Highland Archives

WAR IN THE NORTH – THE ASSAULT ON CLINDRAG HILL

By David Bews and Stephen Cashmore

From the sea they came, borne in on an east wind under cover of thick fog. Within hours their first objective had been achieved, and with an ease none of them could have anticipated. Wick was now in the hands of the invader’s advance guard, a mixture of regular fighting men, part-time soldiers, engineers and cavalry. A clever stratagem had lured the bulk of the local defence forces south by rail to Helmsdale in search of an imaginary foe. And now those home defenders were temporarily stranded, secret agents having blown up strategic sections of the railway as far south as Kildonan. Safe and secure in his tent on the outskirts of Wick, the invader’s Commanding Officer sat within a pool of lanternlight, studying the latest intelligence reports. He had reason to be well pleased. The first day had been a great success; yet there was still a lot of potential fighting to come.

Across the county at Reay, the local Territorials had been mobilised. No doubt the initial shock had stunned them, but they were disciplined men, well-trained and led by respected officers, some of whom had known the rigours of active service overseas. It was vital that the eastward march of these troops, and their rendezvous with their fellow terriers from Thurso and Halkirk, be delayed to allow time for the main invasion force - currently reported somewhere on the wild seas between Orkney and Caithness - to arrive. Already scouts had reported seeing isolated cavalry patrols near Georgemas, sent there no doubt, to assess the damage done to the railway junction by the invader’s sabotage squads. Were these enemy cavalrymen locals, or were they members of a reconnaissance unit sent ahead of the main home defence army, which was sure to be hurrying north over the Ord of Caithness? This force had a known strength of 2 battalions of infantry, an artillery company and a logistical support section made up of engineers, bicycle mounted scouts and their kindred ancillaries, which had become so vital for the waging of modern warfare.

The simplest thing to do was to make use of the natural barrier dividing the eastern side of Caithness from the west. Swollen by recent rains, the River Thurso was impassable except by bridge; destroy the bridges at Thurso, Todholes and Halkirk and the enemy’s advance would be seriously delayed. In concert with his lieutenants the C.O. pored over the large-scale maps of the area between Wick and Thurso, searching for a route over which cavalry, artillery and cycle companies could pass easily and without too much risk of ambush, posing questions, canvassing answers, trying to outguess the enemy.

Some officers argued that a handful of engineers on bicycles should be sent that very night to dynamite the bridges over the River Thurso. Others advised setting out at first light with the whole force, going via Watten and Georgemas to Thurso, destroying the Halkirk bridge en route, before returning to Wick via Castletown and Bower. The first suggestion was dismissed as being too risky for, although it was a night of full moonlight, wandering abroad in a strange landscape where the enemy was known to be lurking, was not over sensible. On the face of it Thurso and back via Watten and Georgemas seemed an excellent idea. The road was one of the county’s best, strong enough to carry the heaviest artillery pieces which would probably be needed to drive away the defenders who would almost certainly be occupying the strategic bridges over the Thurso. And that was the problem – would these defenders be local part-time territorials from Halkirk or Reay, or would they be professional soldiers, the mounted vanguard of the regular army which, even now, could be spreading its tentacles over central Caithness? Information on the main enemy force was scanty; intelligence reports had not yet come in. When confronted by uncertainty the safest course was undoubtedly the wisest.

This was the plan: Leaving a small holding force behind them in Wick, a column would set off with all due caution to Thurso, the main body of light infantry, artillery and engineers going via the road through Kirk, Hastigrow and Castletown, a smaller flank guard of cyclists and foot soldiers taking a parallel route through Sibster, Gillock, Stemster and Hilliclay. Outpost parties of bicycle riding skirmishers would go ahead of the main columns. Their task was to identify any potential enemy ambush sites from where a handful of determined men could hold up the advance of the invading army. The cavalry squadron was to utilise its superior mobility to cover as much ground as possible and lend help where help was wanted.

As they left the C.O.’s tent some time after midnight, the company commanders of the invasion force’s advanced guard gazed across the moonlit acres which stretched away towards the west. A slumbering patchwork of freshly ploughed fields, parks filled with lambs, dank, gloomy moors, bordered by flagstone dykes, it hardly seemed like a landscape at war. Behind them Wick slept lightless and silent under the curfew imposed by martial law. What would tomorrow bring? They would soon find out.

The morning started bright with just a smidgen of frost. Since daybreak the invader’s camp had been humming with the bustle of armed men preparing for action. Rifles were inspected, ammunition issued and accounted for, rations handed out. Surrounded by snorting horses being coaxed between the shafts of gun carriages, troops buckled on Sam Brown belts, wound putees around their ankles, adjusted pack straps, Christian soldiers going through the well-trained routine of marching as to war.

At half past six a bugle called everyone to order. A moments was silence followed by the harsh barks of sergeant-majors ordering their charges into line. Then there came a rattle of harness tackle, the wheezy groan of iron-tyred wheels getting under way, and the ‘left-one-two!’ marching rhythm of a thousand hob-nailed boots as the invading army set off along the road leading to Castletown.

At the head of the column marched a company of light infantry. Behind the foot soldier a battery of medium artillery trundled along, followed by another company of infantry. Next came a mounted field company, its horse-drawn light field guns throwing dust into the front rank faces of yet another light infantry outfit. Bringing up the rear was a field ambulance unit and a collection of miscellaneous second line transport vehicles. A little to the south of this main body, preceded by a company of outriders on bicycles a similar but smaller military train was making its way along the road to Sibster, and on towards Watten and Gillock.

Shortly before 11 a.m. a pair of scouts sent forward by the Captain of No. 2 outpost company crept stealthily along the wooded lanes north of Olrig House, eyes alert for any signs of enemy positions or patrols. Seeing nothing around the house indicating military activity, they headed for the top of Olrig Hill to rendezvous with another two-man patrol that had been sent to check out the rising ground south of Whitefield. They too had seen no sign of the enemy. From the superior height of Olrig the four scouts trained their field glasses on nearby Clindrag Hill, which lay between them and Murkle. They looked and they looked again. No, they were not mistaken. After taking careful note of every relevant detail, two of the scouts hurried back to their outpost company.

Fifteen minutes after noon, the head of the main column was met a mile out of Castletown by a breathless messenger carrying urgent intelligence for the C.O. Scouts reconnoitring the vicinity of Olrig had seen the high ground all along nearby Clindrag Hill bristling with enemy gun positions. These hostile guns commanded every inch for hundreds of yards around the hill. As there was no obvious concealed approach to Clindrag, the only hope an assaulting force had was to advance in short bursts between the shelter of the area’s numerous drystone dykes. This was a dangerous game, especially when played by tired, battle-green troops who had just quick-marched 15 miles. The Commander needed to take stock of the situation. He decided that the best way forward was to pitch camp for the night, and call his subordinate officers together to discuss the situation.

One way forward would be to haul the gun train up to the top of Olrig Hill, from where they could blast away at the enemy positions over at Clindrag. This would take time, and time was a limited luxury they may not have, what with a mobilised territorial unit not 15 miles away, and a hostile army that might well be fast approaching from the south. One thing was certain – the men needed a breather. What were they doing at that moment? Digging latrines in the fields that sloped down to the Burn of Garth, from the junction where the Greenland road meets the main route to Castletown.

The overnight camp spread itself over two fields, with the mess tents being set up in a park on the other side of the main road. Upstream of where the latrine trenches discharged their pungent slurry into Garth Burn, was a strip of running water designated for drinking and watering the horses. Having put their camp in ship-shape order, the soldiers stood around awaiting further orders. Campfires had been forbidden, so they had not eaten a hot meal all day. Were they going to advance further, or would they remain here overnight?

Nothing definite had yet been decided, but as evening drew on a few scouting parties were taken aside and given confidential directions as to which parts of the locale they were to reconnoitre. Emphasis was laid on the need to avoid capture. The enemy probably knew much about the invaders and may well have divined their intentions, but there was no sense in letting him know everything. The majority of the troops were advised to get what rest they could between piquet line duty, when they were to stand sentry at one of the outposts surrounding the camp perimeter.

By 7.30 p.m. it would be as dark as a full moon night with a cloudless sky could be. Smoking was permitted, but under no circumstances were fires to be lit. Camped at the bottom of a shallow valley, fireless and without hot food in their bellies, the troops could probably think of better places to pass the night.

Meanwhile, a mile or so to the south of where the main force was camped, cyclists from the flank guard were busily patrolling all the various back roads and tracks between Stemster and Castletown. At a little after 10 p.m. the piquet guarding the bridge beneath which the Stangergill Burn flows to Dunnet Bay, were startled by a volley of shots. Friend or foe? The shooting, which sounded as though it was some distance away, was followed by a silence, deep and eerie. Then all of a sudden a rushing sound was heard in the darkness, and the next moment a furiously pedalling cyclist came charging down the road out of the village. At the sound of their challenge the cyclist screeched to a halt, breathless, his tongue running away with his thoughts. When his semi-scrambled senses had returned to normal he told them the bad news: his patrol had been surprised by an enemy unit along the Thurso road. Taking advantage of confusion and darkness he had managed to escape, but his companions were missing, presumed captured, or worse . . .

When the C.O. received this intelligence, he realised that the lightning strike sortie to destroy the bridges across the Thurso was no longer a viable option. The enemy was more numerous and widespread than had initially been anticipated. All they could hope to do was to consolidate their existing gains and await the arrival of the main invasion force, which must by now have disembarked at Wick. In the short term, the capture of the enemy positions on Clindrag Hill seemed a thing not beyond the capabilities of his present force. A brief impromptu conference with his junior officers, and the die was cast. Caithness was about to stage its first battle in almost 300 years.

As the night grew old, thick clouds threw a blanket over the moon, obscuring the landscape and making progress slow for the extended lines of men who were marching with measured tread towards the Hill of Clindrag. Two paces separated one soldier from another, 30 yards stretched between each of the three lines. Somewhere in the darkness ahead of them was an advanced party of 8 men and an N.C.O. How far away were they from the enemy positions? Then, along the human files that connected the advance party to the main body, word came that the enemy’s forward outposts around the cairn at the south east base of Clindrag Hill were within striking distance. Softly the order was given for the front line to draw level with the advance party. Silence was paramount, one cough, one dropped piece of equipment and the game would be up. Even in the darkness, randomly fired shots could kill men and drive others into blind panic.

Then it was all over. Those of the enemy who escaped bullet and bayonet thrust were hurrying off to Thurso as fast as their fear-fuelled legs would carry them. Clindrag Hill had fallen. As its captors looked back towards Wick, they saw breaking daylight fingering the eastern horizon. Did this coming morning herald the arrival of the main invasion army? How disappointed the newcomers would be not to have a share in the glory of this victory! But this was but a passing fancy, swiftly smothered by the urgent need to dig a network of trenches all round the summit of Clindrag Hill, for an enemy counterattack was judged a distinct possibility.

"Get stuck in, boys! You’ve got 4 hours to make this place impregnable."

"Is this what we signed up for? Diggin’ bloody holes out in the middle of nowhere. Surely, this isn’t what soldiering’s all about."

But this was indeed what soldiering was all about, as many of the 5th Seaforth Highlanders and Orkney Light Infantrymen who had taken part in the exercise described above, were to find out almost exactly three years later, as they crouched in the shell-shattered wasteland around Festubert, on the Western Front.

Back in April 1912, the kind of official wargame that had just been played out along the north coast of Caithness was a typical example of pre-World War One British military thinking. Cavalry, cyclists, horse-drawn artillery; no mention of grenades, armoured vehicles or machine-guns, those hard lessons waiting to be paid for in blood, bone and flesh in the killing grounds of Flanders. At the time however, those who had taken part in this annual display of territorial soldiering skills had other things on their minds. Lunch at Castletown’s Commercial Hotel, for instance. Then would come the lengthy staff assessment of events, and the chores, such as returning all the horses borrowed from local farmers. Still, it made a welcome change from cutting flagstones or sweating all day long on a farm. And a man in uniform would always stir a lassie’s heart . . . All in all, a day’s serious soldiering was no bad thing.

Among those officers who had taken part in the annual camp manoeuvres of April 1912, was a certain Donald Manson, Captain with the 5th Seaforth Highlanders, a seasoned territorial soldier with 11 years experience. Born at Whitefield Farm, Murkle, in November 1867, Donald was the tenth child of George and Janet Manson. In 1883 the family moved to a house at 30 Princes Street, Thurso, not far from the Temperance Hotel owned by Donald Gair. Mr Gair had a bonnie daughter, Margaret, who caught the eye of young Donald Manson. The couple married in 1900 and settled down in Thurso to raise a family – they were to have six sons – and enjoy whatever social dividends accrued from Donald’s position as a manager at the Castletown Pavement Works.

A year after he married, Donald joined the local Rifle Volunteers, a part-time militia who were reborn as the Territorial Force in 1908, as part of the British Army’s general reformation. By this time, Donald Manson had advanced from a Private’s rank to that of Lieutenant. Further promotion saw him Captaining ‘H’ Company, which was formed from volunteers resident in Castletown and Mey. With the coming of World War One Captain Manson shipped over to France with ‘D’ Company, 5th Seaforths. He was 48 years old when he was wounded at the Orchard, Festubert. He saw out the remainder of the War as a home-based officer with the 4th (Reserve) Seaforth Highlanders. By 1918, Donald Manson had reached the rank of Major; he was Second in Command and recommended for promotion to Battalion Commander, no mean achievement for a 51 year old. The War’s end effectively put a stop to Major Manson’s military career, the 4th Seaforth’s being disbanded in 1919. But Donald Manson’s contribution to Caithness military history did not end there.

During the 1980’s the Manson family, having sold the house at 30 Princes Street, set about removing all the family belongings. In a subterranean room hidden behind a barred window beside the pavement at the top of Sir Johns Square, stood an ancient sink. Beneath this sink was discovered a bundle of papers wrapped in an old carrier bag. Denis Manson, a grandson of the Major, leafed through these papers, suspected their importance, and took them home with him. Years later, Denis’s two sons resurrected this bundle of family history and attempted to put it into some sort of order.

Last year, one of the authors of this article happened to stray into a Thurso bar where he met Denis Manson, a man who had assisted him with a series of pieces relating to the early history of rock music in Caithness. In the course of their conversation, Denis mentioned his grandfather’s papers. Within days he was visited by David Bews, a local researcher well-versed in matters military. It did not take David long to realise that the two black bin bags Denis showed him contained a priceless record of territorial soldiering in Caithness between the years 1908 and 1920. In short, Major Manson appeared to have kept copies of everything relating to the Castletown Company from 1908 to the outbreak of war in 1914. There were accounts, receipts, ledgers, personal files, recruiting posters, minutes of TF Association meetings, and a thick file stamped ‘secret’ which contained detailed accounts of a series of TA exercises held at Brora, Kingussie and in Caithness. This last file provided the bones on which flesh was added to produce the above article.

Appreciating both the historical value and the fragile nature of the documents, David set about making working copies of everything in the two bags. This was a daunting task, and one which would have been nigh-on impossible but for the assistance of Ann Cameron. Ann not only works at Thurso Technical College, but she is also a leading light in the Castletown Heritage Society. Naturally, the Castletown Heritage was greatly interested in Major Manson’s historic papers, copies of which will, hopefully, be available for public viewing and inspection at the Heritage’s premises in Castletown. We would like to take this opportunity to thank both Denis and Ann for their invaluable assistance with this article.

 

Highland Archives Index

 

David Bews 1999

Steven Cashmore 1999


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