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With the Scottish Regiments at the Front
Chapter III - The Royal Scots Fusiliers


The titles of regiments are apt to be confusing to the lay mind, and it is difficult at first to distinguish between the Royal Scots and the Royal Scots Fusiliers, on paper. In old time the Fusiliers were the “twenty-first” regiment of infantry; they were raised in Scotland in 1678 for service under Charles II, and served under William III in Holland and Flanders, as well as under the great Duke of Marlborough and under George II when the latter commanded his troops in person at the battle of Dettingen.

Their history in previous campaigns to this of France and Belgium is a long one. At Blenheim, Malplaquet, and Ramillies the Scots Fusiliers won particular distinction—the brigadier who led the principal attack at Blenheim was a colonel of the Scots Fusiliers. At Det-tingen and Fontenoy, again, the Fusiliers were well to the front, and in the last-named engagement the regiment suffered so severely that it became necessary to move it to Flanders. In 1761 the Scots Fusiliers took part in the capture of Belle Isle, and later, in the American War of Independence—bolstering up a bad cause—they underwent intense privations, and, foodless and minus ammunition, capitulated with General Bur-goyne at Saratoga to a force five times the strength of that which Bur-goyne commanded. 1793 saw them engaged in capturing the islands of the West Indies from the French, and in 1807 they formed part of the second expedition to Egypt. Then at Messina the Fusiliers alone were responsible for the capture of over a thousand officers and men out of a force which attempted to land there, and up to the time of the abdication of Napoleon the regiment was engaged in active service. In St. Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh, are deposited the tattered colours carried by the regiment in the Napoleonic campaigns.

In the Crimea the Fusiliers again lost their colonel; at Inkermann, where the colonel fell, the regiment was in the very front of the battle throughout the day, fighting throughout the battle without food, and calling for more ammunition. They were present throughout the great siege and at the fall of Sevastopol, and the colours borne in that campaign— presented to the regiment in 1827 by King William IV—cost the life of one officer and led to two more being severely wounded at Inkermann, while 17 N.C.O.’s and men who acted as escort were either killed or severely wounded. These colours were subsequently deposited in the parish church of Ayr, the depot headquarters of the regiment.

In Africa against the Zulus and Basutos, as well as against the Boers in the first war of the Transvaal, the Fusiliers fought next after the Crimean campaign; and then they took part in the subjugation of King Theebaw in Burmah. In 1899 the 2nd battalion embarked for South Africa, and was set to form a part of the 6th Fusilier brigade. From Colenso they brought away a Victoria Cross, awarded to Private Ravenhill for conspicuous gallantry in saving guns from which the gunners had been shot away.

To the Fusiliers fell the honour of being the first British regiment to enter the Transvaal during the war, and they took part in the hoisting of the British flag at Christiana, the first Transvaal town to be captured. A little later, the colonel of the regiment, with a force of 39 under 120 men, went on to Potchef-stroom, and there hoisted a British flag that had been buried there at the time of the peace of 1881, and, after being disinterred, had been kept in the possession of the family of a former commanding officer of the Scots Fusiliers. So distinguished was the conduct of the regiment in the South African campaign that, on the representation of Colonel Carr, C.B., the commanding officer, the white plume that had not been worn since 1860 by the Fusiliers was given back to them, as a recognition of their services. To a civilian this may seem a very little thing, but the regiment regards it far otherwise.

As for the campaign in France, there are very few authentic records of the men of the regiment to hand at the time of writing, but from those few one can reconstruct a good deal of the work of the Royal Scots Fusiliers. One man tells that the Germans captured all the transport, which contained all the kits of the men, who were thus left with only the clothes they stood in for a matter of five weeks. Since this account came through in the latter part of October, it may safely be assumed that the regiment was concerned in the great retreat to the Marne, though no letter of those received tells of doings at Mons, Landrecies, or the very early battlefields. Still, it is not safe to assume that the regiment—or some part of it—was not engaged in the first actions.

One may picture what the men looked like from the account sent by one of them. “I got a bit of a shave a week ago,” he says, “but I have not had a wash for over a fortnight.”Kipling’s“ I wish my mother could see me now” fits the case admirably.

Again, evidently concerning the retreat, the same soldier writes: “We got an order to stop a motor car one day, and as the driver pulled up a man tried to escape on the opposite side, and I collared him. He got into an awful state, and started pulling photos and papers from his pockets and talked in a very excited manner. He was taken away, and I believe he was shot the next morning as a spy.”

This might possibly have been at the position of the Marne, or between that time and the holding of the line of the Aisne, but it is far more likely to have occurred at the time of the retreat, when motorists on the roads were plentiful, and spies could do good work for their employers.

There are various stories which go to describe the work of the Fusiliers at the Aisne, and the monotony of life in the trenches is well portrayed in one letter. The writer says: “As we can’t always be killing Germans we are sometimes hard put to it to kill time in the trenches.

Next to religion, I think football is the thing that interests us most, and we are always eager to hear news of our teams at home. The papers that reach us have not got much news of that kind in, and it would be a godsend to us if only somebody would take in hand to start a paper for circulating among the troops giving nothing but the latest football news.”

On the more serious side is a communication from a man of the regiment who was wounded at the position of the Aisne. He stated that “the men have come through an awful time,” and added that he himself was stuck in the trenches for seven days without a break, while he went for fourteen days without being able to wash his face. The German way was to attack in order to draw the British fire, and then to retire, after which would come a terrific artillery bombardment—but the British stuck to their ground always. Finally this man was hit in the head by shrapnel, while his particular chum was shot in the stomach, and they both went into a French hospital.

By these simple records one may trace the regiment from the great retreat to the Aisne; and then another letter takes the story on very nearly to the great coast battle, where, by what the writer says, the second battalion of the Scots Fusiliers have been from the beginning of the German attempts on Calais. The writer, in describing how the German spies adopt the very old trick of assisting artillery fire by the use of the hands of a steeple clock, locates his story at Ypres, where some of the fiercest fighting of the whole war has taken place.

“It was at the town of Ypres—a name, by the way, that gets many quaint pronunciations from our men—and the hands of the steeple clock stood at 10.40. When the men of the battalion had been in the place a quarter of an hour, such shelling began as they had never known before—and then somebody pointed out that the hands of the clock had been altered to indicate 12.40. Thereupon a search was made of the clock tower, when three Germans were found and taken prisoners, much to the disgust of the men who had seen their comrades suffering from the shell fire. They would willingly have given these spies shorter shrift than mere capture, but of course the rules of war had to be observed, even in such a clear case of espionage as this.” There is one man of the second battalion who, wounded and sent home from the battle in the north-west of France, speaks of the fighting there as “past description.” He had seen hard fighting in India, but reckoned the work against the Germans as beyond words to express it. “ Germans came on in solid masses, urged on by the officers with the points of their swords, and on over the 45 bodies of their dead comrades. This,” producing a German forage cap, “belonged to one poor devil I sent to his long home; and this,” producing a rosary, “ was given to me by a Frenchwoman in return for helping her to get her daughter away to a place of safety, out of the way of the Germans.”

Little things, these, but the contrast afforded by the two trophies goes to prove that the men of the Fusiliers are fighting in the right way and with the right spirit. There is little doubt, however, that the second battalion of the regiment has lost very heavily in the Flanders fighting. One report—an unofficial one, it is true—speaks of the battalion as being reduced to less than 150 officers and men. This may mean anything, for companies are sent away on detached duties, bodies of men get cut off from their battalions and join up with others—all sorts of things may happen in addition to real casualties to reduce the strength of a battalion in such a series of actions as has been fought between Lille and the coasts of France and Belgium. But, whatever may have happened in this way, there can be no doubt that the Royal Scots Fusiliers, of which the second battalion certainly took part in these battles, has maintained the honour of the regiment to the full, and such of its officers and men as have fallen have rendered good account of themselves.


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