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1st/5th Battalion Gordon Highlanders


The Highland Division, to which the 5th Gordons were attached, recruited mainly in the north of the country, from the counties of Caithness, Sutherland, Ross and Cromarty, Inverness-shire, the Inner and Outer Hebrides, Argyllshire, Nairn, Moray, Banff Aberdeenshire, Perthshire, Angus and Kincardine.

Geographically this is a large area, but the population was relatively small. The various battalions usually had clearly-defined catchment areas: for example, the 6th Seaforths recruited only in Morayshire, the 4th Gordons in Aberdeen city and 5th Gordons only in the sparsely-populated region of Buchan.

The writer C.Y Cheyne in his book The Last Great Battle of the Somme makes the following observations about this regional recruitment system:

The advantages … were obvious : men could join up confident of finding in their local unit a few old friends, possibly some relatives and certainly many acquaintances.

The disadvantage, not apparent until later, was that a tightly-knit community could suddenly find itself mourning the loss of its menfolk in just one costly battle…Turriff, a small agricultural township on the Aberdeenshire-Banff border, found itself at the conclusion of the War with scarcely enough young men left alive to continue the working of its once-thriving farms. On the Somme, at Arras, at Passchendaele, at Cambrai and in the German and British offensives of 1918, the Highland Division was generally in the thick of the fighting; and Turriff, which had recruited almost exclusively into the battalions used by the Highland Division, earned for itself the dubious distinction of having lost more of its menfolk than any other place in Britain.

(The Last Great Battle of the Somme pp.27-28)

In the Preface to The War Book of Turriff, the author states that for the whole area, one man in four did not return; in some areas it was one in three.

In “A” Company of the 5th Battalion, recruited mainly in Strichen, it can be seen that of the 76 men who appear on the 1914 roll of volunteers, nine did not serve overseas ( established by the fact that there is no record for them on the Medal Index) and of the remaining 67, 25 died during the course of the war. It can also be seen that the dates 31st July 1916 and 13th November 1916 occur with depressing frequency. These dates represent the battles of High Wood and Beaumont Hamel which claimed the lives of hundreds of local men. See: Casualty Lists.

The 5th Battalion, like many others, was under strength at the time of its mobilisation and continued to receive new recruits from Reserve Battalions that were formed early in the war. The following article from the Buchan Observer in August 1914 records the establishment of these reserve units:

Reserve Territorial Units

Aberdeenshire needs 2500

'The Army Council’s decision to raise duplicate units of the Territorial Force to take the place of those which have volunteered for foreign service as a whole or in the proportion of at least 60 per cent affects the counties of Aberdeen, Banff and Kincardine to a marked degree.

The 5th, 6th and 7th Battalions of the Gordon Highlanders will have to be duplicated and a new force of some 2500 men is needed for Aberdeenshire alone to complete the established units, at present stationed at Bedford, for foreign service, and to fill up the reserve battalions.

The Chairman of the Territorial Force Association for the County of Aberdeen has decided to issue an appeal in the form of a letter to the Provosts of the various boroughs and other town or county officials.

The new units will be organised with the following objects:-

Enlistment is on the ordinary attestation form for the Territorial Force, for a period of four years. Men enlisting either for home or general service may be discharged at the end of the war.' (See example of Attestation Form)

Ripon in Yorkshire was a place where much of the training of the Reserve battalions was conducted.  See here for a photograph of men of the 3/5th Battalion at Ripon.

On August 18th 1914 the Buchan Observer printed the following appeal for recruits:

Recruits Wanted

5th Battalion Gordon Highlanders

Territorial Force

'Men suitable for above Battalion and wishing to enlist can do so at once.  Sound Teeth and Good Physique are necessary. Men with previous service will be accepted for one year or for the period of hostilities.

On application being made to any of the following Station Masters, men will be sent on to Peterhead at no charge to report themselves on arrival to the Drill Hall here.

Station Master Fraserburgh Lonmay Strichen Maud Auchnagatt Ellon New MacharMintlaw  Longside Turriff

If rejected, they will be sent home free of charge to themselves.

J. Morrison  Drill Hall Peterhead  Commanding Depot, Peterhead

Peterhead 10th August 1914

God Save the King.'

 The response to this and similar appeals is shown in the following article:

Brisk recruiting at Peterhead

'Recruiting at the headquarters of the 5th Battalion Gordon Highlanders is proceeding briskly.  Men and young lads from all parts of Buchan, drawn chiefly from the agricultural classes are responding to Captain Morrison’s appeal, and the officers at the Drill Hall are having a busy time.  Since the appeal was issued the number enrolled daily stands at 20.  Intending recruits are allowed to travel from any station on the Buchan line to Peterhead free of charge.'

While the Territorial force accepted men from the age of 17 ‘and upwards’, the requirements for Kitchener’s ‘New Army’ were more specific, requiring recruits to be between 19 and 35 years of age, unless former soldiers, in which case the age limit was 42.  (Later in the war the age limit was raised.)

Appeals for recruits in both the Territorial Force and the New Armies often appeared side by side in the newspaper, just one of many example of duplication created because of Lord Kitchener’s distrust of the Territorial Force.

Kitchener’s suspicion of the Territorials -‘a Town Clerk’s army’ as he once called them - as a reliable force, resulted from his dislike of ‘amateur’ soldiers.  He preferred to place his faith in his New Armies.  ‘While the pre-war Territorials could claim more acquaintance with military procedures than new recruits, KitchenerBecket and Simpson A Nation in Arms.  p.131) preferred men with no knowledge to those with ‘a smattering of the wrong thing’.

Direct recruiting into the Territorials ended with the introduction of the Military Service Act.  Thereafter all new recruits were recruited for general service and allocated as required. 

For later recruiting under the Derby Scheme and the Military Service Act click here.

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Carolyn Morrisey