5th Battalion Gordon Highlanders
The Battle of Buzancy
By July 1918 the war had become a war of movement. The 5th Battalion was at this time part of the 15th Division and, owing the huge losses mentioned above, and to the difficulties of getting adequate numbers of Scottish recruits, the battalion was amalgamated with the 8th/10th Battalion, Gordon Highlanders in May 1918. The new battalion was called the 5th Battalion Gordon Highlanders, the 5th being the senior unit and Lieut Col G.A. Smith, who had taken over from Lieut Col McTaggart, remained in command. Major Wood of the 8th/10th was second in command.
By 28 July 1918 the 15th Division was opposite the village and château of Buzancy which was held by the Germans.
On the previous day the 15th Division received orderes to capture the château and nearby village. The Seaforths were to take the village. A French regiment was to operate on the flank. The 5th Battalion War Diary records the following:
“The Bn was allocated the high ground lying to the north of the village as their objective ... The attack commenced at 12.28 p.m and 2 minutes later the line moved forward towards its objective. 300 yards further on a strong point was encountered but after a short fight the resistance was overcome and the advance passed on.
The right flank then ran into trouble from a machine gun firing from an embrasure cut into the park wall. Lieutenant F.W. Lovie brought up his platoon from the support company, worked around the post and rushed it. He himself was wounded and his platoon suffered severely, but he had cleared the way for the advance to continue. (See his Military Cross citation) After that all went well and the objective was reached at 1.20 pm.
The enemy counter attacked at 4 p.m. against the French, who were forced to withdraw and at 4.20 the Seaforths fell back from their front at Buzancy. This left the Bns right flank exposed and at 5 p.m they were obliged to fall back so as to conform…and at 5.45 pm the Bn arrived back at the starting point! The total casualties … amounted to 225 of which 14% were killed. Col Smith, DSO, who was dearly loved by the Bn was alas one of those who lost his life during this operation.”
Major John Bruce Wood DSO MC then assumed temporary command of the Battalion. In a letter written in August to his brother, Wood outlined the circumstances under which this came about:
There is a very sound rule in practice now which leaves out [of battle] a certain proportion of experienced hands, so that in the event of heavy casualties there are some left to make the nucleus of a new Battalion. In active operations the C.O. and 2nd in command are not allowed to be both in the line, and so I came to be among those who were left out. Those left out are called "Details" officially, but sometimes by less complimentary names such as "Duds", the "Crocks" and so on.
The Seaforths and Gordan Details were having a cricket match while this [the battle] was going on and I was batting when about 3 o'clock a message came from Brigade and a few minutes another from the Division announcing Col. Smith's death, and to report at once and take over the Battalion. There are few more sickening jobs than to take over command of anything in the middle of a battle when one was not in it at the start. I was asked to call in at the Division and Brigade Headquarters on the way up, and it was nearly 6 o'clock before I reached the Battalion. The situation was rather obscure so I made straight for the front line to find out. Our casualties in officers had not been very heavy up to that time, but they were serious in quality. Three of the four company commanders had been knocked out and everything was a muddle. Companies were mixed up. Most of the remaining officers were in their first battle. A lot of sorting out and re-arranging companies had to be done and this took some time. The enemy was content with regaining Buzancy and did not try to push any further, but he kept up a very very heavy shelling all night and all next day. We had to sit part of the night with gas respirators on.
On the night of 29/30th we were relieved by a French regiment.
(Letter courtesy of Brian Knights)
The Division counted the day's fighting as one of the most gruelling it had ever undergone.
A few days later following the German withdrawal and an Allied advance to the Vesle River, the 15th were finally brought out of the line and relieved by the French 17th Division. Some time later, Lord Dudley Gordon who took over the Battalion from Wood, stated: "In clearing the [Buzancy] battlefield, the French found that the body of the soldier who had been killed farthest forward was that of a member of the Scottish division, and one who belonged to the 5th Gordons, and who came from our own countryside. On the spot the French immediately raised a monument in the form of a cairn with an inscription on it, of which this is the transcription:- 'Here for ever shall flourish, amid the roses of France, the glorious thistle of Scotland.' That monument was the only one of its kind erected during the whole of the war." Extracted from the speech of Lord Dudley Gordon. Quoted in The War Book of Turriff.
Of the men who died on the battlefield that day and whose bodies were eventually recovered, only twelve came from the area Lord Dudley Gordon referred to as 'our own countryside' i.e. Aberdeenshire.
The monument has since been moved into the Buzancy Cemetery for safe keeping. It should be noted that the Seaforths also lay claim to this 'farthest soldier'.