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11th Royal Scots beat off enemy raid on the “Hampshire T” at Ploegsteert Wood

Background

The 11th (Service) Battalion of the Royal Scots (Lothian Regiment) went to France under the command of 27th Infantry Brigade of 9th (Scottish) Division in May 1915. It had participated in the Battle of Loos in late September 1915 and after a period in the Ypres salient moved with the division to take over a sector of the front line at Ploegsteert Wood in January 1916.

The front line had settled east of Ploegsteert Wood during the Battle of Messines in late October and November 1914 and was the site of a local battle in December 1914. It had since gained a reputation as a quieter sector and no major battles had taken place, but units holding this front (on both sides) came under frequent sniper fire and occasional shelling. Trench raids also became a feature of this warfare and it was on 13 May 1916 that the officers and men of the 11th Royal Scots were subjected to a raid. The battalion had taken over a section of the front line from the 8th Black Watch on 8 May.

Location

Present-day map on which I have highlighted Ploegsteert village. It lies just inside the Franco-Begian border, on the Belgian side. The wood is the light green area lying to the north/northwest of the village.
Part of a map contained with the war diary of the General Staff of Second Army. National Archives piece WO95/273. It shows the formations holding the front line and in close reserve at the end of April 1916. The 9th (Scottish) Division held its front using the 27th and 28th Infantry Brigades, with the battalions of 26th Infantry Brigade in reserve. To the north was 24th Division (brown); to the south, 17th (Northern) Division. The purple sketch lines mark the front line and the boundaries of corps under command of Second Army. 9th (Scottish) Division was under II Corps at the time.
The wood had first come into the British news in the fighting of October-November 1914 and its eventual front line, lying to the east of the wood, is often remembered as one of the areas of the unofficial truce of Christmas 1914.
Imperial War Museum photpograh Q454. With thanks. A Canadian sniper in Ploegsteert, March 1916. The photograph provides good clues regarding thee nature of the landscape in which teh raid took place.

The battalion’s war diary reported the events of the hours before the raid:

During the morning of 13th May the trenches in the Hampshire locality just east of Ploegsteert Wood were subjected to a fairly heavy artillery fire from 4.2 and 5.9 inch, necessitating contant breakdown gangs to repair [trenches, communications]. In the afternoon our guns 4.5-inch and 18-pounders retaliated with great energy and accuracy.

War diary. National Archives. Piece number WO95/1773.

At 6.30pm an intensive bombardment of the whole of my line from T113 to T120 inclusive began. Trench mortars of very large dimensions were used, as well as 77cm, 4.2 and 5.9 inch. The support and reserve lines in the wood were also severely shelled. The first bombardment ceased at 7.40pm. The second bombardment began at 7.50pm and ended at 8.45pm. This bombardment was more severe on the CTs [communication trenches] and supports through the front line got it pretty heavily.

War diary. National Archives. Piece number WO95/1773.

When the shelling briefly stopped at 7.40pm, it was found impossible to clear the trenches and movement was out of the question. Although it was thought that an enemy infantry attack was unlikely, the men lined the parapets of the trenches. When it started again, British artillery retaliated and it was later said to have played a major part in the ultimate defeat of the raid.

A trench map dated to 5 May 1916. It shows German trenches (red) in detail but only the British front line (dashed dark blue) is shown.
I have found it most difficult to track down a trench map that shows the numbered sections of trench referred to in the battalion diary. The most notable feature however is shown on this one: Known better as Hampshire T, it is shown here as Hampshire Trench and was a sap going north towards Le Pelerin. It was also known as Trench 117. This map shows two craters at the sap head. This appears to date the map to some time after the raid. The battalion was holding the front from east of “Keeper’s Hut”, past the Hampshire T, to “German House” and possibly a little beyond it.

It was said in an after-action report that German machine gun fire was also constant during the bombardment, and that large craters had been created in places.

Attached to war diary of 27th Infantry Brigade HQ is this report on the numbers of men of the battalion that were in each section of trench when the enemy bombardment began. National Archives piece WO95/1769. Note that small numbers of men of the 15th (Service) Battalion of the newly-arrived Hampshire Regiment (41st Division) had been sent to the battalion for their first introduction to front line conditions in what was normally considered a quiet sector. Thre eof these men, with twelve infantrymen and 7 Lewis gunners of B Company of the 11th Royal Scots were holding the exposed Hampshire T.
Part of a sketch map contained with the war diary of the 9th Division’s Assistant Director of Medical Services. National Archives piece WO95/1748. It illustrates the route of evacuation of casualties from the Ploegsteert Wood front, from six Regimental Aid Posts in the trenches (right) via two Advanced Dressing Stations in and south of the village, to the Main Dressing Stations at Nieppe and Pont de Nieppe.
Part of 27th Infantry Brigade’s after-action report on the effect of the German bombardment. National Archives piece WO95/1769.

The raid

Unform and insignia of dead men found after the action revealed that the raid had been carried out by the German 5 Königlich Sächsisches Infanterie-Regiment „Kronprinz“ Nr. 104 of 88 Infanterie-Brigade of 40th Division (4 Königlich Sächsische). Its commanding officer was Oberst von der Foehr.

Part of a photograph of men of the 5 Königlich Sächsisches Infanterie-Regiment „Kronprinz“ Nr. 104, taken in 1915. With thanks to Drake Goodman for use of this image from his extraordinary collection: link

The 11th Royal Scots’ war diary reported the raid thus:

At 8.40pm two German raiding parties of about 25 [men] each attacked our trenches at junction of 117-116 and Hampshire T respectively. A third party was seen lying out just in front of their wire. The Hampshire T was blotted out and the party must have just left four land mines which were afterwards picked up.

War diary. National Archives. Piece number WO95/1773.

It does not appear that the raiding parties pressed hard. The second party ran into Lieutenant John Allan Henry with five men, who did not see the Germans until they were almost on top of them. Henry would report “I shot them down like rats and none got in“, although it does seem that a few gained a foothold in Hampshire T. The raiders threw grenades and some carried revolvers. Others bolted back to their own lines. Ten Germans, including a Sergeant, two Corporals and two Lance Corporals were killed and left in the British position. A number of demolition charges were found to have been left behind, and it was thought that the raid had aimed to destroy what the Germans believed to be the entrance(s) to a mine. They had possibly noticed large parties that had been working over several nights to build a concrete emplacment.

British Newspaper Archive. From the “Midlothian Advertiser” of Friday 28 July 1916. The then Captain John Allan Henry MC.

The battalion’s casualties

The initial reports talked of about 100 casualties in all, of whom about 20 had been killed and of those some could not be found and were presumed buried by debris. Many of the latter were of C Company, positioned on the left. A note added “56 wounded”.

The dead

The records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission include the following (search for battalion casualties 13 to 17 May 1916 inclusive): they total 16 officers and men of the 11th Royal Scots and one of the attached 15th Hampshire Regiment. I have traced the dead, missing and at least some of the wounded, as follows:

Buried in Rifle House Cemetery (within Ploegsteert Wood. These 13 men were killed in action and buried within this cemetery soon after the action)

  • Pte 11930 Robert Armour. Aged 29, married with two children. A Durham coal miner. (plot I, row B, grave 9)
  • Pte 26715 John Bell. Aged 24. From Clydebank. Had only joined the battalion on 11 May. (I.D.6)
  • Pte 16851 John Cargill. Aged 33, married with four children. Coal miner from Dysart, Fifeshire. (I.B.5)
  • Pte 10717 Andrew Dewar. Aged 28. Regular soldier enlisted in 1910 and with pre-war service in India. From Kirkcadly, His brother Alex had been killed in October 1914. His company officer wrote to tell his family that he had been killed by a shell (I.C.5)
  • Pte 23144 Robert Duff. Aged 25. From Stanley, Perthshire. (I.E.4)
  • Second Lieutenant William Meek Falconer. Aged 19. From Edinburgh. Educated at George Watson’s Boys’ College. (I.A.10)
  • Pte 13230 John Keenan. Aged 31, married with one child. From Townhead, Glasgow. (I.A.7)
  • Pte 26152 James Mahoney. Aged 33, unmarried. From Port Glasgow. (I.D.4)
  • Pte 16830 Michael Mannion. Aged 20. A joiner from Chorlton-on-Medlock. (I.A.5)
  • Pte 22802 William Nesbitt. Aged 33, unmarried. A waiter, born in Belfast but living in Anderston, Glasgow. (I.A.6)
  • Cpl 13141 Thomas Penman. Born in Grangemouth, Stirlingshire, now a married coal miner who had worked at the Fallin Colliery. His platoon officer wrote to his widow, saying that he had died an hour after being struck by fragements of a trench mortar (I.E.1)
  • Pte 15067 James Robinson. Aged 20, unmarried. From Greenock. (I.C.8)
  • Pte 22991 Philip Tubman. Aged 20, unmarried. Born in Wallsend but living in Dundee. (I.B.6)
Second Lieutenant William Meek Falconer. Thanks to George Watson’s College
British Newspaper Archive. “People’s Journal” of Dundee, 3 June 1916. Pte 22991 Philip Tubman. He had joined the battalion with its 5th reinforcement draft on 4 October 1915.

A Lone Widow in Lyon’s Lane. You read in the papers every day about somebody’s son having fallen in battle, and unless it happens to be some relation of your own you are apt not to think much about it. Such incidents are becoming very numerous, and making us familiar with death. Here is Mrs Mahoney, a lone widow residing at 18 Lyon’s Lane, and when the writer called upon her on Monday forenoon there lay before her on the kitchen table her prayer look and a bundle of letters. She had received official information that her eldest son, Private James Mahoney of the Royal Scots, had been killed in action in France. No, sorry to say, she had no photograph of her dear son. She had often wanted him to get his photograph taken, but he had never done so. “All I have left of him,” she sighed, “is this bunch of letters.” Such is the burden that many mothers have to bear throughout the length and breadth of the land. Mrs Mahoney’s husband died sixteen years ago. He was Thomas Mahoney, and followed the sea as an avocation. The son James, was in his thirty-third year, and was reared and brought up at Blackaton Corner, and was educated in St John’s School. Before the war ho was a fitter’s helper in Meanly Russell Co.’s Dock Yard. He enlisted on 16th July of last year, and was home on a few days furlough in February of this year. He left the Port Glasgow Station, as so many of the sons of the Port have done, never to return. Mrs Mahoney’s other son, John, was in the Navy, but was discharged on 23th November last on account of ill health. He is employed as a labourer across the water in Alexandria. The sympathy of the community will go out to Mrs Mahoney in her bereavement.

British Newspaper Archive. An obituary of Pte 26152 James Mahoney in the “Port Glasgow Express” 7 June 1916.

Buried in Bailleul Communal Cemetery Extension (by implication, these two men died of wounds having been evacuated to a Casualty Clearing Station)

  • Pte 15348 John Skinner. Aged 35. Veteran of the Second Boer War. (II.B.90)
  • Pte 2514 James Robertson (died 14 May). (II.B.92)

Also in this cemetery

  • Cpl 17357 John White, 15th Hampshire Regiment, died of wounds 15 May 1916 (II.B.93)

Buried in Boulogne Eastern Cemetery (having been evacuated to Number 13 General Hospital)

  • Pte 10648 Thomas William Anderson. Aged 24, from Edinburgh, an unmarried regular soldier who had enlisted in 1910. Medical notes confirm that he had sustained a wound to he head on 13 May. (VIII.A.111)
Attached to war diary of 27th Infantry Brigade HQ is this report on the approximate numbers of men of the battalion who became casualties in each section of trench. National Archives piece WO95/1769.

The missing

The missing men were named in an after-action report submitted to brigade headquarters. Red Cross records show that most of them were taken to be held at Giessen POW camp.

  • Pte 12090 Gilbert Cameron, B Company
  • Pte 15960 John Davanna, B Company
  • Pte 21173 William Grant, B Company
  • Sgt 14198 James Harold, C Company
  • Pte 15839 James Hogarth, B Company
  • Sgt (Acting CQMS) 12002 Sydney Thomas Rew, B Company
  • Pte 12070 Harry Smith, B Company
  • L/Cpl 13250 Frank Wilson, B Company

Four of these men had been in the Hampshire T sap “and were last seen in place where there is now a large crater”. No trace of trench or men could be found.

B Company’s Lance Corporal 9318 Leonard Bonallo, a “cool and throughly reliable man” according to the battalion’s commanding officer Lieut-Col. W. D. Croft, reported that he had seen three men run into a shell and completely disappear. Croft thought that Sgt Harold may have been one of the three. Bonallo also saw Lance Corporal Baird wounded in the face by the same explosion.

Rew had been seen to run across the open during the initial bombardment as the communication trenches were blocked. The company storeman advised him not to but he apparently said “I’ll chance it”. After the raid, Lieutenant Henry found a portion of a body that was feared to be Rew but this was clearly not the case and no other Segeants had been killed.

Casualty list from “The Scotsman” of Saturday 10 June 1916. British Newspaper Archive.

It was said in the report that Lt. Henry dismissed “the idea that any of these men with the exception of Hogarth would surrender” [Hogarth had only joined the company the previous known and was essentially as yet unknown], “they they were some of the best men of his company and Cameron and Davanna had already been recommended for gallantry”.

The wounded

The report said that “the majority of wounds were slight and the large number was caused by inumerable [shell and mortar] fragments”. The new steel helmets – only recently issued to the battalion – “must have saved a lot of head wounds”. The report remarked upon the trenches being fairly broad and not affording enough shelter from fragments.

Casualty list from “The Scotsman” of Saturday 10 June 1916. British Newspaper Archive. This may not be a complete list of all those wounded in the bombardment and raid.

Awards

The battalion’s war diary mentions the following (my notes appended):

  • Military Cross: Lieutenant Henry.
    • Captain John Allan Henry. MC gazetted 24 June 1916 with citation, “Temp. Lt. (temp. Capt.) John Allan Henry, 11th Bn., R. Scots. For conspicuous gallantry. He commanded a company in trenches raided by the enemy during a very heavy bombardment. By his personal example and encouragement he repelled the raiders, who were in greatly superior numbers.”
  • Distinguished Conduct Medal: Pte Holland.
    • Pte 23122 Alfred Holland. DCM gazetted 24 June 1916 with citation, “For conspicuous gallantry. After a heavy bombardment by the enemy he found himself with three others in an isolated portion of the wrecked trench, but with his small party he beat off a large raiding party of the enemy. After this he took two men and cleared the trenches of any remaining enemy patrols.”
  • Military Medal: Corporal Guthrie.
    • Cpl 11950 George Guthrie. MM gazetted 10 August 1916.
  • Military Medal: L/Cpl Wigton.
    • L/Cpl 3863 Andrew Wigton. MM gazetted 10 August 1916.
  • Military Medal: Pte Thomson.
    • Pte 14154 Daniel Thomson. MM gazetted 10 August 1916. Aged 32 at the time.

The battalion received messages of congratulation from brigade, division and corps.

Notes

Commanding 9th (Scottish) Division: Major-Gen. W. T. Furse
Commanding 27th Infantry Brigade: Brig-Gen. S. Scrase-Dickens
Commanding 11th Royal Scots: Lieut-Col. W. D. Croft

Imperial War Museum Q5092. British troops taking up timber for a trench support through a communication trench at Ploegsteert, March 1917.

Aftermath

As early as just two days after the raid the event was being described in newspapers at home. British Newspaper Archive. “Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette” of Monday 15 May 1916.

In late May 1916, after being there for four months, the 9th (Scottish) Division left the Ploegsteert sector and marched south as part of the build-up of British forces that would soon participate in the Battle of the Somme.

Captain John Allen Henry MC was killed in action on 14 July 1916, leading his company into attack near Longueval. He was 19 years of age and the youngest son of Mr. & Mrs. John W. Henry of Costorphine, Edinburgh. Commissioned in September 1914, he went to France with the battalion and reached the rank of Captain in December 1915. An old boy of George Heriot’s School, where he had been a menber of the cadet force. His family received news that John had been buried by a cavalry corporal, who had also recovered some of his papers. Despite this, he has no known grave today and is commemorated at the Thiepval Memorial.

3863 Andrew Wigton MM, who was born at Tannamore, County Tyrone, but who now lived at Parkhead in Glasgow, was killed in action on 16 September 1917 and was by then a Lance-Sergeant. A former motorman of the Glasgow Tramways department, he is buried in Ypres Reservoir Cemetery in Belgium.

British Newspaper Archive. “Daily Record” of Tuesday 15 August 1916. Andrew Wigton MM, who was also awarded the French Medaille Militaire.

CQMS 12002 Sydney Thomas Rew, who was taken POW and held at Meschede and later at Soltau, died at the age of 31 on 16 April 1921. He is buried in the City of London cemetery at Manor Park. Rew was killed at Ennis in County Clare in Ireland during the War of Independence.

ENNIS BOMB ATTACK. ROYAL SCOTS SERGEANT KILLED : 5 OTHER CASUALTIES. (From Our Own Correspondent.) Cork. Monday. In Ennis, on Saturday night, about 10.30, a bomb was thrown into Miss O’Shaughnessy’s public-house, Market-street, where at the time were a number of military and police. Sergeant Rue [sic], Royal Scots, was killed, and Mrs. Danagher, of Limerick, a native of Ennis, who was on a visit, Miss O’Shaughnessy, Constable Vanderburgh, and two others were wounded. Considerable damage was done to the premises. Following the outrage large numbers of military and police took possession of the streets and questioned all civilians, but there were no arrests. The outrage was denounced at Mass, at the Cathedral, Ennis, yesterday.

ENNIS REPRISALS. HOTEL AN UTTER WRECK; FURNITURE OF HOUSES DESTROYED. Most of the furniture in the house of Mr. P. Considine, of the Old Ground Hotel and Clare Hotel, was destroyed in Ennis tonight, it is alleged, by the military, as a reprisal for the bombing outrage and the killing of a sergeant of the Royal Scots. The Clare Hotel was left an utter wreck. The house of Mr. T. V. Henan was also visited, and the contents destroyed, while the owner was ill in the County Infirmary.

Westminster Gazette, Monday 18 April and Wednesday 20 April 1921

The area today

Screen shot using Google Maps. The cameria is located on the road heading north from the crossroads at Le Gheer. The battalion’s front line and the Hampshire T was in the field on the right hand side of this image. The eastern extremity of Ploegstreet Wood can be seen on the left.
With thanks to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Part of the pretty Rifle House Cemetery, situated within the wood and where most of the British dead of this raid are buried. Cemetery details

Links

Royal Scots (Lothian Regiment)

9th (Scottish) Division