Arras – A very Scottish affair – Arras South – various pages

Anyone familiar with accounts of the Battle of Arras will be struck by the size of the Scottish contingent that took part on the opening day. John Buchan in his “History of the Great War”, Volume 3, notes that thirty-eight Scottish battalions left the British parapets that morning, adding that this was more than the entire British force at Waterloo and more than seven times the size of the army commanded by Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn.

As well as the 51st (Highland) Division, the 9th (Scottish) Division and the 15th (Scottish) Division that day, there were also Scottish battalions attached to other divisions, such as the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders, part of the 4th Division, and the 15th and 16th Royal Scots, both of which were part of the 34th Division. The 3rd Division also contained three and the 30th Division one. Several other Scottish battalions became involved during subsequent phases of the battle, in fact, by my reckoning, a further nine. Also, let’s not forget that many Canadian battalions had affiliations to Scottish regiments. Equally, the 34th Division had the four battalions that made up the Tyneside Scottish Brigade and the 56th (London) Division had the 14th battalion (London Scottish).

About 25 years ago I was offered a very nice copy of the 52nd (Lowland) Division’s history in the Great War. I very nearly bought it, but decided against it, mainly on the grounds that most of it related to the division’s service during the Gallipoli campaign and later on in Egypt and Palestine. This division only arrived on the Western Front in the Spring of 1918, taking up positions near Arras on the 7th and 8th May. My main interest then, as now, was the Western Front, and so in the end I didn’t go for it, nor did I go for the copy of the 74th (Yeomanry) Division’s history, which was also available to me at the same time, and for very much the same reason. Many years later, however, I did eventually purchase copies of both.

The part played by the 52nd (Lowland) Division on the Arras battlefield in 1918 has so far received scant attention and in this respect, in my view at least, it deserves far greater recognition. It was a first line Territorial division and in ‘Arras Memorials’, by way of example, I make the point that the 1/15th Battalion, London Regiment, (Prince of Wales’s Own Civil Service Rifles) was a fine reflection of what ‘part-time’ soldiering could achieve (page 112). Exactly the same could be said of the units that made up the 52nd (Lowland) Division. Gallipoli was certainly no picnic and the division emerged from the campaign with great credit. In the searing heat of the Sinai Peninsula its men went on to demonstrate impressive skill not only in defence, but also offensively, for example in the counter-attack at Dueidar on the 22nd April 1916 and later that year on the 4th August, with the assistance of Australian and New Zealand mounted troops, at Wellington Ridge, followed the next day by the clearance of Abu Hamra in what became known as the Battle of Rumani.

However, it was in Palestine that it really set out its credentials for fighting on the Western Front. It’s often tempting to think of the Middle East as merely hot and sunny, but in actual fact that’s not really the case. Daytime temperatures can drop dramatically at night, especially at altitude, and winters can also be harsh. The division had endured all kinds of terrain, as it had temperatures, including freezing conditions and  blizzards at Gallipoli, bitter cold and hail in the Judean Highlands, as well as the intense desert heat of Sinai. Its men were extremely tough, very fit and remarkably resilient. At Dukka in November 1917 the 6th Highland Light Infantry had been forced to descend 700 feet into a gorge before climbing 1200 feet on the other side. The ascent was so steep that pack animals had to be left behind until tracks could be cut and cleared. Lewis guns, ammunition and other essential supplies had to be hauled up the crags manually. Later that month the men faced rain, hail and strong, bitterly cold winds. Boots and socks wore out, and yet there was very little sickness among the men and few were forced to fall out; morale across the division was exceedingly high.

The division was already experienced at working with cavalry, and did so again along the coast beyond Gaza, sometimes leading the way and always out-matching the enemy as they pushed Turkish forces back from the coastal plains. Along with the 75th Division it had then advanced into the Judean Heights capturing key positions on the way to Jerusalem. As it went forward it frequently had to deal with stubborn pockets of resistance from  rear-guard units whose machine guns and snipers were well dug-in and well sited. Consequently, its units developed the kind of skills and expertise necessary to tackle such positions, laying down fire and outflanking them before carrying out the final assault at close quarters.

When the division arrived in France it still contained some Gallipoli veterans, and it certainly had a great many who had taken part in the advances through Palestine, although three of its battalions were subsequently transferred to the 34th Division (the 1/5th King’s Own Scottish Borderers, the 1/8th Cameronians and the 1/5th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders). Although the 34th Division had fought with great distinction thus far, it was never quite the same following its ordeal during the German March offensive just south of Arras. The injection of the above three Scottish battalions, which now made up its 103rd Brigade, provided a welcome boost of men with actual fighting experience rather than raw drafts.

The 52nd (Lowland) Division proved itself to be an extremely effective fighting force during the advances of the final few months of the war. All the skills required to deal with stubborn rear-guard detachments and well concealed machine-gun positions had already been learnt and put into practice in Palestine. The Germans and their defences may have provided a sterner test, but the 52nd (Lowland) Division had the confidence and the competence to deal with them. They were also very adaptable. On the 22nd August 1918, when just over half the lorries turned up to carry the 156th Brigade forward to its assembly area, many of the 4th Royal Scots used their initiative and set off on foot, but still managed to reach their jumping off positions in time for zero hour at 4.55 am the following day. When tanks also failed to turn up for the attack, the brigade went ahead undaunted and advanced without them, relying instead on its own abilities and initiative.

Here was a division that had become used to open warfare, often under difficult conditions, and so it was ideally suited to the kind of warfare now being experienced on the Western Front. More than that, it had developed a ‘can-do’ attitude; again, exactly what was required for this final phase of the war. The division particularly distinguished itself during the capture of Henin-sur-Cojeul and Henin Hill before working its way down the Hindenburg Line, thereby greatly assisting the 56th (London) Division, which had become held up over on the right of the advance. A few days later it went on to clear Bullecourt, after which it took part in the fighting for the Drocourt-Queant Line along with the Canadian Corps and the British 4th, 57th (West Lancashire), and the 63rd (Royal Naval) Divisions – a considerable feat of arms – and it did so on an equal footing. On the 27th September the division did superb work when it crossed the Canal du Nord, dealing successfully with the wire and resistance on either side and capturing the high ground overlooking Graincourt. Back in Palestine it had performed similar good work after crossing the Nahr El Auja before continuing its advance two miles beyond its original objectives in order to deny the Turks direct observation over the harbour at Jaffa.

As I mentioned earlier, the contribution and achievements of the 52nd (Lowland) Division during the ‘Last Hundred Days’ have, in my opinion, been unfairly overlooked. The 51st (Highland) Division, the 9th (Scottish) Division and the 15th (Scottish) Division have become familiar to us and all three did a great deal to enhance their reputations at Arras in Spring 1917, but the 52nd (Lowland) Division also deserves to take its rightful place alongside them for its exploits on this very Scottish of battlefields during the latter part of August 1918 and throughout September. Its men, belonging to the 1/5th, 1/6th, 1/7th Highland Light Infantry, the 1/4th and 1/5th Royal Scots Fusiliers, the 1/4th King’s Own Scottish Borderers, the 1/7th Cameronians and the 1/4th and 1/7th Royal Scots, can be found in Wancourt British Cemetery, Queant Communal Cemetery and Extension and Queant Road Cemetery, Buissy, (Arras South) as well as on the Vis-en-Artois Memorial (Arras Memorials).