Into the trenches

Into the trenches

Orders for the 6th Seaforth to move up to the front line for the first time arrived on 14 May 1915. Unexpectedly they moved north rather than east and by the evening were near the Belgian border, from where their expected destination was likely to be Ypres where fierce fighting had been taking place for almost a month. However after a stay of just four days at Strazeele the battalion was on the march south to the village of Vieille-Chapelle, about four miles from the front line.

The 47th (2nd London) Division, 51st (Highland) Division and 1st Canadian Division were ordered forward to replace the 2nd and 7th Divisions that had been in action in the preceding days. During the morning of 19 May the Commanding Officer, company commanders and some of the NCOs visited the trenches they were to occupy. In the evening the battalion started to move up to the front line and during the march they came under some long-range, but fortunately not too accurate, artillery fire. After an hour they reached the schoolhouse on the outskirts of Richebourg, where they halted until it was dark enough to be able to proceed further.

Brigadier-General Ross arrived to give Lieutenant-Colonel Maclaren further instructions; their conversation punctuated by the firing of a nearby six-inch artillery battery. Once dark the 6th Seaforths moved on and after passing through Richebourg they quickly found themselves in the reserve line where Battalion HQ was situated. The departing battalion had provided guides who then led 'A', 'C' and 'D' Companies forward. Much of the journey was made over the open ground as there were few communication trenches in the area and there had been no time during the recent fighting in which to dig new ones. The guide assigned to 'A' Company was wounded during the journey and Lieutenant-Colonel Maclaren, who had been moving up with them, had to find and lead the way as best he could. Otherwise the relief went smoothly and was completed by about 3 am.

Due to the high water table in the area trenches more than a couple of feet deep filled with water; consequently the so-called trenches actually consisted of just a shallow trench with sandbag breastworks built above the ground. The German line was 600 yards to the east, but the true nature of the Highlanders' surroundings was not revealed until dawn broke and the men could see shell holes half full of water, the assorted debris of the earlier fighting, and many unburied corpses.

During their first day they were shelled almost constantly and little work could be done in daylight to improve the trench. However, at night everyone was kept busy rebuilding 30 yard-wide section of trench. They were also given the task of digging a new trench some 200 yards forward of their current one as it was felt that the gap between the opposing front lines was too large.

On the night of 21 May the battalion was unable to continue work on the new trench because of the artillery and rifle fire directed at them. It was on that particular night that the 6th Seaforths suffered their first fatality when Private William Wilson, a 24 year-old mason employed at Gordon Castle, Fochabers, was struck in the chest and killed by a shell fragment. In a letter to William Wilson’s aunt published in The Northern Scot Captain William Legge, 'B' Company Commander, expressed the regrets of the whole company and stated that he had been carefully interred and the spot marked; unfortunately his grave was lost in later fighting and he is now commemorated on the Le Touret Memorial to the Missing.

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.

Private William Wilson
Private William Wilson died on 21 May 1915 - the first of the 6th Seaforths to be killed in action. Image courtesy of 'The Northern Scot'