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1st/5th Battalion Gordon Highlanders

 21st March 1918:

The first day of the German Spring Offensive

Following the massive German attack on 21st March 1918, the old battalion ceased to exist in all but name, receiving as it did huge casualties, of whom 446 were missing with the majority of these becoming prisoners of war. (Source: Life of a Regiment p.179. See below.)

At this time, the 5th Battalion was no longer a part of the 51st Division.

In 1918, following the severe losses of the previous year, the organisation of the British Army divisions was changed. For most of the War, an infantry division had consisted of twelve battalions of fighting infantry, usually organised in three brigades,  and one Pioneer battalion.  From January 1918 each brigade was to be trimmed of one of its four battalions.  These "surplus" battalions were either disbanded and used to reinforce other battalions, amalgamated with other below strength units or, in some cases transferred to other Divisions. The 5th Gordons found themselves in the latter catagory. On 2nd February 1918 three battalions from the 51st Division - the 1/5th Gordon Highlanders, 1/8th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and 1/9th Royal Scots, were transferred to the second-line Territorial 61st (2nd South Midland) Division, part of Gereral Gough's Fifth Army.

The 61st had not so far done well in any of its engagements and its own members called themselves the 'Sixty-worst', a name no-doubt echoed by many Australians who had served next to them during the fiasco at Fromelles during the Somme campaign.  It was possibly hoped that the Highlanders would strengthen the Division.

The Gordons were not happy about the move to the second-line division. The following extract is from The Life of a Regiment:

The 5th Battalion had always belonged to the Highland Division.  It had not even been temporararily separated from it like the 4th  and 6th, which had come out in advance of the division. On January 31st 1918 the 5th Battalion was inspected by Major General Harper, who expressed his deep regret at its departure . . .The battalion gave him three rousing cheers before marching off the parade ground.  On February 2nd, when it left the divisional area, the 6th and 7th Black Watch and the 7th Gordons lined the route with bands playing and cheered it as it passed.  It joined the 183rd Brigade of the 61st Division on a front not long taken over from the French, a short way north of St Quentin. (p.175)

By 20th March, the Gordons, with other units of the Fifth Army, were disposed in depth in what was known as the forward zone, with the battalion headquarters in Fresnoy Redoubt, one of a number of fortified posts just to the rear of the front line.  The front line was not the usual extended trench system that the British army had become accustomed to, but rather a series of scattered outposts held by a platoon or section.

The German Spring offensive commenced at 4.30am on 21st March with a massive artillery and mortar bombardment followed several hours later by an infantry attack which took place in heavy fog.  The front line defenders, were soon overwhelmed. 

The normal source for information regarding casualties and details of engagements are the battalion War Diaries.  Unfortunately those Diaries for units in the Forward Zone, which includes the 5th Gordons,  are in a very poor state, there being, after the first day of the battle, no officers left  to compile the details. Consequently this information has to be obtained from Regimental Histories.

 So, to quote once again from "The Life of a Regiment":

There is little that can be said of the fate of the 5th Gordons except that they were overrun and thereafter existed only as a handful of survivors of the shock, in addition to what was known as 'Echelon B', the party, strong in officers and n.c.os kept back at the transport lines, transport men and cooks, and such officers and men rejoining from leave.  At 12.20 p.m. the 183rd Brigade headquarters received a message from the commanding officer, Lieut. Colonel M. F. McTaggart, that his redoubt was surrounded and that he feared he would be unable to hold out for long.  Soon afterwards, about 1.30 p.m. the defence was swamped by an overwhelming tide.  The number of survivors who managed to get back to brigade headquarters was not more than thirty. . . (p.177)

The 61st Division held its battle zone and left it on March 22nd only when ordered back to the 'army line'. . . [T]he handful of the 5th Gordons was posted at the bridge at Voyennes.  On the 24th, being now sixty strong, it took part in a counter-attack against German troops who had crossed the Somme at Bethencourt, fighting under the orders of the regimental sergeant-major because no officers remained. . .

On March 26th, the 183rd  Brigade was formed into a composite battalion.  To this the 5th Gordons, with the survivors of March 21st and the 2nd Echelon now united, contributed one company. (p.178)

Summary of events on the following days:

The division was relieved but perforce kept fairly near the front.  The 5th Gordons managed to do a little training, but their fighting strength increased very slowly.  The blow they had been dealt was deadly.  Every officer with the fighting part of the battalion, a total of 24, had been killed, wounded or captured. . . The losses of rank and file numbered 560, of whom 446 were missing.  It must be born in mind that by 1918, the number of men employed in the brigade or division on various guard and administrative duties had become considerable, so that this figure represents virtually the whole fighting strength. (pp. 178-179)

Click here to see details of the casualties for this battle.

Click here to see War Diary for April 1918




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Carolyn Morrisey