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1/Black Watch on the Aisne

on Tue, 09/16/2014 - 20:08

By Bryan J. Dickerson*

This week marks the 100th Anniversary of the First Battle of the Aisne, a pivotal battle which marked a major transformation in the nature of fighting on the Western Front during the First World War.   Among the many German, French and British units that fought on the Aisne River was the 1st Battalion / Royal Highlanders.

After the outbreak of war, German armies swept through Belgium and across the French frontier in accordance with a plan commonly named for Field Marshall Alfred von Schlieffen, former Chief of the Imperial German Staff.   The Germans were initially successful and were only halted at the First Battle of the Marne in early September 1914.  The British and French armies then went over on the offensive in an attempt to reclaim the territories lost in the preceding weeks.  The German First and Second Armies retreated across the Aisne River and then established formidable defensive positions on high ground overlooking the river.  One of the many British units ordered to dislodge the Germans was the 1st Battalion / Royal Highlanders, commonly known as “the Black Watch.”  

Founded in the 1730s, the Black Watch’s long history includes distinguished service in the Seven Years War, the American War for Independence and the Napoleonic Wars.   In August 1914, 1st Battalion/Black Watch deployed from its home in Scotland to serve as part of Field Marshall Sir John French’s British Expeditionary Force.  At the time of deployment, the battalion numbered 28 officers and 1,031 other ranks.  Lieutenant Colonel Adrian Grant-Duff, C.B., was in command of the battalion (see attached picture of Grant-Duff with the Signals Platoon in 1913, he is seated in the bottom row next to Captain Fergus Bowes Lyon who was a member of the Royal Family and died in France during the Battle of Loos in September 1915).  Prior to the war, Grant-Duff had helped draft Britain’s war mobilization plans as a staff member of the Committee on Imperial Defense.  Like other Scottish units serving in the BEF, 1/Black Watch wore kilts as part of their battle uniform.

1st Battalion / Black Watch was part of Brigadier General Frederick Maxse’s 1st Guards Brigade.  This brigade also included 1st Battalion/Coldstream Guards, 1st Battalion/Scots Guards and 2nd Battalion/Royal Munster Fusiliers.  In late August, the 2/Royal Munster Fusiliers was replaced by the 1st Battalion/ Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders after being surrounded and nearly wiped out during the retreat from Mons.  1st Guards Brigade was assigned to Major General Samuel Holt Lomax’s 1st Division of Lieutenant General Sir Douglas Haig’s I Corps.  During August and early September, 1/Black Watch endured the retreat from Mons, then fought in the First Battle of the Marne and the pursuit of the retreating Germans to the Aisne River.

In establishing themselves on the heights above the Aisne River, the German First and Second Armies occupied one of the most formidable positions on the Western Front.  German forces were entrenched along a series of chalk ridges that rose up to four hundred feet above the broad river valley.  Along the crest of this ridge ran the Chemin des Dames - a royal coach road constructed by King Louis XV for his daughters.  To attack these positions, the British and French had to cross the Aisne River, then advance across the plain and up the heavily wooded and rugged Chemin des Dames ridge.  All the while, the attackers would be subjected to artillery and machine gun fire.

In the early morning hours of 14 September, Field Marshall French’s forces began pushing forward from the Aisne River, uncertain if the Germans holding the ridge were a delaying force or the main body.   1st Division was the first BEF unit to advance on the Chemin des Dames.  It soon became apparent that the Germans had decided to end their retreat and to hold onto the Chemin des Dames in force.   Some twelve battalions of the German 13th Reserve Division were opposing 1st Division.   2nd Brigade led 1st Division’s attack in the vicinity of the village of Troyon.  One of their objectives was the Sugar Factory on the Chemin des Dames just north of Troyon.

Despite rain, fog, and deep mud, 2nd Brigade reached the ridge line and cleared the Sugar Factory.  In addition, they captured two batteries of German field guns and German trenches on either side of the factory.    But German resistance quickly intensified and 2nd Brigade could not advance any further against the withering machine gun and artillery fire.

With the 2nd Brigade heavily engaged, 1st Brigade was ordered forward to seize positions on its left.  1/Coldstream Guards and 1/Cameron Highlanders were able to reach the top of the ridge but suffered heavily from German machine gun and artillery fire.  There the advance stalled.  1/Coldstream Guards commander LtCol John Ponsonby collected a company-sized force from his own battalion, the Black Watch, and Cameron Highlanders and even some troops from 2nd Brigade. He led this ad hoc force forward across the Chemin des Dames.  Despite the heavy fog, they were able to reach the village of Cerny on the far side of the ridge and deep within German lines.  Here they halted.  They were soon surrounded but stubbornly held on for the remainder of the day.  In the process, LtCol Ponsonby was wounded in the ankle.

By late morning, the momentum of 1st Division’s attack had been lost.  Detachments from 1st Brigade’s other two battalions, 1/Black Watch and 1/Scots Guards, were used to reinforce threatened positions on the line.  In addition, reinforcements were brought up from 3rd Brigade.  Several German counter-attacks threatened to break the British line but timely reinforcements prevented that.   The heavy fog made command and control for both armies very difficult.  German artillery proved to be superior to the British artillery in both quality and quantity of firepower.  The German artillerists knew approximately where their infantry and had no qualms about firing blindly into the heavy fog.  Thus they were able to inflict heavy casualties on the British.  This same fog severely inhibited the British artillery from properly supporting their own infantry. Meanwhile 1st Division was well forward of the remainder of I Corps.

1/Black Watch did not fight the battle on the Chemin des Dames as a battalion; rather its four companies were split up and fought independently in support of other units.  Part of A Company and C Company fought with 1/Coldstream Guards and 1st Battalion/Northamptonshire Regiment and 2nd Battalion/Kings Royal Rifle Corps of 2nd Brigade near Troyon.   Lieutenant A. C. MacNaughton and a small group fought with LtCol Ponsonby’s group at Cerny.  The remaining parts of these two companies plus D Company fought on the brigade’s left with 1/Cameron Highlanders.  B Company initially escorted the 116th Battery, Royal Field Artillery.  Later in the battle, B Company sent a detachment to reinforce D Company then fighting with the 1/Cameron Highlanders.

In early afternoon, the Germans launched a heavy counter-attack against 2nd Brigade which forced them back from their advanced positions around the Sugar Factory and threatened to break the British line.  1/ Black Watch’s commander LtCol Grant-Duff rallied a mixed force from several nearby units.  He and Captain G. B. Rowan-Hamilton led them forward to repulse the German counter-attack.  Following the example of his commanding officer, Lieutenant Lewis Robertson Cumming also gathered together some nearby soldiers and led this ad hoc platoon forward.  The Germans were thrown back but LtCol Grant-Duff was mortally wounded and died later that day.  Lt Cumming and his platoon were nearly all killed or wounded as well.

War is violent and chaotic as demonstrated by the tragic experience of Major Lord George Stewart-Murray, commanding officer of A Company.  During the confusing battle, Major Stewart-Murray and a group from his company were supporting D Company.  In the heavy fighting, he was reported Missing.  On 3 March 1915, the 1st Battalion’s Unit Diary recorded that Major Stewart-Murray was reported as being held as a prisoner of war in Hanover, Germany.  Unfortunately, this report later proved to be erroneous.  Eventually it was determined that he had been killed on 14 September 1914 and his body was never recovered.  He is remembered on the La Ferté-sous-Jouarre Memorial in France along with 3,739 other British soldiers and officers whose bodies were never recovered from the battlefields of France.  He was 41-years-old at the time of his death.

By day’s end, the battle on the Chemin des Dames had devolved into a stalemate.   The British were unable to push the Germans off the ridge but neither were the Germans able to push the British back across the Aisne.  After nightfall, several units that had advanced beyond the Chemin des Dames were pulled back to the brigade’s main line.  Along the line, British soldiers entrenched.  “In pouring rain the Battalion began to entrench, and threw up some of the first spadefuls of that long line which was soon to stretch from Switzerland across France to the sea,” wrote Major General A. G. Wauchope, C.B., in his A History of the Black Watch [Royal Highlanders] in the Great War, 1914-1918.

After midnight, LtCol Ponsonby’s force gathered together and began working its way back to the British lines.  Their movements were covered by heavy rain and the darkness of night. Shortly before dawn, Ponsonby’s force numbering about 40 men from several different units re-entered British lines.

The 14 September battle on the Chemin des Dames was fought at great cost by 1st Guards Brigade.  Altogether, the brigade had 49 officers and 1,100 enlisted soldiers killed, wounded, missing or captured.  1/Cameron Highlanders lost six hundred officers and men as casualties.  1/Coldstream Guards suffered 77 killed or died of wounds, 224 wounded, and 87 captured.  The 1/Scots Guards lost 120 officers and men as casualties.  1/Black Watch suffered heavy casualties, particularly among its officers.  During the heavy fighting, the battalion lost its commanding officer, Lt.Col Adrian Grant-Duff, A Company commander Major Lord George Stewart-Murray, Lt Lewis R. Cumming and 2nd Lt Reginald Don.  Six other officers were wounded, including 2nd Lt Nigel John Lawson Boyd who died a month later of his wounds.  All four battalion commanders in 1st Brigade became casualties; in addition to LtCol Grant-Duff being mortally wounded, the other three battalion commanders were wounded but survived.   Such heavy casualties amongst the brigade’s officers required all four battalions to re-organize on the battlefield.  Following LtCol Grant-Duff’s death, Major J. T. C. Murray assumed command of 1/Black Watch.

The First Battle of the Aisne would rage for another ten days without either side able to gain a tactical advantage.  Unable to break this stalemate, both the British/French and the Germans began a series of attempts to outflank their opponents.  This soon became a ‘race to sea.’  The BEF was withdrawn from the Aisne line and sent north where they later began the titanic struggle around Ypres, Belgium.

The First Battle of the Aisne was an important milestone in the fighting on the Western Front in World War One.  Technology had far outpaced tactics, resulting in a prolonged stalemate and horrendous casualties on both sides.  In the coming weeks, the war of maneuver would give way to a war of trenches.  It was here on the Aisne that trench warfare on the Western Front began. Playing an important part in this battle was the 1st Battalion of the Royal Highlanders “The Black Watch.”

*The author served as a Religious Program Specialist in the U.S. Navy Reserve for eight years, mobilizing and deploying twice to Iraq for Operation Iraqi Freedom.  He served with the U.S. Marines MWSS-472 from January 2008 until June 2011 and served as Assistant Squadron Historian in 2009 and Squadron Historian in 2010/2011 as a collateral duty.  He was honorably discharged in June 2011 as a Religious Program Specialist First Class (Fleet Marine Force).




Clutterbuck, C. L., Colonel, Colonel W. T. Dooner and Commander the Honorable C. A. Denison.   The Bond of Sacrifice:  A Biographical Record of All British Officers Who Fell in the Great War.  Volume 1: Aug – Dec 1914.  London:  Anglo-African Publishing Contractors, 1915. 

Edmonds, Sir James E., Brigadier General.  C.B., C.M.G., R.E., Ed.  History of the Great War Based on Official Documents by the Direction of the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defense.  Military Operations – France and Belgium, 1914.  Mons, The Retreat to the Seine, the Marne, and the Aisne, August – October 1914.  London:  Macmillan, 1937.

Hamilton, Ernest W., Captain.  The First Seven Divisions:  Being a Detailed Account of the Fighting from Mons to Ypres.  NY:  E. P. Dutton, 1916.

Ross of Bladensburg, Sir John Foster George, Lieutenant Colonel, K.C.B., K.C.V.O.  The Coldstream Guards, 1914-1918.  London:  Oxford U P, 1928.  2 vols.

Wauchope, C.B., A. G., Major General.   A History of the Black Watch [Royal Highlanders] in the Great War, 1914-1918.  London:  The Medici Society Limited, 1925.


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