Night 11-12 September 1917
This article describes a trench raid carried out by the 5/6th Battalion of the Royal Scots (32nd Division), which was under command of Lieutenant Colonel J. A. Fraser. The raid was carried out in accordance with the battalion’s Operation Order 104 issued at 2pm on 7 September 1917.
The 32nd Division had moved into the Nieuport area of the Western Front earlier in 1917. This proved to be a particularly difficult sector to hold, as the front line trenches were on the eastern bank of the estuary of the River Yser and only a short distance separated the trenches from the river. All men and supplies were obliged to reach the front line by a number of plank bridges: the Germans knew the location of these bridges and they were frequently damaged or destroyed. In July 1917 the division had sustained the serious virtual destruction of two battalions holding this front, when the Germans carried out Operation “Strandfest”. Since them, both sides remained very active with much artillery fire, use of gas, and frequent raiding of the opposition’s trenches. At the time of the raid described in this article, the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele) was in progress just a few miles to the south.
The object of the raid was
- to kill or capture Germans
- to secure a machine gun known to be at the farm
- to obtain identification of the German unit(s) holding the farm
- to demoralise the enemy.
Zero hour was set for 11pm on 11 September 1917.
The raiding party would consist of three officers and 40 men, organised into five groups.
The men would wear their steel helmets and box (gas) respirator. They would each carry a rifle with black-painted bayonet, a bandolier of ammunition and two hand grenades. Two men in each group would be designated as bombers: they would instead carry a revolver, no bandolier and ten grenades. All insignia and identification marks were to be removed before the raid.
A tape would be laid out across no man’s land in advance, to help guide the men back to their trenches at the conclusion of the raid. The tape would be concealed by reeds and covered in mud.
The five parties would go out in single file until reaching a defined point of assembly in no man’s land, and would then reorganise into a single rank facing the farm.
A covering party of a Sergeant and 16 men, together with a stretcher bearer party of two stretchers, would be disposed along the route and would prevent any enemy leaving Bamburgh Trench to cut off the withdrawal of the raiding party.
Signallers would establish an advanced report centre and runners would take communications to battalion headquarters as soon as possible.
At zero hour the raiding party would crawl to within 20 yards of the German front line trench and would then rush it. On entering the trench, two groups would turn right (one going past the other to form a block on the eastern side of the farm); another would do the same on the left and form a block there. The fourth would turn right and clear up the trench running as far as the block, and the last group would follow the fourth and form another block.
At zero hours, short bursts of machine gun fire would go over the heads of the raiding party and be aimed between Peony House and the farm.
A Very light signal would be fired to call “SOS” and the division’s artillery would then open fire on Bamburgh Trench and Bamburgh Walk (to stop any German incursion into the raid area).
The signal for withdrawal would be a rattle, and would be signalled by any of the officers. The officer commanding the third group would only make the signal if enemy troops were advancing to Bamburgh Trench and threatening to cut off the retreat of the other groups from the farm. The code word “Box” may be used to order withdrawal. Numbers 3 and 5 groups would remain to cover the withdrawal of groups 1, 2 and 4.
All prisoners and documents taken would be handed over to an escort would who ensure they reached battalion headquarters as soon as possible.
Signals and codes to be used during the raid
- “Hop”: raiding party has left on the raid and all is quiet
- “Step” : raiding party has left our trench and enemy artillery is unusually active
- “Jump” : raiding party has returned
- “Good” : raid successful
- “Rations X”: X number of prisoners taken
- “Rats”: raid unsuccessful
Progression of the raid
The raiding party consisted of Second Lieutenants R. A. Jones, W. O. Steuart and W. K. Good with 40 other ranks.
The covering party consisted of Second Lieutenant Nairne and 12 other ranks. A Lewis Gun and four stretcher bearers were also present.
The raiding party left the battalion’s trenches at 8.30pm. Jones and Lance Corporal Doughty laid a tape for guidance, and bridge ditches, to ease the party’s way forward. By 11pm it was in position. The party crawled to the enemy barbed wire defences and found a gap, which they believed the Germans had been using to send their own patrols out into no man’s land. Ten minutes later the party entered the German front line trench.
The raiding party entered the German trench unobserved and found it badly damaged and nearly impassable. The first group, under Second Lieutenants R. A. Jones, proceeded along the ground behind the trench and soon encountered a concrete dugout, from which an enemy sentry fired with a revolver. The dugout was rushed and hand grenades thrown in: it was found full of enemy troops who had evidently been asleep and who were wearing no equipment. The only unwounded man was pulled out by ones and sent rearward.
Number 2 group had by now pushed past number 1 to form its block and Company Sergeant Major Primrose took another prisoner. It came under attack from German troops in Bamburgh Walk. It called for support from 4 group (Steuart), which pushed past it, attacked the enemy and held this position during the remainder of the raid.
Number 3 group had turned left but found the trench flooded after 40 yards: it formed its block at the waters edge. Half a dozen Germans who had been 150 yards further on, constructing barbed wire defences, approached along the top of the trench but ran away when hand grenades were thrown in their direction.
Number 5 group got into a grenade fight in Bamburgh Trench but held its position until the withdrawal signal was given.
No machine gun was found at the farm, but a manned one was discovered in a shell hole nearby: it was destroyed, and its crew of two men were killed, by hand grenades thrown by the raiding party.
When the raid had been in progress for about 15 minutes, German counter attack around the farm strengthened and the signal to withdraw was given.
All of the raiding party, including those who had been wounded, withdrew successfully.
CSM Primrose’s prisoner, on reaching the German barbed wire, lay down and refused to move further: he was killed.
Lance Corporal Stewart, having gone some 80 yards past the wire towards the British lines, fell and sprained his ankle. His prisoner began to resist: he too was killed.
By now, German trench mortars and machine guns were sweeping no man’s land. The raining party fired the “SOS” Very light signal at 11.55pm and shells began to fall in response on the German trenches 90 seconds later. Many of the raiding party had to lie out in front of their own trenches for more than an hour before re-entering, such was the fire falling on the British front.
The raiding party confirmed the death of 8 German soldiers and believed that more would have died, particularly from the “SOS” artillery barrage.
No useful identification had been obtained.
Men involved in the raid
Killed in action
The first four men listed below were buried at Coxyde Military Cemetery, in the plot-row-grave location indicated next to their name. Their deaths are officially recorded as having taken place on 12 September 1917.
Major Thomas Stewart MC and Bar.
He had arrived to join the battalion on 10 August 1917 and was appointed as its Second-in-Command, was killed while seeing the raiding party back into the battalion’s trenches. Aged 25, he was the son of John and Emelia Stewart of Edinburgh. The Bar to his Military Cross was announced in the newspapers exactly a week after his death. [III.G.12]
Private 275795 James Frederick Cundiff.
Son of the late Frederick and Matilda Cundiff, of Longsight, Manchester; husband of Nellie Cundiff [later] of 20, Haddon Street, Gorton, Manchester. He was awarded the Military Medal, gazetted on 19 November 1917. [III.H.6]
Private 251334 Thomas Casse Fraser.
Aged 38. Had enlisted under the Group System in December 1915 and served initially as Private 4004. Landed in France 2 February 1917 and joined the battalion on 20 February. Husband of Janet Fraser of 35 Buccleuch Place, Edinburgh, he left three children. He had been employed by the GPO as a postman. [III.H.7]
Private 41641 James O’Brien.
A conscripted soldier who joined the battalion on landing in France, 19 July 1917. Aged 20. His mother lived at 14 Shuttle Lane, Glasgow. [III.H.8]
Private 21523 Richard Malone.
Aged 21 and son of the late James and Mary Malone of 18 Queen Street, Dundee. Had served in France from January 1916 and had been with the battalion since June 1917. He has no known grave and is commemorated at the Nieuport Memorial. Some private letters and photographs were returned to his family.
A total of 13 men were wounded. It is most difficult to isolate them, but there is some evidence that at least some of them are within this list of wounded men that appeared in “The Scotsman” on 16 October 1917. Several of them are listed as having served with the battalion and to be awarded the Military Medal: this would be typical of men who had taken part in the raid.
Others known to have participated
Lance Corporal 276176 (previously 2204) Robert Doughty.
He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, citation gazetted 6 February 1918.
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during a raid on the enemy’s lines. He made eight reconnaissances of the position and on the night of the raid laid a tape to within 30 yards of the enemy’s trench. He was one of the first to enter the enemy’s lines, entered a dug-out and captured a prisoner. He bombed several of the enemy who were following up the withdrawal, and kept them off until his section was clear. He showed great dash and courage throughout the operation.
Doughty was killed in action, by then at the rank of Sergeant, on 27 March 1918. Husband of Agnes Doughty of 10 Murieston Terrace, Edinburgh.
Second Lieutenant William Knight Good.
He was killed in action, by then aged 31 and at the rank of Captain, on 27 February 1918. This was during another trench raid, this time in the area of Houthulst Forest.
Second Lieutenant R. A. Jones.
Second Lieutenant Ronald Nairne.
Mentioned in despatches of 7 November 1917. He was killed in action at the age of 23 while serving with “B” Company near Ayette on 3 April 1918. Son of David and Jessie Colvill Nairne of 35 Lovat Road, Inverness.
Company Sergeant Major Primrose.
Second Lieutenant Walter Osborne Steuart.
He was awarded the Military Cross, gazetted 18 March 1918.
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during a raid on the enemy’s trenches. While some of the raining part were dealing with an enemy dugout, enemy attacked down the trench. He led his party in a counter-attack and drove the enemy back. He was the last to leave the enemy’s position and showed great courage and initiative throughout.
Later awarded the Military Cross and Bar. He was wounded near Ayette on 3 April 1918 in the same fighting in which Nairne lost his life.
Lance Corporal Stewart.
Imperial War Museum photograph Q57166
War diary of General Staff at headquarters, 32nd Division
War diary of 5/6th Royal Scots
British Newspaper Archive