3rd Ypres & Seaforth Highlanders
An extract on The Third Ypres from Derek Bird's "The Spirit of the Troops is Excellent"
On the morning of 23 July the battalion prepared for the move up to the line and at 2 p.m. they marched off towards Broxeele to meet a convoy of 28 motorbuses. At 5 p.m. 25 men were loaded onto each bus for the journey to St. Jans-ter-Biezen that, with a two and a half-hour meal break, took until midnight. Upon arrival the men who were to be left out of the battle were formed up as the ‘B Echelon' and departed for billets in the village of Volckerinckhove. The next few days saw the battalion continuing preparations for the battle by attending a series of lectures and carrying out further training scheme. Preparations were also made to move up to the camp at A30 Central, but this was postponed because the French divisions to the north were not ready and the date of the attack was put back until the 28th. It was subsequently delayed again and the start of the battle was rescheduled for 3.50 a.m. on the morning of 31 July. The move to A30 Central eventually took place on the morning of the 29th and, once settled in, the final preparations for the attack were made. On the 30th Lieutenant-Colonel McDonald spoke to all the officers and NCOs during the day. The battalion then moved off to the trenches at 7.30 p.m.
The infantry's preparation on the training grounds over the previous weeks had been thorough, and nearer the front the artillery had been substantially reinforced. The Highland Division could not only count on its own artillery batteries , but six more artillery brigades had been attached. This gave one 18-pounder gun for every twelve and a half yards of the division's front. Further reinforcement came from the 232nd Machine Gun Company that was attached to the Highlanders, and also by the arrival of 48 more machine-guns from the 11th (Northern) Division, making an impressive total of 112 Vickers machine-guns available to the division. It was also planned that 206 drums of burning oil would be launched into the enemy's support and reserve lines from Livens projectors, and that 150 Thermite shells would be fired at a major strong-point known as Fort Caledonia in the German reserve line. The division also had eight fighting tanks, a supply tank and a squadron of cavalry from the 1st King Edward's Horse to aid its advance. The artillery bombardment of the German positions had opened on 16 July and an average of more than, 5,000 artillery and mortar shells was fired daily on the divisions front. The lighter guns had concentrated on cutting the barbed wire while the heavy weapons pounded the German artillery batteries , strong points, pill-boxes and other positions of importance. The artillery plan would then change when the infantry attack began, with the light gun concentrating on providing a protective creeping barrage for the infantry to advance behind.
The 6th Seaforth continued to move forward and after crossing the Ypres - Yser Canal the final items required for the assault were issued. They then moved off again and were soon in their jumping off positions to the west of St Julien, a short distance north of Ypres. Here the British trenches ran on a south-east to north-west line as the Salient curved round the town, and the direction of the attack would be towards the north-east. The quartermaster had arranged for a mug of hot cocoa to be served to each man, but the time passed slowly as they waited, packed tightly in the trenches, for the start of the battle. While the many thousands of men waited quietly it started to drizzle, and this was to be the portent of much more rain and the battlefield turning into a quagmire. (Note. Much of the ground around Ypres is barely above sea level and relied on a network of canals and drainage ditches to keep it dry. The preliminary artillery barrage destroyed much of the drainage infrastructure and thereafter any rain was likely to cause major problems).
Map showing 6th Seaforth Advance at third Battle of Ypres from "The Spirit of the Troops is Excellent" By Derek Bird
The beginning of the battalion's War Diary entry for 31 July 1917 simply states, “The Fifth Army attacked the German lines north of Ypres this morning at dawn and the battalion took part in the attack, jumping off at 3.50 a.m.” At that moment, every gun in the line opened fire in a great crescendo of noise, flame and destruction. The Livens projectors launched their canisters of burning oil towards the enemy lines, and the infantry clambered out of the trenches. In the first waves were the 1/5th Seaforth, 1/8th Argylls, l/7th Gordons and the l/7th Black Watch, whose role was to advance and secure the first objective, the 'Blue Line’. Due to the tremendous pounding that the German forward positions had received in the build up to the attack the Highlanders were able to advance with little difficulty and quickly seized their first objectives. The next wave of infantry comprised the 1/5th and 1/6th Gordons, 6th Seaforth and the 1/6th Black Watch. Once the leading waves had secured the 'Blue Line' these battalions were to pass through and press on towards the next objectives at the' Black Line', and then onwards to the 'Green Line'.
The nature of the fighting changed once the 'Blue Line' had been passed and, although the artillery had dealt with the enemy trenches, the advance now came to the pill-boxes and fortified farms. Each of these mini forts housed machineguns and were positioned so that the fields of fire interlocked with adjacent positions. The problem of moving through the shell-cratered and soft ground also added to the advancing Highlanders' difficulties. The 1/6th Gordons on the right of the divisional front had no major problems reaching the 'Black Line'. The 6th Seaforth alongside them managed to capture most of its objectives on the 'Black Line' but were held up in the vicinity of Macdonald's Farm and adjacent wood where a tremendous fight took place. Two platoons tackled Macdonald's Farm first, with the left-hand sections of the 1/6th Gordons helping with covering rifle and machine-gun fire into the wood. Then the tank G50 arrived on the scene and fired half a dozen 6-pounder shells into the farm. These shells, combined with a barrage of rifle grenades from the infantrymen, caused the garrison to surrender; 70 survivors were captured. Others were not so fortunate and many dead lay around the farm.
Each pill-box, and there were many in this sector, required great skill and daring to subdue. Teamwork was the key and while one party would pin down the defenders with rifle and machine-gun fire, others would try to work round to the rear and then attack from behind. It was slow work but the Highlanders methodically overcame each one and moved on to the next.
On the left of the 6th Seaforth the 1/6th Black Watch were having great difficulties in overcoming the German defenders and their casualties, 9 officers and 292 men, were the heaviest in the division. On the far left the 1/5th Gordons had no fortified farms on their line of attack, but they still had to contend with many machine-guns in concrete emplacements. Despite the hold-ups the whole of the 'Black Line' was in the hands of the Highland Division by 6.40 a.m. There was still some fighting for the outposts east of the ‘Black Line', and once the artillery barrage moved on to the 'Green Line' some of the men found themselves getting embroiled in this fighting well before their own objectives were reached. 'C' Company of the 6th Seaforth was detailed to take the 'Green Line' and other objectives beyond the Steenbeek and their commander, Captain James Bliss, led them forward with great skill. Campaign Reminiscences comments that they 'proudly picked their way through the consolidating troops, maintaining perfect military formation, as if on parade', but during the advance James Bliss was mortally wounded.
The 'Green Line' was just short of the Steenbeek, a small stream that according to the British maps was only ten feet wide with five foot high banks, but damage from the shelling meant that the rain was rapidly turning it into a muddy moras and a major obstacle. One of 'C' Company's objectives was to establish a post at Mon du Rasta on the far side of the Steenbeek, but very heavy rifle and machine-gun fire pinned them down at the 'Green Line'. Using Lewis guns and a tank to provide covering fire the platoons detailed to stay at the 'Green Line', plus the held up ‘C’ Company, dug in. Meanwhile the 1/6th Black Watch to the north had managed to get a number of men across the Steenbeek to establish their forward posts. This was the signal for the cavalry to advance and the squadron of King Edward' Horse came forward. They were expected to cross the Steenbeek and send out patrols but when about 150 yards short of the stream they came under heavy machine-gun fire that caused many casualties to both men and horse, ruling out any possibility of then reaching their objectives.
There is no doubt that many brave acts were carried out on 31 July but, from the 6th Seaforth's point of view, one man, Sergeant Alexander Edwards, was particularly praised for his conduct. He had already been involved in successfully leading his platoon against an enemy machine-gun team in Macdonald's Wood, and with only on 'C' Company officer left Sergeant Edwards moved from man to man to give encouragement. When an enemy sniper caused a number of casualties he went out and stalked him and, despite being wounded in the arm, he managed to hunt him down and kill him. Following the failed cavalry attempt to cross the Steenbeek Sergeant Edwards heard that a badly wounded cavalry officer was lying in the open. He went out to the officer, dressed his wounds in a shell hole and helped him back through heavy fire to the battalion's lines.9
For the moment the Highlander advance had been halted at the 'Green Line', with only the 1/6th Black Watch having managed to get small group of men across the Steenbeek. The attack had stalled, but when a pair of tanks arrived they gave support by patrolling along the line engaging the enemy whenever movement was seen. In the middle of the afternoon the German artillery opened a heavy bombardment that caused more casualties among the barely dug-in troops, and followed it up with the first of a number of counter-attacks. The combined weight of fire from the Highlanders' rifles and machine-guns caused this counter-attack to fail and, with the Germans temporarily thrown into a state of confusion, Sergeant Edward led 'C' Company over the Steenbeek via two small wooden bridges. Once over they carried on and attacked their final objective, the Mon du Rasta pill-box. Despite stout resistance the German defenders were overcome with only two surviving to become prisoners. Having fought hard to secure these advanced positions the various parties of 6th Seaforth, 1/6th Black Watch and 1/8th Argylls were later ordered to retire back over the Steenbeek. Reluctant as they must have been to give up their hard won gains they had been subjected to a number of German countere-attacks and there was a great danger of them being cut off. At some point during the afternoon fighting Alexander Edwards was wounded again, but he only sought medical attention in the early hours of 1 August. Sergeant Alexander Edwards was the awarded the Victoria Cross.
By the end of 31 July the Highland Division had reached, and held, the southern bank of the Steenbeek through the sheer determination and valour of those engaged in the fight. The attack was deemed a success but the 6th Seaforth' casualties had been heavy with three officers and more than 60 ORs killed and seven officers and over 180 ORs wounded.
(Note. A high percentage of those killed on 31 July have no known grave and 42 of them are commemorated on the Menin Gate. The other are buried in a number of different cemeteries in the area).