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With the Scottish Regiments at the Front
Chapter V - The Black Watch


Though the Royal Scots can claim to be the oldest regiment of the British Army, the Black Watch can claim—and do claim—to be the oldest corps of Highlanders. The regiment, known in old time as the “Forty-second,” was originally formed out of the independent companies raised in 1729 to keep the peace in the hills of the Scottish Highlands, and the first parade as a regiment took place near Aberfeldy in 1740, when the regiment was numbered “43.” This was subsequently changed to “42.”

Five years later the regiment saw its first active service abroad at Fontenoy, when its men charged with such spirit that they were described by a French writer as “Highland furies.” In 1756 the Black Watch went to America, and at Ticonderaga the loss in killed and wounded amounted to 647 officers and men. So conspicuous was the bravery of the regiment on this occasion that the King conferred on it the title of “Royal,” and unto this day the Black Watch are “The Royal Highlanders.” The regiment was in at the capture of Montreal, and later took part in the American War of Independence, when, in spite of the offers of heavy bribes, not a single man could be induced to desert from the ranks, bad as was the cause in which the British troops were fighting then.

In 1780 the second battalion of the Black Watch was raised, to begin its active service in India. It was constituted a separate regiment in 1786, and named the “Perthshire Regiment,” numbered “73.” (Two officers and fifty-three men of this battalion were among the heroes who went down with the Birkenhead.) It was nearly a century later that the Perthshire Regiment was again joined to the Black Watch as its second battalion, and thenceforth the battle honours of both battalions have been borne on the colours of the regiment.

The campaign in Flanders in 1794 and the following year gave to the regiment the “red hackle” that is still worn in the full-dress feather bonnet. Again the Black Watch went to the front for the Egyptian campaign of 1800, and at Alexandria Sir Ralph Abercromby called on the Highlanders for the effort that won the battle. The next great event in the history of the regiment was Corunna, where Sir John Moore bade the Highlanders “Remember Egypt!” On to the siege of Toulouse the Black Watch took their part in all fighting that was to be had, and at Toulouse itself they lost over 300 officers and men in driving back the French Army into the city.

Just on 300 more officers and men fell in the three days’ fighting of Quatre Bras and Waterloo, and the Royal Highlanders were mentioned specially in dispatches by the Duke of Wellington—an honour accorded to only four of the regiments that took part in the final overthrow of Napoleon. From then on to the middle of the nineteenth century the life of the regiment was uneventful, for Europe slept, and it did not fall to the Black Watch to engage in the little frontier and colonial wars of the Empire.

But 1854 brought the Crimean War, and the Royal Highlanders took the field again as the senior regiment of Sir Colin Campbell’s famous Highland Brigade. The brigade took part in the charge on the heights of the Alma, and was also in at the taking of Sevastopol on the 8th of September, 1855. The end of this war brought but little respite, for under their old chief, Sir Colin Campbell, the regiment took part in the suppression of the Indian Mutiny. The battle of Cawnpur, the siege and capture of Lucknow, and the battle of Bareilly, found the Royal Highlanders well to the front, and the name “Lucknow” is borne on the colours of the regiment. A sculptured tablet in Dunkeld Cathedral commemorates the names of those of the Black Watch who fell in the Mutiny.

In the Ashanti War the Black Watch took the leading and most conspicuous part, and shared in the capture and burning of Kumasi. Then, in 1882, the regiment went to Egypt to take part in the storming of the entrenchments at Tel-el-Kebir. At Suakim, El Teb, and Tamai, such was the conduct of the regiment that Lord Wolseley sent them a telegram of congratulation, and in 1884 the first battalion went up the Nile to the battle of Kirbekan.

Then, in 1899, the second battalion went out to South Africa as part of the ill-fated Highland Brigade under General Wauchope. On the night of Sunday, the 10th of December, in that first year of the Boer war, the Black Watch led the brigade in the memorable attack at Magersfontein. When the inferno of fire and barbed wire stopped the advance of the brigade, no less than 600 Highlanders fell, killed and wounded, including Wauchope himself. Throughout the Monday the survivors of three companies of the Black Watch held to their places in front of the Boer trenches and entanglements, while the remainder of the men of the battalion were engaged in attempting to turn the flank of the Boer position; but at nightfall it was found that the position was too strong, and the troops were drawn back. As already remarked, the brigade lost 600 in killed and wounded, and of these more than half were men of the Black Watch. In a little more than two months the survivors of the battalion had their revenge at Paardeberg, when Cronje was forced to surrender with 4,000 men. Here, again, the losses of the Black Watch amounted to 90 casualties among officers and men.

The first battalion did not come in for the earlier fighting in South Africa, but arrived in the country in time to take part in the “drives” with which Lord Kitchener put an end to the campaign. Poplar Grove and Driefontein, Retiefs Nek and the surrender of Prinsloo at Wittebergen, were mere incidents to the Black Watch after the terrible work of Magersfontein and Paardeberg, and the conduct of the regiment as a whole during the war may be judged from the fact that no less than thirteen medals for distinguished conduct were awarded to its non-commissioned officers and men.

As usual, the Black Watch were among the first regiments to take the field in the fighting in France, and they went up to Mons with the rest of the British troops who took part in the great retreat. Never during the whole of the South African campaign, said one man who had been through it, was anything experienced like the three engagements in which the Black Watch took part round Mons. The shell firing of the Germans was terrific, and the hastily constructed trenches of the British afforded very little protection against the German shell fire. Yet, though on the retreat the British troops had to undergo forced marches, some of them with very little food except such fruit as they could get by the way, they displayed splendid stamina and pluck, and the discipline maintained in this trying time, so far as the Royal Highlanders were concerned, was admirable. Even when the loss of officers was heaviest, movements were still carried through with parade-like precision and coolness.

When nearing Soissons in the course of the retreat, the Black Watch were the object of an encircling movement by the enemy, and while the regiment was cutting its way through to rejoin the rest of the brigade, Colonel Grant Duff gave his orders with bullets humming round him, and went up and down the line of his battalion looking after wounded men. With the aid of the 117th Battery of R.F.A. the Black Watch succeeded in rejoining their brigade with a loss of only four men.

The work of the early days is epitomised by a man of the first battalion of the regiment. “We went straight from Boulogne to Mons,” he said, “and were one of the first British regiments to reach Mons. Neither of the opposing armies seemed to have a very good position there, but the number of the Germans was so great that we had no chance of holding on from the first. We were in hard fighting all day on the Monday, and as the French reinforcements which we were expecting had not arrived by the Tuesday, we were given the order to retire.

“I should judge that, altogether, we retreated quite eighty miles. We passed through Cambrai, and halted at St. Quentin; the Germans, straining every nerve in the effort to get to Paris, had never been far behind us, and when we came to St. Quentin we got the word that we were to go into action again and the men of the battalion were quite joyous at the prospect, for they had been none too well pleased at the continued retirement from the enemy. They started to get things ready with a will, and the engagement opened in lively fashion, both our artillery and the German going at it for all they were worth. We were in good skirmishing order, and under cover of our guns we kept on getting nearer and nearer to the enemy, till, when we were about a hundred yards of the German lines, orders were issued for a charge, and the Black Watch charged at the same time that the Scots Greys did. Not far from us the 9th Lancers and the Cameronians joined in the attack, and it was the finest sight I ever saw.”

The writer continues with a description of the charge, in which, he says, the men of the Black Watch hung on to the stirrup-leathers of the Greys and went through machine-gun fire on to the German lines, and thence through to the guns of the enemy. “There were about 1,900 of us in that charge against 20,000 Germans, and the charge itself lasted about four hours. We took close upon 4,000 prisoners, and captured a lot of their guns. In the course of the fighting I got a cut from a German sword,—they are very much like saws and fell into a pool of water, where I lay unconscious for nearly a day and night. I was picked up by one of the 9th Lancers.”

There the story ends. It is circumstantial and well borne out by other accounts of the doings of the Black Watch up to the time of St. Quentin, but one fears to accept the story of that charge in its entirety. If the men of the Black Watch advanced to within a hundred yards of the enemy under cover of their own artillery, then where did the Greys come from? For surely no artillery ever kept on firing at the enemy until cavalry were within a hundred yards of their objective in a charge. It is curious, too, but this is the only account that has come to hand—the only personal account of a participator—with regard to that charge of the Greys with Black Watch men hanging on to their stirrup-leathers. The story is given as told, for what it is worth.

Several accounts concur in the assistance rendered to the regiment by the 117th Battery of R.F.A., and one especially details how, when the Black Watch were subjected to overwhelming rifle fire, the guns were turned on the German riflemen with terrible effect. But there are some newspaper errors in connection with this event which are almost amusing. One of them states that, with regard to a driver of the 117th Battery—“the Highlanders were being subjected to a terrific rifle fire, when the artilleryman heroically advanced, and, getting his gun in position, put the German riflemen to flight.” This was more than heroism, for a gun weighs the better part of a ton, altogether, and a driver has but a very elementary knowledge of the firing mechanism of the weapon—his business is with the horses. That one driver should get the gun into position and then proceed to load and fire it, a business which occupies about a dozen men, as a rule, is well worthy of comment.

These discrepancies with known fact are unfortunately rather plentiful where the Black Watch are concerned. Another of them, though it does not credit artillerymen with the strength of elephants, tells of things that happened “on the 14th of August, at the battle of the Aisne,”—whereas on the 14th of August the great retreat was still in progress, and the battle of the Marne had not been fought, let alone that of the Aisne. “I only know,” says the author of this account, “that we lost close on 400 of the regiment, killed and wounded, the same day that I was wounded. That was on the 14th of August, at the battle of the Aisne. It was terrible, men falling on either side. The Germans were very treacherous, firing on our ambulance men as well. I was in two hospitals which we were shelled out of. All the men who could walk were told to go off as soon as possible. There were four of us left in the place all the forenoon, and the shells landing round about. I managed to crawl away when there was no firing, and I had to go about five miles to the next place. I don’t know what I would have done had not an officer passingin his motor seen me and taken me to the hospital.” Another of the same kind: “On one occasion I had become detached from the main body, and met four Germans. I disposed of three of my adversaries with three successive shots, and was about to deal with the fourth, when the bolt of my rifle became jammed. The German fired, but only slightly wounded me, and I adjusted my rifle, charged my magazine, and put the man out of action.”

More heroism, almost equal to that of the gunner just quoted—and newspapers are publishing such “letters from the front” as these every day.

To come back to the real work of the regiment, a further account deals with the battle of the Aisne, where, on the 14th of September, the men occupied some high ground, and were discovered by the enemy, who set to work to render the position untenable by means of artillery fire. A patrol, sent out to get into communication with the Northamptons, had to take cover from the German artillery fire, which was so fierce that it was only in darkness they were able to return. In taking German trenches later, the Black Watch and the Camerons, who advanced together, came across numbers of dead Germans, proving that their own fire had been quite as deadly as that of their enemies. Apparently the timing of the fuses of German shells was none too good. “The artillery fire of the Germans was good, but their shells did not do nearly the same damage as those fired from the British guns. The British shells when they exploded covered a radius of something like a hundred yards, but the German shells on bursting seemed to send all their contents in a forward direction.”

“But the Aisne has been a cause of heavy loss to the Black Watch,” said another member of the regiment. “We lost heavily in taking up position, and the men were saddened by the loss of so many officers. One day we lost three, a captain killed, a senior captain very severely wounded, and a lieutenant killed. Then, later, the men had to deplore the loss of their commanding officer, Colonel Grant Duff, one of the bravest and best officers the regiment ever had. He died bravely. He was hard pressed and doing execution with one of his men’s rifles when he fell with a mortal wound.”

Another officer eulogised by his men was Captain Green, who was wounded at the Aisne. Hot fighting was kept up in the trenches from five in the morning until night had fallen, and throughout the night the men waited in their trenches. Shortly after four o’clock of the following morning firing was heard in front, and with the remark, “I am going forward, anyway,” Captain Green went out to the front, his object being to get the range for the men, if possible. He got the range, but was hit in the head, and bandaged the wound himself, keeping his place in the trenches and declining to go into hospital.

The German fear of cold steel is emphasised in many accounts given by men of the Black Watch. “They wouldn’t look at the bayonet, and we ruled the roost with very slight losses,” says one; and another, “The Germans are awfully frightened of the cold steel, and when they get a stab it is almost invariably in the back, for they run away from our boys when the bayonet appears.”

Once in a while there comes an account of humanity on the part of the Germans; and one man of the Black Watch tells how he lay out in the open at the position of the Aisne for hours, wounded, and at last a German came along and bound up his wound under heavy fire. The German made the wounded man quite comfortable, and was about to retire from the danger area, when a stray bullet caught him, and he fell dead beside the man he had befriended.

Such stories as this last are welcome, and form a relief from the numberless stories of German barbarity that have appeared. Not that they disprove the stories of brutality, but they go to show that the policy of ruthlessness is a calculated one, and that the individual German might be a kind-hearted man at times if his officers would let him. The instances of cruelty and wanton destruction that have been related all point to organised cruelty, organised destruction, it is more a matter of policy than of the conduct of individuals.

The stories quoted here form a fairly connected record of the work of the Black Watch up to the time of the battle on the Aisne; of what came after, there is as yet no definite record. We know, from the casualty lists, that the Royal Highlanders are still making history in France, but in this first week of November we know no more than that, and a great story must still wait telling until the oft-quoted “fog of war” has lifted from the actions in Flanders and the northwest of France.


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