1/7th Black Watch hit hard at Louverval, 21-22 March 1918


This article is adapted from part of my report on Corporal 232390 Alexander May, who I researched for a private client in 2018. “Alick” was taken prisoner of war in the action described, at which time he was serving with “A” Company of the 1/7th (Fife) Battalion. He had a broken collarbone when captured. Sadly, he died at the Reserve Lazarett II at Aachen on 6 April 1918 and that he was buried in the city’s Ehrenfriedhof. German records say that the cause of death was “Herzschwäche” which literally translates as heart weakness. In the period 12-15 June 1923, the remains of 169 British and Commonwealth soldiers including Alick were exhumed from the Aachen Ehrenfriedhof and reinterred in Cologne Southern Cemetery. He now lies in the cemetery’s Plot XIII, row F, grave 29.

From the “Montrose Arbroath and Brechin Review” of 9 August 1918 (British Newspaper Archive)

The 1/7th (Fife) Battalion was a unit of the Territorial Force, under orders of 153rd (2nd Highland) Infantry Brigade of 51st (Highland) Division. It was a most experienced unit by 1918, having been in France since 1915 and having participated in many of the war’s largest battles.


The 51st (Highland) Division remained in the Cambrai area through the winter of 1917-18, a period in which the strategic situation on the Western Front fundamentally changed. On the British side, infantry manpower was running very short and the rate of replacement was slowing. A reluctant decision was taken to reduce the four battalions in each brigade down to three by disbanding one of them and using the troops to bring others back towards full strength. It was a necessary but disruptive change. At the same time, German strength in France was growing rapidly. The collapse of the Eastern Front in the wake of the revolution in Russia in October 1917 had given the Germans an opportunity to move tens of divisions to France. They decided to strike a number of blows against the British, with the offensive Operation “Michael” being the first. This action was also known to the Germans as the Kaiserschlacht: the official British name is the First Battles of the Somme, 1918. It was in this operation that Alick May was wounded and taken as a prisoner of war. A series of maps, below, describe his battalion’s situation:

Present-day maps. The area of relevance to Alick’s story is between Bapaume (a town then behind British lines) and Cambrai (which was in German hands).
The main weight of the Operation “Michael” attack fell on the area between Bullecourt (which is a short way south east of Arras) and the River Oise (south of St. Quentin). The southern part of the attacked front was especially vulnerable. It had only recently been taken over by the British Fifth Army from its French allies in an extension agreed by the British Prime Minister David Lloyd George against all military advice. Fifth Army was horrified to find that the defences of the area barely existed. Third Army was a little better off in this regard but was still reorganising after the recent changes to the infantry structure.
Part of a map that describes the location of the British divisions that were holding the front at the time that the German attack commenced. Note that 51st (Highland) Division was straddling the Bapaume to Cambrai road, holding the front that lay to the east of Boursies. This was in the area of operations of the British Third Army. 51st (Highland) Division – and 6th Division on its left – came under orders of that army’s IV Corps.
Part of a map from the British Official History, illustrating the position of the British units as they were when the German attack began. Note that 153rd Infantry Brigade was responsible for the line in the area north east of Louverval, and had placed the 1/6th and 1/7th Black Watch in its front line. On the right of Alick’s battalion came the 1/5th Seaforth Highlanders of 152nd Infantry Brigade. That unit covered the northern side of the Bapaume-Cambrai road, with the 1/6th Gordon Highlanders across on its southern flank. They faced an overwhelming attack by three German divisions: 119, 24 Reserve and 53 Reserve.
Part of a British grid map produced on 25 February 1918. The blue lines shown mark British-held trenches. On 19 March the 1/7th (Fife) Battalion returned to the front line for another spell of holding the trenches, but in an air of anticipation of a forthcoming German attack. Its “C” and “D” Companies moved into the front line that appears at the top right of this map, the support line known as “Robin Support” and the communication trenches “Rat Alley” and “Rabbit Alley”. “B” Company and a platoon of “A” took up a close support position around “Sole Post” which can be seen north of Louverval. Alick was serving with “A” Company. The other three platoons of his company were held in reserve in a sunken lane which is just off the bottom left corner of this image. This position was considered to be part of the “Beaumetz-Morchies Line”.
A sketch from the battalion’s war diary which shows the dispositions of the companies. Please note that this sketch is not in the normal north-top orientation. (National Archives WO95. Crown Copyright).

The battalion’s war diary for 21 March 1918 reads [with my notes inserted],

“About 4am everything was reported quiet and normal and the situation wire [message] at 4.30am reported everything quiet. At 5am prompt the enemy artillery opened out with steady and intense fire on all our forward lines. The barrages consisted of HE [High Explosive] mixed with [mainly Phosgene] gas shell. The morning was extremely misty and it was difficult at first to realise the presence of gas, while the visibility was so poor that no enemy movement could be seen. Box respirators [gas masks] were first removed about 9.30am. All communication with “D” Company ceased around 7am. Bombardment on front, support and reserve lines slackened around 10am.

First enemy infantry were seen advancing at 10am from the sector on our left, and shortly after further bodies were seen advancing up the valley on our right flank. The front line was now practically obliterated. Front line was penetrated on the left first at Rat Alley and enemy commenced to bomb [use hand grenades] towards Rabbit Alley. Support line knew of no hostile attack till enemy appeared outside the [barbed] wire from right and left. Reserve line and Crescent Trench outflanked and the garrison bombed out [this is most of “A” Company].”

Another version, attached to the diary, adds,

“During the whole period 5am – 10am heavy barrages were kept upon the intermediate and reserve lines.”

Those elements of the front line companies who managed to escape fell back towards the support and reserve positions. By mid afternoon only 28 men of “B”, “C” and “D” Companies were still fighting.

The three platoons of “A” Company held in the Beaumetz-Morchies Line are not mentioned. Early next day, the attack began again and continued pressure forced this line to be evacuated.

The position at dawn on 22 March 1918. The British front has now fallen back and Louverval is in enemy hands. The situation is becoming fragmented, with the line being held by remnants of the battalions that had been in front, and other units being sent piecemeal into the area in order to stem the German attack.


By 26 March 1918, although the majority of them relate to 21-22 March, the battalion had suffered the loss of one officer and 17 men killed; four and 105 wounded; and 18 and 368 missing. The majority of the missing were now prisoners of war. The roll call taken just before the enemy attack noted a total of 41 officers and 941 men. In other words, the 1/7th (Fife) Battalion lost over half of its total strength.

The area today

A present-day map on which I have overlaid (in red, using Linesman) the battalion’s front line, Rat Alley and Rabbit Alley. Also marked, with a red X, is the sunken lane in which three platoons of “A” Company were held in reserve. The entire area shown fell into enemy hands on 21 March 1918. The geography of the area is little changed today, save for the addition of the Cambrai Memorial to the Missing, situated on the main road south of Louverval, and a number of military cemeteries. It is evident that Alick was taken prisoner somewhere within the area depicted
Thanks to Google Maps we are standing on the D930 Bapaume to Cambrai road, looking north. The sunken lane in which most of “A” Company were held in reserve – they came under heavy fire and gas bombardment for hours here – and to which the remnants of the forward units retreated on 21 March 1918, is ahead of us. The open nature of this area is evident: it provided no natural defensible features.
The area of the battalion’s front line is now wooded: it stands ahead of us in this image. The German attack broke through here and headed to our left, where “A” Company was deployed partly in the support line and partly in the sunken road seen in the image above this one.

The records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for officers and men of the battalion with date of death 21 March 1918 list 71 with no known grave (commemorated at the Arras Memorial); 12 buried at Beaumetz-lez-Cambrai Military Cemetery No, 1; seven buried at Queant Road Cemetery [originally buried in German Cemetery, Pronville]; one buried at Red Cross Corner Cemetery, Beugny; and finally one buried at Dernancourt Communal Cemetery Extension.


War affects far more than the men of the armed forces. From “Strathearn Herald” of Saturday 3 August 1918 (British Newspaper Archive). Captain Henry James Knight was one of the men originally buried in a German cemetery, and after the war moved to Queant Road Cemetery. Henry had been reported as wounded and missing on 21 March 1918.


Royal Highlanders (Black Watch)

51st (Highland) Division

Extension of the British line

First Battles of the Somme, 1918