Dargai laurels scarcely faded, were meeting the 92nd on a scene of victory amid mountains such as rear their heads in Aberdeen. For a few moments discipline was thrown to the winds, and questions were eagerly asked.”
In due course the Highlanders were placed in block-houses throughout the country, and the pursuit of the Boers was mainly carried on by the mounted troops.
We must now turn very briefly to the fortunes of the other regiments of the Highland Brigade who, while the Gordons were at Thabanchu and elsewhere, were under the command of General Macdonald, and employed in driving the Boers out of the Orange River Colony. The months that followed were marked by ceaseless marching, interrupted by occasional conflict. De Wet was a constant menace, convoys must be escorted, bodies of Boers must be kept on the move, and occasionally—as on June 3, 1900, when De Wet captured 150 of the Black Watch—minor disasters occurred. At the same time, though their work was inglorious, it was invaluable, and every now and then some incident, such as the capture of Prinsloo with 5000 men and 5 guns, would break the monotony of their heavy tramping. “With half rations,” says Cromb, “and muddy water as food and drink, they marched and fought and fought and marched through scorching hot days and bitter cold nights.”
The concluding features of the war lay in the hands of Lord Kitchener, who, with his genius for organisation, set about building block-houses to link up great sections of the country and co-operate with the work of his mounted troops.
At last, in the beginning of June 1902, the long-looked-for peace came to Britain and Boer in South Africa. The Highland regiments had one and all suffered very hardly during the campaign, while none in the whole army had given more lavishly than the Gordons, who both in losses and honours attained a distinction as sad as it was honourable. They received five Victoria Crosses, losing 141 killed, 431 wounded, 12 captured, and 101 dead from disease.
It should be unnecessary, after a narrative recording the actions in which the Highland Brigade took part, to emphasise their gallantry and their untarnished prestige, but if any support for such a statement were required it would be in the tribute of Lord Roberts: “No words of mine can adequately describe their magnificent conduct during this long and trying campaign. We have only to look at the gallantry displayed by the Gordons at Elandslaagte, at the unflinching bravery of the Highland Brigade at Magersfontein, and at Paardeberg, to realise that the traditions of these regiments are nobly maintained.”
Some day when the smoke has lifted from the battlefields of Europe and the tramp of feet has died away down the avenues of Time—when even such a war as this is falling into perspective, and order is disentangled from chaos—then will the story of the Highland regiments be told, and the great part they played in the cause of freedom and liberty become an inspiration for the years to come.
It would be a commonplace to repeat that there is something new and terrible about this conflict—that it resembles in no way the struggles of our earlier chapters. It is not merely the greatest war—the war of nations instead of armies,—it is the most inhuman war. In it none of the laws of the game have been practised. From the sack of Louvain to the wreck of the Lusitania the policy that has controlled the army and navy of the enemy has bowed neither to pity nor to good faith. In this colossal war, regiments, brigades, armies, even nations have been swallowed up into the dense confusion of ceaseless battle. Upon every frontier, every mountain pass, upon the water, under the water, and in the pure air of heaven the grim struggle is waged night and day. When great peoples sway to and fro in their millions the time has passed for speaking of individual battalions.
We have followed the fortunes of the Highland regiments in the days when war was the profession of soldiers. We have recorded the brilliant deeds of one regiment or another, or, on occasions, of one man. But all that has gone. Each regiment has taken to its colours a dozen or two dozen comrade regiments bearing its ancient name, and carrying on, unseen, its proud prestige. To-day the soldier belongs to no particular calling. From the clerk to the dock-labourer—all have become soldiers pro bono publico and pro patria. Every day, in some part of the far-flung battle line, deeds are being performed that we would have proudly recorded in those earlier chapters; day by day, death has been met by amateur soldiers with the unbroken steadiness of veteran troops.
All this is familiar. I only mention it to clear the way for what I am about to say. It is not yet possible to write in any detail concerning the Highland regiments, but at the same time, through the night of conflict some ray of light occasionally pierces—some incident, some letter, some fallen word, or act of bravery so splendid, shows like the faint tracing of feet upon the sand, the way that the Army has passed.
Never in the history of our nation has war been declared with such unanimity of opinion and such absence of idle demonstration. The honour of England was at stake. The neutrality of Belgium had been violated, and her people looked to England, whose word has ever been her bond. War was never less welcome, never less foreseen, but in a moment, once the inevitable burden was accepted, England laid down the things of peace to take up the business of war.
And in that hour of suspense a remarkable thing happened.
In the bitter humiliation of the South African War the Empire had not deserted the Motherland, but all had not been satisfied that the cause was good; in the grave struggle that was about to be opened with the greatest military tyranny in history, every freeman became a bondman in chains of patriotism to an ideal.
From Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa, and the most isolated outposts of our great Empire, arose like the vast stirring of a sea, the salutation of the Colonies and Dependencies. Germany had relied upon conspiracy in India, instead of which the Princes and Chiefs were amongst the first to offer their services and their wealth. The following remarkable letter, written by an old Indian soldier to a young soldier at the front, was published in an English newspaper: “Praise be to the Guru. Your father Sundar Singh here writes a word to his dear son Sampuran Singh. It is meet for a young man to be in the battle, and on this account I am not taking thought. I am well and happy, and I pray to the Guru for your welfare and happiness. When you receive this letter answer it and relate to me the full conditions of the war…. Take no thought for your life in the battle, for it is right to fight for the King, and great glory will come to Hindustan, and the Sikhs, and fame to the regiment.”
Germany had valued at nothing our amateur Colonial soldiery until their baffled forces reeled back before the charge of the Canadians at Ypres. In our own country, impoverished though many districts have been by emigration, the answer to Britain’s summons was epic. In our Highlands and to those who know their history, it was such as to bring a lump to the throat. Long ago Sir Walter Scott wrote: “In too many instances the Highlands have been drained, not of their superfluity of population, but of the whole mass of the inhabitants, dispossessed by an unrelenting avarice which will one day be found to have been as short-sighted as it is selfish and unjust. Meantime, the Highlands may become the fairy ground for romance and poetry, or the subject of experiment for the professors of speculation, historical and economical. But, if the hour of need should come, the pibroch may sound through the deserted region, but the summons will remain unanswered.”
The summons has not remained unanswered. The Highland regiments have been doubled and quadrupled, while from over the seas the Highlanders have come back under Canadian Colours. There is not a man with the old Celtic fire who has not, if he were able, delivered a blow for the sake of the women and children of Belgium. Why did they come? “Me no muckle to fight for?” said Edie Ochiltree, the old beggar. “Isna there the country to fight for, and the burn-sides that I gang daundering beside, and the hearths o’ the gudewives that gie me my bit bread, and the bits o’ weans that come toddling to play wi’ me when I come about a landward town?”
The swift progress of the German advance guard upon Belgium, the fall of Liége and Namur, and the horrors that befell the Belgian peasantry, brought one thing home to us very painfully, and that was the need for a large army. What was done was done quickly. Lord Kitchener was given a free hand to raise new armies, and until these should be trained he relied upon our Regulars, Territorials, and the drafts of troops from Canada and India to withstand the German arms. It was more than a handful of men should have been asked to do. What concerns us is how they did it. The German advance came on swiftly, relentlessly; and in the darkness of a summer night, without confusion, without a qualm, our little advance guard crossed the Channel.
It is certain that amongst the first to cross to France were the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the Black Watch, the Camerons, the Seaforths, and the Gordons. An eye-witness of those early days has written: “Hurrying into Boulogne, I was in time to see the Argyll and Sutherlands marching through the streets of the town to the camps which had been prepared for them upon the neighbouring hills. The population of Boulogne rushed to the unaccustomed sound of the bagpipes, and it was through lines of the old Boulonnais fishwives, who had that morning bade tearful farewell to their fisher-sons off to the depot, that our men stepped gaily along, with a cheery grin and a smile for the words of welcome shouted out to them.”
The Highland regiments took part in the retreat from Mons, the most terrible in history, and throughout that awful action, when officers could not ride their horses for fear of sleeping and falling to the ground, when fighting never ceased for days on end, and our soldiers held at bay a German force many times their superior in numbers—the Highlanders fought sternly, heroically, giving way with an utter disdain for their own safety, and a longing for the day when the retreat would end.
The unconquerable British Infantry have never displayed the qualities of dogged endurance so finely as in that eventful rearguard action. The Germans could neither outflank, pierce, nor crush the thin khaki line. It was the supreme test of a veteran regular army. It is of interest to recall that, on his return from the march to Kandahar, Lord Roberts, at the Mansion House, stated that he would never have undertaken the risk of covering 300 miles of country unless he had been accompanied by veteran troops. “The characteristics of young soldiers,” he said, “are to win a winning game; to attack with dash where success seems probable; or even to stand up to superior forces where courage has not been damped by previous reverses and faith in their leader remains unimpaired. Under such conditions they may even surpass their older comrades. But in times of danger and panic, when the bugle sounds the Retire, when everything seems to be going against us, and when danger can only be avoided by order and presence of mind; then it is that the old soldier element becomes of incalculable value; without it a commander would indeed be badly off.”
Troops in town
The Argyll and Sutherlands Entering Boulogne August 1914
During the retreat from Mons the Highland regiments lost very heavily in officers and men, and amongst them there fell the Master of Burleigh, a very gallant and popular officer in the Argyll and Sutherlands. “He was too brave for anything,” related a Highlander, “he simply wanted to be at ’em, and at ’em he went. I don’t know where his sword was, but he hadn’t it when I saw him—he had a rifle with the bayonet fixed, just like the rest of us. I saw him at the time he was wounded, and he just fought on gamely till he and his party of brave fellows were cut off and surrounded.”
We learn that the Camerons were in close touch with the Black Watch at Mons, and at one point in the retreat when the 42nd were in danger of being surrounded, the 17th Battery R.F.A. and the Camerons staved off an outflanking movement of the Germans.
The 1st battalion of the Gordons were practically annihilated in their first battle. For long they had the melancholy reputation of being the most badly hit regiment in the Army, until Neuve Chapelle and the losses of the Cameronians and the Seaforths, while in the first week in February 1915 the Black Watch fared no better.
The battle of the Aisne inflicted heavy casualties on the Highlanders, particularly the Black Watch, losses which after the battle of the Marne brought the following unforgettable tribute from Sir John French: “The Black Watch—a name we 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 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 Jaegers 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. The Russians have won great victories, but you, by holding back the Germans, have won great victories as well, as if you had not done this the Russians could not have achieved their successes. I am very glad of this opportunity of addressing you, and thanking you personally for your splendid work.”
One member of the battalion has written: “We lost heavily in taking up position, and the men were saddened by the loss of so many officers…. Then later, the men had to deplore the loss of their commanding officer, Colonel Grant Duff—one of the bravest and best officers the regiment ever had. He died bravely. He was hard pressed, and doing execution with one of his men’s rifles when he fell with a mortal wound.”
The melancholy fate of one battalion of the Gordons has yet to be revealed, but from various accounts there is little doubt that in the confusion of the swift retreat, and the overwhelming force of the Germans, the message for a withdrawal did not reach them, and acting up to the gallantry of their records, they and their distinguished Colonel remained at their posts until surrender was the only course left to them.
The battles of the Marne and the Aisne were the turning of the scales before the German retirement. On September 13 Colonel Bradford of the Seaforths was killed. One account of his end runs: “It was in the battle of the Aisne, when the Seaforths had taken up a position near a wood, that the Germans began a heavy fire. The Colonel was standing with two other officers surveying the field of operations, when he was struck by a shell and killed instantly.”
Another affecting passage runs: “We laid him with two other officers to rest on their field of honour, on a hill-side overlooking a valley of the river. It was a sad but glorious moment for us to stand and hear the padre tell us that they had not shrunk from their duty, and had fallen for the sake of their comrades. The next day I found some Scotch thistles growing close by, and I plucked the blooms to form a cross over the dead chieftain’s grave.”
A doctor who was appointed to the Seaforths has recorded: “At present (on the Aisne) we are entrenched. Our first day in this place, where we have been for five days, was awful, for we were under fire the whole of the day, with practically no protection, and our total of killed and wounded amounted to seventy. The men never wavered, and gaps were always filled. Grand are the Highland men, and grander still will be the account they will render; I am lucky to be with such men.”
What simple words, and yet what a tale of sacrifice and heroism lies behind them. Well might General Sir H. Smith-Dorrien write from the front to the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Families Association: “Never has an army been called on to engage in such desperate fighting as is of daily occurrence in the present war, and never have any troops behaved so magnificently as our soldiers in this war. The stories of the battle of Mons and Le Cateau are only beginning to be known, but at them a British force not only held its own against a German army four times its own size, but it hit the enemy so hard that never were they able to do more than follow it up. Of course our troops had to fall back before them, an operation which would demoralise most armies. Not so with ours, however; though they naturally did not like retiring for twelve successive days, they merely fell sullenly back, striking hard whenever attacked, and the moment the order came to go forward there were smiling faces everywhere. Then followed the battles of the Marne and the Aisne. Tell the women that all these great battles have, day by day, witnessed countless feats of heroism and brave fighting. Large numbers will be given Victoria Crosses and Distinguished Conduct Medals, but many more have earned them, for it has been impossible to bring every case to notice. Tell the women that proud as I am to have such soldiers under my command, they should be prouder still to be near and dear relations to such men.”
About this time the 2nd Highland Light Infantry lost a gallant young officer in Sir Archibald Gibson-Craig. He bravely offered to lead his platoon against a German machine gun that was doing considerable damage amongst our men. At the head of his Highlanders he fell, but the gun was taken, and another hero added to the long list of those who counted death less than life. Upon the same day Private Wilson of the same battalion won the V.C. for capturing, single-handed, a German machine gun and killing six of the enemy. Very fortunate have the 2nd H.L.I. been, and very richly have they deserved such honours. Upon November 11, for relieving a dangerous situation, Captain Brodie of the same regiment was awarded the V.C.
In October Lieutenant Brooke of the 2nd Gordon Highlanders was awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry, and Drummer Kenny of the 2nd Gordons the V.C. for rescuing wounded men under fire.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has truly said that “from October 25 to the second week in November Sir John French and Sir Douglas Haig were like engineers holding up a dam of water visibly giving way.” The great German advance towards Calais established the most critical situation of the war, and the ultimate success of our troops at the battle of Ypres, when 150,000 British and Indians withstood 600,000 Germans, will some day be proclaimed as the most brilliant achievement in our military history.
In the first great battle at Ypres the Highland regiments were supported by their comrade battalions of the Territorials. In this desperate rush for Calais, when the Germans came flocking onwards like ants upon the side of a hill, when opposed to them was an army vastly inferior in numbers, things looked desperate indeed. The headquarters of General Haig were blown up, and when General French reached the British lines a retirement of four miles had taken place. He motored from one spot to another, propping up, as it were, this heroic handful of men. The British fought doggedly, watching their regiments rent to tatters, calling up every man, even the cooks, to take a hand. Cavalry and infantry, officers and men fought till they could fight no more. But the tide was turning, and when night fell upon the 31st of October the grand attack was beaten off. Of the losses of our soldiers and our brave Highlanders some estimate may be made by the casualties of individual regiments, one of which entered the battle with 1100 men and came out with only 73, and another which numbered 1350 returned only 300 strong.
On November 15 the Prussian Guard, the finest body of men in the German army, advanced under the eyes of the Kaiser to wrench the road to Calais from the British. They were met by the English Guards, by the hard-fighting Highlanders, by the English fine regiments, by Irishmen, Welshmen, and our gallant Indian soldiers—and they were held until their dead lay eight deep.
These actions at Ypres were costly in casualties—50,000 out of 120,000; they were beyond all price in glory and honour.
The coming of winter, and the construction of trenches, brought with it a state of stalemate that was to last without a decisive offensive until the spring of 1915.
During those long dreary months we were not idle. Our new armies were in hard training, our war manufactories were making equipment, but unfortunately not enough shells, and our Navy was carrying on its imperishable vigil upon the sea, and under the sea, without which our Empire would cease to exist and our Army would be cut off by twenty miles of water.
The Highland regiments settled down with their customary fortitude to the weary months of trench warfare, months that brought daily losses in officers and men, bitter cold, and ceaseless rain, while overhead screamed and broke the German shell fire.
Never have troops been called upon to endure such a prolonged strain. On land and on sea, in patience and good temper, our soldiers and sailors held on without a murmur.
Of the actual fighting there is little to tell, for little is known. The monotony of trench warfare was broken by occasional frays and night attacks. A Seaforth writes on October 20: “We were digging trenches when we heard a volley of rifle fire come right over us, and we got the order to stand to arms and advance. Their trenches were situated in a row on a rise in a field, and we could not get our range on them. In a minute the signal to charge went, and we all scrambled up the hill to get at them. The first to get up was one company officer, and he was hit. We all dived into their trenches at the point of their rifles, shooting and stabbing, and then came the onslaught. Some of them were too terrified to get out, whilst others rushed out and were shot down, and the remainder sought refuge in a house…. About fifty surrendered. I am proud to say that we were only one company. I shall never forget that charge as long as I live. The General said, ‘Bravo, Seaforths! It was a grand charge.’”
A Frenchman has recorded his impressions of a Highland regiment taking part in an advance. “Resolutely,” he writes, “they crossed what had seemed impossible ground. They seemed to do it, too, without sustaining very much loss, and fixing bayonets, they made straight for the German gunners. They charged to the shrill sound of the bagpipes. They charged like heroes of Walter Scott, with their ribboned bonnets and their dancers’ skirts. Neither ditch nor barbed wire could stop them. Their dash carried them right into the midst of the Prussian batteries. Shooting the gunners at their posts, they rendered the guns unserviceable, and having completed their daring mission, prepared to retire.”
The French Nord de la France is no less emphatic in its praise. “The British soldier,” it says, speaking of an advance of the Highlanders under a murderous fire, “is wonderful. He is a slave to duty. For him to retreat he must be ordered to do so, and these Scotsmen were prepared to give their lives to the last man.”
Speaking of a charge in December a Gordon Highlander has written: “I reckon it was one of the fiercest fights that the ‘Gay Gordons’ took part in, and as usual the good old regiment covered itself with glory. A certain General and officers who had witnessed the famous Dargai charge told us it was ridiculous compared with that of December 14.”
From January 25 to February 7 the actions at Givenchy and La Bassée took place, and were followed by a brief lull, with an outbreak of fighting at Ypres upon February 14.
On March 10 the operations that were to develop into the battle of Neuve Chapelle and St. Eloi commenced. It was the beginning of the great offensive, which, so long looked for, was to fail so dismally owing to the need for shells, and the German use of poisonous gases. It resulted in the taking of two miles of German trenches, and the killing and capture of 8000 of the enemy. In this action our soldiers drove the enemy from their trenches, and after heavy losses resisted all attempts to evict them.
All through the preceding night our troops had marched to their positions, and with the breaking of day our artillery began to bombard the German trenches. A hundred heavy guns spoke with one prolonged roar, the field guns joined in, the whole British artillery was concentrated upon the enemy. No trenches could stand such a destructive fire.
Forty minutes later the advance began and the village of Neuve Chapelle was carried at the point of the bayonet.
It was in the rush upon the trenches that the Middlesex, faced by unbroken barbed wire, were mown down in scores and hundreds. Helplessly they tore at the entanglement—in silence they died rather than retreat.
Following that came the attack upon the German position, and in this advance were the 2nd Gordon Highlanders and their Territorial battalion the 6th. It was in this action that Lieutenant-Colonel Maclean of the 6th Gordons lost his life. To a subaltern who went to his assistance he said, “Thank you, and now, my boy, your place is not here. Go about your duty.”
The battle of Neuve Chapelle was finely conceived, and more finely carried out. Most unfortunately, owing to the lack of reserves at the height of the engagement, the full force of the attack was spent too soon.
The story of how the Canadians fought and died at the second battle of Ypres upon April 22, and how the comrade regiment of the Royal Highlanders brought immortal honour to the North, is a tale of four days’ heroism against unnatural and horrible odds.
Mr. J. Huntley Skrine has written somewhere:
Sons in my gates of the West,
Where the long tides foam in the dark of the pine,
And the cornlands crowd to the dim sky-line,
And wide as the air are the meadows of kine,
What cheer from my gates of the West?
What indeed! Nothing less than death rather than defeat. Whatever the Canadians might be, they were not veteran soldiers. The Canadian Division numbered doctors, lawyers, farmers, with a sprinkling of men who had seen service in the South African War. Let us see how they faced the German onslaught.
The use of asphyxiating gas compelled the French, who held the left of the Canadians, to retire. In consequence of this the Canadian left flank was moved southward. During the night the Canadians carried a wood in the teeth of heavy machine-gun fire, continuing the conflict till dawn. In the morning, to relieve their left they launched a counter attack upon the German trenches. Over the open space the Canadian battalions rushed. Colonel Burchill, the commanding officer, fell at the head of his men, and with a shout of rage they reached the trenches, and drove the enemy out. Our Colonials had not merely preserved their left—they had pierced the German line.
Upon the same day a new cloud of gas reached the Canadian Highlanders. It is recorded that they remained unshaken. But their very bravery sealed their fate. The Germans slipped across their left and isolated the wood from St. Julien. In this wood the remnants of the Canadian battalions, disdaining surrender, fought to the last round and the last man. The gallantry of the officers of the Royal Highlanders of Montreal was wonderful—so magnificent as to call forth the highest praise. The name of Canada rang throughout the Empire. In a moment of awful peril she had sacrificed her bravest for the sake of Britain.
In the Canadian retreat not a gun was lost.
Upon May 9 it is recorded that the 1st Black Watch got the order to advance upon the German trenches. Already several attempts to carry them had failed. The English soldiers helped them upon the parapets of our trenches and wished them good luck. Bayonets were already fixed, the pipers struck up the famous tune, ‘Highland Laddie.’ That was the first time in the war in which the 42nd had charged with their pipes. There was only 300 yards to go, but it is said that ere that distance was covered the sound of the pipes was hushed in death. The grand old regiment cleared the Germans out of their trenches, and held them for long in the face of a heavy artillery attack, only withdrawing upon an order from the General. The following extracts are taken from the enemy’s Press: The Frankfurter Zeitung, after describing the French attack on May 9, says: “Then the British came into action with tremendous fierceness. They would break through, cost what it might. They attacked in three lines. The front regiment was mowed down by our fearful fire, and the following regiment, under a terrible hail from the guns, was unable to advance. Then the British sent one of their best Highland regiments to the front, the best they have anywhere. The Black Watch advanced. The gallant Scots came on, but even their really heroic bravery was in vain, for they were not able to turn the fate of the day.”
The Deutsche Tageszeitung says: “The British advanced with extraordinary force. They had in action about a division, and called upon them to advance in three lines. After the first line had been thrown back with fearful losses, the second line could not advance. The élite regiment, the Scottish Black Watch, was called forward, and bled to death without having obtained anything. Two men actually reached our breastworks, and had to lie in front of them from five in the evening until six the next morning before we could look after them.”
Between May and July there was no sustained activity upon the Western Front, but on many other parts of the Allies’ vast campaign the ceaseless struggle proceeded. Italy was pressing onwards towards the Austrian line while Sir Ian Hamilton was endeavouring to retrieve the initial blunder at the Dardanelles. Russia was fighting tooth and nail her amazing rearguard action, retreating victoriously, relinquishing at a terrible cost territory already stripped and barren. It was the beginning of the great retreat. Warsaw fell upon August 5, and a month later the Czar took over the supreme command, and the Grand Duke Nicholas left for the Caucasus.
In July came the news of our first great British victory, a victory the more welcome as it was won by General Botha, whose strategical skill and courage we had learned to admire in the Boer War. Despite the plotting of De Wet and Beyers, Kemp and Maritz, Botha had overcome disloyalty amongst the dissatisfied burghers, and followed it up by the complete rout of the Germans in South-West Africa.
With the month of August one year of bloodshed was reached, and looking over the wide field of hostilities there were those who asked what had been accomplished in return for precious lives lost upon a hundred fields of strife. Our casualties numbered 330,000, while the loss of life amongst our brave Allies had been enormous. Russia was no nearer Berlin than at the commencement of the war, France was no nearer the frontier of Belgium, England had not stormed the Dardanelles.
On the other hand, the Allied Armies were growing stronger, and the German armies weaker; the scales were turning. Time was upon the side of the Allies, and the greatest victory of the past year was won by no array of arms, but by the sleepless vigilance of the British Navy. It was a struggle between an invincible Army and an invincible Navy, and unless some unforeseen catastrophe overwhelmed the Allied Armies the issue lay in the hands of Great Britain.
To return to the Highland regiments, there were many individual acts of heroism during those summer months that should be recorded.
On May 9 the Black Watch won two V.C.’s for magnificent bravery under fire—Private John Lynn working a machine gun until he was overcome by gas poisoning, to which he fell a victim, and Corporal John Bridley leading a few Highlanders against the enemy’s trenches, and maintaining his position.
Upon June 12 at Givenchy, Lance-Corporal William Angus of the Highland Light Infantry won the V.C. for rescuing a wounded officer under heavy fire, sustaining some forty wounds from bombs.
In the middle of June at Hooge, the Liverpool Scottish, a Territorial battalion second to none, advanced against the German trenches, supported by the H.A.C. The plan of attack was that the Scottish should take the first line of German trenches, and leaving the H.A.C. to hold them should advance upon the second line. Following the cannonade of our guns, the Scottish leapt over the parapets and charged into the curtain of smoke. The first trench was carried without a halt, the second fell immediately after, and pausing to take a breath the battalion captured the third after severe fighting, and faced the fourth. This, too, was carried. What need for comment when words are blinded by achievement!
Many gallant men fell, including Captain Graham, the great amateur golfer. Unhappily a sorrowful toll of lives must ever be the fruit of bravery and self-sacrifice.
It is difficult where heroism has become a commonplace, and courage inseparable from the nature of the task that lies behind us and in the future, to conclude this chapter and this book upon a note at once comprehensive and mature, a note that will not sound dim when other tales are told, nor sufficiently local to be overshadowed by some vast offensive.
With the battle of Festubert certainly one, and perhaps two stories of Scottish heroism will, in my opinion, be for ever sacred in Scottish hearts.
Nothing could be more forlorn, more Celtic in tragedy than the tale of the 4th Cameron Highlanders, whose night attack was checked by a deep ditch full of water. Some swam across, many sank never to rise again, but the battalion passed on. In the black darkness they struggled on, undaunted. A desolating fire raked their ranks. One company was annihilated, another was hopelessly lost, a third took a German trench. But the battalion was cut off. No machine guns could cross the stream to their support, and in the grey dawn the situation for the Gaelic remnant grew intolerable. The company in the German trench were forced to retire under a heavy fire. Colonel Fraser and twelve other officers had fallen. But that single company of Camerons were unbroken. Sergeant-Major Ross it was who gathered the remnants to him and brought them safely across the zone of fire. Never has a more hopeless withdrawal faced a British force. Never has a finer fortitude awaited it.
Again, in the British advance a detachment of the Scots Guards lost touch with the main body, and were surrounded. Admirably has Mr. John Buchan spoken of their end. “For them,” he says, “as for the steel circle around the King at Flodden, there could be no retreat. When, some days later, we took the place we found the Guards lying on the field of honour with swaths of the enemy’s dead around them. The history of war can show no more noble ending.”
It is with such pictures as these that I would close this chapter, pictures of courage and self-sacrifice unsurpassed in the story of our regiments. Whatever the future may hold, one thing is certain—victory must always greet men inspired by a cause that is at once noble and just.