Wrong time, wrong place – the story of one hapless officer

During a recent trip to the battlefields I had with me a former member of the Scots Guards. This was his third year with us and, as ever, we spent some of our time looking at locations and cemeteries connected to his former regiment. 

This year, based in Ypres, we took a look at the Guards Division and its advance on the 31st July 1917, as well as its role during October that year in the same part of the salient. As for the CWGC cemeteries, we visited Artillery Wood, Bleuet Farm and Canada Farm where quite a number of officers and men from the five regiments of Foot Guards involved in both phases of fighting are now buried. However, and for various reasons, we also dropped into Mendinghem British Cemetery, though not particularly for the VC winner there, Lieutenant-Colonel Bertram Best-Dunkley. 

I was already aware that Major Miles Barne DSO, 1st Battalion, Scots Guards, was buried in this cemetery (IV.D.36). He was 43 years old when he died and had fought in the South African War between 1900 and 1902. Although his parent regiment was the Suffolk Yeomanry, he was, according to “The Scots Guards in the Great War 1914-1918”, the officer who, at the time of his death, had seen more continuous service with the regiment’s 1st Battalion than any other. He had held temporary command of the battalion at Loos, as well as on other occasions in the two years that followed. His DSO was awarded in the New Year’s Honours List 1917 in recognition of his services in the field.

One of those periods of temporary command was during the Christmas of 1915 when his battalion was in trenches in the sector known as the Duck’s Bill, just north of Neuve Chapelle. On the 18th December Captain Thorpe had taken temporary command of the battalion, but he was wounded on the 22nd, at which point Captain Barne stepped in and took charge. 

On Christmas Day, with Barne still at the helm, the battalion found itself occupying front line trenches. Not surprisingly, the regimental history makes only a brief mention of what occurred next, but thankfully Sir Iain Colquhoun, one of the battalion’s company commanders, wrote a fairly detailed account of events in the diary he kept. At around 9 a.m. Sir Ian’s attention was drawn to the fact that several Germans opposite had left their trenches and that many more were standing on the parapets. Among the group approaching our wire was an officer who, when close enough to speak, suggested holding a temporary truce. When Colquhoun informed him that this would not be possible the German officer asked for forty-five minutes to allow his men to recover and bury a number of dead from in front of their parapet. Colquhoun agreed to this request and took the opportunity to send out burial parties of his own. 

After half an hour both sides had finished and the remaining fifteen minutes were spent in no man’s land talking and exchanging cigarettes and cigars. Colquhoun then blew his whistle and both sides returned to their trenches. That was the end of the truce, and although the Germans lit up their parapets that night, the lights were quickly taken down after our machine guns fired on them; a short time later, both sides began shelling each other. Christmas was over for another year and life on the Western Front quickly returned to normal.

However, the next day, a court of inquiry was convened to examine what had taken place. Colquhoun was ordered to submit his version of events, and eventually his explanation ran to eight drafts as each submission raised further questions about the matter. Barne, as the battalion’s commanding officer, was also obliged to account for the behaviour of his men and to set out his knowledge of events, though the meeting in no man’s land was already under way by the time he was informed. One of the criticisms levelled at him was that he had not issued specific instructions to fire on the Germans if they appeared above the parapet.

It’s interesting to note that the 2nd Scots Guards and one of the Coldstream battalions had also been involved in fraternisation, which in the case of the former is highly surprising, since the 2nd Battalion had lost one of its own just before dawn on Christmas Day when Company Sergeant-Major Oliver was shot through the head by one of two German snipers thought to have been active during the early hours of the morning. (Company Sergeant-Major James Archibald Leslie Oliver is buried at Rue David Military Cemetery – Plot I.G.39). Wilfrid Ewart, in his memoir, “Scots Guard”, published in 1934, refers to Oliver’s death, noting: “a British sergeant is shot dead almost at the outset, as he stands on the parapet. But this makes no difference. It must be an accident.” Ewart recalls how, at around 7.50 a.m. a German soldier had stood on the parapet in full view waving his arms. He was soon joined by two others in field-grey overcoats and pill-box caps. Ewart then describes how more Germans climbed out of their trenches and began walking across no man’s land towards our front line. At that point some of his own men did likewise and met the Germans somewhere in the middle. Ewart states that he and fellow officers remained in their trenches observing what was happening along with the sentries and a few NCOs. 

From a divisional point of view, I suspect it was the fact that officers appeared to have done little to stop their men joining the enemy in no man’s land that led to charges being brought against Barne and Colquhoun by way of example to others. Court martial proceedings were duly instigated on New Year’s Eve, as a result of which Barne and Colquhoun found themselves under close arrest, though that decision was soon amended to one of open arrest the following day. 

One of those who gave evidence at their trial was Sergeant McAulay who went on to win the DCM at the Third Battle of Ypres, followed by the VC at Cambrai in 1917. Barne was represented by Raymond Asquith, son of the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, but Raymond also represented Colquhoun, who incidentally just happened to be married to Herbert Asquith’s niece. Raymond ‘Squiffy’ Asquith, who had been a barrister before the war, was killed in action on the 15th September 1916, aged 37, serving with the 3rd Grenadier Guards. He is buried at Guillemont Road Cemetery just by the entrance (I.B.3). 

At the end of proceedings Barne was acquitted, but Colquhoun was found guilty and subsequently reprimanded. The finding, however, had no detrimental effect on his career, in fact Sir Ian went on to serve throughout the war and was later appointed Lord Lieutenant of Dumbartonshire. Barne, on the other hand, was rather less fortunate. On the 17th September 1917 he was mortally wounded in the transport lines, well behind the front at Ypres, in what can only be described as a freak accident. A British flyer, forced to make an urgent landing, decided to jettison the bomb that he was carrying before attempting to bring his machine down safely. The bomb fell close to where Barne was standing next to a group of other men. It exploded on impact, mortally wounding Barne and killing one other; another four men were wounded in the incident. Barne was buried the following day with military honours at Mendinghem. 

I first came across Major Barne while researching “Visiting the Fallen – Arras North”. His brother, Seymour Barne, happens to be buried at Aubigny Communal Cemetery Extension (Plot VI.C.11). Although I mention Miles Barne in the entry for his brother, I didn’t go into how he died, nor did I mention the row regarding the Christmas truce in 1915; for one thing, the latter was far too lengthy for inclusion in the book. I therefore decided to leave it to one side along with all the other surplus material I had acquired and to include it later on my website. Readers might also be interested to know that Martin Middlebrook makes a very brief reference to the court martial on page 51 of his book, “First Day on the Somme”.

For anyone who enjoys reading memoirs, diaries, letters, etc. relating to the Great War, I would recommend  “Raymond Asquith – Life and Letters”, published in 1980 by Collins and edited/compiled by John Jolliffe. I read it, yet again, towards the end of last year. In it Asquith makes several references to the Colquhoun case, although he  doesn’t mention Barne specifically by name. He admits to finding the whole case rather tedious and tells how he spent two days with the Scots Guards. He describes their mess as ‘dreary’, though he refers to the commanding officer, Lord Esme Gordon Lennox, as ‘kind and hospitable’. As for the other officers with whom he temporarily shared a billet, he was far less charitable, describing them as ‘a very Scotch doctor, a very Scotch adjutant, and a still more Scotch minister.’ He points out that Barne seemed extremely anxious and very downbeat about the court martial, whereas Colquhoun appeared to treat the matter with complete indifference. As Asquith notes: ‘there was a finished arrogance and sullen grace about Colquhoun which I found very attractive, and there is no doubt that he is a man of exceptional dash and courage.’ Although Colquhoun was technically culpable, Asquith was quick to point out that he that had shown ‘a good deal of decision and common sense’ when faced with events on Christmas morning. The general feeling among the officers and men of the battalion, indeed throughout the majority of the division, was that the whole affair had been blown up out of all proportion and that Barne and Colquhoun had been treated unfairly.

Barne had a further connection to the Scots Guards in so far as his two brothers-in-law also served in the regiment with him. In 1904 he had married Violet Ella Orr-Ewing, sister of Norman Archibald Orr-Ewing, 4th Bart (later Sir Norman) and Ernest Pellew (Tim) Orr-Ewing. Ernest was killed in action on the Somme near Ginchy on the 15th September 1916 and is buried at the Guards’ Cemetery, Lesboeufs (Plot X.Z.4). Norman had previously served in the South African War between 1899 and 1901, then with the Egyptian Army between 1907 and 1911. Immediately after that he became adjutant of the 2nd Scots Guards, a position he held until 1913. He was awarded the DSO in 1914, mentioned in despatches on five occasions and was wounded twice. He went on to become Lieutenant-Colonel of the 2nd Scots Guards between 1916 and 1918 and was promoted to temporary Brigadier-General in 1918. He also held the Croix de Guerre (France) and was made a Chevalier of the Order of the Légion d’ Honneur (France). He remained active after the war, serving between 1924 and 1925 as Lieutenant-Colonel of the 7th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, part of the Territorial Force. In 1931 he became ADC to King George V and was made a Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB). One of his sons, Lieutenant Robert Norman Orr-Ewing, was killed in action on the 21st May 1940, aged 20, serving with the 6th Black Watch. He is buried in Harlebeke New Military Cemetery (Plot IXX.AA.7)

What I didn’t realise, until I carried out further research on Barne for the Ypres trip, was that Seymour and Miles had a brother. Michael Barne joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman in 1893. He was subsequently commissioned in 1898, but his time between 1901 and 1904 was spent in the Antarctic with Captain Scott as part of the ‘Discovery Expedition’. Despite suffering from frostbite, he managed to make detailed records during those three years and Scott described him as a calming influence, particularly during times of mounting tension among the group. Barne Inlet, which is situated on the west side of the Ross Ice Shelf, was named after him and he was subsequently awarded the Polar Medal for his services to the expedition. The medal’s designer, Ernest Gillick, was also the man responsible for creating the impressive reliefs on the Vis-en-Artois Memorial (“Visiting the Fallen – Arras Memorials” page 212). Michael was awarded with the DSO during the Great War for his services commanding Monitor M27. In the Second World War he emerged from retirement to command an anti-submarine ship. The boys’ father had also served in the army from 1859 until his retirement in1872. Their mother, Lady Constance Adelaide Barne, was the eldest daughter of  Sir John Courteney Honywood, 5th Bart.