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With the Scottish Regiments at the Front
Chapter VIII - The Cameron Highlanders

Mr. Alan Cameron, a gentleman of Scotland in the eighteenth century,fought a duel over which he was obliged to leave the British Isles, whereupon he found employment in an irregular cavalry corps which assisted the British in the American War of Independence. When the war ended he returned to England, judging that the storm had blown over, and at the time of the French Revolution he offered to raise a corps of Highlanders for the British Army. The offer was accepted, and Cameron raised 700 of his clansmen in Inverness-shire, a body which became the 79th Foot, and had its title altered in 1881 to the Cameron Highlanders.

The first active service undergone by the men of the regiment was in Holland, where in 1794 under the Duke of York they fought against an enemy greatly superior in numbers. Five years later the regiment again went to Holland, to distinguish itself at the action of Egmont-op-Zee, a name borne since that time on the regimental colours. This was followed up by the expedition under Sir Ralph Abercromby to Egypt, whence Napoleon and his army were driven out by the British. The Sphinx, with “Egypt” inscribed on it, is borne by the Camerons, in common with some other Highland regiments.

Copenhagen, at the capture of which the Camerons assisted in 1807, was overshadowed as an exploit by the work of the “light company” of the Camerons at Corunna in the following year. Tala-vera was a field in which the Camerons had a share, as was Busaco, and the regiment helped in holding the “lines” of Torres Vedras through the winter in which Wellington lay at bay against Napoleon’s marshals, to emerge in the spring and force the French to retreat. At Fuentes d’Onor, after holding the village in company with two other regiments against attack after attack by the French, the Camerons were forced out by the flower of the French Army, the Imperial Guard. When the fight was at its fiercest a French soldier shot dead the colonel of the regiment, and at that the Highlanders raised a cry of vengeance and swept away the famous Guard of France.

From Salamanca to Toulouse the Camerons fought on through the rest of the Peninsular campaign; they fought through Quatre Bras, and were among the four regiments specially mentioned in dispatches by Wellington after Waterloo. From that time, until 1854 called them to the Crimean campaign, the men of the regiment had only peace service; but, in the Highland Brigade under Sir Colin Campbell, the successors of the Highlanders who had distinguished themselves at Waterloo proved that the valour of the regiment was as great as ever, and at the battle of the Alma the Camerons did gallant service.

Almost immediately after the Crimea came the Mutiny, and the Camerons were among the first regiments to oppose the mutineers. At Mahomdie over a hundred men of the regiment went down with sunstroke, and then at Lucknow the mutineers had to be driven from house to house by bayonet work, in which Scottish regiments have always excelled.

For the nine months that followed the work in Lucknow, the regiment was almost constantly engaged with the enemy, especially at the battle of Bareilly and the crossing of the Gogra and Rapti rivers. The Mohmund and Kumasi campaigns came next, and in 1873 Queen Victoria presented the regiment with new colours and conferred on it the title of the “Queen’s Own.” Then in 1882 came the Egyptian campaign, and at Tel-el-Kebir a man of the Camerons was first to fall in the dawn hour at which that action began. The charge of the Camerons on the enemy’s lines is a feat that has been often described, and Lieutenant-Colonel Leith’s cry of “Come on, 79th!” has become historic.

In the attempt to rescue Gordon, and again in 1885, the Cameron Highlanders continued their work in Egypt, and in 1893 Lochiel of Cameron unveiled at Inverness a monument to the brave men of the regiment who had fallen in Egypt. Four years later a second battalion was raised, and in 1898 the 1st battalion again went up the Nile to assist in the final Dervish overthrow. With “Remember General Gordon” as their watchword, the Camerons shared in the battle of the Atbara, at which Mahmoud’s army was annihilated and Mahmoud himself taken prisoner. Sharing in the onward march, the Camerons were present at Omdurman, where the power of the Khalifa was finally broken, and the battalion attended the memorial service held in Khartoum on September 4th of that year in memory of General Gordon. Thence one company of the regiment went up to Fashoda, and had the unique honour of representing the British Army there at the time of the incident, now nearly forgotten, which so nearly led to war with France.

It was not until March of 1900 that the Camerons landed at East London to take part in the South African campaign, and they were then incorporated in the 21st Brigade under General Bruce Hamilton. They shared in the general advance to Pretoria, in the crossing of the Zand River, the battle of Doom Kop, and the engagement at Diamond Hill. Later, they shared in the capture of Prinsloo in the Wittebergen, and in the reliefs of Winburg and Ladybrand. Up to the end of the war the Camerons were in the thick of things, and the men received the personal thanks of General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien for the work they had performed while serving under him, and, what was more, for the fine spirit in which that work had been done.

The most that can be done with regard to locating the Camerons in France is to state that they formed a part of the First Division, and that when the Allies took the offensive the Camerons took the place of the Munsters; also that they have acted in very close conjunction with the Black Watch, with whom, it is highly probable, they were brigaded. At Mons the Black Watch formed the first line, and, as they lost a considerable number of men, the Camerons were moved up by way of support, when thirteen men of the battalion were killed and wounded. In the course of the great retreat there were as many as 300 men missing at one time, but parties of ten and twelve came in later and reduced the apparent losses. When nearing Soissons in the course of the retreat, the Black Watch were made the object of an encircling movement by the enemy, but they escaped with the aid of the 117th Battery R.F.A. and that of some of the Camerons. One man of the Black Watch had crossed the Aisne in the retreat, and was wounded while lying out in the open to fire, and a Cameron man stood by him and assisted him to the rear at the cost of three wounds to himself.

These slight incidents are all that can be gleaned with regard to the actual movements of the Camerons at the time of the retreat. Several minor incidents, however, have come to light, and of these many bear on the German abuse of the white flag and of all the recognised rules of war. On one occasion Germans were seen walking between the trenches, their own and the British, carrying stretchers; and, under the assumption that they were carrying wounded, firing was stopped for the time. It was discovered, however, that instead of wounded the supposed ambulance men were carrying machine guns on their stretchers, and at the same time they showed the Red Cross flag. On the other hand, such of the enemy as have been taken prisoners by the Camerons on the retreat told their captors that they expected to be shot at once, having been told by their officers that that would be their fate if they fell into the enemy’s hands.

It appears that there is plenty of humour among the Cameron men on the battlefield. “It’s very funny,” says one of them, “to hear a Frenchman try to sing ‘Tipperary.’ It fairly stumps them, but they do their best. The two favourite songs with our boys are ‘Tipperary’ and the Marseillaise. You should see a Frenchman when he hears that, he goes fairly daft. These Frenchmen seem terribly loungy to look at, but they are good fighters, for all that. They go smashing into it, and their artillery is the best out there. But our officers are a fine lot, the best set of men I ever came across. They do their share.”

Thus, discursively, a wounded Cameron man told of the incidentals of the fighting in France, the earlier days. Then comes a fairly detailed account of the battle of the Marne, in which the first three days, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, are described as “pretty much preliminary,” but on Tuesday the brigade of which the Camerons formed a part went out to meet the enemy, and drove them back, capturing about six hundred prisoners and eight guns. The ground was sodden with rain, and the Camerons lay out in the harvest fields taking cover behind the standing sheaves of corn, while the German artillery rained out shells on them, not even stopping when their own infantry advanced on the British troops. “We got it very rough, and a man beside me, one of our battalion, went out to help an officer who was badly wounded, but just as he got up to the officer he dropped. Our fellows were falling all round, and at about ten in the morning I got my dose. During the day the fighting round where I was lying fell off a bit, but I had to lay on the ground until dark, when another chap, who saw I couldn’t move, came over to make me a bed of straw and get me comfortable. But before he could get my bed made a bullet got him through the spine, and he tumbled over in a heap stone dead. I was lucky to get out of it, for the Germans were firing on our ambulance men. They had snipers lying among our wounded, and that night, when stretcher bearers came out to carry in the wounded officer, three of the bearers were shot. It was Wednesday morning before I was picked up by a picket of the Coldstream Guards.”

At the beginning of the battle of the Aisne, the Camerons were brought up to advance in skirmishing order under shell fire, when one man was wounded by shell fire, and fell back behind a haystack. Some other wounded also sought the shelter of the haystack, whereupon the Germans immediately began to shell it, and the wounded men sought other shelter, to fall in with a convoy of thirty German prisoners. Finally they found the transport column, and were taken back to a hospital established in a village in rear of the firing line, but this hospital was already full up. No less than thirty-two shells were aimed directly at this hospital, though it had a Red Cross flag flying over it all the time. This hospital was cleared, and two hours after the patients had been removed it was utterly destroyed by shell fire.

Another account relates that the enemy occupied the positions on the Aisne that they had taken up in 1870, and their guns were all placed in concrete positions, carefully prepared against the event. After the Camerons took up their position, the distance between the opposing forces was about a thousand yards, with fairly open ground between, and the regiment was ordered to attack the trenches held by the enemy. The whole brigade advanced under heavy shell fire until within 250 yards of the enemy’s position, and then the man who tells of this incident was struck down by shell fire and rendered unconscious, so that he did not see the result of the advance. He knew, however, that it must have been successful, since he was still behind the British line when he recovered consciousness.

It was later on, when the battle of the Aisne had taken on the nature of a siege action, that the cave disaster occurred which caused the deaths of over thirty officers and men of the regiment. Near the firing line was a large, spacious cave, which was used partly as a collecting base for the wounded, and partly as the regimental headquarters; and on the 25th of September, while the German artillery was shelling the British positions, the roof of the cave was struck by one of the big German shells, with the result that it fell in, burying thirty-five officers and men. The cave was some 300 yards behind the firing line, so that the incident went unobserved for some time, though it is doubtful if anything could have been done even had prompt action been taken, since the fall of rock and earth was so heavy that most of the men in the cave must have been killed instantaneously. Four of the occupants, however, were able to shout for help, being pinned down by masses of rock at the back of the cave when the roof fell in; and, nearly two hours after the accident, other men of the regiment heard the shouts of those imprisoned, and set to the work of rescue. Three men had been liberated, and while the rescuers were at work getting out the fourth man another shell landed in the same spot, covered in the pinned man, and blew his would-be rescuer to pieces. But this wounded man, though buried anew, was still alive, though he lost consciousness after two hours. An officer and three men of the Scots Guards finally dug him out, after he had been buried for about six hours, and he was sent away to hospital and recovery.

The Camerons came, with the greater part of the British force in France, to the fighting in the north-west which foiled the German attack on Calais, and from this part of the battle line one account has come through. “We were fairly giving it to the Germans,” says a wounded man from this quarter. “In the morning we started advancing in single line by sections at three paces interval across open fields at the double, and the shells were landing all round us as fast as the enemy could fire them, but we managed to get into our positions. We had a bad time of it there, but we managed to put a stop to the German advance, and then we took up another position, and held it. When the enemy were within about eighty yards of us the officer in charge of the company gave the order to fix bayonets, and we charged, at which the Germans ran away. We opened fire on them, and at about two o’clock on that day I was wounded. I was lying in a hollow of the ground which we had just cleared, and I had to lie there for hours until the enemy were driven back by a British regiment. Shortly after I was wounded the Germans gained the crest of a hill, and one of the Scots Guards lying there wounded put up his hands for them not to shoot, but one of them came to within two yards of him and shot him through the stomach, and he rolled over again and died about two hours afterwards.”

Against this cold-blooded savagery must be set the account given by an officer of the 1st battalion of the Camerons, who states that he was shot through the leg just before the enemy charged in great numbers and drove the British out of their trenches. One of the men tried to get the officer along in the retirement, but could not do so, and he was made a prisoner. “They banged me about a bit at first, and tied my hands behind my back, and tried to get me to walk, but of course I could not. At last one splendid German came forward and took me off to their own wounded in a farmhouse. He stayed by me the whole time, and was most wonderfully good to me. They dressed my wound and got me some water, and did what they could for me. Next day, at two in the afternoon, my company charged back at the house and drove the enemy back, rescuing me and the one or two other wounded prisoners in the house.”

Another officer writes, concerning the time on the Aisne: “The way the Germans treat property is disgusting. While passing through a village not long ago the greater part of the furniture of all the houses had been dragged out and broken up, all the crockery smashed, all the bedding dragged out into the open street, and there left to be soaked by the rain. It is awful to see the poor peasants wandering about, homeless and starving.

“Everywhere is the fearful smell of dead horses. It seems to saturate the atmosphere, and one marches through miles of it.”

Carrion and ruin! And “one splendid German,” who stands out from among his fellows because he exercised the simple instincts of humanity! Surely in this one incident is as great accusation against the German race as in the other and worse accounts.

Meanwhile the Camerons fight on, with the courage that their regiment has shown from the time of Abercrombie’s campaign in Egypt unto this day.

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