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25 April 1915 - Catastrophe at St Julien: The 7th Argyll's

Updated: Apr 1, 2023

The 25 April 1915, is a day that brought catastrophe to 7th Battalion Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders and to the towns and villages of Falkirk District. The 7th Battalion were seen as Falkirk District’s Battalion. The men were all serving Territorials, work mates and friends.

The battalion had just returned from summer camp when war was declared.

The Argyll's Drill Hall in Falkirk today. Authors image

Like all Territorial Battalions they had been formed as part of the 1908 Haldane reforms of the army and as Territorials their role was to provide home defence. There was also an option by which they could volunteer for service abroad.

To a man the men of the 7th Argyll’s signed up for overseas service. It was five weeks after war had been declared when the men met up at Stirling Castle on 16th September and that same evening the battalion departed on their journey south to Bedford.

They left Bedford on 11th December and on 14th December they embarked for France onboard the ‘Oxonian’ however, a fire onboard meant that they had to disembark. On 15th December they boarded the ‘Tintoretto’ and sailed for Le Harve disembarking, after a short delay in the approaches to the port, and on the 19th they departed Le Havre by train bound for St Omer arriving there on 20 December and from St Omer they marched to billets in the village of Helfaut. They stayed here until the 3rd January 1915, when they moved onto Hazebrouck on 4th January, Bailleul on 5th and arrived in Nieppe on 6th January. The battalion joined the 10th Brigade, 4th Division on 6 January 1915 and immediately began trench instruction and training.

The War Diary for the period 7 to 31 January 1915:

This instruction was from the 2nd Battalion Seaforth Highlanders a regular army battalion and they were in ‘training’ until the end of January. The War Diary recorded that this entailed:

Writing home to his brother Captain James Forbes Jones, commanding ‘B’ Company, gave a graphic description of life in the trenches that first day of instruction. Captain Jones was 35 years old and was the Managing Director of Jones & Campbell of Larbert before the war. He was a private in the Volunteer Force before being made an officer. He joined the Territorials in 1908 and volunteered with the others for foreign service. His letter was featured in the Falkirk Herald on 16 January 1915. He wrote to his brother that:

’… marched 4 miles to get to the trenches along road full of immense holes caused by large shells… and little harvests of wooden crosses here and there.’ He was taken to the firing trench located some 70 yards from the Germans ‘.. It is death to put ones head over for more than a second.’ He was to be wounded in the action on 25 April.

Letter from Captain James Forbes Jones featured in the Falkirk Herald

Private David Thomson, ‘A’ Company, wrote to his parents on 12 January 1915, his letter featured in the Falkirk Herald with the heading of

We were only 200 yards from the Germans. We were all quite right till a house at the back of us went on fire…. The rain was fearful and it was very cold… In the morning, before it was daylight, we had to go into the trenches for the day. It was just a wee pic-nic… We were only twenty-four hours in the trenches the first time… we go back in two days, and the next time we will stay in the trenches for four days.

From the 1st February the battalion was given a length of line to defend in this period they sustained their first casualties. On 17 March the battalion took over the line opposite Ploegsteert Wood, forever known to the ‘Tommies’ as ‘Plugstreet’ with battalion HQ being located in the Piggeries and Grand Manque Farm.

Linesman Map. Location of Grand Manque Farm & the Piggeries

Private Andrew Chesney, Service number 2344, ‘B’ Company was killed on 29 March 1915. He is buried in the Strand Cemetery and is listed under Stenhousemuir in the Roll of Honour Section.

The War Diary recorded the casualties for that day as

The 10th Infantry Brigade held a front of 600 yards and the companies of the 7th Argyll’s rotated in and out of the trenches every four days. They remained in this sector until 17th April when they came out of the line and joined the rest of the Brigade which had moved to billets at Bailleul. On the 23rd April 10th Brigade was sent to the sector north of Ypres to prepare for a counterattack at St Julien.

IWM Q 56698 The Canal Bank, north of Ypres, held by the 4th Division after the first gas attack. April 1915.

German Gas Attack

On 22 April 1915 at Langemarck the Germans had made a huge effort to deploy over 6,000 pressurized cylinders containing chlorine gas. The allied line was held by the French 45th Algerian and 87th Territorial Divisions, Canadian and British units with the German attack being against the French who held the left of the line. At 5.10pm on 22 April, the German barrage ceased and the French reported seeing a large greenish cloud drifting towards their lines across no-man’s land. It was presumed that this was a smoke screen to hide a German attack and the French had gone to Stand To!

As the gas enveloped the French lines the soldiers began to feel the gas burning their eyes and throats and had difficulty in breathing. The French lines broke with as many as 1,500 men succumbing to the gas. It took much heavy fighting over the next three days by the 2nd and 3rd Canadian Brigades and elements of the British 28th Division to secure the line and hold the Salient. It says much about the bravery and dedication of the Canadians that they were able to mount any sort of defence when equipped with the Ross rifle which was not up to the punishment encountered in the trenches and similarly with the Colt machine gun.

Throughout the afternoon of the 24th April both Lieutenant General Plumer and General Smith–Dorrien, were well aware of the need to hold the line in order to allow the French the opportunity to regain the lost ground of the 22 April. At 4.15pm on 24th April, Field Marshal Sir John French notified his two subordinates of his views: ‘Every effort must be made at once to restore and hold the line about Saint Julien or situation of 28th Division will be jeopardised.’

It was clear that Field Marshal Sir John French expected his generals to recapture the ground they had lost on 24th April. His note set in motion the train of events that were to unfold on 25th April.

The Catastrophe of 25 April

Plumer informed Lieutenant General Alderson, commander of the Canadian Brigades, of the order from French. He in turn decided to place Brigadier General C.P.A. Hull of the British 10th Brigade in charge of the attack and ordered that the attack should begin at 3.30am. Hull had little time to work on his plan, he had insufficient staff, and had no time to make a thorough reconnaissance of the ground consequently Hull had no idea when his Brigade may come into contact with the Germans.

In addition, six under strength British and Canadian battalions 2nd KOYLI, 9th London, 1st Suffolks, 12th London, 1st Royal Irish Regiment and the 4th Canadians, all of which had already been involved in the battle, were attached to Hull’s Brigade. It soon became clear to Hull that an attack at 3.30am was not possible and he delayed to 4.30am and then to 5.30am to give his Brigade time to assemble, by which time it would be daylight and the Germans would have a clear view of the attacking troops.

His objective was to capture St Julien and Kitchener’s Wood and occupy Fortuin. From the start communication with the various units and the artillery which was to provide supporting fire had broken down. The change of zero hour not having been communicated to them. The gunners firing into St Julien which was unoccupied, the Germans having abandoned the village and were under the impression that the Canadians had occupied it. Realising they had not they quickly reoccupied the village after the artillery barrage had stopped.

Three battalions - 2nd KOYLI, 9th London and 1st Royal Irish Regiment - did not receive any orders advising them that they were to be part of the attack until it was too late. To compound matters the battalions of 150th Brigade had also not been notified of the change of zero hour and two battalions, the 5th Green Howards and 5th Durham Light Infantry advanced, unopposed at 3.30am only to with draw when they realised their flanks were unsupported.

What is worth noting is that the 10th Brigade was up to full strength and had approximately 5,000 of the best disciplined and trained troops that remained available at this stage of the war. At 5.30am Hull watched as his Brigade deployed. The 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers and the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers were in on the right in front of St Julien, on the left, facing Kitchener's Wood were the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders and 1st Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Supporting them were the 7th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders.

Dispositions before the attack. Map is post-1915 but shows the objectives none the less.

By now it was daylight and the Germans were waiting having been alerted by the premature artillery barrage. For the Argyll’s on the left with the other battalions they soon began to take casualties from the direction of Oblong and Juliet Farms.

The War Diary of the Royal Warwicks records:

The Brigade attacked at 4.30am (actually 5.30am). We attacked Wood on the left of the line with the 7th Arg. and Suth. Highldrs in support. The Sea Highldrs, the R. Irish Fus, and the R. Dub. Fus attacked on the right on Saint Julien. Owing to the German trenches being insufficiently shelled and supports unable to come up the line retired about 7am to trenches near the farm (Shell Trap Farm) and consolidated our position. Our casualties were very heavy, 15 officers and 500 other ranks killed wounded and missing.’

The War Diary of the 7th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders recorded the action as follows:

‘The battalion first came under shell fire on reaching C23c north, (SE of Shell Trap Farm) the point where the R. War. Reg had been told to form for attack being in the hands of the enemy. A few good casualties occurred here. A company moved to the SE corner of C17c (Cheddar Villa Area) followed by B Company to reach which point they had to cross ground swept by rifle and machine gun fire. A message asking for reinforcements on his left being received from the O.C. R.War.Reg., A Company went forward in small parties. The ground was very open and swept by heavy fire, few of them succeeded in reaching the firing line. B Company was moved under cover more to the east and pushed up to the triangle of trees in the north part of C17c (about 500 yards SE of Oblong Farm) from which point it was easier to get reinforcements up to the firing line. C and D companies were also directed on this point. The battalion became a good deal mixed with the 2nd Seaforths and some of the R.War.Reg. and the principal casualties occurred here as it was not only under close rifle fire but was also heavily shelled by field and heavy guns. Reinforcements were sent forward with fewer casualties from this point but most of the first line was withdrawn and a position taken up running from N point of Farm in C22b (Shell Trap Farm) through farm in C17c (Woodland Farm) in C17d (Vanheule Farm) to stream in C18c (probably Haanebeek). There was no preliminary bombardment, a few shells being dropped in the road, the farms in which the R.War.Reg. and the Seaforths were to form were found to be in the enemy’s hands and full of machine guns.’

(IWM Image. A house near Wieltje Road were officers and men of 10th Brigade are buried following attack on 25 April 1915 Coat hangars used as crosses)

The casualties of the 7th Argyll’s were twelve officers and 425 other ranks:

Officers - 6 killed, 6 wounded Other Ranks - 100 killed, 175 wounded and 150 missing

How the news of the catastrophe unfolded in the local press

In May 1915, The Falkirk Herald featured letters from wounded men that they had sent home to their relatives. Because of censorship of news, the local press relied on families providing information not available from official sources.

The paper sought to present a favourable picture of the action in its headlines:

'...There is reason to believe that the casualties in the battalion are extremely numerous… Apart from the officers, forty two casualties in the battalion are reported in our issue today. These include Falkirk 1 died of wounds and 23 wounded, Larbert 6 wounded, Bonnybridge 1 killed and 5 wounded, Denny 5 wounded and Laurieston 1 wounded.

Letters sent to relatives and featured in the Falkirk Herald in May 1915 gives us a graphic account. Under the heading ‘Thrilling Experience’ they reported a letter received from Falkirk man Private C P Johnston, wounded in the foot during the action:

We have had a very busy time lately, and have been practically wiped out in the recent heavy fighting. Our brigade got a terrible cut up and there are very few left in our battalion. We lost three-fourths of our officers, and I heard there were only sixty of us who answered the call… We advanced to within 120 yards of the German trenches. As they kept up a terrible shell fire we got orders to retire, and I had just fallen back about 20 yards when I got hit, but with the assistance of one of our chaps I managed back to a farm where I got dressed, and lay there with many others until it was dark. Then we were taken back to the dressing station by the ambulance van.

Under the heading ‘Germans Poured Lead Into Us’ Private Henry Sharp of Tryst Road, Stenhousemuir, wrote to his wife:

‘… Daylight was in when we made the advance, and the Germans poured the lead into us for all they were worth. After we went through some fields, I was just entering another field when I spotted a place to take cover 20 yards away. I only got about six yards when I was shot right through the leg, just a little above the ankle, and the result is my leg is broken…. Captain Jones saw me drop and minutes later he dropped. So he told me when we were lying on the stretchers. My cousin, Harry Turnbull (Denny)* got three wounds. I have not seen any of them since…. I nearly lost my life three or four times after I was wounded, but all’s well that ends well.’ (Henry Turnbull, 18 East Borland, Denny, Service No. 1569, Age 19, missing and listed on the Menin Gate.

Private William Scott, ‘A’ Company, of 95 Wallace Street, Grahamston, received a commendation for his part as a stretcher bearer from Brigadier General Hull. His account of the action was featured under the heading ‘MOWED DOWN LIKE SHEEP’ he wrote to his wife:

By the time you receive this you will very likely have heard about the cutting up that the 7th got on Sunday, (25 April). There were hardly any who were not killed or did not get some kind of wound… Our men were getting mowed down like sheep. It was something awful… I got a slight wound on my left knee and also on one of the fingers of my left hand… The way that I got hit was that a shell burst on our dressing station to which we carried our wounded. Nearly all the stretcher bearers were in at the time, as we had been at it for eight hours without a break, and we were tired out. We had to take the wounded down to the RAMC advance dressing station, which was about one and half or two miles down the road, out of the way of the shell fire. Still, they were not very safe there, as shells were dropping all around it.

In conclusion

In his book ‘Magnificent But Not War', John Dixon, wrote: ‘It had been a disciplined assault but it had been very costly’ He quotes Lieutenant Walter Critchley, 10th Canadians, who saw the action from his position and who wrote: ‘I have never seen such slaughter in all my life. They were lined up - I can see it now - in a long line, straight up, and the Hun opened up on them with machine guns. They were just raked down.

This was a Brigade of highly trained soldiers of the Regular and Territorial Army considered to be more or less irreplaceable. What unfolded was slaughter and carnage. In the space of twenty minutes of intense and accurate German fire 10th Brigade lost seventy-three officers and 2,346 other ranks, approximately half the Brigades fighting strength lost in a hail of bullets. Little ground was gained and the objectives were not achieved.

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