Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

With the Highlanders at War

Men of the Argyll and Sutherlands in an Early Trench

The Highlanders have been great favorites in France. Their gaiety, humor and inexhaustible spirits under the most trying conditions have captivated everybody. Through the villages on their route these brawny fellows march with their pipers to the proud lilt of "The Barren Rocks of Aden" and "The Cock o' the North," fine marching tunes that in turn give place to the regimental voices while the pipers are recovering their breath. "It's a long way to Inveraray" is the Scotch variant of the new army song, but the Scots have not altogether abandoned their own marching airs, and it is a stirring thing to hear the chorus of "The Nut-Brown Maiden," for instance, sung in the Gaelic tongue as these kilted soldiers swing forward on the long white roads of France.

A charming little letter published in The Times tells how the Highlanders and their pipers turned Melun into a "little Scotland" for a week, and the enthusiastic writer contributes some verses for a suggested new reel, of which the following have a sly allusion to the Kaiser's order for the extermination of General French's "contemptible little army":

"What! Wad ye stop the pipers?

Nay, 'tis ower soon!

Dance, since ye're dancing, William,

Dance, ye puir loon!

Dance till ye're dizzy, William,

Dance till ye swoon!

Dance till ye're deid, my laddie!

We play the tune!"

This is all quite in the spirit of the Highland soldiers. A Frenchman, writing to a friend in London goes into ecstasies over the behavior of the Scots in France, and says that at one railway station he saw two wounded Highlanders "dancing a Scotch reel which made the crowd fairly shriek with admiration." Nothing can subdue these Highlanders' spirits. They go into action, as has already been said, just as if it were a picnic, and here is a picture of life in the trenches at the time of the fierce battle of Mons. It is related by a corporal of the Black Watch. "The Germans," he states, "were just as thick as the Hielan' heather, and by weight of numbers (something like twenty-five to one) tried to force us back. But we had our orders and not a man flinched. We just stuck there while the shells were bursting about us, and in the very thick of it we kept on singing Harry Lauder's latest. It was terrible, but it was grand—peppering away at them to the tune of Roamin' in the Gloamin'' and 'The Lass o' Killiecrankie.' It's many a song about the lassies we sang in that 'smoker' wi' the Germans."

According to another Highlander "those men who couldn't sing very well just whistled, and those who couldn't whistle talked about football and joked with each other. It might have been a sham fight the way the Gordons took it." With this memory of their undaunted gaiety it is sad to think how the Gordons were cut up in that encounter. Their losses were terrible. "God help them!" exclaims one writer. "Theirs was the finest regiment a man could see."

Pipers of the Cameron Highlanders

But that was in the dark days of the long retreat, when the Highlanders, heedless of their own safety, hung on to their positions often in spite of the orders to retire, and avenged their own losses ten-fold by their punishment of the enemy. Private Smiley, of the Gordons, describing the German attacks, speaks of the devastating effects of the British fire. "Poor devils!" he writes of the German infantry. "They advanced in companies of quite 150 men in files five deep, and our rifle has a flat trajectory up to 600 yards. Guess the result. We could steady our rifles on the trench and take deliberate aim. The first company were mown down by a volley at 700 yards, and in their insane formation every bullet was almost sure to find two billets. The other companies kept advancing very slowly, using their dead comrades as cover, but they had absolutely no chance.... Yet what a pitiful handful we were against such a host!"

The fighting went on all through the night and again next morning, and the British force was compelled to retreat. In the dark, Private Smiley, who was wounded, lost his regiment, and was picked up by a battery of the Royal Field Artillery who gave him a lift. But he didn't rest long, he says, for "I'm damned if they didn't go into action ten minutes afterwards with me on one of the guns."

Some fine exploits are also given to the credit of the Black Watch. They, too, were in the thick of it at Mons—"fighting like gentlemen," as one of them puts it—and the Gordons and Argyll and Sutherlands also suffered severely. In fact, the Highland regiments appear to have been singled out by the Germans as the object of their fiercest attacks, and all the way down to the Aisne they have borne the brunt of the fighting. Private Fairweather, of the Black Watch, gives this account of an engagement on the Aisne: "The Guards went up first and then the Camerons, both having to retire. Although we had watched the awful slaughter in these regiments, when it was our turn we went off with a cheer across 1,500 yards of open country. The shelling was terrific and the air was full of the screams of shrapnel. Only a few of us got up to 200 yards of the Germans. Then with a yell we went at them. The air whistled with bullets, and it was then my shout of '42nd forever!' finished with a different kind of yell. Crack! I had been presented with a souvenir in my knee. I lay helpless and our fellows retired over me. Shrapnel screamed all around, and melinite shells made the earth shake. I bore a charmed life. A bullet went through the elbow of my jacket, another through my equipment, and a piece of shrapnel found a resting place in a tin of bully beef which was on my back. I was picked up eventually during the night, nearly dead from loss of blood."

Perhaps the most dashing and brilliant episode of the fighting is the exploit of the Black Watch at the battle of St. Quentin, in which they went into action with their old comrades, the Scots Greys. Not content with the ordinary pace at which a bayonet charge can be launched against the enemy these impatient Highlanders clutched at the stirrup leathers of the Greys, and plunged into the midst of the Germans side by side with the galloping horsemen. The effect was startling, and those who saw it declare that nothing could have withstood the terrible onslaught. "Only a Highland regiment could have attempted such a movement," said an admiring English soldier who watched it, and the terrible gashes in the German ranks bore tragic testimony to the results of this double charge. The same desperate maneuver, it may be recalled, was carried out at Waterloo and is the subject of a striking and dramatic battle picture.

Though all the letters from men in the Highland regiments speak contemptuously of the rifle fire of the Germans, they admit that in quantity, at least, it is substantial. "They just poured lead in tons into our trenches," writes one, "but, man, if we fired like yon they'd put us in jail." The German artillery, however, is described as "no canny." The shells shrieked and tore up the earth all around the Highlanders, and accounted for practically all their losses.

Narrow escapes were numerous. An Argyll and Sutherland Highlander got his kilt pierced eight times by shrapnel, one of the Black Watch had his cap shot off, and while another was handling a tin of jam a bullet went clean into the tin. Jocular allusions were made to these incidents, and somebody suggested labeling the tin "Made in Germany."

Even the most grim incidents of the war are lit up by some humorous or pathetic passage which illustrates the fine spirits and even finer sympathies of the Highlanders. Lance-Corporal Edmondson, of the Royal Irish Lancers, mentions the case of two men of the Argyll and Sutherlands, who were cut off from their regiment. One was badly wounded, but his comrade refused to leave him, and in a district overrun by Germans, they had to exist for four days on half-a-dozen biscuits.

"But how did you manage to do it?" the unwounded man was asked, when they were picked up.

"Oh, fine," he answered.

"How about yourself, I mean?" the questioner persisted in asking.

"Oh, shut up," said the Highlander.

The truth is he had gone without food all the time in order that his comrade might not want.

Then there is a story from Valenciennes of a poor scared woman who rushed frantically into the road as the British troops entered the town. She had two slight cuts on the arm, and was almost naked—the result of German savagery. When she saw the soldiers she shrank back in fear and confusion, whereupon one of the Highlanders, quick to see her plight, tore off his kilt, ripped it in half, and wrapped a portion around her. She sobbed for gratitude at this kindly thought and tried to thank him, but before she could do so the Scot, twisting the other half of the kilt about himself to the amusement of his comrades, was swinging far along the road with his regiment.

This is not the only Scot who has lost his kilt in the war. One of the Royal Engineers gives a comic picture of a Highlander who appears to have lost nearly every article of clothing he left home in. When last seen by this letter writer he was resplendent in a Guardsman's tunic, the red breeches of a Frenchman, a pair of Belgian infantry boots, and his own Glengarry! "And when he wants to look particularly smart," adds the Engineer, "he puts on a Uhlan's cloak that he keeps handy!"

Cameron and Sutherlanders Behind the Lines

As another contribution to the humor of life in the trenches and, incidentally, to the discussion of soldier songs, it is worth while quoting from a letter signed "H.L.," in the Times, this specimen verse of the sort of lyric that delights Tommy Atkins. It is the work of a sergeant of the Gordon Highlanders, and as the marching song in high favor at Aldershot, must come as a shock to the ideals of would-be army laureates:

"Send out the Army and Navy,

Send out the rank and file,

(Have a banana!)

Send out the brave Territorials,

They easily can run a mile.

(I don't think!)

Send out the boys' and the girls' brigade,

They will keep old England free:

Send out my mother, my sister, and my brother,

But for goodness sake don't send me."

It is doggerel, of course, but it has a certain cleverness as a satire on the music hall song of the day, and the Gordons carried it gaily with them to their battlefields, blending it in that odd mixture of humor and tragedy that makes up the soldier's life. The bravest, it is truly said, are always the happiest, and of the happy warriors who have fallen in this campaign one must be remembered here in this little book of British heroism. He died bravely on the hill of Jouarre, near La Ferte, and his comrades buried him where he fell. On a little wooden cross are inscribed the simple words, "T. Campbell, Seaforths."

Source: Tommy Atkins at War,  James A. Kilpatrick, 1914

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