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Cameron Highlanders, The - Actions World War One (WWI, First Great European War) to 1915

Updated on February 5, 2015
Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders Cap Badge
Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders Cap Badge | Source

Cameron's 'Told Off' To Guard General French

G.H.Q., or General Headquarters, to give it its full name, was a mysterious place "somewhere in France" where the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army was to be found.

A stranger wandering into that neighbourhood would have soon found himself challenged by a sentry, and unless he could explain his business very clearly would have been kept at a safe distance.

To guard the Commander-in-Chief and his surroundings from intrusion and annoyance, a battalion would usually be 'told off', and the one chosen to do this for Lord French when he first went to France in August, 1914, was the 1st Cameron Highlanders.

To be “Told Off”

In military terms this did not quite have the same derived meaning as is normally associated with the phrase today. To be 'told off' in the army or navy, and presumably the air Force too, was to be 'separated from the rest of the troops and assigned to a particular duty'.


It was difficult to get sailors and soldiers for the enterprise, which had to be kept as secret as possible. At last 500 old and infirm soldiers were told off for service under Anson “ - Anson's Voyage Round the World

An' may thank your stars an' gaiters if you didn't feel 'is knife
That you ain't told off to bury 'im as well.” - extract from 'Loot' Barrack-Room Ballads by Rudyard Kipling

On night of 22/23rd inst. the 50th Battalion will relieve the 4/5th Y. and L. Battalions. ... Guides for “A” and “B” Coys. will be at ZONNEBECK STATION at 4.30 P.M. Parties for posts will be told off before moving...” - 50thCanadian Battalion Operation Order: 1917-10-22 to 1917-10-22

The European naval squadron told off to coerce the Sultan will be commanded by Admiral Ripper, an Austrian officer." - Kalgoorlie Miner (WA : 1895 - 1950) Papers Past

"A party of about a dozen were told off to stir up the molten contents" [of tar barrels]. - The History of Up Helly Aa

Cameron Officers as Cave Men

But the 1st Camerons did not stay not long at G.H.Q.

When disaster overtook the Royal Munster Fusiliers, Lord French ordered the Camerons to the front to take their place in the 1st Brigade, .

They joined the other three battalions on September 4th. A few days later they were in some very fierce fighting on the Aisne.

On Sunday, the 13th, the Camerons crossed the river near Bourg without too much concern, and prepared some hastily-dug entrenchments in the hills on the northern side of the Aisne. They passed the night there.

The following Monday they passed up the valley towards Vendresse.

In the afternoon they went to support the Loyal North Lancashires who were making an attack on a sugar factory at Troyon. Just like the Lancashiremen they had a terrible time there.

They managed to get quite close to the main German line of defence, but in the wet conditions they found it hard to stay balanced. As they slipped about they were shot down in scores.

Seventeen officers and over five hundred men, over half the battalion, were either killed or wounded.

The remnant of this battalion was then given some respite, with a rest, but towards the end of September they relieved the Black Watch in their trenches.

At this time they were commanded by Captain Douglas Miers, who, finding a cave about ten yards square, decided to make it his headquarters.

The majority of the regiment were on duty in the trenches; the captain had four other officers and about thirty men with him in these headquarters.

March of the Cameron Men

I hear the pibroch sounding, sounding.

Deep o'er the mountain and glen,

While light springing footsteps are

trampling the heath -

'Tis the march of the Cameron men."

- March Of The Cameron Men, by Mary M Campbell

Captain A. 0. Cameron
Captain A. 0. Cameron | Source
Captain D. N. C. C. Miers
Captain D. N. C. C. Miers | Source
Captain A. Borne
Captain A. Borne | Source

Camerons at the Inn between Langemarck and Bixschoote

It may never become clear whether the Germans knew the whereabouts of the battalion headquarters, but the officers had only just ensconced themselves in the cave when a huge shell burst right above them in their dwelling. The entire roof fell in, and all the occupants were buried in the ruins.

One or two managed to extricate themselves, and one or two more were rescued by those fortunates. Some Scots Guards, who were in the same brigade, rushed up and began to flail away at the earth above the unfortunate men, to try to rescue some more men.

The Germans saw what they were doing, and turned a heavy fire upon them, so they were unable to get on very fast, and they had to abandon their quest after several close misses from the German bombardment.

So, it was not until after dark when a party of Engineers managed to come up to the site with proper digging equipment. They soon got down to the buried men, but it was too late. They were all dead.

All five officers perished, including Captain Miers and Captain Alan Cameron of Lochiel.

After this the Camerons had to wait for reinforcements before they could do much.

When these reinforcements arrived the battalion, like the rest of the Army, had been transferred to Flanders.

In the middle of October the Highlanders were holding some trenches near the high road running between Langemarck and Bixschoote.

On the night of the 22nd, while the Battle of Ypres was raging, the Germans broke through there, and a cold-blooded conflict took place.

Some of the Camerons were cut off from the rest of the force. They commandeered an inn close by, and turned it into a veritable fortress.

They held this position while the 2nd Brigade, led by General Bulfin, retook the lost trenches and removed the Germans, causing them heavy casualties, both dead and wounded.

First Battle of Ypres, 1914

Private Ross Tollerton. Gained the V.C. at the Aisne, when, though himself wounded, he saved an injured officer.
Private Ross Tollerton. Gained the V.C. at the Aisne, when, though himself wounded, he saved an injured officer. | Source
Captain Norman Fraser, D.S.O., Cameron Highlanders, also served with distinction in the Boer War. He was first A.D.C. to Major-General Sir Bruce Hamilton, and afterwards Staff Lieut, on Lord Kitchener's Staff.
Captain Norman Fraser, D.S.O., Cameron Highlanders, also served with distinction in the Boer War. He was first A.D.C. to Major-General Sir Bruce Hamilton, and afterwards Staff Lieut, on Lord Kitchener's Staff. | Source

Cameron Highlander Becomes Human Fire Extinguisher

On October 31st, together with the other eleven battalions of the 1st Division, the Camerons managed to resist the desperate attacks made by the Germans, when the British brigades were swept from their trenches.

On November 11th , when the Prussian Guard made its furious charges, they managed to resist them also.

At the end of these onslaughts, the Camerons had again been reduced to a mere remnant of their original strength. They had been almost annihilated twice in two months.

The brigade to which they belonged, the 1st, had begun September with 153 officers and about 5,000 men. By the end of the Battle of Ypres it numbered just eight officers and less than 500 men.

In January, the 1st Battalion of this Highland regiment, also took part in the desperate fighting in the Cuinchy brick-fields.

And so we come to the 2nd Battalion of the regiment, which arrived at the front from India early in 1915.

They were fighting at St. Eloi on February 20th, if not earlier.

On March 15th, Company Sergeant-Major G. McCallum was severely burned when in command of a trench, when he saw no other way of putting out some burning petrol, other than to roll on it, which he did, thus extinguishing the conflagration.

The 2nd Camerons were part of the new Fifth Army Corps. To all intents and purposes this had little share in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle.

This turned out to be just as well, as the troops were fresh and their ranks were full when the Germans made their second determined attack on Ypres in April and May.

When this battle began, the Camerons, in the 81st Brigade and the 27th Division, were entrenched near "Hill 60," which, in fact, was no more than a small rise in the ground. There they encountered another episode of German 'kultur' when a green vapour, the new poison gas, blew slowly towards the British lines, from the direction of those of the German perpetrators.

At the beginning of May the battalion fought most fiercely around Hooge, where the Germans used poison gas once again to try to gain some advantage.

On the 11th, for instance, two companies were driven from their trenches by the poisonous fumes, but Captain R. L. McCall rallied his men, and counter-attacked the Germans three times, driving them out of their trenches at the point of their bayonets.

On the previous day, after the loss of all its officers, Sergeant A. G. Douglas had taken command of a company, and had rallied the men to such an extent that they stuck to their trench in spite of the enemy's determination to have it at all costs.

After the Battle of Ypres

Captain J. Macpherson,
Captain J. Macpherson, | Source
Lieutenant-Colonel A. Fraser, 4th Cameron Highlanders, rejoined from the Territorial Force Reserve; he possessed the Volunteer Decoration.
Lieutenant-Colonel A. Fraser, 4th Cameron Highlanders, rejoined from the Territorial Force Reserve; he possessed the Volunteer Decoration. | Source

A Cameron and His Axe

On 11th of May also, perhaps the most remarkable of these great deeds of Ypres was perpetrated by Lance-Corporal Gordon.

He was one of a party attached to a machine-gun. When the British line was broken nearby, Gordon soon found that he was the only man left to work the gun.

When they realised this, six Germans made for him, but the corporal seized an axe, killed one, and drove the others off on their heels.

His axe was then used to disable the machine-gun, and after this action was completed, he went off to help to work another machine-gun. Eventually the Germans were driven back some way. It was now that Gordon went out under heavy fire and retrieved the gun he had damaged.

The Territorial battalions of the Camerons, which were at the front in the spring, had their own stories of derring-do to tell.

In May, the 4th Battalion, which consisted mainly of men from the Hebrides, took part in the attack on Festubert. In this they advanced farther into the German lines than any other unit, however, they paid heavily for this endeavour. Their colonel, Lieutenant-Colonel A. Fraser, was one of those amongst the many killed.

At one point they encountered a broad stream. Many of them swam it and made their way into a German trench. But they were the only ones that made it there, as reinforcements could not reach them, and in the darkness they were ordered to retire.

Chemical Warfare WWI

Queen Victoria's Own Regiment

The Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders, this famous regiment, owes its origin to Alan Cameron, who raised 700 young men in his native county of Inverness, around 1793. As their colonel, he soon led them to the wars.

Called the 79th Cameron Highlanders, they fought against Napoleon in Holland and in Egypt. They helped to capture Copenhagen in 1807, and to beat the French at Corunna, Talavera, and Busaco.

At Fuentes d'Onor they fought a fierce battle in the streets with the elite of the French troops. When they lost their leader on the death of their colonel, Alan Cameron's son, in this encounter it roused them to a frenzy, and after it had occurred they put the enemy to a rapid retreat before them.

In Egypt, the Camerons served with great distinction. At Tel-el- Kebir they led the charge on the Egyptian position.

At the Battle of the Atbara they were selected by Kitchener to storm the Arab zareba. They did this with conspicuous success, and they took part in the fight at Omdurman.

The record of the Camerons is one not easily beaten.

From the very first they showed that "fierce native daring" which Byron credited them with in "Childe Harold," and they had never shown it more than during the Great War.

Gas Attack in the First Great War


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