Fightin’ Fridays: The 6th Seaforth Highlanders in Champagne

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By Derek Bird

Excerpted from “The Spirit of the Troops Is Excellent: The 6th (Morayshire) Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders, in the Great War 1914-1919”

In (July 1918) the Germans had been making significant advances (in France) and now held a large salient that bulged into the French lines, but they had already been brought to a halt by the combined efforts of French, American and Italian divisions. As the situation was still developing at the time of the Highland Division’s assembly a number of changes to plan had to be made before it was decided to concentrate near Epernay, south of Reims, about four miles from the furthest point of the German advance. This put the division on the south-east side of the salient and provided them with the unusual experience of advancing in a north-westerly direction. The 62nd (2nd West Riding) Division would be operating alongside them, and the other British divisions sent to help the French, the 15th (Scottish) and 34th, would be some miles away on the wide side of the salient near Soissons. In yet another change of plan it was decided to move the Highlanders north of the River Marne and so at 6:30 on the morning of the 19th the 152nd Brigade marched to Champillon, where they rested until 10 p.m. before marching on to the assembly points for an attack the following morning.

At dawn on the 20 July the 153rd and 154th Brigades launched the attack, with the 6th Seaforth remaining in the rear as part of the divisional reserve. In front of the 153rd Brigade lay the Bois de Courton, a tangled mass of woods some 3,500 yards deep. Both brigades advanced through the German outpost line without serious resistance, but the fighting in the Bois de Courton became very confused with, at best, the men only able to see about 50 yards through the trees and extremely vulnerable to ambush by the enemy. The 17th Gordons and the 1/6th and 1/7th Black Watch all plunged into the woods but soon became split up into small parties.  By the afternoon it became obvious that these three battalions had become badly intermingled so at 6:30 p.m. the 6th Seaforth were placed under the command of the 153rd Brigade. They were ordered to move forward to the newly won positions that ran north-east from a point just east of the hamlet of Paradis to allow the 153rd Brigade to withdraw and reorganise. The hand-over did go well as it was a very dark and wet night and the guides got lost. Nevertheless the 6th Seaforth did manage to get into position by about 4 a.m. the 21st. Following the withdrawal of the 153rd Brigade the task of continuing the advance was given to the 152nd Brigade. As the first part of this plan the 6th Seaforth were moved slightly to the rear to allow the 1/5 Seaforth and 1/6 Gordons to pass through. Throughout the morning the men of the Morayshire battalion were subjected to heavy shell fire that caused about 60 casualties.

July 21 was another day of difficult fighting in the forest and at about 2 p.m. orders were given for the 6th Seaforth to advance. The Morayshire battalion was ordered to support the 1/5 Seaforth and 1/6 Gordons, paying particular attention to ensuring that the flanks were adequately covered. The left front was reinforced when ‘A’ Company was joined up with the 1/5 Seaforth, ‘B’ Company went to the right front, and ‘D’ Company to the right flank, ‘C’ Company was kept in reserve. Once ‘A’ Company had got in touch with the 1/5 Seaforth they pushed patrols forward and discovered that, although the line had advanced about 200 yards, both Paradis and La Neuville-Aux-Larris were still in enemy hands. ‘B’ Company advanced and actually made contact with the enemy before finding the 1/6 Gordons at about 5 p.m. Meanwhile ‘D’ Company advanced through the wood until halted by heavy machine-gun fire. They then took up positions facing north. One platoon of ‘C’ Company was sent forward to help ‘D’ Company at about 5 p.m., but was withdrawn again the following morning. The Germans continued to pound the British lines with shells all through the night, including the use of gas shells in the early hours of the 22nd.

That morning at 2:30 a.m. a conference was held at Brigade HQ where the commanding officers were briefed on the next stage of the attack. The 152nd Brigade was to take over positions currently held by the 154rd Brigade between the Bois de Courton and the River Ardre and prepare to advance at 6 a.m. the next morning. Company commanders were briefed at Battalion HQ at 5 a.m. and details were worked out. The 6th Seaforth started moving out of the forest at 10:30 a.m. and were at the start positions by 1 p.m. on the 23rd. The 1/5 Seaforth were on the right extending the line up to the bank of the Ardre. The 1/6 Gordons who had been heavily engaged deep in the forest only arrived shortly before Zero hour, minus one company that had been relieved too late. They took their place on the left up to the edge of the Bois de Courton.

The joint British and French artillery barrage opened at 6 a.m. but some of the shells fell short with the rear of the barrage falling only 40 yards ahead of ‘B’ Company’s positions. To their left it fell upon both ‘C’ Company and the 1/6 Gordons positions causing many casualties, one company of the latter losing all its officers before the advance began. Five minutes after the garage opened the German artillery retaliated, but most of their shells fell 250 yards behind the Highlanders’ positions.  As soon as it was realized that British shells were falling short and ‘C’ Company was suffering casualties, ‘A’ Company was moved in behind them to provide support. Once the infantry advance got underway, ‘B’ Company on the right made good headway with a minimum of casualties until they reached their objectives north-west of the Bois De L’Aunaie. Here they were subjected to heavy shell and machine-gun fire while they were digging in and suffered many casualties, including Captain John Mackintosh their commander. ‘C’ Company on the left suffered badly from both the artillery barrage falling short and from enemy machine-gun fire coming from their left flank. This company lost all its officers before reaching the spur south of the Bois De L’Aunaie. Some of the battalion continued to fight on through the objective and formed a new line in the sunken road 300 yards south of the wood.

‘D’ Company, in support, moved forward to  the Bois De L’Aunaie and started digging in, but after being subjected to heavy enemy shelling they retired a short distance and dug a series of posts just short of the wood. ‘A’ Company took up positions in the sunken road, and also established posts on the spur covering the southern edge of the wood.  At about 2 p.m. two platoons of the 1/7 Argylls were attached to the 6th Seaforth to help fill in the gap that had developed between the two leading companies, but the heavy enemy artillery barrage forced them to retire again. At dusk the 1/5 Seaforth put out a number of posts that connected the sunken road with the rest of their battalion which had, by then, moved forward to a line just inside the western edge of the wood. The 6th Seaforth had suffered heavily with 21 men killed, but they had inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy and had captured 45 prisoners, along with 3 heavy and 15 light machine-guns. Due to the large numbers of casualties the two Seaforth battalions were reorganised with the 1/5 Seaforth forming two composite companies, and the 6th Seaforth being combined into a single company.

For the next three days the brigade maintained its position but throughout the period, especially on the afternoon of the 26th, they continued to suffer casualties from both high explosive and gas shells. On the 27th the advance was renewed; after intense fighting, the 6th Seaford were withdrawn from the field on the 28th.

The Highland Division’s units left the area (in early July). In 11 days of hard fighting the Highlanders had helped to stem the German attack, and then pushed them back for four and a half miles, engaging at times no less than six different enemy divisions. What makes their achievement even more remarkable is that for many this was their first battle, a large percentage of the division was now being made up by youngsters drafted in to replace the casualties of the March and April fighting. General Henri Berthelot, GOC French Fifth Army, wrote in his order of the day 30 July 1918:

Your French comrades will always remember with emotion your splendid gallantry and perfect fellowship in the fight.

SeaforthHighland troops march past French General Berthelot after the fighting in Champagne. National Library of Scotland digital photo..