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With the Scottish Regiments at the Front
Chapter II - The Royal Scots


One of the titles bestowed on the Royal Scots, that of “Pontius Pilate’s Bodyguard,” marks the claim of the regiment to antiquity. Under Marlborough, in the French war in America, at Corunna, through the Peninsular war with Wellington, at Quatre Bras and Waterloo, in India, the Crimea, and in China, have the battalions of the Royal Scots upheld the honour of the British Army; and it stands to their credit that in the South African campaign, in which they were engaged practically from start to finish, there was not a single case of surrender of a party of the Royal Scots.

The history of the regiment in the present war begins at Landrecies and Mons, and it is worthy of note that the first story of a man of the regiment that comes to hand concerns the bravery of men of other units. The man in question was twice wounded himself before being invalided home; but, declining to talk about himself, he remarked that for real British pluck he had never seen anything to equal that of the Middlesex regiment. He saw them digging trenches near Mons when a mass of Germans, who seemed to come from nowhere, came down on them. He conjectured that the Germans had been apprised of the position of the Middlesex men by an air scout, and he saw how the Germans came on the Middlesex, who were totally unprepared in the matter of equipment, and had to face fixed bayonets with no apparent means of reprisal. But the sergeant of a company set the fashion by the use of his fists, and “downed” two of the attacking Germans; the whole of the company followed suit, but they were badly cut about by the Germans, and the sergeant was bayoneted. Near by were the Connaughts, who, after six guns had been taken by the Germans, charged down on the enemy and took back the guns, with the aid of artillery fire. But, regarding the doings of the Royal Scots at the time, the man of the regiment who tells this story has never a word to say.

A corporal of the ist Royal Scots tells how Lieutenant Geoffrey Lambton, nephew of the Earl of Durham, died. It happened in the third rearguard action after Mons that the lieutenant was in charge of his men in a wood, and was directing fire from a mound. Before and beneath the Scots the Germans were in strong force, and were preparing to attack, when Lambton gave the order to fire, and, picking up a rifle himself, set the example to his men. Fatally wounded by a German bullet, he knew that he had not long to live, so handed over to the corporal his pocket-book, note-book and sketch-book, to take back to his people.

Another corporal of the regiment testifies to the spirit of its men at Landrecies, where in company with about fifty others he was cut off from the main body, and engaged in desperate street fighting. The party joined up with the Grenadier Guards, and in the streets of Landrecies German officers called on them to surrender, but the officers answered that “ British never surrender—fix bayonets and charge! So well did they charge that the streets were piled with German dead. The Royal Scots were heavily engaged at Landrecies, and accounted for a great number of the enemy there.

Graphically is the story of the retreat told by one Private Stewart, who was invalided home after the battle of the Marne. “After Mons,” he says, "the hardships of fighting on the retreat began. We had little time for sleep; both day and night we retreated, and as they marched the men slept. If a man in front of you happened to stop, you found yourself bumping into him. I didn’t have my clothes off for six weeks, and my kit and overcoat have been left on the field. At one place where we halted for the day the lady of the farmhouse was washing, so some of us took off our shirts to have them washed. While they were hanging up to dry the order came that the troops had to move on, and the wet garments had to be put on just as they were. Mine was dry next morning. Two of my mates were killed in the trenches by one shell, which burst close to them. We were not deeply entrenched, and the German artillery fire was so heavy that we had to lie on our sides like pitmen and dig ourselves in deeper. 'We had a chance to look up occasionally when our guns replied. Another time the Royal Scots were having a meal by the roadside, when we got orders that we must be finished in five minutes. In less than that time the Germans opened fire, but fortunately the side of the road was an embankment, and so formed a natural trench. We lay there during the rest of the day and the greater part of the night, keeping off the attack by constant fire. My company captured about forty German cyclists, who offered no resistance —this was after the Marne, when the Germans retired. The British had been blazing away for some time at what appeared to be the helmets of the men in the trenches, when an officer saw that the helmets were not moving. He gave the order to advance, and when we got up we found that the Germans were retiring, and had left their helmets as a blind. Many prisoners were taken that day.”

Brief as an official report is this story, and as pithy, giving as it does an outline of the work in which the Royal Scots have been engaged from the time of Landrecies onwards. For it is not what is actually written that counts in such a sincere piece of writing as this, but the facts that appear between the lines. The brief reference to the hardships of the retreat, the queer washing day, and the interrupted meal, are chapters of war in themselves, reported with a brevity and conciseness which stamp the document as authentic.

Another man of the regiment was in the first of the fighting at Landrecies, and went on to the positions of the Marne and the Aisne, returning wounded from the latter, with four splinters of shrapnel in his back, one in his ribs, and a bullet wound in his head—surely enough to send any man back from the firing line. At Landrecies he and his fellows encountered a looting party of Germans, who carried large quantities of jewellery, clothing, and other articles : practically every account of the first of the fighting tells of German attention to details of this kind.

At the position of the Aisne, the Royal Scots had a stiff struggle in the holding of a pontoon bridge, and the man who tells this story was wounded there during a rain of shell fire to which his battalion was subjected. After he was hit, he lay unconscious for seven hours, and in order to escape after regaining his senses he had to propel himself, feet first, along a sort of furrow or ditch. It was a weary business, and, exposing himself momentarily, he was hit again on the head by a bullet, though the lead failed to penetrate to any depth; and during his journey he was for a time between the fire of Germans and British. He came on a German trench full of dead men, and was struck by the elaborate arrangement of the trench, for there were tables and chairs, and a quantity of champagne bottles, both full and empty—the trench was well stocked with wine.

Previously to being wounded, this man made one of a party that captured a number of Germans, one of whom spoke English well, and told his captors that he had a wife and five children in Glasgow, and that the only way to get back to them was to court capture. This German had been in employment in Glasgow, and was called up five months before the war broke out—a significant fact when it is remembered how German statesmen are still insisting that Britain made the war.

A man of the Royal Scots has told how Captain Price of the regiment died. While in the trenches, and under a hot fire, Captain Price ran forward to help a corporal who had been shot in the arm, and in kindly fashion the captain was preventing the corporal from seeing his wound—shielding the injured arm while it was being dressed. While so engaged Captain Price was struck in the head by a piece of shrapnel, and he died while being carried to the field hospital. On the testimony of the men of the regiment, a braver or kindlier officer than Captain C. L. Price, D.S.O., has never worn uniform.

With regard to the work of the regiment in the trenches of the Aisne, and the enemy they have had to face, one man of the regiment speaks. “The Germans are good range finders with their big guns,” he says, “and their fire is very effective—but you could get boys to give them points with the rifle. One thing has made an impression on me, and that is that the enemy has no respect 26 whatever for the Red Cross. Our men were proceeding along a road, when they came on a Red Cross waggon lying on its side, with several Red Cross men lying dead beside it. There was one brave incident I witnessed, and although I do not know the name of the fellow who showed such pluck, I know he belonged to the Royal Scots. I saw him carry one of his comrades across a field for about three hundred yards, though the fire from the German ranks was simply awful at the time.”

Here, again, is an instance of the way in which the men tell of each other’s deeds but make no mention of their own. The French soldier, as a rule, knows when he has done a brave action, and talks about it—the quality does not make him less brave, but it is one that is inconsistent with British character. The average British soldier is usually quite unconscious that he has done anything worthy of note, and, even if he knows the value of what he has done, he is very shy of speaking about it, and usually prefers to talk about the things somebody else has accomplished.

A certain Private Kemp, invalided home to Berwick, testifies to the way in which tobacco and cigarettes have come to be regarded by the men in the firing line. He tells how, when out scouting, he was captured by three Uhlans, who took away his arms and equipment, and were just about to take him away as a prisoner when a shot was fired, and the Uhlans took to their heels. Kemp, wounded in the leg, fell, and after lying for an hour and a half, he was picked up by advancing British troops. “One great hardship,” he says, “was the lack of tobacco all the time. I and many of my comrades have been reduced to smoking dried tea-leaves wrapped in old newspaper. A real smoke would have been a blessing.”

One officer of the regiment, wounded while out in front of the trenches studying the position of the enemy with field-glasses, was carried back into shelter, and laid in the trench until the field ambulance should come to remove him to the rear. “He lay there smoking cigarettes,” says one of the men, “and shouting—Good old Royal Scots— well done!" whenever anything came off.” And in this and incidents like it lies the spirit that makes the Royal Scots what they are—it is the spirit of men who do not know when they are beaten, who will never admit defeat. It is the spirit that Findlater showed at Dargai.

Yet another private of the regiment, writing with no address and no date to his letter, says : “In the last scrap I was in we had a terrible time one way and another. After marching from the Sunday to the Tuesday night, we got anchored near a farm, and the next morning, just when breakfast was ready, we had to leave it lying and get stuck into our trenches, as the Germans had come on us. We could see them moving up on our front, and our artillery were not long in getting their range and sending them out of it. Our big guns were going finely until the afternoon, when they seemed to stop all at once, compared with the guns the Germans had brought up. They started to shell a village behind us with their siege guns, and they just blew holes in it. We had a church for a hospital, and that went up too—but that is their usual dirty game. They have no respect for a Red Cross waggon, and, as far as I can see, they seem to take them for targets. We had to retire after being shelled for about eight hours, and we lost a good few men, but had the consolation of knowing that, as usual, the enemy had lost a good many more. We are having a rest now, and have not seen the battalion for two weeks. It is a very sad sight to see the people here going about homeless; most of them are of the poorer class, and it must be an awful time for them.”

Writing later, the same man says: “We have come through four days’ hard fighting, and have been relieved—we drove the Germans out of all their positions. At one place the French were trying to shift the enemy, so our lot were brought up to assist; and although we lost a good few men in the open fields, our chaps stuck it well. General Smith-Dorrien sent along a message—Good, Royal Scots! and then when we took the other side of the bridge he said "Bravo, Royal Scots! so we have not done so badly.”

And there, for the present, the record of this oldest regiment of the service must be broken off. It tells of work from Mons and Landrecies, through the great retreat to the position of the Marne, and on to the Aisne—and there it ends, for the present. We know that many of the regiments along the line of the Aisne have been moved up to assist in the great Flanders battles, and in all probability there have been Royal Scots in that Flanders line as well as along the Aisne.

There is one story of this first regiment of British infantry which, though it is nearly fourteen years old, should always be told in any account of the deeds of the regiment. It concerns a certain Sergeant G. Robertson, placed in command* of a party of about twenty men who were acting as railway escort to a train from Pretoria. The train was bound for the Eastern Transvaal, and, on reaching Pan, it was stopped by Boers blowing up the line. The Boers attacked in force, being concealed in a trench a few yards from the train, and the escort at once, under orders from Sergeant Robertson, opened fire. The Boers, who greatly outnumbered the escort, called on Robertson to surrender, but he answered—“No surrender!” Almost immediately afterwards, he was shot through the head.

A similar case concerns Major Twyford, an officer of the Royal Scots, who in April of 1901 was attacked by a commando under Jan de Beers in the Badfontein Valley. Twyford and his party numbered eight all told, mounted men, and they took up a position among the ruins of a farmhouse which afforded some shelter from the fire of the enemy. The commando of Boers closed in on them, and, having in mind the enormous disparity of the forces, called on them to surrender. Major Twyford declined to do so, and went on firing on de Beers’ commando until shot dead by the enemy.

Captain Price, of whom mention has already been made, was a lieutenant at the time of the South African war, and was recommended at that time for the Victoria Cross for especial gallantry in leading “E” company at the action at Bermondsey. Three of the non-commissioned officers and men were specially mentioned for their gallantry in this affair, a certain Corporal Paul was promoted sergeant for his bravery, and Lieutenant Price, recommended for his V.C., obtained the D.S.O. France saw him brave as ever, and the regiment will keep his memory as that of one of its most gallant officers.

But, if one begins to tell the story of the deeds of the regiment of Royal Scots in previous campaigns, the story is without end, and space will not admit of it. It were unwise to say that the Royal Scots are first in bravery in action, as they are first in seniority among line regiments; but at least, in the matter of courage, they are equal with any, as the present campaign in France has proved.


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