OOR GALLANT FOURTH
The 'Great Push' found them tae the fore,
They cared not for the rifles' spit,
'On the ba', Dundee', they cried
When o' wordly cares I'm free,
The People's Journal, 16 October 1915
Article by the Late Jerry Wright.
The main concern of this article is to consider, through contemporary sources, the effect of the Battle of Loos on the city of Dundee and the men who served in France and took part in the Battle of Loos from Dundee. It is important, however, to understand something of the background to the arrival of the 4th Battalion Black Watch in the trenches near Neuve Chapelle on September 25th, 1915.
The Black Watch Regiment first arrived in France on August 4th, 1914 in the form of the 1st Battalion, with the 1st Division of the British Expeditionary Force, "the best trained and best equipped army that has ever left these shores". The 1st Battalion fought bravely towards the "deadlock" which developed as the trench system rapidly spread towards the sea. They distinguished themselves at Polygon Wood when they held a position on November 11th, 1914 despite heavy losses and impossible odds. This became known as Black Watch Corner, although two days after they arrived they were relieved and had played their part in the holding of the Ypres salient. However, this virtually destroyed the original BEF the 1st Battalion was sadly depleted and despite earlier drafts required 300 men to bring it up to strength. The 2nd Battalion arrived from India in October 1914 and immediately faced the much publicised "bombs scandal": they had to make their own bombs and often badly, so that many were injured or killed by their own weapons. It was to this and other shortages that the 4th Battalion, the first territorials to go out, were exposed. They were keenly aware of the tradition of the Black Watch to be upheld, and just as keenly aware of the yawning gap between their expectations and reality.
There were no duck-boards for the 4th Battalion when they arrived and so the paths in the trenches became "running streams with deep pools". There were not enough spades to dig proper dugouts and the latrines became flooded. They rapidly experienced the realities to contrast with the hopes and elation of their departure from Dundee. All the Black Watch Battalions were plagued by a shortage of munitions and amateurish attempts at making bombs added to the stress of trench life with its unpredictable and deadly characteristics. Moreover, the shortage of shells and the misuse of artillery left soldiers to attack uncut wire and against undamaged positions.
The 4th Battalion was drawn mostly from Dundee and was correctly described as "a city at war"! Thus neighbours, friends, men from the same family, fathers, sons and close relatives joined the territorials and when war came and they went to France they took all those relationships and intimate links with the city to France with them.
The 4th Battalion was commanded by Dundee businessman Lieutenant-Colonel H. Walker. The Dundee Courier and Argus. The Dundee Advertiser and The People's Journal reported the war through the letters and accounts of the men of the Black Watch and not unnaturally came to view the war in the perspective of the fortunes of its own "sons" at the front. Thus the people of Dundee recognised the nature of this monstrous Mar rather sooner than people from many other parts of Britain. Loos itself can be regarded as Dundee's Somme or in historical terms, Flodden, because of its profound effect on the people of the city. The men of the 4th Battalion came from the jute and jam factories of Dundee, just as the men of the 5th Battalion with which it was to be amalgamated after Loos in 1913 came from Angus and in particular Forfar and the fishing villages on the coast of Arbroath, Montrose and Broughty Ferry where the common bond was reliance on the sea or the linen mills of the area for their livelihood.
Thus these Black Watch Battalions reflected the character and human investment of one specific area and none more so than the 4th from Dundee:
In the history of the Regiment during the Great War the 4th Battalion holds a notable position since it represented a Scottish city at war ..... the 4th Battalion stood for the city of Dundee, from which alone it drew its recruits, and consequently as it was successful or otherwise, so in great measure did the fortune of war fluctuate in the opinion of the citizens of Dundee.
History is too often about events and not people but in the adventures of the 4th Battalion, recorded in letters, diaries and newspaper reports and features can be found the human dimension to the history of the Battle of Loos. The official history of the Black Watch explains and suggests the insight a study of this Battalion will reveal:
The Battalion has in it the spirit and local patriotism which is the basis of so much that is best in Scottish character and in Scottish history.
Apart from the judgements of Scottish character and history, the "spirit" of the battalion was the "spirit" of the city of Dundee and its fortunes were inextricably linked to those of Dundee and its citizens. Just as the men of the 4th Battalion came from the jute and jam factories of Dundee the officers were drawn from the businessmen and professions of the city. One such family was the Steven family who were typical of the local professional families and who, tragically, lost two sons at Loos (See below, Chapter 3). Their experiences epitomise those of many others in the Battalion, the tragedy of their deaths at Loos, Harvey Smith Steven only twelve days after his brother, encapsulates the sense of loss felt by the people of Dundee.
When war broke out, the 4th Battalion of territorials had taken up its duties as coastal defence unit and, under the command of Colonel Harry Walker, was fully armed at the time of mobilisation. The Battalion appeared to subscribe to the spirit of romance suggested by the chance of war and eagerly awaited an opportunity to fight. Before the end of August 1914 two companies were sent to guard the Tay Bridge and two to Broughty Ferry. Three companies were stationed in Dundee and provided detachments to guard the city's water supply, the clocks and the submarine dry dock. Their coastal defence duties were organised to suit the intensive training and musketry at Buddon as the Battalion was prepared for war. The men were constantly drilled by Sergeant-Majors Charles and McNab and they were housed in Bell Street Drill Hall at night. Within two weeks of mobilisation 350 men, the full number required to complete the establishment, were attested. They were all Dundee men with -fathers and sons amongst them. After the l/4th had been formed, work began on the formation of a second battalion made up of Dundee men.
In September 1914 the 4th Battalion was moved to Buddon under canvas and welded into an efficient fighting unit, in so far as this was possible, without actual experience of the front, by Colonel Walker and his Adjutant, Captain F. R. Tarleton. The Battalion were relatively well equipped, having a full war establishment of rifles and ammunition as well as a good supply of boots and uniforms, although greatcoats, invaluable at the Front, were in short supply. The second line forming into a battalion were not as lucky with equipment, but the original members of the 4th Battalion were well equipped. The official history suggests that there was
a natural keenness to serve in France [which] soon began to show itself, and officers and men hoped eagerly for a more active sphere than the peaceful links of Buddon or the Tay Bridge.
In many ways they were "...ardent for some desperate glory"; they represented the enthusiasm of the city to fight for its country and there was much pride in this efficient fighting unit:
If Dundee has taken leave of her soldier sons with regret is was with pride as well; for the selection of the battalion to form a part of the Territorial Forces on foreign service is no small honour to the city....... Their departure gives Dundee a new and a more actively personal interest in the progress of the war, since for the first time a complete unit of the forces drawn almost entirely from the city's confines has gone to take a part in it.
On February 23rd, 1915, the Battalion received orders to move to France and the pride of the city welled up in the newspaper accounts of their departure:
The 4th (Service) Battalion of The Black Watch -Dundee's Own - left the city yesterday evening and dense crowds gave them a stirring send-off, their destination, presumably, "somewhere in France". Time will tell, but wherever they may be called upon to do their country's work, "the fourth" may be relied upon to uphold the reputation of the most famous Scottish regiment.
It was a well-set-up gritty battalion upon which the citizens of Dundee last night showered thunderous cheers as they marched from Dudhope Castle to the West Station. Months of solid military training had converted raw material into hardy fighting men, and "the fourth" looked fit to rough it with the best of them. May they all have a safe return to their "ain firesides".
The 4th Battalion paraded at Dudhope Castle where they were addressed by Colonel Walker:
Men of the 4th Royal Highlanders, the chance has come for you to show in the field those high qualities which have always made the 4th Battalion Black Watch a Territorial Battalion with which it is an honour to be associated. Men, you belong to a great Regiment, one whose battalions of the line have gathered glory and reaped fame in every quarter of the globe and I trust when you proceed on active service, to whichever destination you may be sent, you will remember that tradition and do your best to garner fresh laurels for the Black Watch. I myself have every confidence that you will do nothing to tarnish the fair name of the regiment. I think indeed you may be trusted to conduct yourselves in the way you should do as a Battalion of Scotia's premier Highland Regiment the 42nd Highlanders.
With these stirring words and, one must assume, "pride in their hearts, the men of the Battalion set off for the Caledonian Station, later to become Tay Bridge Station. The official history says that "on the march to the station the enthusiasm of both troops and spectators knew no bounds. It was a wonderful expression of the city's feeling".10 The Dundee Advertiser for February 24th caught the excitement of their going:
Rarely has any battalion had such a send-off as that accorded to the 4th Black Watch.
As the city unit of the 42nd Highlanders, the battalion occupies a large place in the public heart, and the -fact that they, as Territorials, were going to face the same dangers as soldiers of the Regular Army also made a strong appeal to the popular imagination.
Thousands of people must have turned out to witness the three drafts in which the men were entrained.
The news of the impending departure was not long in percolating through the city. Extraordinary interest was aroused and long before the hour fixed for the leaving of the first batch crowds began to throng the Castle avenue, many affecting scenes
were observed among the dense crowd of women who occupied almost the whole of the entrance way (to the parade ground of Dudhope Castle)There was no waving of tartan as the men swung through the gates. That is the invariable accompaniment of the battalions in peace time, but on this occasion the drab khaki aprons showed that serious business was in hand. The sight was inexpressibly inspiring, and it had its effect on the crowd as the body of stalwart men marched away on the beginning of a journey which may be destined to be historic in the military annals of Scotland.....Women crowded in on ranks to march beside sweethearts, husbands, and fathers practically every step of the journey was enlivened by some untoward incident. Women clung hysterically to their menfolk.
When the station was reached the men had practically to fight their way in, so dense was the throng. The excitement and enthusiasm reached fever heat when the third and last detachment marched out of the Castle ... to the rousing strains of "Bonnie Dundee" the men made quick time to the station. At Tally Street the tune was changed to "Scotland the Brave" while as the men marched into the station the wild but rhythmic "Pibroch of Donnil Dhu" rang out.
To the strains of "Heilan, Laddie" and "Happy We've Been-a' the gither" played by the pipers of the 6th Battalion, the 4th Battalion left Dundee, Sidney Steven amongst them. The scene must have been repeated often throughout the country, indeed around the world and, of course, also in the country against which they were to fight. In the light of what happened at Neuve Chapelle and Festubert and the terrible losses at the Battle of Loos seventy years and these scenes of jubilation seem very poignant, ironic and disturbing. Wilfred Owen's poem "The Send-off": suggests the kind of irony which a few years' experience of war lends to events of this sort, but at the time the feelings were of course genuine and the hopes and fears did not include a cynical interpretation of what was being done in a war which to many commanders had already become a war of attrition fed with human beings from towns like Dundee. Wilfred Owen caught the irony of it all in his poem, "The Send-Off:
Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild train-loads?
"A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half known roads."
(See Appendix 1 for the list of Officers who left that day).
At 9.30 a.m. on February 26th the 4th Battalion disembarked in France. The Battalion joined the Bareilly Brigade of the 7th Meerut Division of the Indian Corps, and on March 10th they moved up to a breastwork named Windy Corner in preparation for the Battle of Neuve Chapelle.
In the Battle of Neuve Chapelle the 4th Battalion received a "baptism of fire" and Lieutenant Sidney Steven was subsequently decorated for distinguished conduct and awarded the Military Cross.
The Battalion was also involved in the Battle of Festubert where it lost its first officer, Lieutenant Weinberg, but after May 28th the Battalion was out of the firing line and did not take part in any serious action until the opening of the Battle of Loos on September 25th. While the Battalion fought, suffered, learned and was taught about war, the city of Dundee followed its fortunes in the local newspapers.
At Loos the 4th Battalion fought alongside the Indian Corps and was a part of the Bareilly Brigade. This was commanded by Brigadier-General C. Norrie and the 4th Battalion was furthest right in the line, followed by the 69th Punjabis and the 2nd Black Watch. Although the strength of the Battalion when it arrived in France was 900 its numbers had fallen to 423 fighting men by September 24th, 1915. Only 13 of the officers who arrived with the Battalion were still with it by this time. (See Appendix 2).
The Indian Corps were to take Aubers Ridge and then advance south-east to turn the German defences of La Bassee from the north. The attack consisted of two brigades of the Meerut Division with the 4th Battalion, a part of the Bareilly Brigade on the left and the Garhwal Brigade on the right. (See Appendices 3 and 4).
Zero hour was at 5.50 a.m. when the British bombardment opened up and was followed by the explosion of a mine in front of the 2nd Battalion Black Watch and under the German line. Two minutes after the mine exploded, at 6.00 a.m., the infantry advanced.
It was raining when the men began their advance and each man was supposed to have had a red patch sewn to his tunic to distinguish him from the enemy, although a survivor of the Battle who fought with the 2nd Battalion does not remember any such distinguishing mark. The History of the Indian Corps in France reports that the 2nd Battalion received the full effect of British gas and some men were disabled. It also suggests that the men were encouraged to advance as fast as possible, despite the fact that this often had no benefit unless reserves were very rapidly deployed. In fact some of the reserves were overwhelmed by the gas which blew back and were in no fit state to fight. By 7.00 am the 2nd Battalion had lost 12 officers out of twenty and many men from the effects of gas. In a letter published in the Dundee Advertiser on October 7th, 1915 a member of the 2nd Black Watch wrote that "A lot of our men suffered from gas and some have died from the effect of it".
Major Wauchope established an HQ in the German first line and met with Colonels Ridgeway of the 23rd Punjabis and Walker of the 4th Battalion Black Watch and they decided that the 4th Battalion's right flank was dangerously exposed and they would be unable to hold on. At this time the men were under very severe shell and rifle fire and the Germans were clearly preparing to counterattack. By 11.00 a.m. the situation was very confused and men began to retire. Smith and Merewether suggest that the Germans deliberately shot officers first and this was a serious problem at Loos, making reorganisation difficult.
At 11.30 a.m. there was a concerted German counterattack on the British right flank and troops in front of Moulin now found themselves being cut off and had to give ground. At a very early stage the Bareilly Brigade's bombs ran out and no supplies could be obtained because of the intense enemy fire.
The "blocks' set up to protect flanks in the German trenches were lost through lack of bombs and the Germans began to press from the front and both sides, some even firing on British troops from behind because their trenches had been inadequately searched when they were overrun. These Germans singled out officers. By 12.00 noon the situation was one of general retreat and at 12.30 p.m. the troops to the left of the Moulin retreated to the front line.
The 4th Battalion with 3 and 4 double companies under Captains Moodie and Couper respectively were in the front line with number 2 double company, commanded by Captain Campbell and number 1 double company, commanded by Captain N. C. Walker, immediately in the rear. At 6.00 am they went over the parapet and Major Tarleton, the Adjutant, was wounded. Companies 1 and 2 followed with Colonel Walker, the Commanding Officer, and Major Tosh, second in command. Major Tosh was hit crossing to the German front line. Sergeant Petrie was carrying Major Tosh when he was hit again and killed. When number 2 company went over the top Captain Duncan was hit and both legs were broken, and a few minutes later Lieutenant Bruce was hit. Enemy snipers were extremely active throughout this day and officers were their main targets. Although the losses in numbers in reaching the front lines were few, by this time Captain Walker and Lieutenants Steven and Watson were wounded and later reported as "missing believed killed."
At about the same time as Sidney Steven was killed Captain Campbell was wounded and 2nd Lieutenant Anderson in command of the Brigade bombers in reserve was killed; this had an obvious effect on the battle.
After this, 3 and 4 companies, including Lieutenant Cunningham and some of number 2 company went into the next enemy line with Captains Hoodie and Air in command. The mist was thick and the men began to lose their way. German shelling prevented reinforcements from reaching them and a number of men lost direction completely. However, the main body of the 4th Battalion reached the trench 50 yards from the Moulin du Pietre. The men were reorganised in this trench and some took out pipes and began to smoke.
3 and 4 companies took the enemy's first system of trenches, moved towards the second position and then dug in a short distance from this. Amongst the companies were Captains Couper, Hoodie and Air and Lieutenant Sturrock and 2nd Lieutenant Williamson. However, enemy snipers were very accurate and one after another the officers were wounded and fired on from the rear. Six snipers were finally rounded up, but not until all the officers had been wounded except Captain Air. He sent for reinforcements, but few came, and with rifles clogged with mud and bombs exhausted, retreat became inevitable. The enemy advanced and Air retired before being injured. Attempts to link the British and German lines by phone failed and in a desperate situation Colonel Walker crossed to the British trenches to bring up reinforcements himself. Tragically, he too was killed while going for help. Shortly after this the whole brigade retired, and the 4th Battalion, or what was left of it, was back in British trenches. (See Appendices 3 and 4).
Amongst the other Black Watch battalions at Loos the 9th stands out as having achieved remarkable results as the Battalion leading the assault. They quickly reached the enemy line although Brigadier-General Thuillier said that in one place the dead Highlanders in Black Watch tartan were so close as to make it difficult to step between the tartan. The 9th Battalion reached Loos, meeting up with the Seaforths, Camerons and Gordons and fought through Loos and on to Hill 70 beyond Loos. 21 officers and 680 men were killed or wounded, the largest percentage ever killed in one attack. However, the advance was considerable and a breakthrough seemed possible. The 8th Battalion, a part of the 9th Division, captured the Hohenzollern Redoubt along with the Camerons and despite numerous attacks held on to their gain. However, without reinforcements, most gains were eroded or lost.
The 4th Battalion suffered very heavy losses. Out of 20 officers 19 were killed or wounded and of 420 men 230 were killed or wounded. They had advanced too far too fast, leaving their flanks badly exposed and with a disruption in the supply of bombs they were unable to remedy this. The experience was not new to the war so far and only careful preparation beforehand and rapid response during the battle could have created a long even front with stable flanks.
After the 25th the Battalion had lost so many men and in particular officers that it was organised into two companies and temporarily amalgamated with the 2nd Battalion The Black Watch. These were known as 5 and 6 companies, commanded by Lieutenants T. Stevenson and R. C. Cunningham respectively. Colonel A. C. Wauchope commanded the whole Battalion of six companies. During the reorganisation the 4th was out of the line, but on September 29th it was sent in its amalgamated form to La Gorgue. On October 1st the battalion took over the trenches around Qivenchy where there was much shelling and sniper fire from craters in No-Man's Land. By October 7th German mining had almost reached the parapet and the battalion had to struggle to hold the line when two German mines exploded destroying some of the parapet and burying some defenders. After this the battalion were allowed to return to rest in billets in the rear.
Host Dundee families were touched by the losses at Loos and the effect was to alter perceptions of the war The Steven family were not unusual in losing two sons in the battle and their tragedy was repeated all over the city.