3rd Ypres & The Gordon Highlanders
An extract on the third Ypres from the 'Gordon Highlanders in the First World War' by Cyril Falls.
The 51st Division front was a featureless waste hard to describe because there was on it virtually nothing with a geographical name, except that it was half way between Wieltje and Pilckem. It was divided by those of two other divisions from that of the 15th (Scottish Division). Its third and final objective was the small but notorious Steenbeek, which was fordable before the rain. By now something was known of the enemy's use of fortified farms, though it could not be ascertained which hid “pill-boxes". To guard against troops who had captured an objective being fired at a short range from such strong points, all farm buildings within 200 yards of each objective were to be assaulted under a barrage without a pause. The attack was carried out by the 152nd Brigade on the right and the 153rd on the left. Unlike the 15th Division, the 51st employed the two brigades which opened the attack to go right through to the final objective.
The 7th Gordon Highlanders led the attack on the right wing of the 153rd Brigade. The Gordons thought the hour a few minutes too early, but this was no one's fault and on a normal summer morning all would have been for the best. As it was, the four waves went forward without confusion. In front moved the barrage, a wall of fire. For once there was no badly calibrated gun firing short. The troops found they could keep within forty yards of the bursting shells, and no losses from them were reported. “Mon, the barrage was that fine ye could have lighted your pipe at it !” an enthusiast declared later.]
It was, however, not by a long way the mechanical operation which had become too familiar. The German posts distributed in depth between the main successive lines of defense were tackled with skill and in nearly every case put out of action by grenade attacks from the flanks, covered by Lewis-gun fire. Battalions under Major-General Harper's command were at this time among the best-trained on the Western Front, and the 7th Gordons were representative of them. The first objective was taken and its consolidation was well in hand when the battalions to take the second and third passed through.
In this case two battalions of the regiment were engaged: 6th Gordon Highlanders on the right of the 152nd Brigade, and 5th Battalion on the right of the 153rd. The task was now stiffer, and a number of reinforced concrete blockhouses, sometimes within the ruins of farm buildings, spurted death in all directions. One of these, Ascot Cottage, held up the 6th Gordons till someone hailed a tank which quickly decided the action. The battalion took its own section of the second objective and one of its platoons aided the 6th Seaforths to take theirs.
The 153rd Brigade met strong resistance in this phase and overcame it by the skill and courage of sections and even single men. One of these 2nd-Lieutenant W.B. Maitland of the 5th Gordons. The company which he commanded was held up by a machine gun, and he went for it single-handed. Dodging and jumping from one shell-hole to another, he got round to the flank and ran into the emplacement. He shot down two men, clubbed a third with the butt of his rifle, and took the gun. Lieutenant Maitland, who was wounded soon afterwards, was awarded the D.S.O.
Then came the advance to the final objective, the phase which so often went wrong. It did not do so here. As they approached the Steenbeek, however, the 6th Gordons came under deadly machine-gun fire from beyond it. Private G.I.Mcintosh, armed with a revolver and a single grenade, waded across the stream under fire, worked his way from shell-hole to shell-hole, killed two gunners and wounded a third. He then picked up two light machine guns and carried them back into the British lines. For this action of conspicuous gallantry Private Mcintosh was awarded the Victoria Cross. (see VC Link)The 6th Gordons took 134 prisoners. The 5th Gordons took two little fortresses, François Farm and Varna Farm, using Major-General Harper's "shell-hole" method of attack. In both cases the enemy surrendered without waiting for the Highlanders to come to close quarters, at François Farm 4 officers and 140 men.
To sum up, all objectives were taken by the 51st Division in an attack in which three battalions of the Gordons took part. The operation had been a complete success, though to meet the determined counter-attacks-all defeated-the front was withdrawn cross the Steenbeek. These three battalions had fought not only with bravery and determination but also with a skill in minor tactics altogether out of the common. They were all at the top of their form. It was now that a German intelligence report assessed the 51st Division as the most formidable in the British Army. The losses of the 5th and 6th Gordons were heavy, but the 7th Battalion, as often the case with troops concerned only with the first objective, got off much more easily. The remaining battalion in the division, the 4th, did not move forward on the day of the attack, but later on held as wet and uncomfortable a front as could well be imagined on the bank of the Steenbeek.
|9 killed and wounded
|296 killed, wounded and missing
A story told in the diary of the 6th Gordons may not be an exarnple of the brightest type of humour, but it stands for a fortitude which staggers the mind. Marching back in the dark, and needless to say in rain, one man fell into a shell-hole full of water. "He immediately commenced to quack like a duck, and the remainder of the platoon, following his example, quacked their way contentedly back to camp." It may be added that the camp awaiting them was abominable, the tents standing in mud often knee-deep. The troops which took part in this attack had had a hard time, but they were in fact lucky by comparison with those who relieved them to take over the offensive. Which it was renewed on August 16th, after almost ceaseless rain for over a fortnight, it was a failure on this part of the front. The 51st Division, returning to its former sector on the following day, found the position very much as it had left it. The next attack was launched on the 22nd.