- from The War Illustrated, 20th July, 1918
- My Impressions of the Great Offensive
- 'What the Highlanders Have Done'
- the Famous War Correspondent now on the Western Front
Some Episodes in the Fine Story of the 'Jocks'
Highlanders in Orignal Color Photos from 1914
It is neither just nor politic to set up regiment against regiment, or division against division, or race against race, in writing of the great deeds of the British Army. Where all do well, comparisons are odious.
"For there is neither East nor West, Border nor breed nor birth" that can make any appreciable difference in the fighting qualities of the British soldier. Countrymen and townsmen or Southerners and men of the North, Britons from across the oceans, and home-keeping islanders who have never been on the sea all contribute .their share to the glorious record of Britain's war.
If some seem to be more prominent than others, it is because, let us say, they get more opportunities to distinguish themselves. Thus the Highlanders are often in the newspapers, and why ? Because wherever there is hard fighting to be done, there are pretty sure to be Highlanders there or thereabouts.
The Highlanders get chaffed about their frequent appearances in print, as about many other of their characteristics. There was a story about a "Jock," padding wearily along a dusty road, heavily laden, who, when some English soldiers called to him, "Where are you going, Jock ?" replied, "I'm going to fecht your battles for ye, as usual." And even more popular was that which told of a-successful raid made by German troops into the Highland Division trenches. "They disguised themselves as jokes, and the Scotties couldn't see them."
But all the fun made of the Highlanders is good-humoured. Their fine qualities as soldiers, with a long and renowned military tradition behind them, are admitted and fully valued. In the struggles of the last three months they have more than kept up their name as "bonnie fechters."
Do you recollect where that phrase comes from ? It is used by Alan Breck, that famous Highlander created by Robert Louis Stevenson. "Man, am I no' a bonnie fechter ? " he says, after he has polished off an adversary. I was reminded of Alan one day in a casualty clearing-station, where a sergeant in the Gordons told me of a stand-up duel he had had with a German : "I saw him stand up, ye see, and so I got myself up, too, and took aim at him. lie had his rifle to his shoulder before I could wink, and we must have fired together. Of course I knocked him over, and, man, he must be a pretty shot, for, ye ken, he hit me."
In the opening of the German offensive the Highland. Division had a chance to show how doggedly they could hold on against vastly superior numbers, and they took full advantage of it. They were in the northern part of the battle-front, where the enemy attacked almost as heavily as he did on the southern part against the Fifth Army.. He pushed in after his devastating bombardment, and under cover of the fog along the Noreuil spur and the valley of the little River Hirondelle. These lay to the north of the Highland Division, which, owing to the thickness of the clammy, grey atmosphere, knew little of what was happening until the Germans attacked them from the rear.
Here is an incident illustrating what sometimes occurs in such unpleasant circumstances : An officer in an observation post telephoned, "There are men moving about behind me. They look like Germans." A few moments later he said, "They are Germans, and they are in my trench now." His last message was, " They are bombing the O.P. Good-bye !"
An Officer's Machine-Gun Feat
Just about nine o'clock parties of the enemy began firing into the headquarters of a battalion of the Seaforths. This was the first intimation the battalion had of the Germans being so near. The headquarters were in Sole Trench, some way behind the front line. "You fellows had better skip," said the colonel to the doctor and the chaplain, as soon as he took the situation-in. They did skip; but, unluckily, they went out by the wrong door. Almost immediately they walked into a platoon of the enemy and were made prisoners.
The men in the front-line system who were attacked from behind gave a good account of themselves. There were companies of the Black Watch in Rabbit Alley. They turned round and fought till all of them were casualties. In Sole Trench an officer kept up resistance for half an hour with a small body of determined men in order to cover the retirement of the battalion staff. Another officer worked a machine-gun for hours, and kept the enemy from making any advance in his direction. He got rid of forty belts of cartridges, which means that lie pumped ten thousand bullets into the Germans, getting busy every time they tried to push forward. He went on until he had been several times wounded. At last he was shot in both legs, and had to let himself be carried away. But even then he went unwillingly.
There were others, in sunken roads near the front line, who made the Germans pay dearly for their advance. Every step the Highlanders went back cost the enemy many lives. They retired slowly, fighting all the while with masses of fresh foes ; for the Germans so arranged their operation that they could withdraw tired troops and put in others whose vigour was unbroken. Our men had to keep their end up day and night.
Even the Germans paid tribute to the fine resistance they had met with. They sent over a paper balloon one of those they use for distributing propaganda leaflets and on this were the words:
"Gooa old 51st Division. Sticking it yet. Cheerio !"
In the Flanders battle there were Highlanders to the fore again, this time with the 9th Division. On the day Kemmel was taken a Black Watch battalion made a splendid stand. In one place our line had become dangerously wavy. The Highlanders were sent to strengthen it. They did not wait for the enemy to come on. They went at him, drove a body of Bavarians into a corner, and killed or took them all prisoners. They could not change the fortune of the day, but they held up the German push for the time being.
Later in the day they were occupying a position, and had put down wire in front r of it. The enemy advanced towards them, and in the mist did not see that there was wire. The Black Watch let them get right up to it, then they opened fire. While the Germans cut through the entanglement they were shot down in large numbers. In another part of the field another Scottish regiment was defending a village called Vierstraat, and adding a fresh page to their magnificent regimental record. From eleven o'clock in the day the enemy made repeated efforts to capture Vierstraat, sending forward innumerable parties with machine-guns in the hope that they might smother the Scotsmen's resistance.
Trapping a Convoy
Every effort was defeated up to two o'clock. At that time it was supposed that the defenders could hold out no longer, and an order was sent to them to retire ; but the order went astray, or else the officer in command decided, upon his own responsibility, to remain. At all events, five o'clock found the Scots still in the village and the Boche still outside. Only when it got dark did the garrison withdraw, there being then nothing to gain by staying on.
The Highlanders, like all experienced soldiers, never miss a chance of a feed. In the Lys battle some of them were sent forward to take up the defence of a part of the line which had been for the moment emptied of its troops. In the trenches, they found breakfast waiting to be cooked. They made it their first business to fry the bacon and the eggs and to make the tea; then they sat down and enjoyed a hearty meal, ending with bread-and- jam. After this they turned their attention to the enemy, and made him understand that he had "bonnie fechters" to deal with.
Another lot of Highlanders I came across one day had had a piece of luck the night before. Some German transport lorries took a wrong turning, and drove up a road which we were holding. The Highlanders let some of them pass without challenging, hoping to secure the whole convoy. Unfortunately, a rifle went off before they had all gone by. But the Highlanders thoroughly enjoyed the German soup which they did capture
Highlanders in Orignal Color Photos from 1914
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