The 13th Battalion Royal Highlanders of Canada 1914-1919 by Robert Collier Fetherstonhaugh, (RCF).
- The Somme
- Burned from the ore’s rejected dross,
- The iron whitens in the heat.
- With plangent strokes of pain and loss
- The hammers on the iron beat.
- Searched by the fire, through death and dole
- We feel the iron in our soul.
THE great engagement of the British and French Armies, spoken of as “The Battles of the Somme, 1916,” was a con and swayed backwards and forwards for months, locked tight in a veritable death struggle. Trenches were captured, recaptured and captured again, while the whole face of the earth for miles was torn by concentrated artillery fire as to render familiar scenes utterly unrecognizable. Thriving and solidly built little villages melted under the storms of high* explosive like butter in a hot sun, till their very site was often a matter of dispute, to be settled, perhaps, by the discovery in the churned up soil of a few loose bricks or the merest remnant of an old stone wall.
Men died in this bitter fighting by tens of thousands, but others were found to take their places and the great struggle went relentlessly on. The Germans christened the battle “The Blood Bath of the Somme” and this phrase, ugly and horrible though it be, conveys more vividly than any other a true impression of the titanic struggle. No unit came out of the Somme unscathed; few came out unshattered. With reference to such a battle it is difficult to speak of victory and defeat; impossible to do so in a work of this kind, which deals with the actions of a single battalion. Battalions at the Somme were as platoons in an ordinary battle. Brigades and divisions were used up in the struggle for a single trench, or farm.
Launched on July 1st, 1916, the British and French attack swept forward for a time and then encountered a dogged and determined resistance. Pushed with amazing courage and self sacrifice, however, the attack continued to progress and, in spite of tremendous losses, bit its way deep into the German lines, capturing thousands of prisoners and inflicting losses on the enemy which he could not but regard as extremely serious.
Such, then, in its scantiest outline, was the situation in which the Canadian Corps was now called upon to take part. Division by division the Corps came into action and fought as the Corps always fought, the 4th Canadian Division winning its spurs and proving itself in every way worthy to take its place with the veterans of Ypres, St. Eloi and Sanctuary Wood.
Arriving at the Somme, the 1st Canadian Division was soon in action, relieving the 4th Australian Division at Tara Hill on September 4th. Previous to the actual exchange of divisional command, however, units of the 1st Canadian Division were thrown into the battle under Australian direction, amongst these being the 13th Battalion, Royal Highlanders.
Leaving Harponville, the 13th proceeded on the morning of September 1st and, marching via Warloy, reached an area, known as “The Brickfields,” near Albert, where the Battalion was to pass the night. Some time later transport wagons arrived with canvas covers which the men converted into bivouacs, and in which, after a hot meal and an issue of rum, they settled down for a welcome night s rest. In the morning the bivouacs were taken down, the area thoroughly cleaned up and equipment prepared for a tour in the trenches. At 2 p.m. the company commanders received orders from Lieut. -Col. Buchanan to reconnoitre the area around la Boisselle, paying particular attention to the Chalk Pits and to the roads and means of communication between la Boisselle and Pozieres.
When this party returned to camp orders for the Battalion to move up to the Chalk Pits and occupy the old German front line had already been received. At night, therefore, the companies moved off, No. 1 under command of Major J.H. Lovett, who had again recovered from his wounds, No. 2 under Major J. D. Macpherson, No. 3 under Major W.F. Peterman, who had just recovered from his most recent wounds, and No. 4 under Major F.J. Rowan, who had recovered from wounds received in the previous April.
Passing through Albert, where the leaning statue of the Virgin stood out as a blacker shadow in the blackness of the sky, the Battalion proceeded to la Boisselle, as support to the 4th Australian Division. In spite of the fact that the area had previously been reconnoitred, darkness and the absence of all landmarks made the task of finding the proper trenches unusually difficult and the move was not completed till about 1 a.m.
In the morning-, at about 5 o clock, all the artillery in the area opened up in support of an Australian attack on a locality known as Mouquet Farm. Immediately behind the 13th, as if to lend an Imperial aspect to the affair, were some South African heavy batteries, whose guns roared with right good will. Thus the Australians attacked with British troops not far away on their flank, with Canadians in support and with South Africans helping to lay down the barrage.
In spite of this array, the attack was not a success, though at first it appeared to be. Much later, when Mouquet Farm was finally captured, an explanation of the disaster that overtook the attackers on this and other occasions was forthcoming. It appeared that the Germans had a large tunnel leading into the farm from a point well to the rear. When an attack captured and swept past the farm, the enemy, making use of this inconspicuous tunnel, would pour out and with bombs, rifles and machine guns take the attackers in rear. So successful was this strategy that on several occasions no authentic report was ever received of what had happened to troops who presumably had captured the farm. They simply vanished and, when an effort was made to get in touch with them, the enemy was found to be in possession. It was not until the night of September 16th, when the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles definitely took Mouquet Farm, that this secret was disclosed.
Early in the morning when the 13th was occupying the position at la Boisselle, as previously described, Lieut-Col. Buchanan received orders from General Glasstorch, of the 13th Australian Brigade, to hold two companies in readiness for an immediate move. This order was a surprise, as the 13th had previously been informed that the Australians would not require assistance, but it was promptly obeyed and Nos. 1 and 2 Companies selected. Knowing the heavy casualties to be expected in this area, Lieut.-Col. Buchanan ordered the second-in-command of each company and 20% of the specialists into reserve.
Some fifteen minutes after the “stand to” order arrived and before the men had been able to breakfast, No. 1 Coy., under Major Lovett, was ordered forward. Lieut.-Col. Buchanan was averse to seeing his companies serve under a command other than his own, but there was no help for it and he took up a post at the la Boisselle cross roads to shout a word of good wishes. The Company, as it responded to the Colonel s greeting, numbered 143 all ranks. When next it passed in front of him, it totalled 1 officer and 23 men. Owing to the fact that the companies of the 13th acted during the ensuing engagement almost as independent units, it is necessary at this point to leave the Battalion for a time and to follow the career, first of No. 1 Coy., and then of No. 2.
After the farewell to Col. Buchanan at the crossroads, Major Lovett led No. 1 forward and heard from Gen. Glasstorch that the enemy, having cut off and practically annihilated the first waves of the Australian attack, had counter-attacked and made a considerable breach in the front line. This gap Lovett was ordered to cover and guides were furnished to lead him to its neighbourhood.
Each man of No. 1 Coy. was supplied with two bombs at a dump and entry was made into the trenches to the left of the Australian headquarters, overlooking Pozieres. Capt. Maxwell of the Australians and the guides under his command rendered Major Lovett every possible assistance in the advance that followed, but at last they declared that, owing to the obliteration of so many trenches in the morning s bombardment, they were by no means sure of their exact position. The general direction of their objective was known, however, and Lovett decided to advance overland, rushing small parties from shell hole to shell hole and leaving a guide at intervals to direct those still to follow.
Considerable progress was made in this manner until a stream of machine gun bullets from the rear gave warning that the advance had progressed beyond a point where an enemy post had been established. After a great deal of difficulty this gun was put out of action and the Company, continuing its advance, reached the Australian front line trench. The left of this trench was occupied by the enemy, but the right flank was connected up with another Australian unit. The work that faced the combined Canadians and Australians, therefore, was to drive the Germans out of the left section of the trench and to link up with other Australian units, presumed to be somewhere beyond.
In the meantime No. 2 Coy. of the 13th, under Major J. D. Macpherson, had also been ordered forward. Advancing sometime after Lovett, Macpherson led his men in artillery formation up to Pozieres. Leaving the men to draw bombs from the dump, he reported to the Australian O.C. and was ordered by the latter to take his men into neighbouring trenches and “stand by.” Heavy shelling could be heard forward at this time, but not many shells struck nearby. Macpherson was informed that No. 1 Coy. had been in Pozieres and had been sent forward.
About 10 a.m. an orderly summoned Macpherson to Brigade Headquarters, where he was told that Mouquet Farm had just been captured. Map locations were given to him and he was ordered to take his company forward and occupy a position near the Farm. Being unfamiliar with the area, Macpherson asked for a guide, but this assistance, owing to shortage of men, the Australian General was unable to provide.
On leaving the H.Q., Macpherson encountered the Brigade Intelligence Officer, who offered to help get the Company into position. Accordingly a start was made, the men in single file and in fairly close touch, this formation being advisable to avoid the possibility of platoons getting separated and lost in the maze of shell holes and ruined trenches.
After advancing for about a mile, the Australian Intelligence Officer said that the front line must be near at hand and that, while the Highlanders rested, he would go forward and reconnoitre. When a long time elapsed and he did not return, Macpherson became uneasy and decided to reconnoitre for himself. He accordingly started forward and soon came across some wounded Australians in a shell hole. These could tell him little of his position, or of the state of affairs in general, but from them he learned that some Highlanders had already passed that way and concluded that the Highlanders in question must have been Major Lovett and No. 1 Coy. Proceeding a little further, Macpherson found another shell hole occupied by Australians, this time unwounded, and from these he learned for the first time that, instead of Mouquet Farm having been captured, the troops who had attacked it had been completely wiped out. Once again, however, he picked up the trail of No. 1 Coy., which had recently passed by and occupied a trench not far ahead.
Proceeding forward again, Macpherson soon found No. 1 Coy. in the Australian front line trench, and, after a consultation with Lovett, it was decided that Macpherson should bring up No. 2 Coy. and establish a line on Lovett s left, endeavouring- at the same time to discover which of the very contradictory reports regarding- the ownership of Mouquet Farm was correct.
Returning to his company in accordance with these arrangements, Macpherson met the Australian Intelligence Officer, who said that he had discovered a vacant trench over to the left. As this was approximately the position that Macpherson had told Lovett he would occupy, he instructed the Australian to lead on, taking the precaution, however, of holding back the main body of the Company, until a small party, under Lieut. M. A. Jaques, could explore the trench and find out where it led.
Shortly after this party had left on its reconnoitring mission, the main body heard a crash of rifle fire and the explosion of several bombs, and a moment later a man came running back to report that the advance party had rim into opposition. On receipt of this news, Macpherson took a platoon and hurried along the trench to find that Lieut. Jaques, having driven the enemy before him, was establishing a block in the trench to keep them from returning. Lifting himself up on the parapet to obtain a better idea of where the trench led, Jaques discovered that Mouquet Farm was only a short distance further on. He had just reported this important item and was taking a further look around when a sniper killed him with a bullet through the head. His work all through this trying- day had been of a courageous and helpful nature and his loss at this time was one the Company could ill afford.
With his position established as the result of Lieut. Jaques observations, Macpherson wrote a detailed report to Headquarters and asked particularly that Lewis guns be sent up, so that he could protect his flank and drive off any serious attack from Mouquet Farm. Meanwhile, by occupying the trench, which was in echelon to Lovett s position, Macpherson considerably assisted the latter, who had been harassed by enfilade fire from the party of Huns driven out by Lieut. Jaques bombers. Contact between the two trenches, once established, was skilfully maintained by a series of patrol posts under the command of Lieut. K. M. Carmichael.
About 6 o clock in the afternoon a message from Australian headquarters told Lovett that aeroplane observation revealed what appeared to be Australian posts, isolated, but still holding out, in the immediate vicinity of Mouquet Farm. In an effort to confirm this and to establish connection with such posts, if they actually existed, No. 1 Coy. launched a bombing attack along its trench to the left, and tried hard to push its way into the Farm itself. Fully 150 yards of enemy trench was captured in this manner, but resistance stiffened with every foot of the advance and eventually the Canadians were brought to a standstill. The remainder of the night was spent in clinging desperately to what had been gained, against repeated bombing attacks by the enemy.
In the meantime, No. 2 Coy. had driven off a similar series of attacks, but had suffered sharply from enemy shell fire. At midnight, the Lewis guns for which he had asked not having arrived, Macpherson decided to make his way back to see what was the matter. He found Lieut-Col. Buchanan in Battalion Headquarters at Pozieres and learned from the latter that No. 3 Coy., under Major Peterman, had moved up and was in position somewhere to the left of the front his own company was holding. Returning to No. 2 Coy., Macpherson took with him the two machine guns he required and used these to strengthen his unprotected flanks.
Such, then, were the adventures and misadventures of Nos. 1 and 2 Companies up to the hour of dawn on the morning of September 4th. During all this time the remaining companies had not been inactive. At 2 p.m. on September 3rd, No. 3 Coy. advanced from la Boisselle, followed by No. 4 Coy. at 5 p.m. Battalion Headquarters was moved up to a position in the Cemetery at Pozieres Wood and at 9 p.m. the 13th Royal Highlanders of Canada officially took over from the 52nd, 51st and 41st Australian Battalions, No. 3 Coy. moving up and digging in somewhat in advance of the position occupied by No. 4 Coy. During the night both companies were heavily shelled, but tackled with energy the work of carrying in the Australian wounded, many of whom had been lying out in the open for long weary hours, and some for days. In this work and throughout the strenuous days that followed, Lieut. T.B.D. Tudball, Sergt.-Major Mather, Sergt. McKay and Sergt. W. C. Pearce rendered service of the finest character.
September 4th was a trying day for all the companies. Shelling was almost continuous and rain in the morning did not add to the mens comfort. No. 1 Coy. had received no rations for over 24 hours, but foraged about and discovered some excellent coffee in huge glass bottles, a souvenir left behind by the enemy when the Australian attack drove them out. This, with their own and Ger man emergency rations, kept the men from feeling the absence of the regular rations too acutely.
No. 2 Coy. also suffered from shortage of food on this day, as well as from enemy shelling-, which was persistent and accurate. At night connection with No. 3 Coy. was definitely established. No. 3 also connected up with No. 4 during the night so that, by daybreak on the 5th, the Battalion was acting as a co-ordinated unit once more.
At 6 o’clock in the morning a Red Cross flag appeared between the lines on No. 1 Coy s, front and German stretcher bearers began to carry in their wounded. These bearers were unmolested by the Canadians, who took advantage of the situation to remove some of their own casualties. During this “armistice,” Major Lovett noticed that several wounded Germans, eluding their own bearers, slipped into his trench and surrendered. This suggested to him that the morale of the German troops opposite him might not be of the highest order and that an attempt to induce them to surrender might be worth while. Accordingly, as soon as the Red Cross Flag was withdrawn, Lovett and an Australian sergeant advanced to a position half way between the lines and tried to induce the Germans to come out. A measure of success seemed to be rewarding this move until a German officer appeared and promptly opened, fire, his example being immediately followed by all his men. With a crash of rifle fire from their trenches, the Royal Highlanders endeavoured to drive the Germans under cover and give the daring negotiators a chance to escape. In this effort the men of No. 1 Coy., were only partially successful. Lovett got in, but the Australian sergeant was shot and instantly killed.
Following this incident enemy artillery fire increased and about 1 p.m. word was passed up from the right that Germans could be seen pouring up their communication trenches as if for a heavy attack. The Lahore Artillery, supporting the Canadians, also received this information and laid down a heavy barrage which apparently broke the enemy attack before it could develop. As if in reply to this, the German artillery redoubled its fire and pounded No. 1 Coy s trench heavily. By this time some sixty per cent, of the Company had become casualties and to this total, additions were being made with unpleasant frequency. Major Lovett suffered his third wound of the war, an injury which held him in a London hospital for the three months that followed, while Lieut. Carmichael and Coy. Sergt.-Major Bullock, both of whom had distinguished themselves throughout the engagement, were also wounded. In the evening Lieut. C. D. Llwyd, who had fought most courageously, led the weary and famished remnant of the Company back into reserve.
Simultaneously with the relief of No. 1 Coy., it was arranged that three platoons of No. 2 Coy. should be relieved by No. 3 Coy. Through some misunderstanding relief for the fourth platoon of No. 2 Coy., under Lieut. H. E. Piercy, did not arrive. In a maze of almost unidentifiable trenches, it is not difficult for an error of this sort to occur, none the less it was hard on the men of the unfortunate platoon, who for two extra days were compelled to hold their tiny bit of line. Of the one hundred and twenty bayonets which Macpherson led forward on the morning of the 3rd, about fifty remained when the action ended.
While these events were in progress on the front of Nos. 1 and 2 Coy’s, Nos. 3 and 4 were busily engaged in consolidating their positions. All day on September 5th they were subjected to heavy shell fire and were quite unable to obtain rations. Late in the day some water was brought up to them, but as this was strongly diluted with gasoline, it aggravated rather than assuaged their thirst and caused digestive complications which rendered the men entirely miserable. September 6th was again a day of heavy shell fire, hard work and general discomfort. At night the 14th Canadian Battalion relieved No. 4 Coy., which withdrew to Wire Trench (near la Boisselle). On the following night the 13th Battalion was relieved by the 8th Canadian Battalion and proceeded to billets in Albert, where a hot meal was served to the exhausted men as soon as they arrived.
Taking it all in all, the Battalion s first experience on the Somme had been a hard one. Thrown into a fight before they had any real conception of the area, with their flanks in the air, and under a strange command, the men of Nos. 1 and 2 Companies had acquitted themselves in a highly creditable manner, while their comrades in the other companies, many of them in their first engagement, had behaved with the coolness and reliability of seasoned veterans. Casualties had, of course, been severe. In addition to the officers already mentioned, Capt. C.R. Chisholm was wounded, as were Lieuts A.S. MacLean, H. R. Monsarrat and H. T. Higinbotham, while amongst the rank and file 60 men were killed, 247 were wounded and 16 were missing, a heavy list, considering that the Battalion had been employed in what ranked merely as a minor phase of the great engagement.
September 8th, the first day in billets after a strenuous tour, was spent in resting and cleaning equipment. On the 9th the 3rd Canadian Brigade moved to Warloy, the 13th Battalion parading at 9 a.m. and reaching the new billets a few minutes before 1 o clock. In the afternoon the baths at Rue de Guise were allotted to the men, who paraded in parties of 25 under an officer or N.C.O. On the 10th the Brigade moved to Herissart, a short distance which was covered in a march of about an hour and a half. The next day the Brigade continued its march to the Rest Area at Montrelet-Bonneville.
Several days were spent in this area, the time being employed in all the multitudinous details that require attention when a Battalion has just emerged from a tour in the line and is preparing for another. On September 12th no orders for parades were issued, but the company commanders, at their own discretion, held rifle, gas helmet, ammunition and similar inspections. Most of the day, however, was spent in cleaning up the billets which were, without exception, the dirtiest the Battalion) had ever occupied. Carried away by enthusiasm at the results achieved, a large working party was ordered to clean up the whole town.
On the following day the companies carried out independent training, as did the Machine Gunners, Bombers, Signallers and Intelligence Section. Postings on this date included the following: Major G.L. Mott to take command of No. 1 Coy.; Lieuts. E.W. Mingo and J.B. Beddome posted to No. 3 Coy. Lieut. Mingo had served with the Battalion previously and had rejoined after recovering from wounds received at the Bluff in April. On the same date as the postings mentioned above the ranks of the 13th were reinforced by a draft of men from the 1st Canadian Entrenching Battalion.
On the night of September 14th the Battalion was ordered to “stand to,” as an operation of 1 some importance was being conducted by units of the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions. This attack, wherein the British “Tanks” made their first appearance, was a success, and support from the 1st Division was not needed. On the morrow the 13th paraded and moved to tents in the Vicogne area, proceeding from that point on the 16th and billeting in Harpon-ville, whence, as on the occasion of the Battalion s first visit a fortnight earlier, the roar of the great Somme battle was distinctly audible.
September 17th was spent in Harponville, the men cleaning equipment and waiting hourly for orders to move. None arrived until the following day at noon, when the Battalion marched in pouring rain to the Brickfields at Albert. The only member of the Battalion who even pretended to enjoy this march was “Flora Macdonald,” the Regimental goat, to whom the up hill and down dale nature of the route seemed to make some mysterious appeal. Perhaps it evoked memories of the far off Himalayas and rushing mountain torrents that poured down to the hot plains beneath. Who can say? All that one knows is that “Flora” splashed along the flooded roads and seemingly enjoyed herself immensely. In some places the roads were actually knee deep in water, so that, at 5 p.m., it was a wet and weary Battalion that built shelters out of old ammunition boxes and tarpaulins at the Brickfields.
Rain continued all day on the 19th, the men spending much time in repairing their leaky quarters. Rifles were inspected to make certain that the rain had not put them in bad condition. On the 20th the Brickfields were shelled to some extent, but no shells fell lose enough to cause the Highlanders serious inconvenience. On this date a draft from the 92nd Highlanders, from Toronto, joined the 13th, bringing the latter very nearly up to strength once more. Shelling was again a feature on the 21st, but, as on the previous day, little damage was done, although one man, a member of the new draft, was wounded in the heel. While at the Brickfields shoulder patches were issued so that men of various units could be distinguished at a glance. In the case of the 13th these consisted of a red patch surmounted by a blue circle, the former indicating the 1st Canadian Division and the latter the brigade and battalion. On the afternoon when these were issued the Brickfields presented an odd sight. Seated everywhere groups and individuals were busy sewing the bright pieces of cloth onto their tunics, as fast as Sergt. Stewart and the other tailors could cut the huge bolts of bright material into the required shapes.
On the night of the 22nd the Battalion moved from the bivouacs in the Brickfields to familiar billets in Albert. On the same date it was announced that Sergt. A.M. McLeod had been awarded the Russian Cross of St. George, 3rd Class, in recognition of courageous service, while postings included the following: Lieut. C.D. Lloyd to be Grenade Officer; Lieut. M.C.W. Grant to be Assistant Grenade Officer; Lieut. T. G. Holley to be Assistant Intelligence Officer; Lieut. E. C. Bryson to be 2nd-in-command of No. 1 Coy.; Major S.W. Gilroy to be 2nd-in-command of No. 4 Coy.; Coy. Sergt.- Major F. Spencer to be Acting Regimental Sergeant-Major, during the absence on leave of Regimental Sergeant-Major W. Chalmers.
The following day was spent in preparing for the trenches and at night the Battalion moved up to relieve the 2nd Canadian Battalion in front of Courcelette. On the whole the relief was uneventful. The Albert-Bapaume Road was crowded with ammunition limbers but, by taking to the side of the road and advancing in single file, the Battalion maintained a steady, if not rapid, rate of progress. From Pozieres the men proceeded along the light railway track to a spot known as “K” Dump, thence overland for a bit and finally through some old communication trenches into the line.
During the two days that followed artillery fire on both sides was heavy, while sniping and rifle fire were, if anything, a little below normal. Courcelette was bombarded almost ceaselessly by the enemy, some parties of the 13th being caught while coming-through the village and losing several men. The troops in the frontline suffered appreciably from thirst, as their water bottles were soon emptied and such water as was delivered was abominably flavoured with gasoline.
At night on the 25th, the 14th and 15th Battalions moved into the front line and prepared for an attack which they were to make in conjunction with other troops on the morrow. The presence of these extra troops crowded the front line to the uttermost, but for tunately the enemy reply to the bombardment in preparation for the attack, though heavy, was not well directed and casualties were accordingly light. It had been generally understood that the attack of the 14th and 15th Battalions would take place at dawn, but it was not until 1 1 o clock in the morning that the zero hour was even announced. At this time, owing to fear of listening sets, great secrecy as to the zero hour of an attack was insisted upon and the hour was never mentioned aloud in the trenches. When it was necessary to speak of it, officers were instructed to do so by codesigns, but as this method had its disadvantages, they usually compromised by naming the hour in a whisper.
Shortly after noon the 14th and 15th went over the parapet and attacked. These splendid battalions pushed their assault home in a striking manner, but, as was so often the case on the Somme, where no ground was yielded without a desperate struggle, counterattacks during the next few days prevented consolidation of all the territory originally captured.
Meanwhile the trenches of the 13th were subjected to a severe shelling, which caused numerous casualties, not only to the Royal Highlanders, but to the wounded from the attack, with whom the trenches were by this time crowded. Prisoners captured by the 14th and 15th added to the congestion, but were made use of in evacuating casualties. Shelling continued all day and showed little sign of diminishing at nightfall. Bringing up rations through this barrage was a matter of no little difficulty and danger, nevertheless the duty was satisfactorily carried out by a party under Lieut. T.B.D. Tudball, who deposited the supplies at Battalion Headquarters, whence the companies in the line were to draw them.
On this occasion Lieut.-Col. Buchanan had his headquarters in a dugout in Courcelette and had with him Major W.F. Peterman and Capt. C.C. Green, these officers acting respectively as Second-in-command and Adjutant during the absence on leave of Major G.E. McCuaig and Lieut. C.D. Craig. Having dumped the rations, Lieut. Tudball reported to Major Peterman, who approved a suggestion that the ration party should remain at headquarters till the barrage on the road back had become less severe. During the interval that followed Lieut.-Col. Buchanan noticed that Tudball showed signs of exhaustion and gave the latter a drink of whiskey. Some time later, the barrage having eased a little, the ration party withdrew.
No one knows exactly what happened in that busy dugout at about 8.30p.m. Who can ever describe a moment of high tragedy and disaster? All that is certain is that a shell burst in the roof and walls and ignited a supply of gasoline, the explosion and flames leaving death and ruin in their wake. All in a moment the Battalion suffered a grievous loss. Lieut.-Col. Buchanan was killed, as were Major Peterman and Capt. Green. With them perished eight of the headquarters staff, while thirty-three others, staff and runners, were horribly burned or wounded, among these being Corp. H. Day, in command of the scouts and runners on duty. With the death of the Commanding Officer and the Acting Second-in-command, control of the Battalion passed for the time being to Major J.D. Macpherson, who handed over to Major G.E. McCuaig when the latter returned from leave on the following morning.
All day on the 27th the Battalion remained in the line, enduring shelling even more severe than on the 26th. A mopping up party on this date cleared the battlefield over which the 14th and 15th had advanced on the previous day, no light task in view of the fact that many wounded had to be evacuated over terrain so churned up that the removal of a single case was often a matter calling for all the strength and endurance that eight men could bring to bear.
At one point the subaltern in charge of the mopping up discovered an enormous Hun lying on the ground. Stirring this individual gently with his foot, the officer suggested by signs that he get up and make his way to the rear. Replying in a similar manner, the German intimated that his wounds were too severe, so stretcher bearers were summoned. Owing to the weight of the wounded man, the journey back was a trying one, but at last the stretcher bearers, nearly exhausted, reached a point not far from the dressing station and laid their burden down for a moments rest. To their almost speechless indignation the Htm thereupon rose from the stretcher, wandered about for a minute or so and, returning to the stretcher, lay down again with an air of ineffable content. The bearers, naturally, forced the Hun to walk the short distance that remained, but in view of the fact that he could probably have made the whole journey in this manner, none could deny that he had scored handsomely.
At night word reached the Highlanders that the 14th Battalion required assistance to counter-attack a position on the right. No. 4 Coy., was assigned to this duty and command for the occasion given to Lieut. H. A. Johnston. About midnight guides from the 14th Battalion arrived to lead Lieut. Johnston and his Company forward and shortly afterward the move began.
It had been arranged that the 14th Battalion would place lights facing to the rear to mark the assembly position. There is no doubt that these were placed in position, but a heavy fog fell and they were quite indistinguishable. Similarly, the few landmarks that existed in this dreary and devastated area were completely enveloped and lost to view. In the inky blackness of the dripping night and in the maze of water filled shell holes under foot, the guides as was almost inevitable, failed in their allotted task. Time was lost wandering around trying to identify trenches and shell holes that had no individual characteristics, and the party was nowhere near the assembly point when the barrage that was to precede the attack began. Seeing that he had entirely missed his objective, Lieut. Johnston consulted with the officer guides of the 14th, who agreed with him that it was now quite useless to push on. Accordingly the venture was called off and Johnston, returning with his men to No. 4 Coy. headquarters, reported to Major Rowan the death of one of his party and the circumstances under which his mission had failed.
While these events had been taking place the 22nd Battalion had relieved the Highlanders, the latter making their way through seemingly endless mud, back past Courcelette and the famous Sugar Refinery and on to billets in Albert. So exhausted were the men after the strenuous days in the line, that billets were not reached by the main body till long after dawn, while stragglers continued to arrive in for several hours after. During the tour casualties had amounted to 28 killed, 142 wounded and 9 missing.
Meanwhile to Lieut. Tudball had fallen the sad task of conveying to Albert for burial the bodies of Lieut.-Col. Buchanan, Major Peterman, Capt. Green and Lieut. G. N. Sale, the last named having fallen in action during the progress of the tour. It was with heavy hearts that officers and men attended the funeral, which took place in Albert on the morning of the 28th. While all ranks shared in the sorrow and regret caused by the death of a beloved commanding officer, the sense of personal loss was accentuated in the case of those veterans, few in number by this time, who had sailed from Canada with the First Canadian Contingent almost exactly two years before. To them Col. Buchanan had been more than a good commanding officer. They had served under him in times of peril and trusted and looked up to him in a manner that bore testimony, more eloquent than words, to the very definite affection that existed between them.
Major Peterman, too, had been an original officer and had served the Battalion with inspired devotion. Twice he had been wounded, but on each occasion his high courage and deep sense of duty had hastened his recovery, so that he might rejoin the Regiment and continue to serve with the least possible loss of time. Capt. Green and Lieut. Sale had been with the 13th for a shorter time, but they, too, by reason of their loyal and capable service, had won a place in the regard of both officers and men.
Canon Scott officiated at the funeral and the dead received all honours that grieving comrades could bestow. Military funerals are of necessity brief and this was no exception. When the beautiful lines of the burial service had been read, the rifles spoke their farewell, the bugle sounded the “Last Post,” officers and men saluted with deep respect and, turning away, left the four gallant soldiers to their well earned rest. On the afternoon of September 28th the Battalion, weary- after the hardships of the previous days, paraded at three o clock and marched to Warloy, No. 2 Coy. detailing 1 officer and 6 men to march in the rear of the column to pick up stragglers. No regular parades were held on the 29th, though company commanders inspected rifles and checked shortages of kit, submitting lists of deficiencies to the Quartermaster, so that the Battalion might be made ready for the next tour in the line. On the following day Gen. Currie visited the Battalion, complimented the men on their steadiness during the recent engagements and spoke most feelingly of the loss that the Division had suffered through the death of Lieut-Col. Buchanan.
With the advent of October the Royal Highlanders began active preparations for an attack against Regina Trench. Little could be accomplished for several days owing to inclement weather, but during this time the men bathed and received clean clothing at Warloy; were paid and practised bayonet fighting, while the companies managed to get in a two hour training period each day, as did the Machine Gun, Bombing and Signalling Sections.
On October 4th the morning was devoted to physical training, bayonet fighting and musketry instruction, but in the afternoon the weather cleared and several hours were given to the practice of battalion in attack. On the 5th the Battalion marched to Albert, this route being full of significance to the veterans who knew from past experience that a march to Albert meant dirty work ahead. The next morning a move was made to the Brickfields, where some time was spent in bayonet fighting and practising the attack. In the afternoon preparations were made for a tour in the line, but about 3 p.m. this programme was cancelled and for it was substituted an order for a large party to work on repairing roads.
On the morning of the 7th the Battalion again practised the attack, while on the same date Major G. E. McCuaig issued his operation order dealing with the engagement now imminent. Summarized, this order was as follows: —
(1). The Canadian Corps is co-operating with the 3rd British Corps in offensive operations.
- The 69th Infantry Brigade will be on the right of the 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade.
- The 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade will be on the left of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade.
(2) The objective of the 1st Canadian Division will be Below Trench, and thence Regina Trench.
(3) The 3rd Canadian Infantry Brigade will attack on a front of two battalions, the 13th Battalion on the left and the 16th Battalion on the right.
(4) The 13th Battalion will move forward in waves, No. 1 Coy. forming the right and No. 4 Coy. the left of the first two waves. No. 2 Coy. will form the 3rd wave. No. 3 Coy. will be in reserve in the support trench, and will replace the first three waves in the front line, when the latter have moved forward.
(5) The time of the assault will be notified later.
(6) No. 2 Coy. will detail mopping up parties, in case any are required.
(7) Each company will be supplied with a small candle lamp with blue glass, to put up, if possible, close to their H.Q s., facing back. No. 2 Coy. will take up a white tape line, to establish a route back to the jumping off trenches. The Signallers will try to establish two lines to the forward objective.
(8) Prisoners should be collected, disarmed, and sent back under escort to Battalion H.Q s. Slightly wounded men should be used for this purpose, but escorts must be adequate to handle prisoners.
(9) It is important to locate the front line definitely. Flares and periscope mirrors will be used for this purpose.
In accordance with these orders, the 13th Battalion, Royal Highlanders of Canada, paraded at 4 o clock in the afternoon of October 7th and proceeded forward. In the original operation order, it had been announced that three companies would take part in the attack, with one in reserve, but, while passing through Pozieres on the way in, the Battalion received orders from 3rd Brigade Headquarters to throw all four companies into the assault, this being considered advisable owing to the fact that the companies were much under strength as the result of recent casualties. In order to comply with these instructions, a halt was made near the Courcelette Sugar Refinery and the dispositions of the companies adjusted.
Subsequently an officer of the 15th Battalion reported to Major McCuaig that the jumping off trenches had been prepared and were all in readiness. Accordingly, the men moved forward and occupied these trenches, Battalion Headquarters being established in an old German ammunition dugout, with two entrances side by side. One of these was for boxes of ammunition and gave access to a long, slippery chute, which led down to the dugout floor. The other was the regular entrance connected with the usual stairway for human beings. Some seven or eight hundred yards away from this position was Regina Trench, the first objective of the attack, and beyond it the village of Pys, against which Major F. T. Rowan was to lead his men, should the attack on Regina prove successful.
Sharp at 4.50 a.m., Rowan, who had quite recovered from his wounds of the previous April, led the attacking waves over the parapet. It was pitch dark at this hour, but a line of telegraph poles, leading straight to the objective, gave assurance that direction would be maintained without serious difficulty. After the waves of the attack had gone forward the small garrison left in the jumping off trenches and the officers and men of Battalion Headquarters waited eagerly for news. Some uneasiness began to be felt as time passed and no word came back, but the crash and thunder of the supporting guns was reassuring and inspired confidence. After all the practice and all the careful planning, it seemed impossible that anything could go seriously wrong.
When night faded and the eastern sky began to show a hint of dawn without any news having arrived, uneasiness gave place to acute anxiety and acute anxiety to certainty that all was not well. Suddenly, Major McCuaig and the officers in Battalion Headquarters were startled by the arrival of a huge private, who, mistaking the entrance to the dugout, rolled down the ammunition chute and sprawled on the floor at their feet. He was covered with mud from head to toe, blood dripped from a shattered arm and, even as they helped him from the ground, all present realized that such a figure at such a time could be only a messenger of disaster. Recovering his equilibrium, the private turned to Major McCuaig and delivered his report. It consisted of three words only. “Sir,” said he, “we re b d.”
Unfortunately the news conveyed in this expressive, if unorthodox, manner was all too true. The attack, it appeared, had progressed smoothly over the long stretch of No Man s Land, but, on sweeping forward for the actual plunge into Regina Trench, had run into a great mass of uncut wire. Day had dawned as the men were struggling to get through this and the Germans manning Regina Trench had opened up with machine gun and rifle fire and cut the attacking waves to ribbons. Proof that this explanation of what had happened was correct was found later when scores of the Highland dead were seen hanging limply over the wires that had proved their undoing.
Only on the right flank had the wire been properly cut and here a party of the Battalion, under Lieut. Sykes, pushed forward and drove their way into the Trench. Further to the right, the 16th Battalion, Canadian Scottish, achieved success and occupied Regina Trench in some force. Failure elsewhere, however, compelled the 16th to retire and to give up the ground they had won so dearly. With them returned some 20 men of the 13th, members of the party which had succeeded in reaching its objective.
Details of the attack are extremely hard to obtain. In the 13th Battalion 17 officers and 360 men went forward and of these 13 officers and 288 men were casualties. At first it was feared that 15 officers were casualties, but at night this number was reduced to 13, when Lieut. T.G. Holley and Lieut. J.A. Plante, who had lain out all day in the German wire, got safely in and reported for duty.
Meanwhile, the small band of survivors, reinforced by the Colt Gun Sections and by a company of the 15th Battalion, 48th Highlanders, of Toronto, had manned and were holding the jumping off trenches from which the ill-fated attack had been launched. Lieut-Col. Bent, of the 15th, offered to send up additional assistance, as soon as news reached him of the heavy losses the 13th had sustained. This offer was much appreciated by the Royal Highlanders and was in keeping with the loyal spirit of co-operation and friendship which existed between all the battalions of the 3rd Brigade, but Major McCuaig decided that the situation did not render its acceptance necessary.
When night fell once more, Lieut. C.D. Lloyd took a patrol out into No Man s Land to see if he could obtain any information about the large number of men regarding whose fate nothing definite was known. This patrol covered a considerable area, but could get little news of value. Bit by bit, however, from a score of sources, some details as to the fate of individuals were collected. Major F.J. Rowan, who led the attack, was badly wounded. Stretcher bearers started back with him, but the little party never reached its destination. Presumably all were killed by shell fire somewhere in No Man s Land. Major S.W. Gilroy and Lieuts. H.E. Piercy, K.M. Carmichael, John Grey, E.C. Bryson and A. H. Walker were also killed. The last named was a brother of Lieut. J.G. Walker, killed while with the Battalion in the previous June. In addition to these Capt. R.W. Fordham, Capt. J.D. Gunn and Lieut. E. W. Mingo had been wounded and taken prisoner, while Capt. G.C. Hamilton had been captured and Lieut. H.G. Irving wounded.
All day on the 8th, all that night and all the next day, the remnant of the 13th Battalion clung to the jumping-off trenches, suffering a number of additional casualties from shelling, which at times was severe. Among those who fell was Lieut. H.A. McCleave, who was injured while proceeding overland between the jumping-off and original front line trenches, and died of his wounds in hospital. During all this trying time, Lieut. Plante and Lieut. Holley, who had escaped from the disaster, as previously noted, together with Lieut. Tudball and Sergt. Wallace, did much by their example to inspire their men and encourage them to face with fortitude the severe strain that holding the line with such a fragmentary force entailed.
On the night of October 9th, the 2nd Brigade relieved the 3rd Brigade, and the 13th Battalion, or rather what was left of it, withdrew to billets in Albert. So reduced was the unit that practically the whole Battalion rode back from Pozieres on the limbers, which the Transport Officer had thoughtfully sent forward. No. 4 Coy. consisted of two subalterns and eleven men, while the other companies were only a little stronger, the four combined showing a strength of just 100 all ranks. Surely the Battalion bore the mark of having been through that place of evil which was the Somme.