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.

Critical Debate Averted!

Future of the UK is too important to be left to these clowns

A 90 minutes brawl between two shouty middle aged men was reported to have been witnessed by several hundred people in the vicinity of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow last night.

Apparently an informed public debate between two senior politicians on the future of the United Kingdom will now not be taking place before the referendum which is scheduled for the 18th September. Pathetic and bewildering in equal measure.

Go Glasgow!

Well, I sat down last night in front of the television with a bottle of red aggravator looking forward in a ghoulish sort of way to laughing and cringing my way through the Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony in a re run of the bloody awful Olympic Opening Ceremony. Strangely.... I found myself getting drawn in and enjoying it.

Ok, some of it was a bit shortbread tin and heather kitsch but actually, that's what most people want and expect. There were some low points, obviously there were. Susan Boyle managed to leave most people with bleeding ears and the Pipes & Drums could have done with another 50 mins of exposure but then that's just me. Most teams looked as if they’d dressed themselves after ram raiding TK Max or clearing the shelves of a closing down charity shop. The biggest home nations obviously won gold and silver here. The English team came out looking like a bunch of cheap 1970’s gigolo’s and the Scots were apparently dressed by an art student working on a theme of “throw up you can wear” and a healthy supply of Perthshire tearoom curtains. Odd isn’t it that the best dressed teams seemed to come from the smallest countries.

The highlights for me included that amazing violinist, Nicola Benedetti (who goes straight to the top of the TMC list), and most of the girls in the Welsh team who just looked terrific; I may now have to support Wales except in rugby sevens were I sincerely hope they crash, burn and fail to score a single point and exit the competition never to play the game ever again. Actually, I shouldn't knock the Welsh, if only because they brushed all the winging about the accommodation aside at the Dehli Games, got on the plane and got on with the job.

I thought the charity thing was a cool idea and was happy to chuck a fiver in the pot. All in all, its set the stage really well and has to be the best Commonwealth ceremony ever. Big congratulations to Glasgow who everyone seems to agree this morning are the knock down winners of the Games and deservedly so.

The best thing about the Games though, which I genuinely hope are a massive success, is that they deliver a healthy poke in the eye with a sharp stick to most of the self obsessed and cynical short term Charlies in Westminster who have done the square root of bugger all to support the Commonwealth over the past fifty years. The Commonwealth only exists because of the dogged perseverance and patience of the Queen whose vision for the Commonwealth has seen off generation after generation of doubting politicians to the point where we might rightly ask, "has it indeed ever been stronger and is not its role more relevant today than ever it has been?" The second biggest Commonwealth supporter is of course the Duke of Edinburgh and I'm putting my stake in the ground as the third. With so much tension and strife in the world the Commonwealth is an interesting and useful diplomatic back channel outside the usual power blocks but one which retains individual State independence and importantly, integrity through the leadership and patronage of HM. Its a family of shared blood, history and values which very much ought to be celebrated and not ignored or treated like some embarrassing anachronism. 

The opening parade of the massed pipes and drums at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, August 2008.

Oh and just in case anyone else felt short changed by the Ceremony organisers and their parsimonious use of the pipes & drums here you go, enjoy!


Nae Place Like It

This weekend confirmed a long held view that if a bad thing were to happen to me I would like it to be in Glasgow. Where else does a terrorist get nutted for having the temerity to crash a car into the airport and where else do people run toward rather than away from trouble? There is a lot to be cautious about in that City but when the chips are down, there’s no one quite like them.