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1st/5th Battalion Gordon Highlanders
Courcelette, November December 1916.
The mud of November 1916
The Gordon Highlanders being issued with thigh boots, for protection from the mud. November 1916
(IWM Q4474)

Following the battle of Beaumont Hamel, the whole Division was withdrawn from the line, but not, as might be expected, for a period of rest and recuperation.  The following details of the new ordeals facing the troops, are taken from The History of the 51st Highland Division:

On 25th November the 153rd Brigade [which included the 5th Battalion Gordon Highlanders] began its march to Ovillers Huts. . . It was learned that the Division was immediately to take over a peculiarly unpleasant sector.

On the 27th, the 153rd Brigade relieved the 12th Canadian Brigade, 4th Canadian Division, in the Courcelette sector. This sector extended from the Dyke Valley just west of Le Sars to the western of the two roads running from Courcelette to Miraumont.  Dyke Valley in particular, and the whole area in general, were painfully open to observation from tree observation posts in Loupart Wood.  This wood was perched on the summit of a commanding upland.  There was hardly a square yard in the Divisional sector which was not overlooked from some sector of it.

Moreover, the enemy made the fullest use of his observation.  Even single men were frequently sniped by howitzers and field guns to such an extent that movement in the forward area by day became out of the question.

The ground taken over by the Division had been captured by the Canadians a few days previously.  The conditions could not have been worse; the limits of human endurance were all but reached.  The whole area had been ploughed up by shell-fire to such an extent that the vegetation had completely disappeared.  The rain . . . continued day after day.  The whole countryside had in consequence been transformed into unending acres of treacherous and, in some places, dangerous mud. It was no uncommon thing for men to sink up to their waists and for horses to be drowned.

The earth had become so disintergrated by the shocks of the continuous bursting of shells that trenches could not be cut in it.  No sooner had they been dug than the sides fell in and filled them again.  The front and support line troops thus lived in shell-hole posts.  In a few cases they were connected to one another by what had once been trenches.

The conditions in which the men lived in these posts defeats imagination and needs to have been seen to be appreciated.  They could not move by day.  Their only seat was the oozing fire-step; if they stood up they gradually sank into the mud; even ration boxes and duck-boards used as platforms soon became submerged.  The conditions of sanitation were gastly, the possibilities of cooking were non-existant, and from dawn till dusk the troops were cut off from communication even with the next post.

Trench foot became an epidemic, frost-bite occured frequently.  In some cases old wounds reopened as they did in the old days of scurvy.  In December dysantry appeared.  The wastage amongst troops became serious, and a general air of depression settled upon the Division.

To the rank and file, Courcellete will remain as a nightmare.

Brewster, F.W The History of the 51st (Highland) Division, 1914-1918, 1921

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Carolyn Morrisey