Memoirs & Diaries - In a Highland Regiment
The individual who finally sank his identity under number 5/41250 of the Gordon Highlanders could not by any stretch of imagination have been called brave.
Nevertheless he joined the khaki throng. And he did so voluntarily, though conscription was in force. He had received a protection certificate under the Military Service Acts unsought, being in a protected occupation. He was, in fact, a London policeman. Then a journey north to Scotland by night, with the whole of the Highlands a vast sea of white.
At the Regimental Depot the conscripts - and the old swaddies used the term quite often - were required to wait outside the dining-hall until the Depot Staff, time-serving soldiers, and men returned unfit from the B.E.F. were seated. Then the orderly sergeant gave "Go" and the conscripts were at liberty to enter and take seats below the salt.
There was the good corporal who trained them. He had Gaelic and would cast a disapproving eye over his squad. "Holy -- --!" And an acid stream, descriptive of their shortcomings, would flow. One of the missing words was perhaps the most obscene that can be uttered.
Musketry training and draft leave and that glorious journey to France for the great adventure - full of hope, expectation, and wonder. And so by the Bull Ring of Etaples of happy memory(!); by the rose-covered chateau at the Divisional Reinforcement Camp, with its placid stream running through the grounds and dragon-flies darting to and fro in the sunlight.
And the rumble of the guns heard for the first time. Trenches in a quiet sector on the Somme. "Drumming up" in a mess tin, using for fuel wood cut finer than matches in order not to cause smoke. Gargantuan feeds of bully beef and pork and beans, fried up in a biscuit-tin lid, with a candle and a piece of sand-bag for fire!
A movement north to take part in a big battle. Ypres, city of the lowlands. What memories does the name conjure up! The Salient! Dyed with the blood of men Who faced the hell that existed there right through the War.
A dark night, with the pale moon beaming fitfully between the flying scud of the Clouds. Under the shadow of what had been a Convent and the walls of the stately Cloth Hall! All quiet.
One could nearly feel the presence of the "Old Contemptibles" of 1914; could almost see their ghosts as they, perhaps, smiled approval on their successors.
A day by Hell Fire Corner, plastered the while with shrapnel, H.E., and incendiary shells. No sleep. Thunder of guns continuously until parade. Onward by Wilde Wood.
The sky was cloudy and obscured the moon. A phantom host flitting through the black night. And so across the Ypres battlefield with its dead, its debris, and its horrible stench. Past Some old gun-pits. The moon gleamed fitfully for a few moments and there was a vision indescribable in its naked horror.
Pieces of metal that once were cannon; and, if good Krupp steel had been so shattered, what of the humans who served the steel? Heads, legs, arms, trunks, pieces of rotting flesh, skulls that grinned hideously, bones cleaned by exposure, lay about in hopeless riot. And so to No Man's Land.
Two hours' sleep, then the thunders of an intensive artillery barrage. 5.50 a.m. - over! Men falling. Ahead a burn shown on the map as being 30 inches or 3 feet wide, but found to be a morass 50 feet wide. Wading through mud waist deep, with kilts floating on the surface like water-lilies.
Midway over, when the searchlights from the pillboxes swept the countryside and the vicious spit of the machine guns was heard. Many fell, killed outright or to suffer the horrible torture of suffocation beneath the mud. You cannot help them; you must push on.
A stretch of firm ground and signs of daylight coming up. You see a line of stumpy tree-trunks that, dimly, you realize is the objective. You creep up. A wild melee; stabbing with a bayonet. A gushing of blood from many wounds (oh! the nauseating smell of freshly spilled human blood in quantity) and then a cry of "Kamerad!" and a whine for mercy. Unheeded, for all the enemy died.
Stuck in the mud for four days. Shelled and sniped from the front; sniped and bombed from the air. Casualties every hour.
Ten counter-attacks for the lost ground before nightfall on the first day. And all broken up and withered away by our artillery and rifle-fire.
No sleep. Then on the fourth night came relief. Staggering out to a rest billet and dropping exhausted. A feed of bacon, bread and butter, and tea. Real hot tea, scalding; plenty of it, and you rejoice - until you remember you're eating dead men's rations beside your own, for without the dead men there would be no plenty.
Holding on at Joy Ride and Crucifix Street. Built up of German dead. Skulls peering hideously; mute decaying arms and legs jutting out at every step you took along the trench. Then badgered about practising attacks in diamond formation, in depth, on woods and in open country which were destined to be delayed for many months.
In again at the fag-end and to help consolidate such gains as remained after Cambrai. Bovis Trench. Doubtless in appearance something akin to what we shall find Hades when, in due season, such as meet their just deserts reach there.
An absolute shambles. The ground twisted and torn; shell and trench-mortar holes everywhere. Trench walls crumbling; on all sides evidence of decay, but fairly dry. Then on the first night snow, which changed, through sleet, to hard rain, and morning light found 18 inches of the finest mud one could wish to see. Black, oozing, liquid, penetrating.
It stayed and clung in deep and abiding affection, soaking through boots and rubber capes. Counter-attacks by Jerry for the lost ground; raids and counter-raids; general conditions so appalling and losses so heavy that the Brass Hats took compassion and gave relief after four days.
Relief on Christmas Eve after a spell of eighteen days, on eleven of which battle hardly ceased by day or night, though officially activity was defined as "engagements of no importance".
Into the line on January 26th, 1918, and "right sector", "support trenches" and "left sector" in turn, changing at six-, three- and six-day intervals. On the night of March 17th a maelstrom of hell in the shape of British artillery in action from Ypres to Cambrai.
Outside news none. Wild rumours of heavy enemy successes in the south, of which confirmation was forthcoming in the way of German Verey lights appearing much farther behind our backs on each succeeding night. The front line untenable. Shelled from the front and from a point seven miles in rear.
An evacuation to cut the angle out. Then, as the enemy attack came north, desperate attempts by him to take our ground. Harassing attacks day and night. Then, on the evening of the 27th, a curious lull - an absolute and awe-inspiring silence.
Three a.m., 28th. Boom! Bang! Biff! Crash! A confused jangling; a succession of heavy explosions rent the air; shrapnel whined and flew in all directions. A holocaust of shell-fire. Shell after shell poured about the position; high explosives tore the earth up; gas shells polluted the atmosphere, and shrapnel hurtled from the sky above.
Hours of it and with the first faint light of dawn, deploying from the village and the height behind, came the enemy. A huge grey mass. The British infantry held their fire. The enemy bombardment ceased and their infantry drew nearer.
Artillery there was none; not so much as a solitary 18-pounder covered the British front. All had been withdrawn. The enemy came nearer; close up to the wire. Cutters were handled and made ready; then the Lewis guns belched forth and the riflemen opened rapid fire.
Huge gaps in the enemy ranks and all confusion. They broke and fled; were re-formed, came again, were beaten back and again were driven forward, this time with sticks and at the point of the revolver. Seven attacks and not one gained an inch of ground.
9 a.m. A fresh bombardment and the enemy rested awhile. Picture a valley, low hills on either side, and along it a light railway.
Down the track went a constant stream of battered humanity. Men minus an arm; those with huge dark stains on their uniform to show where they had been hit - Highlander and Sassenach.
Here a man badly burned by a petrol bomb; there a poor devil with his leg gone at the knee, who dragged a weary way backward, using his rifle as a crutch. On the faces of all a look of hopeless horror as they fled from the terror behind them. One must see something like that to realize the insane folly of war.
Midday. There had been a slight lull in the shelling; then it suddenly increased. A veritable tornado. Shells fell unceasingly; they ripped the earth up. Hundreds of tons were blown into the air at once. Shrapnel everywhere; the earth shook with seismic quaverings. Then, racing madly across the intervening space came the remnants of a brigade; the front line had gone.
There were two gaps in the wire. The colonel sprang for one, two H.Q. company sergeants for the other. Some coaxing, a turning about; spreading out to open order, they went back through that barrage of death. The shelling went on with unabated violence; men were swept to Eternity at every yard. But the line went on without wavering, without faltering, without a look behind.
So steady, it might have been a drill movement on parade. Through that awful hail of steel and lead they passed and at 1 p.m. had regained the shambles of the Third Defence System. And the words of a famous Frenchman uttered at Balaclava might equally apply to the charge led by the old 75th Regiment of Foot.
No rest. Isolated attacks by the Hun and bombing parties; the spraying death of the machine guns on every hand. At 4 p.m. the enemy again lashed down his devastating barrage that blighted everything within its radius of action.
That ended any hope of holding the advanced trenches and a withdrawal to the Green Line took place - the line the enemy would cross only when none remained alive to stay him.
Another night and day; minor attacks and bombing raids all the time and then relief. ...relief after sixty-two days in trenches without having been withdrawn. What relief to get one's clothes off after wearing them continuously for a month!
What comfort to cast boots aside after nineteen days' wear! What savage delight to scratch and drag the damned lice from shirt seams and the more exposed portions of one's anatomy? Lousy doesn't properly express it.
Twelve days out. A promise of rest and a quiet sector. A long line of M. T. A hurried dash across country. Civilians streaming back - old men, old women, young women, and children. Some had carts loaded with their worldly goods; others pushed perambulators or small trucks loaded with their more treasured goods.
Others - the greater number - carried what they had snatched in a handkerchief, and wandered wearily backwards. An attitude of helplessness and resignation that perhaps brightened a little when they saw the Tartan and the Soldats Eccosse.
The M. T. column halted behind a crest. Packs were piled. A Staff car flying up at 50 m.p.h., a hasty consultation, a rapid distribution of maps, a quick move to diamond formation, and the battalion moved forward. A 6-inch battery, drawn by motor lorries, pulled up and at once opened fire, without pits or masks.
A runner came up to report German cavalry on the right. Through a village and ahead a strange sight met the eye. A riot of green of every tint. The spring grass of verdant hue; budding trees clustered here and there; red-roofed houses peeping amid the green.
Orchards of apple, cherry, and almond blossoms were dotted about. A riot of colour - green, red, white, and pink. Toward the horizon the bright flashes of the big guns, the whole lit gloriously in the dying splendour of the sun. Yet more than that was seen. There were the remnants of the 51st Division, slaughtered for the nth time, fighting desperately in an endeavour to stay the onslaught of the enemy.
Now scarce a brigade. But they fought on in isolated groups. Sections scattered over the countryside and fought till they died or were overwhelmed by vastly superior force. The Gordons moved rapidly forward, crossed the La Bassee Canal, and plunged on to conflict.
Surged forward and came up; plunged madly on the field-grey that swept up to break and swamp the heroic Highlanders. A short, grim struggle; bayonets flashed in the dying rays of the sun. The field-grey wave rolled sullenly back from whence it had come.
And then came the darkness. A line was dug. In a near-by farmhouse were cows, calves, horses, chickens, rabbits, pigs, and the varied stock one finds about a farm. In a cellar were hundreds of bottles of red and white wine, port, and champagne, to say nothing of a dozen barrels of beer.
The troops lived very well in the ensuing days when not engaged with the enemy, on consolidation, or wiring. Out for a day, then into the other sector doing labourer's work. A sergeant took a party out one night to fire farmhouses in No Man's Land. They were nests of machine guns and the party's arms were tins of petrol.
Under a rising moon petrol was lavishly poured away. Some under a table. Some on the cloth and a sofa, walls quickly splashed. A flight of stairs in a corner quickly doused when a door at the top opened and a stream of light shone down and there was the noise of much guttural speech.
The sergeant had a sheet of newspaper folded lengthwise. A match, a touch, and instantly a flame shot upward. A rapid touch to table and sofa and the sergeant dashed through the door with his kilt apron alight at the rear.
They set light to each of four houses; fell foul of a German patrol, and surprised them by fighting with their fists, which seemed so to alarm them that they broke and fled.
The incendiary party returned without loss. They stayed on the sector for a while. The enemy used much gas. At this time they were using a very pernicious gas, which caused one to weep and sneeze and which infected you with dysentery at the same time. Unpleasant!
A working party was required one night to dig a cable trench. It is impossible to do navvies' work in a box respirator and the party mainly worked without.
A deluge of gas shells. Eyes swollen and red; throats parched; flesh inflamed and almost raw where the mustard variety of gas had bummed it - a serious disadvantage to a kilt.
In the morning the gas lay across the valley, thick and nauseous as the miasma vapour of an African forest. Large green banks of chlorine gas threw back iridescent colours to the sun, while rising from it came a fetid, urinous stench that came near choking one.
In the garden at the billet lying about the grass were close on a hundred men, denuded of their clothing, who lay about and writhed in veriest agony. The worst gas cases. With the passing of a few hours huge blisters were raised by the mustard gas.
One man had a blister that reached from his neck to the bottom of his spine and extended the whole width of his back. In their agony they were retching horribly; straining till they sank exhausted, and then suddenly vomiting a long, green, streamer-like substance. And they were nearly all blind.
Christ! This happened on the morning of May 25th, 1918, in the village of Chocques, after nearly two thousand years of Christianity. Would you believe it?
Sergeant H. E. May joined the Cameron Highlanders in January 1917, and was sent to France in May 1917, and transferred to the Gordon Highlanders, with whom he served continuously until the close of the War, when the battalion marched to Germany.
Held the substantive rank of Sergeant, and in 1918 acted as C.S.M. or C.Q.M.S. on occasion. Was awarded the Military Medal in October 1918 for operations in the early part of that month.
First published in Everyman at War (1930), edited by C. B. Purdom.
Photographs courtesy of Photos of the Great War website.
A 'Tour' was a period of front-line service.
- Did you know?