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The Military Tradition in Caithness:Part 3-Battlefield Baptism-Givenchy,1915

 

It was universally greeted with a great shout of public rejoicing. In Berlin, London, Vienna, Paris, and Moscow people took to the streets in an outpouring of patriotic fervour. Expected for years, all but pacifists looked forward to it with breath-arresting anticipation. From pulpits in mean village churches and great cathedrals alike, preachers of every denomination solemnly gave thanks to their God for giving them this sacred hour. The date was August 4th, 1914 - the First World War had begun.

In accordance with long drawn-up plans, mobilisation notices were sent out to members of the Territorial Force throughout Britain, ordering them to report to local HQ. Emergency railway timetables steamed into operation. On station platforms at Wick and Thurso crowds of cheering Caithnessians, decked out in Sunday best, waved flags, blew kisses and wished God speed to the local heroes, off to free Belgium from the Hun's iron grasp. In truth, the Caithness Territorials were bound only as far as Invergordon, where they were needed to protect the naval base from a German invasion.

At Golspie eight companies, four from Sutherland (A to D); four from Caithness (E to H), were formed into the 1/5th Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders, a vital component of the Highland Division. With the threat of blisters never far away, the Highland Division set to work fortifying the shores of the Cromarty Firth around Invergordon. They were confident that the British Expeditionary Force, sent to France on the outbreak of war, would rapidly bring the Huns to heel. By Christmas at the latest, it would all be over. First footing 1915 would be no different to any other year. Even a mid-August move to Bedford in deepest Englandshire, failed to alert the Seaforths to the possibility that this could be a war of no short duration, a war in which many, many men would lose their lives. One shrewd man foresaw all this - Lord Kitchener, the stern-faced Secretary for War, who was busily drumming up recruits to fill the Service battalions of his new army.

Naive expectations were not confined to the Far North of Scotland. In Lorraine, the French had lurched straight into an ill-conceived attack on the German lines. Relying on an abstract notion called 'elan', soldiers decked out in fancy dress uniforms of red and blue coats, and baggy white pantaloons dashed headlong at fortified machine gun nests. Human courage is a static quality. Weaponry is always in a state of dynamic advance. By the end of August the French had lost 300,000 of its best troops. Needless to say, their Lorraine offensive was a total failure.

Meantime, in Russia, that vast and awesome land where men were looked upon as a breed of domestic animal, huge armies wandered aimlessly into East Prussia. The illiterate Russians were unaquainted with code; their radio messages were all sent in plain speech. Predictable results attended this lack of discretion. Within a month, the battles of Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes had cost the Russians 250,000 men.

This was not the end of it. Delirious with war fever, an Austrian army had rushed to invade Galacia in Polish Russia. The Austrians pursued their enemies into the trackless Carpathian mountains, totally ignorant of the area's climatic extremes. Equipt for a summer campaign, 80,000 Austrians froze to death overnight. Thousands more roamed the hills, lost and starving. All told the Galacian campaign resulted in 200,000 Austrian casualties, with a further 100,000 taken prisoner, most of whom never saw their homeland again.

Human loss on such a scale was unheard of in any previous war - by the end of 1914, almost 2 million were dead or maimed. Clearly there were lessons to be learned. But, egged on by blind patriotism and a war-mongering press, the great European armies continued in the illusion that ultimate victory lay just beyond the next infantry charge. The loss of half of Britain's regular army - the finest ever to leave these shores -at the battles of Mons, Ypres and the Marne, was small beer compared to the death lists in Russia or Lorraine. In any case, there was no shortage of eager volunteers to replace those who had fallen. When a request went out for Territorial soldiers to volunteer for service overseas, it fell on willing ears in Caithness. After all, did not the 5th Seaforth's motto ASans Peur@ translate as 'without fear'?

In November 1914, the first Highland Territorial soldiers left for France. The 1/5th Seaforths were not among them. As they watched their fortunate comrades entraining for Dover, en route to Flanders, we cannot but doubt that many a Caithness heart swelled with envy at the thought of not being present when the Huns were chased across the Rhine. There was nothing for it but to buckle down to the intense training at the Bedford camp, a regime far more severe than the Territorials had enjoyed at their annual summer outings before the war broke out. Winter came and with it the Battalion's first casualties. Eighteen men, six of them from Caithness, died, some during an outbreak of measles, others killed in training, whose realism reflected what the Seaforths could expect over in Flanders.

At last the longed for moment came. On May 2nd, 1915 the 1/5th Seaforth's lined up on the quayside at Boulogne, ready to be inspected by their Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel John James Davidson, a Watten landowner who had joined the old Rifle Volunteers in 1892. Arrival in France brought changes. The Sutherlanders in the 1/5th Seaforth's became 'A' and 'B' companies; Wick, Lybster and Thurso joined forces in 'C' Company; 'D' Company was made up of men from Halkirk and Castletown. Save for those wounded in action, none of these Northern warriors would see Caithness again for almost 4 years. Many of them were fated never to return.

What had been happening on the Western Front while the 1/5th Seaforth's were clicking their heels in the Bedford training camp? Immediately after the Battle of the Marne, when the German invaders 30 miles a day march on Paris was repulsed, the contending armies had dug themselves into a vast network of trenches, redoubts and fortified strongpoints which stretched from the North Sea to the Alps. Acres of barbed wire covered the open ground. Mobile warfare froze into a rigid system of large scale attacks for limited tactical gains, with enormous loss of life.

Many of the army commanders were old time cavalrymen, schooled in the saddle. Their dreams were dominated by the glorious spectacle of panic-stricken infantrymen flying before the sabres of a troop of mounted lancers. It was never to be. Sir William Robertson, the British Chief of General Staff, a rough-mannered individual who had come up through the ranks, saw things in a more realistic way. In Robertson's opinion, victory would go to those with the greatest number of men. As there were more Britons and Frenchmen than Germans in uniform, it followed that when all the Germans were dead, the Allies, still having men left alive, would have won the war. This callous strategy was referred to as 'attrition'. It was to hold sway for nearly four years.

During the night of 21st/22nd May, a long trail of kilted men snaked its way along the narrow country lanes around Richebourg St Vaast, near Festubert. The 1/5th Seaforth's were heading for the Front Line. Arriving at their destination in the pre-dawn twilight, the Seaforth's viewed their new home. It was not great. Holes in the ground, roofed with sheets of rusty corrugated iron supported by rough-hewn wooden beams, the whole covered with a few inches of loose soil. Cold comfort; but to stray from these miserable billets was to invite a bullet from one of the numerous German snipers, hidden among the high ground overlooking the British trenches.

Daylight came, and with it a landscape made melancholy by the ravages of war. As far as the eye could see there were farmhouses and villages, blackened and ruined by high explosive. Here and there the stumps of shattered trees stood silent sentry beside great shellholes, gouged into the clay-rich Flanders earth. Worst of all was the strange smell, a smell that sickened every stomach. A week before the Seaforth's arrived at the Front Line, a battle had raged around Festubert, where thousands of soldiers had died in a futile British assault on the German lines. Their bodies still remained on the battlefield, unburied and stinking. For the 1/5th Seaforth's, the first task was to get these rotting bodies underground as quickly as possible. Hurried impromptu funerals conducted around desolated shellholes, sad farewells to unknown comrades - this was a far different cry from the swaggering parades of peacetime soldiering. This was real war.

After a month spent on fatigues - dragging supplies and ammunition from the rear to the Front Line - the 1/5th Seaforth's found themselves in the line at Givenchy. It was 14th June, 1915. All day long, from 6 till 6, a non-stop artillery blitz pounded the German trenches some 250 yards from where the Seaforth's waited, awe-struck by the ferocity of this shellfire tempest, which had started a day earlier. Surely, no-one could survive such a storm? Next day the British turned their guns on the deep-dug bunkers behind the German front line. Another twelve hour plastering. It seemed as though all the Seaforth's had to do was march across the narrow no-man's land, round up any Germans left alive, then set off towards Berlin.

The British plan involved a series of attacks on the German lines around Givenchy, aimed at taking the pressure off the hard-pressed French, who were wasting thousands of lives trying to take Vimy Ridge. Ten British divisions were to launch this attack; in the event, only three took part. This was the first major flaw in British strategy. The second was based on an assumption that three days of heavy shelling would not only demoralise the German front-line troops, but would also blast holes in the barb wire maze that protected the enemy trenches. There was a yet more serious flaw. The Germans were fully aware of every detail of the British assault plans. Was a captured officer carrying all these plans on him? We do not know. What we are certain of, however, is the fact that the rain of British shells largely wasted its violent energy on a network of half-empty trenches. The Germans bided their time, kept their machine guns oiled and bullet-filled, and prepared their own artillery for a stunning counter-barrage.

By tea-time on the 15th, the 1/5th Seaforth Highlanders were waiting eagerly at their posts in the forward trenches. Every man carried 90 pounds of equipment. Rations, ammunition, spade and entrenching tool for digging makeshift shelters in the German trenches the Seaforths felt certain of capturing. The C.O. being a Watten man, it was only to be expected that to Caithness would go the honour of taking the Battalion into battle. The unit chosen by Lieutenant-Colonel Davidson to lead the charge was 'C' Company, the men of Wick, Lybster and Thurso.

At 6 p.m. the great guns stopped firing. An eerie silence spellbound the battlefield. High up in the summer sky, larks could be heard singing. For one brief moment it was almost possible to forget there was a war in progress. Then whistles blew, and the 140 men of 'C' Company clambered out of their trenches to start their measured march across no-man's land to the German trenches, presumed to be filled with shell-shattered bodies.

Something was not right. Heads appeared above the broken parapets of the German trenches. Figures could be clearly seen hurriedly setting up machine guns. These were evil omens. Next moment all hell broke loose as a hail of machine gun fire swept across no-man's land. But the Caithness soldiers kept right on marching, uneasy, yet undeterred by the sight of their comrades falling all around them. Then things took a turn for the worse as German artillery opened up, seeking the range of the easy targets now half way across no-man's land. The order came for the Seaforth's to charge. Lives now well and truly on the line, the kilted warriors dashed forward as one to - disaster. To their dismay they found that, far from being cut in pieces, the wire was still intact. The shells used for the preliminary bombardment had penetrated deep into the ground before they exploded, throwing the barbed wire high into the air, from where it dropped unharmed into a cosy shell hole.

It was a moment frightening beyond all imagination. Faced with a maze of impenetrable wire, the air filled with the sound of whistling death, the Seaforth's paused, uncertain of how to proceed. Some sought a way through the wire; others hacked at it, desperately trying to force a way through. To their credit, not one man thought of retreating back to the British lines. Such was their ingrained sense of duty. In a vain attempt at providing some covering fire for his beleagured men, Lieutenant-Colonel Davidson tried to call down artillery on the German positions. His request fell on deaf ears. The guns had run out of ammunition. Out there in no-man's land, the battle with the wire went on.

By some miracle or other, a group of nine soldiers managed to force their way through the wire and reach the forward German trenches. Here an epic struggle started, as the Seaforth's engaged their enemies with grenades and bayonets, striving might and main to take out the murderous machine guns that were wreaking such havoc amongst their comrades. Set upon by superior numbers, the Seaforths fought like tigers. It was brave, it was glorious - but it was also hopeless. The only thing left was to dig in and pray that relief would come. Another attack was due to commence at 4 a.m. next morning. Hopefully, it would not be too late.

Along the wire, what was left of 'C' Company laid low while back at the British lines company commanders argued the pros and cons of sending in the other companies to help them. No-one could make a decision without permission from Brigade HQ. The problem was, all lines of telephone communication between front and Brigade had been destroyed by German shells. Runners were sent post haste, only to find that Brigade needed sanction from Division HQ before additional attacks could be contemplated. Once again, a swift answer was not forthcoming - the lines to Division had also been severed. There was nothing for it but to wait until the scheduled 4 a.m. assault began.

This tragic farce was alleviated by the administrative creativity of Lieutenant-Colonel Davidson. Reinforcing 'C' Company was out of the question, but there was nothing to prevent men being sent out to help the wounded. Davidson asked for volunteers. By now it was 10 o'clock at night and darkness had fallen. Word had finally arrived from Divisional HQ forbidding any further attacks until next morning. No matter, the rest of the 1/5th Seaforth's sprang forward to answer the call to assist their wounded comrades in 'C' Company.

That night, amidst a nightmare landscape of bursting shells and screaming bullets, deeds of real heroism were performed, unseen and largely unrecorded. Every medal awarded on that terrible day at Givenchy was handed out to those who helped snatch wounded men from the jaws of certain death. CSM James Bruce, Corporal John Duchart, Drummer Bocock, all received the Distinguished Conduct Medal. RSM Donald Sutherland also received the DCM in addition to the coveted Croix de Guerre. John Duchart's tale is the most poignant of all, for his brother Peter was one of the wounded lying out in no-man's land. Journey after journey John Duchart made between the mind-searing dangers of no-man's land and the relative safety of the British lines. At last he found Peter, brought him back to the trenches, only to have him die in his arms.

With what was left of 'C' Company back in their own lines, all that remained was to contemplate the fate of the nine brave Seaforth's holed up in a captured German trench. What happened to them will never be known for certain. As the night dragged on their comrades listened helplessly to the grim fight going on hammer and tongs only 300 yards from the British lines. At 3 a.m. all fell silent. It was all over. Many a hardened Highlander put his head into his hands and cried tears of anger, frustration and sorrow over those gallant nine men. In the heat of the moment it was tempting to blame the officers who forbade any attempt at rescue. In reality, nothing could be done. The nine men were trapped beyond help. It would have been suicide pure and simple for anyone foolhardy enough to try and rescue them.

The early morning attack never took place. Postponed for an hour, a thick mist caused the whole thing to be called off. For the 1/5th Seaforth Highlanders the battle of Givenchy was over. Of the 140 men of 'C' Company who left the British trenches on that midsummer evening in 1915, only 33 escaped unscathed. Killed 39; wounded 68. These bald statistics brought home to the people of Caithness the grim reality of modern war. At first, no-one in the county could believe it. Surely, there must be some mistake? Sadly, it was all too true.

Givenchy was the first battle in which Caithness men fought during the First World War. It was also the end of a long period of blissful ignorance regarding the terrible consequences which arise, when flesh and blood human beings are sent to fight against machine guns, barbed wire and high-explosive shells. From now on, a hero was so as much by luck as design. Below is a list of Caithness and Sutherland men killed or missing at Givenchy on June 15th, 1915 - 'Caithness's blackest day.'

Private George Alexander, Thurso.

Lance Corporal Hugh Cameron, Kildonan and Wick.

Private Donald Cormack, Lybster.

Corporal Peter Duchart, Wick.

Second Lieutenant Donald Dunnett, Thurso.

Private William Dunnett, Wick.

Sergeant Robert Edwards, Clyne.

Lance Corporal Peter Gunn, Lybster.

Private Herbert Harper, Wick.

Private Alexander Henderson, Thurso.

Drummer Gordon Leed, Thurso.

Lance Corporal Donald Macdonald, Thurso.

Private Robert C. Mackay, Thurso.

Private William Mackay, Wick.

Private James Mackenzie, Wick.

Sergeant Ian D. Maclennan, Thurso.

C.Q.M.S. John Macleod, Wick.

Private Charles Manson, Wick.

Lieutenant James Mowat, Lybster and Wick.

Corporal S. Sinclair Munro, Thurso.

Private John Murray, Thurso.

Private George Oag, Thurso.

Corporal Alfred Sinclair, Wick.

Private David Stephen, Lairg.

Private Donald Swanson, Thurso.

Private Robert Sutherland, Clyth.

We would like to thank Major-General Ian Robertson for his assistance with this article.

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Steven Cashmore 1998


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