THE ROYAL SCOTS ‘NEW ARMY’ BATTALIONS IN FRANCE 1915 -16

Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, who had been appointed Secretary of State for War on 5 August, the day after the declaration of War, was almost alone in appreciating that the War would not ‘be over by Christmas’. He immediately called for a major expansion of the Army and, on 6 August, Parliament sanctioned an increase of establishment by 500,000. His intention was to raise a series of New Armies, from volunteers, for overseas service, organised on regular army lines, and trained by Regular Army personnel. Each New Army was to be replica of the five, then six, infantry division British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and was to include cavalry, artillery, engineers and the appropriate logistic support. Recruiting of the first 100,000 began on 11 August and the target was reached within two weeks. These volunteers, within their newly created units, were formed into five Divisions, one for each of the Army’s geographically-based Home Commands, and were collectively known as K1 (for Kitchener’s first Army). In Scotland these new units formed the 9th (Scottish) Division. The overwhelming response to the first call for volunteers was followed, on 28 August, by a call for a further 100,000 (K2) who, in Scotland were formed into the 15th(Scottish) Division, and subsequent calls in 1914 (K3-K5) each of which was formed into an ‘Army’ of six Divisions, but no longer geographically grouped.

The response from Edinburgh and the Lothians was remarkable. Enough volunteers had come forward by the end of November to raise seven new Royal Scots battalions. The 11th and 12th in K1 in 27 Brigade of 9 (Scottish) Division; the 13th in 45 Brigade of 15 (Scottish Division) and 14th (a reserve battalion) in K2; and the 15th (Cranston’s – with a strong element of Scots from Manchester), 16th (McCrae’s) and 17th (Rosebery’s Bantams – formed from men between 5’3’’ and 5’6’’ tall) in K3 and K4. The first two served in the 34th Division and the third in the 35th Division, both of which formed part of the Fourth New Army.

Most battalions had a small number of former officers and soldiers, regular and territorial, amongst those who volunteered who were able to provide an elementary military knowledge. These individuals were backed up by those who, for officers, had been in the Officers’ Training Corps. formed as part of the creation of the Territorial Force in 1908, with junior sections at many schools and senior ones in the universities, or in organisations, such as The Boys Brigade, particularly strong in Scotland, or Scouts, which, in those days, were quite military in their outlook and training. Many, however, particularly amongst junior officers and NCOs, had no military background or experience at all, and were selected by commanding officers and company commanders based on their civilian experience, often in managerial and foreman type roles, or simply a ‘gut feeling’. Perhaps surprisingly, when looked at by today’s selection procedures, there appear to have been very few mistakes – and the soldiers supported those selected to be in charge of them, and their Battalion, with a fierce loyalty.

The rapid increase in the size of the Army brought with it huge logistical and training problems   – not least in accommodating the numbers involved, many of who were initially in tented camps or had to be billeted in private houses. There was an acute shortage of khaki service dress with volunteers initially training in their own civilian clothes before the problem was overcome by the issue of 500,000 sets of blue serge uniforms, known as ‘Kitchener blue’ and universally unpopular. That problem did not affect the 16th (McCrae’s) Battalion who, on Christmas Day, marched through Edinburgh, all smartly turned out in khaki. It may just have had something to do with the mysterious disappearance, following a raiding party, apparently led personally by Sir George McCrae, of a load of khaki cloth from a wagon in the St Leonard’s railway yard! Weapons and ammunition were even scarcer. During training, which for the 11th and 12th Battalions took place in the south of England, supervised by Regular Officers and NCOs, rifles were shared within battalions, and initially, the full scale of rifles, machine guns and ammunition was not issued until battalions were about to proceed overseas. The 9th (Scottish) Division received its full scale in April 1915 and moved to France in early May, while 15th (Scottish) Division received its full complement of arms and ammunition in late May and moved to France in early July.

The 11th and 12th Battalions gained their first experience of trench duty in the area of Festubert in early July, followed by the 13th, in August, further to the south. It was not until the Battle of loos in September, however, that the Battalions participated in a major offensive. Initially all three battalions were in their respective Division’s reserve. The fighting followed a pattern that became all too familiar on the Western Front. The initial assault achieved considerable success, but at a high cost. Later, vigorous German counter-attacks necessitated the reserves being committed at a time when the battle was at its most chaotic. The attack began at 6.30 am on 25 September, and all three battalions were in action trying to hold the gains of the assault troops by midday. By the 28th all were back in their initial lines, with no ground gained but at a cost of over 1000 casualties between the three of them, or around one-third of those who had landed in France a few months earlier. Throughout the fighting there had been many remarkable acts of bravery and Private Robert Dunsire of the 13th Battalion was awarded the Regiment’s third Victoria Cross of the War for the rescue, under heavy fire, of two wounded comrades.

For the 11th and 12th Battalions the winter and spring of 1915-16 was spent, initially in the area of Loos then in the Ypres salient, in the routine of trench warfare with little in the way of action. For the 13th, however, on 11 May the Germans launched a major attack on the position they were holding near the German-held Hohenzollern Redoubt, some three miles north of Loos. At about 4pm a terrific bombardment was unleashed on the forward trenches. A shell landed on the Headquarters dug-out killing or wounding the whole of the staff including the commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Raban of the 1st Lancers (Indian Army), who had only taken over in April. This was followed, at 6pm, by an overwhelming infantry assault. After initial success in driving B Company from its front line trenches, the German attack was held by D Company, and the survivors of B Company, at the support line. In spite of a number of attempted counter-attacks during the night the Germans held firm and the former support line became the new British front line. Casualties in this one brief defensive battle totalled 13 officers, and 226 other ranks. In May the 11th and 12th Battalions were withdrawn and moved south to the area of Albert for training ahead of their commitment to the Battle of the Somme. The 13th Battalion remained in the Loos salient until June and then also moved south to prepare for the Somme.

In January 1916 the 15th, 16th and 17th Battalions arrived in France. During the first half of 1916 all three had a relatively straightforward introduction to the Western Front during which companies were attached, in rotation, to more experienced battalions serving in the trenches. Until April the 15th and 16th, as part of 34 Division, were stationed in the Armentieres sector, generally regarded to be one of the more favourable localities. Thereafter they were withdrawn from the line to put in some strenuous training for the forthcoming offensive on the Somme. The 17th, in 35 Division, continued to occupy trenches, latterly in the Neuve Chapelle and Festubert areas, until mid-June when, after twelve days for rest and training, it moved to the Somme sector in early July.