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With the Scottish Regiments at the Front
Chapter VII - The Seaforth Highlanders

The 1st battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders originally bore the number subsequently allotted to the 2nd battalion, for in 1778 the 1st battalion was raised as the 78th infantry of the line by the Earl of Seaforth, and with that as its official number it went to Jersey to defend the island against a French attack, and subsequently to India. The voyage to India occupied ten months, and cost the life of the Earl of Seaforth and 200 men of the regiment; the remainder landed safely, and underwent the campaign which ended in the overthrow of Tippoo Sahib: the Seaforths led the attack on the fortifications of Bangalore, and assisted in the taking of Seringapatam. Then the Seaforths took Ceylon from the Dutch.

In 1786 the 1st battalion (as it is at present known) was renumbered “72nd,” and in 1793 the present 2nd battalion of the regiment was formed as the “78th Foot.” After work in Holland and at the Cape, the 78th went to India to fight under the future Duke of Wellington in the Mahratta War. For valour at Assaye the 78th was granted the Elephant, inscribed “Assaye,” as a special badge, and also a third colour to bear. These distinctions were well earned, for the 78th defeated a force ten times as strong as itself in the course of the battle.

The warlike quality of the material from which the Seaforths were obtained may be estimated from the fact that two “second battalions” were formed in succession and sent out to join the original 78th raised in 1793. In the second expedition to Egypt in 1807, and in the disastrous Walcheren expedition, the battalion took part, losing heavily in officers and men in both cases, three companies were practically annihilated at El Hamet in the Egyptian campaign. After Walcheren, the Seaforths had little chance of winning distinction in the Napoleonic wars, but in 1819 and 1835 the regiment was engaged at the Cape in Kaffir wars, and the next incident of note in the history of the Seaforths was their work in the Mutiny, when they served under Havelock, marching from Allahabad to the relief of Cawnpur and Lucknow. Four battles were fought and won before the force reached Cawnpur, too late; and they went on to Lucknow. Tennyson has told how the sound of Highland music gave intimation of relief to the sorely pressed Lucknow garrison, and, regarding the work of the regiment at that time, their commander told them “I have been forty years in the service, I have been engaged in actions seven-and-twenty times, but in the whole of my career I have never seen any regiment behave so well as the 78th Highlanders. I am proud of you.”

The 72nd, the present 1st battalion of the Seaforths, was also engaged in the suppression of the Mutiny, though not with Havelock, and they helped largely in suppressing the final flames of rebellion throughout India. Then followed nearly twenty years of peace service for the regiment, after which it took part in the campaign in Afghanistan, and shared in the memorable march from Kabul to Kandahar. The bravery of the regiment in this campaign is attested by the fact that no less than five names connected with the two years of fighting are emblazoned on the regimental colours.

The Seaforths were in the charge at Tel-el-Kebir, and in the second Egyptian campaign of 1898 the first battalion was engaged both at Atbara and Khartoum. In between these two wars the regiment saw much service in the two Hazara wars and the campaign of Chitral. In South Africa the Seaforths formed part of the Highland Brigade at Magersfontein, and lost no less than 212 officers and men killed and wounded in that disastrous action. Magersfontein was avenged at Paardeberg, where the Seaforths took part in the rounding up and capture of Cronje, following up this with the action at Poplar Grove and that of Driefontein. In the next great capture of the war, that of Prinsloo in the Wittebergen, the Seaforths played an active part, and from then on to the end of hostilities the regiment was actively engaged, both in blockhouse work and in the rounding up of the Boer forces. Up to 1902, the regiment had won no less than eleven Victoria Crosses, while its distinguished conduct medals are too numerous to count.

For the campaign in France and Belgium, the Seaforths were brigaded with the Irish Fusiliers, the Dublin Fusiliers, and the Warwickshire Regiment, under command of Brigadier-General J. A. L. Haldane, D.S.O., who made a memorable escape from Pretoria during the last Boer war. That the regiment is keeping up its traditions is instanced by the case of one man who was found retiring to the rear, wounded in nine different places. He wanted no sympathy, and asked for no help; all he wanted to know was, who had won the St. Leger! One of his comrades, wounded also, remarked that the Seaforths had “fairly made the Germans hop out of their trenches when they charged with the bayonet.” The enemy had no idea that the British were so close on them till the Seaforths marched out of a farmyard right into the firing line, and then the Germans did not wait, but ran like cattle chased by dogs. “After marching for four days, during which time we did not know where we were, we got into motor cars and were taken to a position right under the very noses of the Germans, who got the surprise of their lives when they saw the ‘ladies from hell' as they called us on account of our kilts, advancing on them.” Further, a man of the Dublin Fusiliers bears testimony to the fighting qualities of the Seaforths. “It keeps up your spirit to be fighting with such fellows,” he says, “and they have fairly put fear into the Germans with their bayonet charges. When there was any close fighting, and it came to using the cold steel, the Germans ran from them like hares. Most of the ‘Jocks’ now have beards, and with their kilts flying when they charge they are a wild-looking lot.” The writer of this adds his evidence to the testimony that the Germans have no liking for bayonet work. “They are big chaps, most of them, but have not got the heart for it,” he observes.

The actual route taken by the regiment, in the moves made by the British forces since the war began, can be traced pretty accurately by means of various personal accounts. The first of these accounts states that the Seaforths were first engaged at Agincourt, where an advance party of Germans took the regiment by surprise, and they were hotly engaged. The Germans lost heavily, but were in very strong force, and at night the Seaforths drew back to get a rest. Two days later, at Guise, the German cavalry tried to break through the column which included the Seaforths, but they were met with fixed bayonets and driven back, though the British suffered heavy casualties.

Then at La-Musa we had a stiff engagement with the German Crown Prince’s army on the right wing, and by the aid of their aeroplanes the German gunners found our trenches, on which they kept up a heavy cannonading for almost three hours. An attack was made by the German cavalry, but our artillery mowed them down like hay —the slaughter was something awful. We had to retire, however, and for twenty-eight miles we marched without food before we got out of range of the enemy’s guns. After three hours’ rest we advanced in an opposite direction to our line of retreat, and proceeded to La Ferte, with the German cavalry in pursuit. Crossing the river there we had a thrilling time, and just crossed the bridge in time for the Royal Engineers to blow it up and prevent the Germans crossing—a number of the Engineers were killed in the explosion.

“We afterwards marched to Mons, having several skirmishes on the way, and managed to capture a number of Germans and a field hospital. We saw many signs of German barbarism on our march, and one sight I shall never forget was that of a father and mother with a baby about two months old, lying stabbed to death by bayonets on their doorstep. Frequently we took women and children into the trenches for safety, and always they had a terrible dread of the Uhlans. We Seaforths were on the right flank at Mons, and one morning the Germans suddenly opened fire on us at three o’clock. We fixed bayonets, and followed the Guards in skirmishing order, passing over heaps of dead, and capturing German guns. But we could not keep our positions, for the Germans were entrenched in masses farther on, and we had to retire.”

This account is rather muddled, for the writer speaks of days of fighting and marching with skirmishes before the action at Mons. One must sort out the various engagements mentioned and compare them with the official account of the first engagements in order to arrive at an estimate of the position in which the Seaforths began their fighting. On the whole, however, the writer conveys a very good idea of the work of those first few days, he was wounded in the retirement from Mons, and thus his narrative ceases there.

The story is taken on by a man of the regiment who was captured during the fighting on the Oise, and was sentenced by the enemy to be shot, but managed to escape. Having lost his regiment, he attached himself to a French unit, and kept with them for three weeks, in which time he saw only three Englishmen, all lost like himself, and they commiserated each other on not knowing the French language, and consequently being unable to converse with their comrades in the firing line. In the town from which the writer posted his letter, the Germans had looted all the shops previous to the French reoccupation, while the British had blown up a bridge, and the Germans in turn had sunk a number of French boats in the canal to form a temporary bridge. The writer adds his evidence on the subject of German cruelty.

Concerning an engagement on the Aisne, on the 13th of September, one of the Seaforths who participated tells how his company had been resting for the night in a farmhouse after having been on the move for seven or eight days, and in the morning they went forward a march of three or four miles, which brought them into range of the enemy’s position, a mile to the front. The regiment was ordered to take the German position, and advanced in extended order across a clear field of fire, when, fortunately for the attackers, the enemy’s fire was so bad that the losses were very slight. The advance was steadily maintained, until at 300 yards’ distance from the position the order was given to fix bayonets. At that, “the Germans did not wait to say ‘Good night,’ but simply ran, as they won’t face the cold steel at any price.” Still, a number of the Seaforths were put out of action in the business, in which the regiment gained all that they had been ordered to take. “It was a great charge,” says the man who tells of it. “No wonder so much is thought of the Highland regiments, for it would have done your heart good to hear the cheer that went up when the order was given to charge, and the Germans did run. All I can say is that if we had been in their position we should have waited for them to come upon us, and none of them would ever have reached us, as I think our rifle fire is good enough to stop any charge that might be made.” The same man tells of “a low, dirty trick” that the Germans played in the course of this fight. Some of them put up a white flag, and when about fifty of the Warwickshires went out to take the surrendered men they opened fire with a machine gun and slaughtered the Warwicks. That is the kind of warfare the Germans like to carry on.”

Thus runs the account of the 13th of September, and on the following day, according to several accounts received, the colonel of the regiment, Colonel Sir Evelyn Bradford, was killed, he has since been mentioned in dispatches. The most circumstantial account is as follows:

“It was in the battle of the Aisne, when the Seaforths had taken up a position near a wood, that the Germans began a heavy fire. The colonel was standing with two other officers surveying the field of operations, when he was struck by a shell and killed instantly. A lieutenant of the Gordons, who was attached to the battalion, was killed, and a number of the men were struck and wounded, in all, there were about thirty wounded by the one explosion. They attempted to bury the colonel the same night, but were prevented from their task by the heavy and continuous shell-fire from the enemy.” At about nine in the evening, however, a burial party set out to lay the dead commander to rest up on the face of a hill, near a large farmhouse which was the headquarters of the force for the time. “Poor Colonel Bradford!” comments a member of the party; “I cannot tell you how great our loss is. He was a brave commander, and was killed while trying to safeguard his regiment. We could not fetch his body in while daylight lasted, but at midnight we laid him, with two other officers, to rest on their field of honour, on a hill-side overlooking a valley of the river. It was a sad but glorious moment for us to stand and hear the padre tell us that they had not shrunk from their duty, and had fallen for the sake of their comrades. The next day I found some Scotch thistle growing close by, and I plucked the blooms to form a cross over the dead chieftain’s grave.”

Concerning this action of the 14th of September, another participant tells that the British troops were steadily driving the Germans back, and the company of the Seaforths to which he belonged had crossed the river two days before, and were holding a ridge, though the enemy had a great advantage in point of numbers. This man sent home a transcript of a German officer’s diary, which makes very interesting reading.

“July 20.—At last the day! To have lived to see it! We are ready, let come who may. The world race is destined to be German.

“August 5.—Our losses to-day [before Liege] have been frightful. Never mind, it is all allowed for. Besides, the fallen are only Polish beginners, the spilling of whose blood will spread the war lust at home—a necessary factor.

"August 11.—And now for the English, used to fighting farmers. [A reference to the Boer War.] To-night Wilhelm the Greater has given us beautiful advice. You think each day of your Emperor, and do not forget God. [Note the order in which the two are mentioned.] His Majesty should remember that in thinking of him we think of God, for is not he the Almighty’s instrument in this glorious fight for right ?

“August 12.—This is clearly to be an artillery war, as we foresaw. Infantry counts for nothing.

“August 20.—The conceited English have ranged themselves up against us at absurd odds, our airmen say. [This, it must be remembered, was written concerning the time of the great retreat, when the German forces were in overwhelming numerical superiority.]

“August 25.—An English shell burst on a Red Cross wagon to-day—full of English. Ha-ha! Serve the swine right. Still, they fight well. I salute the officer who kept on swearing at Germany and her Emperor in his agony—and then to ask calmly for a bath! These English! We have scarcely time enough to bury our dead, so they are being weighted in the river.”

The writer of this diary was captured, so his entries extend no farther. The way in which his views of “the conceited English” altered as time went on is worthy of note.

A R.A.M.C. officer attached to the Seaforths gives an idea of the way in which the regiment conducted its daily business. Each morning the regiment would “stand to arms” at about three o’clock, and at four or five o’clock the men would move on, either with or without breakfast, which consisted of tea and biscuits, and bacon if there were time to cook it. Sleeping accommodation varied in quality and extent from night to night, ranging from a ploughed field or an orchard to the floor of a deserted house. Often the men were so sleepy that they lay in the road, quite contentedly, since they were allowed to lie.

“I am doing less than the men,” adds the writer. “Just think of them: march, march, march, and then when we sleep it falls to the lot of many to guard the outposts with no chance of shelter, and then go on marching through the next day, wet, and hoping to dry as they go. Only the highest praise can be given to these men.

"At present [on the Aisne] we are entrenched. Our first day in this place, where we have been for five days, was awful, for we were under fire the whole of the day, with practically no protection, and our total of killed and wounded amounted to seventy. The men never wavered, and gaps were always filled. Grand are the Highland men, and grander still will be the account they will render; I am lucky to be with such men.”

These various accounts of the work of the regiment form a fairly detailed description of the work at the Aisne. Of how the regiment was moved up to the Flanders front there is no account to hand, but the work done on the new front has been fairly fully described. First of all comes the account of Captain Methven’s death, which took place in the fighting round Lille, where Captain Methven and his company were set to drive the Germans from their trenches with the bayonet. The German trenches were at the top of a steep little hill, and up this hill Captain Methven rushed, with his men following. He paused at the edge of the enemy’s trenches and turned to wave the men on, they saw him silhouetted against the skyline for a second, and then he fell, shot through the heart at what must have been point-blank range. But the trenches were won, the small force of Germans who had been holding them surrendered, Captain Methven had not died in vain. “I had read about this single-handed taking of a position,” writes a spectator, “but until I saw Captain Methven’s action I thought these things only happened in story-books.” A little later the brigade of which the 2nd Seaforths formed a part was engaged in the storming of a position, an action in which they drove back the enemy for several miles. For the greater part of the day the British position had been commanded by the fire of the enemy, who held a position on a hill in the neighbourhood and maintained a steady fire on the British brigade. The brigade commander saw that if the enemy were given time to bring up heavy artillery they would render their own position impregnable and that of the British force untenable—the height had to be taken that day, if at all. So the “Charge!” was sounded, and the brigade advanced across the intervening ground, with the men cheering and shouting as they rushed forward, and above all the rest of the cries rose the “Caberfeidh,” the rallying-cry of the Seaforths. The German position was taken in about a quarter of an hour, and in rear were a fleet of motor vehicles, in which the retreating Germans decamped. Pursuit was out of the question, and there was only snap-shooting at the flying enemy by way of consolation.

Beyond this the records of the regiment do not take us at present. There remains, however, one record of “B” Company of the 2nd Battalion and its work on the night of the 13th of October, a statement that may well be included in this record of the doings of the Seaforths. It tells how the company had to charge the enemy out of his trenches at the bayonet point, which was done with some considerable loss of killed and wounded, and the writer comments— “There was not a coward among us.”

“But that was nothing to what we had last Tuesday [Oct. 20]. We were digging trenches when we heard a volley of rifle fire come right over us, and we got the order to stand to arms and advance. Their trenches were situated in a row on a rise in a field, and we could not get our range on them. In a minute the signal to charge went, and we all scrambled up the hill to get at them. The first to get up was our company officer, and he was hit. We all dived into their trenches at the point of their rifles, shooting and stabbing, and then came the onslaught. Some of them were too terrified to get out, while others rushed out and were shot down, and the remainder sought refuge in a house. They showed the white flag in a doorway, but we got the order not to take any notice of it until some of their officers came out, and we waved them in. About fifty surrendered. I am proud to say that we were only one company. I shall never forget that charge as long as I live. The General said—‘Bravo, Seaforths! it was a grand charge.’” Which forms a fitting final word as far as the Seaforths are concerned.

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