Aftermath of Festubert

Aftermath of Festubert

Even after the battle at Festubert on 15 June 1915 had died down the survivors could not rest as the wounded still needed to be evacuated and repairs made to the damaged trenches.

The work of the stretcher-bearers was described as heroic. They dressed wounds and made the wounded comfortable while they were waiting to be taken back to the dressing station. Because of the nature of the trenches, with only one communication trench, which itself was under fire, some had to wait many hours until darkness fell before they could be carried back over the top. The stretcher-bearers spared no effort in trying to get their comrades to medical aid and some were reported to have made as many as eleven exhausting journeys. It was nearly 24 hours before the last of the wounded were carried away and it is likely that some succumbed to a combination of their wounds and the effects of cold before they could be got to safety.

Two of the stretcher-bearers came in for particular praise, Piper James Lumsden who was awarded the Military Medal, and Drummer William Fraser who was wounded by shrapnel in the head during this action and subsequently awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal in recognition of his efforts to help the wounded. Major Campbell, the Medical Officer, worked almost non-stop through the night and the next day at the dressing station set up in farm buildings at the 'Indian Village'. No doubt there were many tragic stories to tell of the fateful day when the 6th Seaforths were engaged in their first battle, but one of the saddest must have been that of Private David Catto, who was badly wounded in the back by shrapnel during the evening of the 15th. Drummer Fraser dressed his wounds, but David could not be evacuated as the stretcher-bearers were unable to make their way to him through the chaos of the communication trench. His brother, Drummer Charles Catto, was also tending casualties and having been told of his brother's injuries went to find David. He comforted him as best he could and endeavoured to get assistance, but due to the intensity of the bombardment on the communication trench, and the numbers of wounded already being dealt with, he could not get help for some time. Once the bombardment died down Charles sought help, but by the time he got back David had died.

David Catto was buried alongside Sergeant John Harrold who, at 29 years of age, was one of the oldest men killed that day. He had been a keen footballer and played a number of seasons for Elgin Caledonian. He left a widow and young child. In an account published in the Elgin Courant and Courier an unidentified soldier said:

I put his bonnet on top of the cross, and took out his badge. I shall give it to his father if I ever be in Elgin again, but life is very uncertain here.

The graves of David Catto and John Harrold were lost in later fighting, and they are both now commemorated on the Le Touret Memorial to the Missing.

To make good the losses 'A'Company was brought forward from the reserve line at about midnight. They also suffered casualties including Reginald Lehmann from Hampstead, London. This caused an unexpected difficulty for the chaplains burying the dead as Lehmann was Jewish and a letter to his mother explained the matter:

My dear Mrs Lehmann, It is with deepest regret that I write to you about your son, for I know what grievous sorrow the news must mean to you. He was carried down to the doctor’s dressing station last night from the trenches, but it was too late - he passed away before anything could be done for him. His wounds, had of course, been dressed in the trenches, but they were very severe, his leg being seriously injured. This morning Mr Macfarlane, the Presbyterian chaplain, and myself, Church of England chaplain, attached 6th Seaforths, laid him to rest beside others of his regiment in a quiet, green little orchard which we have chosen as a resting place for them. We were at first in doubt whether you would care for us to hold any service at the grave, but when we found among his possessions a little book containing a service for the burial of the dead, we felt we should do right in using the beautiful prayer that you will find there. I hope this will be what you would wish. We read too, the nineteenth Psalm. It was a very beautiful little service, and we were glad to be able to use his own book of prayers. I am told that he had been reading the daily portion of the Psalms in the morning in the trenches. His religion, as I know from a talk we had not long ago, meant much to him, and as with all of us the difficult experiences we have been going through together have added depth and reality to our faith. He was anxious to find out whether the Jewish chaplain was anywhere in the neighbourhood, so that he might attend his service. I greatly wish his wish could have been gratified, but it has not been possible. We may be sure that all is well with him, and I can only pray that you may be given comfort and peace - peace in the thoughts of his peace, peace with honour, his sacrifice complete, his victory won - and may his sacrifice and yours bring you its own reward. You may be sure that you have the wholehearted sympathy of his friends here - they were many, and they sorrow for you and with you. Others will tell you of the affection and respect in which he was held by his officers and comrades. Major Gair had been speaking of him to me this morning in terms that would make you proud to hear. There are precious few little possessions of his which were in his pockets, I am sending you these separately. Please accept my deepest sympathy, and believe me, yours most sincerely. J. McLeod-Campbell.

Source: Edited extract from 'The Spirit of the Troops is Excellent: the 6th (Morayshire) Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders, in the Great War 1914-1919', by Derek Bird.

Drummer William Fraser DCM
Drummer William Fraser DCM
Piper James Lumsden MM
Piper James Lumsden MM
Private David Catto
Private David Catto died of wounds
Private Reginald Lehman
Private Reginald Lehman was killed