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With the Scottish Regiments at the Front
Chapter IV - The King's Own Scottish Borderers


If legend may be believed, the Scottish Borderers came into existence with a strength of a thousand men in four hours of the 19th of March, 1689, a recruiting record which stands unbeaten in subsequent history. The regiment was raised by the followers of King William III, and within four months of the time of its formation was facing “Bonnie Dundee” at the pass of Killiecrankie. General Mackay, the officer commanding the King’s troops, testified that only two regiments of his force bore themselves as they ought, and of these two one was the King’s Own Scottish Borderers. When it is remembered that the regiment 48 had only been formed four months, this fact will be seen in its true light; and for over two centuries the Borderers have maintained the reputation given them by Mackay.

Having settled the authority of King William in Scotland, the Borderers were sent over to Ireland, where they helped in driving out James and his Irish and French adherents from the United Kingdom, and consolidating the rule of the Orange king. Thence, in the service of William, the regiment went to Flanders, where they took part in the siege of Namur, and lost twenty officers and 500 men by the explosion of one of the mines of the enemy. It was here that the Borderers were first made acquainted with the practice of fixing the bayonet alongside the muzzle of the musket instead of into it, for up to that time fixing bayonets had involved thrusting the bayonet into the barrel, when the weapon could not be fired. Seeing a French regiment advancing with fixed bayonets, the Colonel of the Borderers ordered his men to fix theirs, and calmly awaited the result, confident in the superiority of his men' over their opponents in this class of fighting. But at short range the French amazed the Scots by pouring in a volley, for they had their bayonets fixed round the muzzles of their muskets instead of in them. Recovering themselves, the Borderers charged and routed the enemy, and learned from one of the French muskets left on the field how this apparent miracle had been accomplished. Thenceforth British troops fixed their bayonets 011 instead of in their muskets.

When, in 1697, the treaty of Ryswick put an end to the campaign which included the taking of Namur, the Borderers returned home. Their next notable exploit was at Vigo, in 1719, where they destroyed the stores collected for an invasion of England. Thirteen years later the regiment was among the defending force at Gibraltar, and withstood the attacks of a force of 20,000 men, who were eventually obliged to retire, leaving the Rock in British hands. Then came Fontenoy, where the Borderers lost 206 officers and men; and later Minden, where sixty squadrons of French cavalry charged again and again, only to be broken against the defence of six British regiments, of which the Borderers formed one. Having thus accounted for the cavalry, the six regiments put to flight two French brigades of infantry, and virtually annihilated a body of Saxon infantry, being the whole time under heavy artillery fire. Returning in 1763 from the many Continental fields in which it had taken part, the regiment buried with full military honours at Newcastle-on-Tyne the fragments of the colours carried from victory to victory for twenty years.

There followed nineteen years of peace service, and then the Borderers were sent to Gibraltar as reinforcements, arriving in time to assist in the final discomfiture of the besieging force. In 1793 the Borderers were transformed into Marines, in which capacity they came in for a share of the prize money accruing from the capture of a ship valued at a million sterling, and then took part in the victory won by Lord Howe over the French fleet at Brest. There were Borderers, too, at the siege of Toulon, where Napoleon I, at that time only an artillery lieutenant, was wounded by a British soldier’s bayonet.

In the Napoleonic wars the Borderers were faced with more hard work than chances of glory. They went to the campaign in Holland in 1799, and took part in the expedition to Egypt in 1801, while eight years later they were at the capture of Martinique, a name borne on their colours. But for the rest of the time up to Waterloo they were engaged mainly in inconspicuous garrison duty, with no chance of adding to their reputation. Their luck held to a similar course through the nineteenth century, up to the outbreak of the last South African war, for they were set to deal with a Boer insurrection at the Cape in 1842, sent to Canada at the time of the Fenian raid in 1866, and engaged in the Afghan campaign of 1878-80. They fought in the Egyptian war in 1888, and then went to work on the Indian frontier, where is much fighting and little glory for most regiments that take part. In the Tirah campaign alone the Borderers were in action twenty-three times—yet who remembers the Tirah campaign to-day?

As for the South African campaign, it has been placed on record that the Borderers “put in as much hard work in marching and fighting as any body of troops in the whole campaign.” Paarde-berg, Poplar Grove, and Karee Spruit were three notable actions of this war in which the Borderers took part, they having been allotted to the 7th Division of the Army of South Africa. At the last-named action eighty-three officers and men of the Borderers were killed or wounded. Later, at Vlakfontein, the Borderers and the Derbyshires shared the honour of saving General Dixon’s column from utter disaster, and recapturing two British guns which had been taken by the Boers.

Now, as for the war in France, the record of the Borderers is fairly complete. It begins with the account of the adventures of a maxim-gun section during the first week of the war, as related by a man of the gun section who was invalided home very early in the campaign. He states that at Mons his gun section were located inside a house at Mons, firing from one of the windows, while Germans in considerable numbers were searching the surrounding houses. It took the Germans four hours to locate the maxim gun, and then, as they riddled the house with bullets, the plaster and laths began to come down on the heads of the Borderers' men, whereupon the latter thought the time had come to clear out. Under fire they dismounted their gun and scrambled out from the back of the house, whence they got under cover from the German fire, and, when night fell, they were able to make their way back to their own lines.

“While we were in action on Tuesday," the record continues, “a shell struck the limber of the gun and almost blew it to bits. I was struck on the shoulder by a piece of shrapnel. On another occasion we were firing from an isolated position when a company of Germans surprised us by appearing about a hundred yards away. We were thirteen strong—one officer and twelve men—so we put up the gun and made for cover. We had about two hundred yards to run across a field, but every one of us escaped without a scratch."

On the 16th of September the War Office report of “ Missing " included the names of men belonging to the Borderers, and of these many went to Doberitz camp of prisoners. One man, writing from Doberitz, stated that he had been captured on August 26th, and was being fairly well treated. Which recalls the fact that Colonel Stephenson, the commanding officer of the Borderers, had the misfortune to be wounded and captured in the very early stages of the war. It was at Le Cateau that the colonel was wounded, and, although the wound was not exceptionally serious, it was enough to put Colonel Stephenson out of action for the time. He was assisted to an ambulance waggon and got inside, but afterwards he came out of his own accord in order to make way for men more seriously injured. Almost immediately afterwards the retreat was continued, and according to one account the colonel was found lying wounded by the Germans. Another account states that the four horses of one of the ambulance waggons were lost during the retreat, and fifteen men of the Borderers were ordered to replace the horses in drawing the ambulance waggon, with the result that the whole party, including Colonel Stephenson in the waggon with other wounded, were captured. Major Leigh, D.S.O., another officer of the Borderers, was wounded at Mons and captured by the Germans, according to all accounts, while three other officers are reported to have been taken prisoners in the first weeks of the war.

It was at Mons, too, that young Lieutenant Amos, of the Borderers, who had only received his commission five months before, went out to the front and brought back a wounded man much bigger and heavier than himself. A few days later Lieutenant Amos led out his platoon of men in face of the enemy’s fire, when he was shot down, and the men of the platoon thought at the time that he was only wounded. “When night came on,” said one man of the platoon, “I went out to look for him, and just as I had got to where he was lying and had lifted his head, the moon shone out full from behind the clouds, and I saw he was quite dead. He had been shot through the heart.”

Whatever dispatches may say with regard to individual officers and men, it is usually safe to take the opinions of the men themselves with regard to their officers. An instance of this is the case of Lieutenant Hamilton-Dalrymple, of the Borderers, who was described by his men as “a very daring man." He had excelled in patrol work and scouting, especially at night, and on the retreat was placed in charge of four platoons, which he led out for an attack. He had led out No. 16 platoon, and went back for No. 15, and, when leading these men out, he was shot in the leg by a German sniper and had to be carried to the rear. The man who told this story of his officer was subsequently hit by a splinter from a shell which accounted for five men.

Near Le Cateau the Borderers buried Lieutenant Amos and twenty-one of the men of the regiment. Throughout the day, while an artillery duel had raged, the dead had lain out on the battlefield, and a long grave was dug for them by their comrades. In this the bodies were laid, each covered by a waterproof sheet, and an officer recited a brief funeral service. While, during the next day, the artillery duel went on, the Borderers cut out in the grass that covered the grave of their comrades the letters “K.O.S.B.,” and filled in the blank letter-spaceswith small stones, completing their work by fashioning and erecting a small cross of wood to mark the place of burial.

There was one youngster of the Borderers in these first days who, at Mons, received a flesh wound while trying to cross two planks across a canal that was being peppered with machine-gun fire. Colonel Stephenson gripped him to save him from falling into the canal, and—“You had better go back to the hospital, sonny,” said the colonel. But the youngster got little rest or respite in hospital, for the Germans shelled the hospital building, after their fashion, and the patients had to beat a quick retreat.

Later, this same youngster came to the engagement at Bethune, one of the fiercest of the campaign, and one night he was on sentry duty at a wayside shrine. Just at the time the reliefs were coming round he saw Germans in the distance, and fired at them once or twice, “for luck,” as he phrased it, considering that he was entitled to a last shot before going off duty. But the glare of his rifle fire must have betrayed his position, for almost immediately he received another wound in the body, and this time it was a sufficiently serious matter to cause him to be sent home.

By means of such letters as these one may trace the regiment through the first, and in some respects the worst, of the fighting. At the position of the Aisne, the accounts of the Borderers grow numerous, and it appears that the second battalion of the regiment was in the thick of things. One account describes the crossing of the Aisne under shell fire from the German guns. The second battalion got their orders to cross very early one morning, and turned out in a cold, rainy dawn; “but we got our pipes set going, and were all right then.” On reaching the river, it was found that there were no bridges, but some rafts had been constructed by the Engineers, and these rafts were loaded each with six men, and hauled across to the opposite bank of the river with ropes. With the weight of men and equipment, the rafts were submerged so that the men were up to their knees in water while they crossed, but such incidents as that were regarded as trifling.

On the far bank of the river, the German shell fire was hotter than ever, and many men of the battalion were wounded, mostly in the arms and legs. “You bet we took all the cover we could get,” says the narrator. *Some time after this three of us were lying in a field, and I was smoking my pipe, while my chum was puffing at a cigarette. The man next to my chum hadn’t a match, and wanted a light badly, so he got up to get a light from my chum. As soon as he rose the poor beggar was hit by a fragment of shell and killed. My chum had got hold of a trench-making tool. It’s like a spade at the one end, and like a pick at the other, and he stuck the pick end into the ground and lay down behind it, covering his head with the spade end. Every two or three minutes you could hear the bullets spattering against the iron of the tool.”

Later, they got into the trenches, where some of the men were standing knee-deep in water, and others were submerged up to their waists. “It was no picnic, but they were a bright lot, cracking jokes or making remarks about the ‘Black Marias' or ‘Jack Johnsons' as they call the big German shells.” Although, in the first days on the Aisne, the first line of German troops were opposed to the British, the latter had a very poor opinion of their opponents. The general view was that the Germans were not very keen on fighting, and a number of them when captured said that they were forced by their officers to/fight. In one case, when the men had refused to fire, their officers had turned on them and shot them—as might have been expected in any army. One wounded and captured Germans placed in the next bed in hospital to a wounded Borderer, spoke broken English, and in the course of a chat was asked what he thought of the British. “ British artillery,” he said, “no good—not enough. British infantry—mein Gott! ” His expression as he spoke completed the comment.

A Borderer wounded at the Aisne had fought beside the French, whom he described as very plucky, but rather slow. Their artillery, however, won his admiration, and he declared it the best he had ever seen. He was emphatic in his appreciation of the way in which the French people treated the British troops, supplying them with food and fruit, and in many ways expressing their sympathy.

“My chum and I came to a village one day,” he said, “and wanted to get some bread and tobacco. We met a peasant woman in the village, and I said ‘Du pain.’ She took me by the arm and pushed me into a dark room, but I couldn’t see where I was, and called for my chum, who came in as well, though we were both afraid it might be a trap. Then we noticed some food and wine on a table. It struck us, when we came to look round, that nearly all the furniture in the house was smashed. The Prussians' the woman told us. And it’s the same in every village you go into—these Germans smash everything but us. They’re trying hard to smash us too, but they can’t manage it.”

“It is a grand thing,” says another man of the regiment, “to shoot at Germans—they make such a lovely target. We can’t miss them, and, poor things, they are wishing it was over. Every prisoner we take says they are starving, and they look it, too. Well, never mind, we are there to kill, and kill we do. They are frightened of us, and say we shoot too straight—the French and British are finishing them off in thousands.”

As regards the Flanders battle, the last sentence of this letter may be taken literally, but the rest of it is open to question. The dogged resistance on the Aisne, and the tremendous attacks up by Ypres and along the coast, were not made by men starving and utterly miserable—the work has been too fierce for that to be possible. The reserve troops of the German Army have no liking for their work, and, newly taken from comfort to the rigid discipline and severe conditions of the firing line, are naturally inclined to complain at what the first-line troops regard as mere everyday inconveniences ; and doubtless it was some of these that were referred to in this letter.

But, to revert to the position on the Aisne, there is yet another Borderer’s story that is worthy of reproduction. The narrator states that during the battle two German women, masquerading as nurses, went about the British lines by motor, accompanied by a chauffeur. Among the British soldiers on outpost duty they freely distributed cigarettes, which were afterwards found to be inoculated by poison. Before any fatal results had accrued, the nature of the cigarettes was discovered, and the pseudonurses were rounded up and shot. The story may be true, but it seems a little improbable that no ill results should have attended the distribution of these cigarettes before discovery of the trick. The man who tells this story adds that two Scottish pipers held up and captured eight Germans in a wood near Crecy. The pipers had become detached from their division, and carried no arms, but on coming on the Germans they, assumed a firing position and pointed the long drones of their pipes at the enemy, calling on them to surrender. The Germans at once threw down their rifles, and were taken prisoners.

Let it be remembered that both of these stories are told by the same man, and that both are on the face of them improbable—and then the reader must form his own conclusion.

The next missive takes us on to the work in the trenches around Bethune, after the opposing lines had crept up to the north-west of France. “There were few breathing-spaces,” says the writer. “Ground would be gained, and our troops then had to resort to the expedient of digging themselves in: at parts of the line about a hundred yards divided our trenches from those of the enemy.” The man who tells of this fighting exposed himself to get a shot at precisely the same moment that a German out in the opposite trenches took aim, and both pulled their triggers almost simultaneously. The German bullet passed right across the Borderer’s scalp, but in the firing line it was impossible to get immediate medical attention, and the wounded man had to lie in the trench for hours before nightfall gave him the chance to get back to the field hospital under cover of darkness.

It fell to the lot of the Borderers to witness the first charge of the Indian troops, and evidently the dark men enjoyed themselves. “When they got the order to advance, you never saw men more pleased in all your life. They went forward with a rush like a football team charging their opponents, or a party of revellers rushing to catch the last train. They got to grips with their enemies in double-quick time, and the howl of joy that went up told us that those chaps felt that they were paying the Germans back in full for the peppering they had got while waiting for orders. When they came back from that charge they looked very well pleased with themselves, and they had every right to be. They are very proud of being selected to fight with us, and are terribly anxious to make a good impression. They have done it, too.

“I watched them one day under shell fire, and was astonished at their coolness. ‘Coal boxes’ were being emptied all round them, but they seemed to pay not the slightest heed, and if one of them did go under, his chums simply went on as though nothing had happened. They make light of wounds, and I have known cases where men have fought for days with wounds that might have excused any man for dropping out. When the wounds are very bad, I have seen the men themselves dressing them in the firing line. One day I questioned one of them about this, and he said, ‘ We must be as brave as the British.’ It’s amusing to hear them trying to pick up our camp songs. They have a poor opinion of the Germans as fighting men, and are greatly interested when we tell them of the horrors perpetrated on the Belgians and French.”

Thus writes a wounded sergeant of the Borderers. Now the official account states that the first charge of the Indians was made to recover ground and trenches that had been taken by the Germans by sheer weight of numbers from British troops—so we may safely conclude that the Borderers, probably the second battalion, were among the men holding those trenches, and probably were in the section of the line that was forced back. And there, beside the Indian contingent, we may leave them, certain that in all the fighting in Flanders and for the recovery of Belgium they will acquit themselves like men.


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