By Euan Loarridge, PhD candidate in History at the University of Glasgow
At 7:25am on the morning of July 1st 1916 the leading companies of the 16th and 17th Battalions of the Highland Light Infantry (HLI) began to clamber out of their trenches and trudge uphill towards the German defences of the Leipzig Salient. They did not run. Weighed down by their ammunition, rations, entrenching tools, signal wire, barbed wire, grenades and a myriad of other necessary equipment, they moved at the pace of a crawl. The ground was uneven, torn up by shell-holes every few yards, which only served to further impede their progress. The whole advance was made under fire from German sentries who, despite the thunderous bombardment still falling on their trenches, continued to man their machine-guns.
‘Men went down like ninepins on every-side’
Among them was 21-year-old Second Lieutenant Robert Stanley Brown of ‘B’ Company 16th HLI, a cadet of the Officer Training Corps, who made it barely 50 metres into No Man’s Land before he was killed. Robert was joined by his commanding officer, 31-year-old Captain George Sutherland Fraser, an MA and BSc graduate, who was wounded close by. On the extreme right of the attack, 21-year-old Lieutenant Arthur Scoular Millar of ‘C’ Company 17th HLI, who had abandoned his studies to enlist in 1914, was shot in the throat as he led his platoon forward. Meanwhile, 25-year-old Company Sergeant Major Steven Donaldson Reith of ‘B’ Company 17th HLI, a BSc Graduate and OTC cadet, watched in horror as his fellow cadet and best friend 24-year-old Sergeant Archibald Lang, also of ‘B’ Company, was hit three times. Twice Archie successfully dragged himself to his feet and pushed on before finally being brought down in the open ground before the Leipzig Redoubt.
At 7:29am, the Lochnagar Mine at La Boiselle was detonated and over to their right, the Highlanders could see a great column of dirt rise up above Authuille Wood. In just six seconds, the sound of the explosion travelled the two kilometre distance and the force of the shockwave was enough to blow some men from their feet. Barely a minute later, the bombardment on the German trenches lifted and the defenders raced from their dugouts. They lined their trenches and paradoses with bombers and machine guns, and ‘welcomed’ the Highlanders with ‘hand grenades and gunfire’. ‘Yelling like fiends’, the men of the 17th HLI raced the last 60 yards to storm the German trenches where the madness of hand-to-hand combat ensued. The men of the 16th HLI however, having been ‘severely dealt with’ by the machine guns, were not so fortunate as the advancing platoons ‘were simply mown down’.
Yet, still more men continued to clamber out of their trenches. 36-year-old Major James McElwain, a student from 1899 to 1904 and commander of ‘C’ Company 16th HLI, was wounded leading his Company forward in the open ground opposite a position known as ‘The Point’. This position was the site of the German machine gun nest that claimed the lives of a number of men of ‘C’ Company; including 28-year-old MA graduate Private Adam Scott. Around the same time, former mathematics student Second Lieutenant John Murdoch of ‘D’ Company 16th HLI passed the body of his old OTC comrade Robert Brown before pressing on to the German barbed wire. This proved to be completely uncut and, with no way through into the trench, John and his men were trapped. They took what cover they could find in nearby shell holes where they remained throughout the day until they could escape under cover of darkness. Although nearly 100 men returned to the British lines that night; John was not amongst them, his body probably being recovered by the Germans.
In the space of just 20 minutes, the 16th HLI suffered over 500 men killed, wounded or missing, including 23-year-old Classics Graduate and Corporal Thomas Duncan Mackenzie, whose body was never identified. Yet the bloodshed continued as the 17th HLI, leaving behind their sister battalion, pressed on into the Leipzig Salient. They overran ‘Leipzig Trench’ and the redoubt in Authuille Chalk Quarry before pressing on towards ‘Hindenburg Trench’ under the leadership of 45-year-old Major Edward Hutchison, a Law student from 1892 to 1894. In the open ground before ‘Hindenburg Trench’ Edward was mortally wounded by enfilade fire from a German machine gun, which probably also claimed the life of 23-year-old Lance Corporal George Edward Gannaway, who had interrupted his engineering degree to enlist in 1914. Around the same time, 21-year-old Second Lieutenant John Neilson Carpenter MC, who had studied alongside George Gannaway, disappeared while leading ‘C’ Company along the southern face of the salient. He too has no known grave.
By 8:15am, every company commander was a casualty and command of the Highlanders who had made it into the Leipzig Salient, now defaulted to Lieutenant Morrison and 25-year-old Lieutenant James Scott Marr, who had joined the University OTC in 1914. Further efforts to advance were deemed impossible without reinforcement and the two young officers were ordered to hold the newly captured ground against German counter attacks. These came from the Reserve Infanterie Regiment No.99 to the North, along the crest of the ridge, and from Infanterie Regiment No.180 to the East, up the ridge’s reverse slope. While Lieutenant Morrison took charge of the bomb supply, James Marr worked ‘with energy, courage and without the least regard of personal safety’ to organise the defence around Authuille Chalk Quarry. There a series of furious hand-grenade battles took place, with one participant, Sergeant Turnbull, receiving a posthumous Victoria Cross for his efforts. The heavy fighting around the Quarry also claimed the lives of 21-year-old Lance Corporal James Lindsay Brown, another engineering student; and former Law student, 32-year-old Private Robert Ritchie. Three years later in 1919, James and Robert’s bodies would be recovered near the eastern lip of the Chalk Quarry.
Despite almost ceaseless German counter-attacks, the Highlanders clung on to the tip of the Leipzig Salient for eight long hours before serious reinforcements arrived. Ultimately, the Salient would prove to be the only section of the German line, North of the Albert-Bapaume Road, retained by the British Army at the end of the first day of the offensive. The War Diary of the 17th HLI directly credits Lieutenants Morrison and Marr for this feat and both were Mentioned in Dispatches for their efforts. Yet, over 2,000 men had been killed or wounded taking the Leipzig Salient, including 23-year-old Lance Sergeant James Cunningham McNaught of the 17th HLI, a former Law student affectionately known to his men as ‘The Chief’. Also amongst the dead was 27-year-old MA and BSc graduate Captain Thomas Middleton, who commanded a section of the 97th Trench Mortar Battery during the Battle. Both James and Thomas are commemorated on the Theipval Memorial to the Missing, as the location and circumstances of their death remain unknown.
In total, 18 members of the University of Glasgow community took part in the 16th and 17th HLI’s attack on the Leipzig Salient. At the end of the day only two individuals, James Marr and Corporal James Crawford Robertson, both of the 17th HLI, emerged unscathed; though neither lived to see 1917. 10 former students and cadets were killed in the attack, with six more wounded. Two of which, Edward Hutchison and Archibald Lang, again both of the 17th HLI, ultimately died of the wounds they had sustained. This action ultimately proved to be one of the single largest concentrations of former University personnel in one place, at one time, in the entire First World War and consequently, became the single greatest loss sustained by the University Community in the Battle of the Somme.
Works Consulted and Further Reading
The above narrative is based on the author’s Masters dissertation research. Quotations were taken from Thomas Chalmers’ History of the 16th HLI and Arthur & Munro’s History of the 17th HLI, as well as the 1916 editions of the Outpost Magazine and unpublished account of Pte. Kinnear, 17th HLI, kindly supplied by the Royal Highland Fusiliers Museum. Also referenced were the War Diaries of the 16th HLI, 17th HLI and 97th Brigade which are available for download from The National Archives. Extracts were also taken from the account of Lieutenant F. C. Cassel of RIR 99 held by the Imperial War Museum. The story of CSM Steven Reith and Sgt. Archibald Lang is contained in biographies of the Hillhead High School Memorial Volume.
The Aerial Photograph of ‘The Point’ and Reserve Army Panoramic Intelligence Photograph 62 are both available from the collection of the Imperial War Museum. More can be found on the Intelligence Photographs in Barton & Holmes’ The Battlefields of the First World War: The Unseen Panoramas of the Western Front. James Kerr’s Battlefield Photographs are available in Doughty & Kerr’s Silent Landscape: The Battlefields of the Western Front One Hundred Years On.