Armistice Day; An Epic Tale

Men of the 16th Bn HLI in 1914

It’s Armistice Day and I would like to share a tale with you. A tale so epic it is scarcely believable. It is a howling shame that this story is not more widely known for among the many moments in our proud history that men have done great deeds this surely merits a place in the collective history of our nation. It concerns an incident in the mud and blood of Flanders in the Great War, of very ordinary volunteers of Kitchener's Army; clerks, storemen, conductors, drivers, roadmen, milkmen, schoolboys and such. Men whose courage, tenacity and fighting spirit went beyond anything that was expected of them.

We’re all familiar with the concept of the ‘Pals,’ Battalions. One such was the 16th Battalion, Highland Light Infantry which was formed predominately by members and ex-members of the Boys Brigade in the City of Glasgow. The Battalion was formed very early in the war, on the 2nd September 1914, and in May 1915 moved to Shropshire where it joined the 97th Brigade of the 32nd Division HLI. In November 1915, the Battalion sailed for France.

The Battalion endured a rough time on the first day of the Somme at Thiepval. When the Battalion retired from the line on the 3rd July 1916 the casualty list ran to 20 officers and 534 other ranks. Having lost two thirds of its strength just four months later they were back and at the final battle at the Ancre in November casualties again were grievous.

16th Bn HLI Church Parade

On the 18th of November the Battalion, reinforced with soldiers from the Highland Cyclist Battalion, attacked at Beaumont-Hamel. The whistles blew at 06:10hrs and the men, laden with half a hundredweight of arms and equipment, launched themselves into No Mans Land. The 2nd Manchesters, 2nd KOYLI and 11th Borders to their left were counter attacked after initial success and were beaten back. Six to eight enemy machine guns on the Battalions half right pinned down A and B Companies. C and D Companies on the half left though penetrated the German front line, Munich Trench. While the rest cleared the trench, three platoons of D Company pushed on to the second objective under heavy shell and machine gun fire, Frankfurt Trench. The trench was taken and 50 prisoners sent back under escort. This group arrived back at Munich Trench in time to be attacked from three sides by the enemy in overwhelming numbers. The guards were killed as was the mopping up party clearing the trench. In fact, according to the Battalion war diary every man became a casualty. The attempted capture of the Beaumont Hamel spur had failed and the 16th alone had lost 13 officers and 390 other ranks.

While the Germans now held Munich Trench, three officers and 60 other ranks of D Company, with men from 11th Borders, still held Frankfurt Trench, cut off and deep in enemy territory.

By nightfall, some stragglers joined the men of D Company to leave them with a strength of 45 fighting men and a similar number of wounded. Two dugouts remained in the captured trench. One was allocated to the wounded with a Corporal in charge, the other to the fit men. There were four Lewis guns and the men handed over their own ammunition to supplement the Lewis guns and armed themselves with German weapons. The machine gun NCO, L/Cpl Veitch, was a tower of strength. A survivor of the Somme he was later recommended for a Victoria Cross. Grenades, food and water were all in short supply as were any medical supplies save for a few field dressings.

By the second day the trench had been revetted, Lewis guns placed at  vital points, The men were surrounded and in a state of siege. The senior NCO, Sergeant Lee, a Glasgow Corporation roads foreman before the war, encouraged and cheered his men throughout the day. Later described as ‘the heart and soul of the defence,’ he too, would later be recommended for a VC. As dawn broke on the third day the Germans, supported by trench mortars and bombs launched a determined attack. It was repulsed but left the HLI with more wounded than they had fit men. They shortened the line to make it easier to defend and that night a heavy British barrage fell around them but a relief effort failed. On the fourth day hopes rose when a signaller managed to attract the attention of British plane with a piece of torn shirt. More aircraft arrived and signalled that help was on the way and to hold out. Help though, which was attempted on the fifth day in another attack, was beaten back and the relief assault suffered 300 casualties. Conditions in the trench then deteriorated further as a result of heavy shelling.

New Munich Trench Cemetery, Beaumont-Hamel

Lack of sleep and food, gangrenous wounds and constant fire took its toll. On the sixth day the Germans again assaulted the trench under heavy shellfire. After brutal hand to hand fighting with the bayonet and entrenching tools the Germans were beaten back leaving eight prisoners. The exhausted defenders then suffered the loss of the indefatigable L/Cpl Veitch, killed by a sniper. On the seventh morning an Inniskilling Fusilier prisoner of war appeared with a German message, ‘Surrender and get good treatment or stay where you are and be killed.’

The defenders were then subjected to the heaviest bombardment yet. Sgt Lee was killed by shrapnel. The promised German attack came in force and from all directions on the morning of the eighth day. The men fought but were overwhelmed. The killing was only stopped by the screaming of the German POW’s. The last stand of D Company, 16th HLI was at an end with only fifteen men left unwounded. Exhausted, they stumbled into captivity. The remainder were roughly removed on stretchers or buried where they lay. Two men died on the way to captivity and a third was shot for accepting a piece of bread from a Frenchwoman.  

In 1919, General Sir Hubert Gough wrote, in a letter sponsoring awards for valour, ‘I consider that these men deserve great recognition for the magnificent example of soldierly qualities they displayed.’ It seems likely that every survivor was decorated because the 16th received one DSO, two MC’s, 11 DCM’s, and 22 MM’s; the highest number of awards by a margin to any one battalion. This was unusual, not least because gallantry awards were rarely given to prisoners of war. The two NCO’s recommended for a VC each received a Mention in Despatches.

This is an extract of a speech given by the chaplain of the regiment, Rev A.H. Gray, during a memorial service in Glasgow in July 1917.

"From a hundred lonely graves in that foreign field - from the spots where they fell, and which now are sacred spots for us - our dead men are asking us when we mean to erect that monument From trench and shell hole where death found them, their voices call - young, musical voices, the voices of boys still in their teens, the voices of martyrs on life's threshold. Scarce a wind can blow that will not waft to these voices. And they ask a better Britain as their monument. They ask it of you and me. Shall we not go from this place resolved to build it?".

Not Forgotten.