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With the Scottish Regiments at the Front
Chapter VI - The Gordon Highlanders

Formerly known as the 75th and 92nd line battalions, the Gordon Highlanders form a comparatively young regiment. The first battalion was formed at Stirling in 1788 under Colonel Robert Abercromby, and was sent to India for fourteen years of active service in Mysore and Southern India. The “Royal Tiger,” worn on the badges of the regiment, commemorates the part they played at the taking of Seringapatam in 1799.

The great Scottish house of Gordon raised the second battalion of the regiment near the end of the eighteenth century, and this battalion was first named “Gordon Highlanders” in 1794, when it was embodied at Aberdeen, with the Marquis of Huntly as its first colonel. In the Egyptian campaign of 1801, the Gordons played a conspicuous part in driving Napoleon out of Egypt, and won the “Sphinx,” inscribed “Egypt,” as a badge, which is now worn on all the officers’ buttons. In 1807 the regiment took part in the expedition to Copenhagen, and a year later they were with Sir John Moore on the retreat to Corunna. Later, in the Peninsular campaign under Wellington, the Gordons won the admiration of their enemies and the approbation of their chief. In one action alone, that of the Maya Pass, the regiment lost over 320 officers and men killed and wounded.

On to the end of the campaign the Gordons were in the thick of things, and then, in 1815, they sailed for Belgium in May, arriving in Brussels at the end of that month. At Quatre Bras, where they were under the eye of the Duke of Wellington, the 92nd (now the 2nd battalion of the Gordons) lost heavily, and then at Waterloo itself the battalion was reduced to 300 men before the memorable charge took place. The official account of that charge, as given in the history of the regiment, is worth quoting in its entirety.

“About two o’clock in the afternoon of that memorable day, the enemy advanced a solid column of 3,000 infantry towards the position of the regiment. The column continuing to press forward, General Sir D. Pack galloped up to the regiment and called out—“Ninety-second, you must charge, for all the troops to your right and left have given way.” Three cheers from the corps expressed the devoted readiness of every individual in its ranks, though its numbers were reduced at this time to less than 300 men.

“The French column did not show a large front. The regiment formed four-deep, and, in that compact order, advanced till within twenty paces, when it fired a volley and instantly darted into the heart of the French column, in which it almost became invisible in the midst of the mass opposed to it. While the regiment was in the act of charging, and the instant before it came in contact with the enemy, the Scots Greys came trotting up in rear of its flanks, when both corps shouted “Scotland for ever! The column was instantaneously broken, and in its flight the cavalry rode over it. The result of this dash, which only occupied a few minutes, was a loss to the enemy of two eagles and two thousand prisoners.”

The total losses of the Gordons at Waterloo were 119 officers and men killed and wounded, and what remained of the regiment went on to occupy Paris, returning to Edinburgh in 1816. In the Crimean campaign the Gordons had bad luck, as they did not land till after Sevastopol had fallen. They had their turn in the Mutiny, however, for they fought their way from Ambala to Delhi, and sat on the “Ridge” under great John Nicholson from June to September, taking part in the final assault and storming the Kashmir gate. Later, they marched to the relief of Lucknow, and then saw general service in the many engagements that took place in the Northwest Provinces before the Mutiny was finally quelled.

Then came twenty years of peace for the regiment, after which it was again called to action in Afghanistan, and took part in the ever-memorable march from Kabul to Kandahar. In the Egyptian campaign of 1882, the regiment was included in the Highland Brigade that fought at Tel-el-Kebir, and then went up with the expeditionary force to the relief of Khartoum and General Gordon—a fruitless errand. From that time onward to the end of the century, the Gordons saw frontier fighting in India. "Chitral" is one of the names emblazoned on the regimental colours, and in the Tirah campaign the Gordons won undying fame at the storming of the Dargai heights—which, however, was but one incident in seven months of strenuous fighting.

In the South African war, the Gordons shared in the privations of the siege of Ladysmith, and in the fierce attack made by the Boers on the Ladysmith defences, on the 6th of January, 1900, the Gordons sustained some of the fiercest of the fighting. Thus one battalion upheld the credit of the regiment, while the other, in Smith-Dorrien’s nineteenth brigade, placed the name “Paardeberg” on the regimental colours. "During the four months and a half of its existence the nineteenth brigade had marched 620 miles, often on half rations, seldom on full. It had taken part in the capture of ten towns, had fought in ten general engagements, and on twenty-seven other times, and was never beaten.” Up to the end of the war the Gordons were doing brilliant work. By the end of 1902 the regiment had thirteen Victoria Crosses to its credit.

With regard to their work in France in the very early days, the men of the Gordons have shown some reticence— that is, as regards the alleged cutting off and cutting up of the regiment. It may be, so curious is the information that reached this country in September, that the men of the regiment had not heard of this cutting off and cutting up. Certain it is that they were in several tight corners in the first actions of the great retreat—but then, so were other units, d* 99 and there is plenty of evidence to prove that Gordons came through to the Marne and the Aisne, though, unfortunately, they came without their colonel and some of their officers. Round about Mons the Gordons were heavily engaged, and found the German infantry firing weak, but their artillery work not to be despised. The greatest damage was done by the shrapnel, and not by rifle fire— a statement which concurs with practically all accounts of engagements on the great retreat. “The losses of the Allies" said a wounded corporal of the Gordons, “were nothing to those of the Germans, who came on in a solid mass and were mowed down like sheep—close formation was their method of attack all along. The men themselves said they were driven to it by their officers at the point of the revolver, and they simply tried to be taken prisoners by the British. We passed through plundered villages, and saw windows smashed, furniture thrown out on the streets, and churches and other buildings destroyed/’

Another wounded non-commissioned officer speaks of “what was left of the battalion after Mons” being in the firing-line, when an order was given for a general retreat. A dispatch rider gave the message to a part of the division to which the Gordons belonged, but on his way to them he was killed by a shell, and the Gordons, not having received the order, stuck to their position. “ The Germans advanced in such force that we were at last compelled to retire, and lost a lot of jolly good fellows. I doubt if any of us would have been left if it had not been for the 135th Battery of Field Artillery. They covered our retreat, sending out such a terrible fire that the enemy were afraid to approach any nearer."

This stands as the most circumstantial account of the cutting-off of the Gordons that has come to hand among personal letters and accounts of the men who were there, and, unlike so many letters purporting to be from “the front,” it bears the stamp of authenticity. A piper of the regiment corroborates it by saying that “the Germans came on in great masses, driving us back all the time.” He tells of being left only with a revolver, his sword having snapped, after which he crossed a river, and made a stand in a church. “Eight hundred of us entered that church, the majority never to come out again, for the Germans’ big 'Jack Johnsons’ shelled us out.” There was, apparently, an officer in charge, and when he saw how the shells were causing fatalities he gave the order for all men who could to bolt for the road and save themselves. “The people at home will not think any the worse of you, lads, for it,” he is alleged to have said. According to the piper’s account, some sixty or more got away to safety in one rush, in which he himself was wounded in the arm.

The work of signallers has not come into much prominence in the fighting in France, but one of the signallers of the Gordons, at least, has had occasion to use his flags. It happened that his battalion had been in a tight corner for some time, and was running short of ammunition, in consequence of which the signaller was ordered by his company officer to signal to the Army Service Corps for a further supply. He stood up facing to the rear, and, raising his flags, signalled—“From Captain-” when the message was cut short by his arm being wounded in two places. As he was trying to bind up the wounds, another piece of shrapnel came along and lodged in the same arm:

A good general account of the fighting is given by one non-commissioned officer who went out at the end of August, and was first engaged in the fighting which took place immediately before the advance from the Marne to the Aisne. Here the Gordons were engaged near a village held by the enemy, and under very hot fire. The British troops had a hard job in getting the Germans to leave their trenches, but eventually the artillery fire from the British guns proved too much for the Germans, who got up and ran. The Gordons reached the village after the enemy had fled, and were billeted there for the night—and in this connection the non-commissioned officer responsible for this account remarks that the German rifle fire is almost useless, though their machine-gun fire is good. “Besides, when once they think they are beaten they are off, and one can scarcely get at close quarters with them. Our party never got within half a mile of them.”

In this last sentence, it must be remembered, the writer refers to the German troops who had come down on the tremendous advance which ended at the position of the Marne. Official reports leave it beyond doubt that these German troops had undergone three weeks of the severest strain that has ever been imposed on fighting men, and that their moral was so far impaired that, after the wheel made by von Kluck’s army away from Paris, the whole of them had to be drawn back and replaced by other troops. Since they had been reduced to this state by their exertions, it is hardly to be wondered at that they would not face their enemies at close quarters.

The narrative, proceeding, states that on the advance of the British to the trenches the enemy had occupied, it was difficult to estimate the number of German dead, for the trenches, filled with bodies, had been covered in with earth. One German was found by the Gordons still standing in his trench, with his rifle to his shoulder, quite dead. He had evidently been shot while in the act of taking aim, and had been left by his retreating comrades. On the advance, it was noted that the work of the British artillery had been particularly deadly, especially among the woods through which the men advanced. The part of the regiment to which the narrator of these events was attached was sent back to headquarters in charge of several hundreds of prisoners, their places in the firing line being taken by others for the time being; and, after a turn at headquarters duty, the Gordons were sent on to Lille and La Bassee, opposite to a part of von Kluck’s force, which had in the meantime moved out to the north-west to keep pace with the extension of the Allied line. While the Gordons were lying in an open field, taking part in an attack, the order was given to retire; but it was unheard by the men of some sections, and the enemy advanced so near that the position of some of the men became very critical. But the wretched fire of the German infantry proved their salvation, for sixteen of the Gordons made their way across perfectly level, boggy ground, with the Germans less than 1,000 yards away, and only two were wounded.

The first days on the Aisne, according to another of the Gordons, must be counted as one of the fiercest examples of warfare under modern conditions. For days the Gordons were subjected to such a hurricane of shrapnel fire that they were compelled to lie in their trenches, merely awaiting developments; and many of the men who were wounded by shrapnel never fired their rifles, for the enemy was too far off for rifle fire to have any effect. One man was struck fourteen times by the shrapnel fire, and still came out from the trenches to recover. It was not until the British artillery was reinforced that the infantry were able to advance.

“We were kept so busy,” says one man of the Gordons concerning this time, “that for three days and nights we had no time to issue the mail. The men felt the want of a smoke more than of food, and I have seen more than one man trade away his last biscuit for a cigarette or a fill of tobacco. When the heaviest of the shelling was going on, our men were puffing away at fag-ends.’"

From such accounts as these one may glean some idea of what the Gordons underwent up to the time of the transference of the main battle to the Flanders area. As for this last, one non-commissioned officer states that the men were hardly ever out of canals and wet ditches. One day a section of men lay waist deep in water from nine in the morning till three in the afternoon, patiently waiting for dusk to come, that they might get a chance to dry their clothes. “ The Germans generally cease operations at dusk, and on these occasions the same old order comes along the line— “Dig yourselves in, men.” And, on the day that they lay in water so long, no sooner had they dug themselves in than the order to advance was given!

Apparently authentic is the account of the death of Captain Ker of the Gordons, who, it is stated by eyewitnesses, was in command of men whom he led up in face of the enemy’s fire at Bethune. The men gained the shelter of a natural rise in the ground, but before they reached this point Captain Ker was struck in the head by shrapnel, and was killed instantly.

The men lay for some time in the position they had won, but eventually found that it was too dangerous to retain, and risked the enemy’s fire in place of capture. They doubled back across a couple of fields to their old position, and eighteen of the twenty-one in the party got safely back—but only seven of them escaped being hit. Captain Ker was later picked up and buried on the field.

With regard to Colonel Gordon, V.C., it appears from one account that he was taken into a barn after having been wounded, but almost immediately afterwards the barn caught fire, and it was thought that he had been trapped in the flames. It seems, however, that the wound was only a body one, and the colonel was able to get clear, though he was afterwards taken prisoner.

“Keep your heads up, men!” one of the officers of the Gordons shouted to his men on one occasion. “They can’t no hit you”—pointing to the snipers up a tree; and with that remark he showed his own head above the trench. “None of us cared to follow his example, but his cheery way bucked us up,” says one of the men present at the time. Yet again the same officer inquired—“Any man wanting to earn a glass of claret?” and received several enthusiastic affirmatives. “Well,” he said, “catch me that hen running across the road.” The offer was not accepted, for the German fire was hot at the time.

Another account refers to a battle which took place about the middle of October, the 2nd battalion being the one referred to. “I left the trenches on Saturday night for hospital,” says the writer. “On Friday afternoon we had a terrible battle with the Germans, who turned all their artillery and machine guns on our trenches in an attempt to break through them. It was hell while it lasted, but we gave them more than they wanted. About three hundred yards in front of our trenches was a ridge running parallel with them, and every time the Germans mounted this ridge in mass they were blown into the air. Ten times they were blown away, losing battalions each time—it was sickening to see them. Towards night they retired; and my company lost pretty heavily, five men being killed and thirteen wounded. Our captain and lieutenant were also wounded. Throughout all that battle I never got so much as a scratch—I have been very lucky on two or three occasions.”

This man went into hospital at the finish with a poisoned hand and head, caused by a graze sustained three weeks before the fight of which he writes. In his letter, as in all the accounts quoted here, is noticeable an absolute lack of doubt as to the final result of the titanic struggle. Not that any one of the men actually voices confidence, but from the way in which they tell of the doings of their regiments one may gauge their spirit, and understand that they see only the one end to this war of world-forces; that there is no fear of defeat, no thought of other than a steady driving on to a- fixed end—the overthrow of German militarism. Many of them—many Gordons, without doubt—have never given the matter a thought, for they fight, as the Gordons and as the whole British Army always fights, with a belief in themselves and their leaders that amounts to such conviction as needs no words for its expression—a settled knowledge that in good time their task will be accomplished. For behind all these men are the traditions of those who cried “Scotland for ever!” men who knew not the meaning of defeat.

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