6th Seaforth Highlanders arrive in France

6th Seaforth Highlanders arrive in France

The 6th (Morayshire) Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders, sailed from Folkestone on the evening of 1 May 1915 and upon arrival at Boulogne in the early hours of the following morning had a two-mile march, the final part up a steep hill, to their camp.

Here they had their first taste of the discomforts of active service when in order to get out of the heavy rain they had to squeeze up to 16 men into tents normally used for only four. However this inconvenience was easily overlooked as they had at last set foot in France and felt more than ready to do their bit for the war effort.

The next afternoon they set off to the railway station at Pont-de-Briques to experience the first of many journeys on French trains. When travelling by train the officers would normally be in carriages but the men were usually accommodated in freight trucks marked 'Chevaux 8 Hommes 40', indicating their capacity of either eight horses or 40 men. These journeys would always seem to be interminable as the trains crawled across France - their first journey taking most of the night to go no more than 40 miles to Merville. From there the battalion marched about six miles to billets in the village of Robecq. The march was completed in the sunshine of a beautiful spring morning, but hearing the dull booming of the artillery in the distance for the first time clouded any thoughts about the weather.

The movement of troops was always likely to cause major problems and whatever the method, be it by foot, lorry, or by rail, a great deal of planning was necessary to avoid congestion and delays. A good way of highlighting the problem of moving large numbers of men by foot is to use the notes taken by Sergeant John Gill when on a course at the 191st Infantry Brigade NCOs' School. When learning about 'March Discipline' he noted that a company marching four abreast would fill one side of a road for a distance of 130 yards (120 metres), and that a full battalion with its first line transport took up 780 yards (720 metres). With the regulation distances of 10 yards (9 metres) between each company, and 20 yards between each battalion, being maintained a full infantry brigade would take up 3,295 yards (3,000 metres) of road. Comprising three infantry brigades and their transport, artillery and other supporting units this meant that a complete division on the march, even without its heavy artillery battery, would occupy more than 15 miles (24 km) of road. He also noted that:

Whistling and singing on the march should be encouraged as it helped to keep step, but this 'must be organised and not a mixture of melodies. Rag Time music should not be used as the rhythm is unsuitable for marching'.

The battalion stayed in Robecq for ten days where they had the opportunity to learn something of the French way of life, including the farmers' affection for their middens, no matter how vile a smell exuded from them, despite being in the courtyard next to the house. Some were most upset when soldiers attempted to tame the worst of the smell by trying to cover them with cartloads of earth.

A far more painful lesson was the damage that the French cobbled roads could inflict on the feet of marching men. Every infantry battalion of the British Expedtionary Force (BEF) suffered in this way and all those who marched on the cobbled roads hated them.

At least the weather stayed kind during their stay in Robecq and they were in high spirits and good health, although throughout they could hear the guns booming in the distance as the fighting raged near Festubert.

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.

6th Battalion Seaforth Highlanders.