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1st/5th Battalion Gordon Highlanders

Into the Labyrinth - March 1916

The casualties on 26th March resulted from an action described in the history of the 51st Highland Division:

'On 1st March 1916 orders were received for the Division to march northwards and take over from the 23rd French Division of the XII Corps d'Armee in a sector north of Arras, now known to history as the Labyrinth.  This move was due to the necessity for the British to take over more line from the French.  The object was to free as many French Divisions as possible for the defense of Verdun...

The march to the new area is chiefly memorable to those who took part in it from the fact that much of it was carried out in a blinding snowstorm, with all its attendant discomforts.

The Division, after its six weeks period of rest and training (see training programme) was at the top of its form and presented a most soldierly appearance.  It had profited considerably from its training, in spite of the fact that it had been handicapped by spells of bad weather.

That was the last period of rest of more than 10 days' duration which the Division was to have until the following January.

The new sector extended roughly from the ruined village of Roclincourt on the right of the ruined village of Neuvill St Vaast on the left. [The] whole sector consisted of an unintelligible maze of trenches, aptly called by the French the Labyrinth.

The relief of the French 23rd and 24th Divisions...was completed by 14th March.  It was carried out during a blizzard of great severity, which continued for 48 hours...  All three infantry Brigades were in the line - the 154th Brigade on the right in the vicinity of Roclincourt, the 152nd in the centre,  and the 153rd on the left. [The 1/5th Gordons were in the 153rd].

The sector was ...honeycombed with mines from end to end, the enemy apparently being complete masters of the mining situation.

As soon as the aforementioned blizzard had cleared and commanders could find out the disposition of the men, it became evident that the ground in the forward area was far too thickly held.  Orders were in consequence issued for the line to be thinned immediately.  Small sectors of disused trenches were dug out to accommodate the surplus men temporarily while a more detailed scheme of defence could be formulated.

The advisability of this measure was soon proved, as from 24th March mines were continually being exploded under  or in close proximity to the front line.  A typical case occurred on 26th March, when at 2.30 a.m. the enemy fired two mines simultaneously, one on the left of the 152nd Brigade, and the other on the right of the 153rd.

These explosions were followed by a heavy bombardment on our front and support trenches with shrapnel, all types of trench-mortar bombs and rifle fire. Our losses were severe : 4 officers (1 killed, 2 wounded, and 1 missing) and 74 other ranks (14 killed, 24 wounded and 36 missing) ...
The missing were those unfortunate men who were buried by the falling earth.  Of these two craters, the one on the right proved to be 70 yards in length.'
History of the 51st (Highland) Division

The Diary records  for the 5th Battalion for 26th March show the following casualties:

Of these 22 missing:

*POW details come from the National Archives of Scotland (GD345/1418).  These take the form of postcards acknowledging receipt of food parcels from prisoners to the Prisoner of War Bureau in Aberdeen.

See: Diary entry for the Missing

Return to: Casualty list for March

Carolyn Morrisey