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Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), The - Actions on Western Front in WWI (World War 1, First Great European War) to 1915

Updated on February 5, 2015

Scottish Rifles At Neuve Chapelle

Neuve Chapelle, March 10th, 11th, 12th, 1915, was the first of that new and terrible kind of battle for which the Great War would be known.

Once upon a time two armies would meet on a more or less level piece of ground, such as Naseby Field or Lutzen, Leipzig or Waterloo, and engage one another on an equal footing, and this was so even at the commencement of the First World War, at the Battle of the Marne.

Then came a total change; a war of entrenchments began.

Both sides dug trenches, including underground dwellings, not just ditches scraped hastily out of the ground.

In front of these, defences of all kinds were implemented; barbed-wire entanglements and every sort of obstacle of which one could think.

And this was not all.

It became a war of the machine.

Machine-guns were placed at strategic points, hidden until the very last minute; behind were the big guns, also placed in secret places, cunningly hidden away; and in the trenches, men peered through peep-holes and periscopes, watching for the enemy, ready to fire upon them with their state-of-the-art rifles, and repel them with their bayonets.

Once all the preparations had been made, they waited; the only thing to do was to wait and wait, until someone made the first move.

'Records of the Regiments in the War.' Chapter XVI.

" The struggle lasted four hours. By that time the Cameronians were reduced nearly to their last flask of powder ; but their spirit never flagged. . . . Then the drums struck up ; the victorious Puritans threw their caps into the air, raised, with one voice, a psalm of triumph and thanksgiving, and waved their colours, colours which were on that day unfurled for the first time in the face of an enemy." - Macaulay's "History of England."

Second-Lieutenant W. Leggat
Second-Lieutenant W. Leggat | Source

The British Devise A New Method of Attack

In trench warfare such as this, it was a certainty that whoever attacked first, would lose far more than the side which just sat still and shot their attackers.

In the first instance, generals thought twice before attacking under these conditions.

But generals and staff soon grow weary of such impasse.

They had the canon-fodder - why not use it?

It did not take long for someone to suggest a way out of this difficulty; and this was implemented by the British at Neuve Chapelle.

The suggestion was to fire high-explosive shells in enormous barrages, their object not being to kill men, or at least not their main objective, but to blow parapets, barbed-wire fences, and everything else in front of the enemy's trenches, into smithereens.

Once the barrage was completed, the infantry could advance; the battle then would revert to the old, and trusted, method of man-to-man fighting; best man wins.

It was a robust plan, for the British knew that they had men of superior training, and greater fighting qualities, than the majority of the poorly-trained, quickly-formed German forces.

Battle Of Neuve Chapelle

Neuve Chapelle

And so it was to be at Neuve Chapelle.

There the British artillery began the bombardment at 7.30 on the morning of Wednesday, March 10th.

The generals had calculated the minutia of requirements; four shells to the yard was the allowance for the gunners, and for just over half an hour the sound of the barrage was deafening.

It was so loud that many thought their ears would burst as they were crouched in the trenches, waiting while the missiles did their job, to make it easier for them to do theirs.

The whole earth vibrated.

It was as if Thor or Vulcan, were striking it with a hammer.

The German parapets and entanglements disappeared in a cloud of dust, as envisaged.

The trenches, too, were destroyed.

The whole place seemed to have been flattened to the ground, but with great pock-marks abrading the face of the land.

Then, at five minutes past eight, the guns ceased their destructive work, and the infantry leapt out of their trenches and dashed forward headlong towards the opposing trenches.

North of the village of Neuve Chapelle the battalions chosen to make the attack were the four belonging to the 23rd Brigade.

One of these was the 2nd Cameronians, who had been at Malta when the war began.

They rushed forward as gallantly as the rest, hell-bent on removing the Germans from their positions, but a dreadful experience met them before they reached the German lines.

The barbed-wire entanglements, the trenches, the machine-guns, had not been annihilated as they had elsewhere; everything was there just as if there had been no bombardment at all.

It was now down to them to try to remedy the situation, but it was fruitless.

As they tore with their bare hands at the barbed-wire entanglements, the Germans shot them down in scores, like ducks at a duck-shoot.

Their officers did all they could to get forward, but soon the colonel and fourteen other officers had been killed, and most of the others wounded.

Colonel H. M. Hannah
Colonel H. M. Hannah | Source

A Costly Miscalculation That Saw The Cameronians Almost Destroyed

Why had the German defensive positions here not been destroyed as they had elsewhere along the line?

The reason for this failure is as follows :

At the point at which the Cameronians attacked, the German trenches were in a slight hollow, and the bombardment missed this, and the shells burst beyond them.

The Cameronians paid a terrible price for this error, several hundreds of young and gallant lives were lost in that attack, on that position, on that day.

But to return to the story.

In that terrible moment, with the barbed-wire intact in front of them, and officers and men dropping all around by the tens and dozens, the battalion stood firm and did not break.

A wounded officer, Major G. T. C. Carter-Campbell, took over the command.

The survivors were ordered to lie down in the open and take cover wherever it could be found.

It did not take much for them to obey, and they lay there for some time, until the British guns again set up a bombardment, this time on the right spot.

After a while this more precise shelling caused a gap to be made in the German defences, and a company of men, that had escaped the worst of the slaughter, was sent to capture it.

This time the men got through, and soon the remnant of the battalion had joined up with the others behind the enemy's lines.

Two days later, on the evening of March 12th, this success was followed up, and under Lieutenant Somervail the Cameronians took part in another attack.

On the 14th Somervail, by then the only officer left, led the survivors out of action.

Those awful days saw many heroes in the ranks of the Cameronians.

Private H. R. Cannon, was the first of them to dash into the German trenches.

Private W. Tongs, rushed up his machine-gun at a very critical moment, and soon accounted for a German gun which was causing a lot of casualties.

Sergeant Mayo collected the men together, after all his officers had been killed or wounded, and led them forward against the Germans.

Potted History Of The Cameronians

These Cameronians belong to a regiment first raised, as Macaulay tells us, in 1689.

The original Cameronians were Protestants, but with no conscientious objections to fighting in defence of their liberties, and they helped William of Orange against James II. and his Roman Catholic friends.

At Dunkeld, on August 4th, 1689, they beat back a desperate attack made by the Highlanders, and since then they have served honourably every British King and Queen.

Enrolled in the Regular Army as the 26th Regiment of the Line, the Cameronians served under Dutch William in Flanders, and fought in Marlborough's four great battles: Blenheim, Ramillies, Oudinarde, and Malplaquet.

The 2nd Battalion of the regiment, the old 80th, was raised in 1794, and fought with honour in Egypt, and at Corunna.

Later it was in South Africa; in the Crimea the battalion took part in the assault on the Redan, and in India it marched with Havelock to relieve Lucknow.

The regiment also fought in Abyssinia and Zululand, and through the Boer War.

A Cameronian Private in Command

In November, 1914, the 2nd Battalion of this regiment went to France, and, as related, took part in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle.

The 1st Battalion was already there, being one of those sent out to guard the lines of communication.

During the retreat from Mons it was hurried up to the front, and in the succeeding weeks the men fought in several skirmishes.

On October 22nd, for instance, at the beginning of the First Battle of Ypres, some of them were in a tight spot, but, under Private W. Cairns, all the officers having been either killed or wounded, they fought a gallant rearguard action.

Throughout the winter there were many other deeds of bravery recorded for the Cameronians.

Ypres - Canadian Footage

Lieutenant-Colonel R. J. Douglas
Lieutenant-Colonel R. J. Douglas | Source

New Armies in the Field

Quite early in the war the Cameronians had a Territorial battalion at the front.

This was the 5th, under Lieutenant-Colonel R. T. Douglas.

It did good service during the Battle of Ypres in October, 1914, and throughout the following winter.

The 6th, another Territorial battalion, showed great gallantry in an attack on some German trenches made on June 15th, 1915.

The Scots rushed across open ground, and the trenches were captured, but they were unable to hold them for very long.

The service battalions, the men of Lord Kitchener's army, were the next to arrive at the front, and several of these won great glory at the Battle of Loos.

One to do so was the 10th Cameronians.

They were part of the 15th Division, one marked off to seize Loos itself.

This they did, the Cameronians and the rest of the 46th Brigade sweeping round from the north, and then, not content with this success, they made for "Hill 70" beyond.

As at Neuve Chapelle. they did all that brave men could do, and the long list of dead on the regimental roll proves them worthy of those stark Scots warriors who died around King James at Flodden, or those who fell with Wauchope at Magersfontein.

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