Killed in his billet: 2nd Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, 27 August 1917

This article is derived from my study of Pte S/11329 David John Macleod, carried out in 2021.

The essentials of David’s story were included in Volume IV of De Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour. He had been born in Australia and educated in Paraguay. I found that David had arrived at Liverpool on the ship “Amazon” exactly a month before he enlisted on 30 December 1914, having travelled from his home at Colonia Cosme estate in Paraguay and sailing from Buenos Aires. He trained with 5th Reserve Regiment of Cavalry at York before being transferred to the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders on 6 July 1915. He landed in France on 1 October 1915, although he was back at Dunbar for his marriage in 1916.

On 27 August 1917, David was killed in action. August was a relatively quiet month for the 2nd Battalion in terms of casualties, with the end of month summary in its war diary being given as two killed, two missing and none wounded. An examination of the records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission reveals that three lost their lives, with David being the last and the only loss on 27 August. The war diary has no entry for the day.

Dundee Telegraph 15 September 1917 (British Newspaper Archive). Killed … “by a shell which struck his billet”.

I also found newspaper mention of one of the other men of the battalion killed that month, John Gaffney.

Midlothian Advertiser 7 September 1917 (British Newspaper Archive). It is possible that the chaplain had also been the informant who passed the news to David’s family, although in many cases a man’s commanding officer and comrades would write to his family, offering condolences and often giving assurance of his qualities, the way he met his end, and that he had not suffered.

Later the same day that David was killed, the battalion was relieved and marched into the rear area village of Coxyde (now spelled Koksijde). There was already a nearby plot being used as a military burial ground and it appears that David was taken there directly for burial.


David’s death on 27 August 1917 was a result of a little-known British operation on the Belgian coast.

The Germans occupied most of this coast after the early war of movement in 1914. Their Marine Korps Flandern was created by the German navy to protect the coast and to create naval bases. Ostend, Zeebrugge and Bruges were all subsequently used for submarine and surface raiders. German U-boats operating from these bases sank British ships with torpedo attacks and by laying mines, and surface craft harassed British ports and the critical supply routes across the English Channel. This serious German threat to British naval supremacy resulted in several countermeasures. Attempts were made to bombard the German bases from the sea, but the German coastal batteries, assisted by spotter aircraft, proved capable of keeping the British ships away from the coast. Anti-submarine barriers, comprising mines and nets that were constantly patrolled at night, also had a limited effect. Eventually, systematic bombing raids from the air were carried out. But the threat remained and in 1917 U-boat sinking of British ships reached crisis level. Early in 1917 Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon, commanding the Dover Patrol, proposed that an amphibious landing should be made on the Belgian coast, supported by a breakout attack from Nieuport (now called Nieuwpoort), to clear the Germans from the coast.
After much debate it was decided that such an audacious beach landing could only take place at the same time that a major British attack broke out from the Ypres area; the two forces would link up in northern West Flanders. The Ypres offensive was approved and eventually began on 31 July 1917 (the Third Battle of Ypres). In the months before the offensive, a major build-up of British forces was made in great secrecy in the Dunkirk area and the units given special training in the techniques that would be required. The British also quietly relieved units of the Belgian that had been holding the Nieuwpoort sector of the front.

The British moved its Fourth Army headquarters and its XV Corps from the Somme. Units began training for the landing but also took over the Nieuport sector.

Nieuwpoort lies on the west bank of the estuary of the River Yser (or Ijzer). The front-line trenches lay on the eastern bank, with only a narrow bridgehead of land facing Lombardsijde being in the hands of the allies. It was a very exposed position indeed. The trenches ran through the sand dunes and out to the beach on the eastern side of the estuary. There were a number of plank bridges by which the units holding the trenches could be reinforced or return to the Nieuwpoort side.

The British build-up of forces in the area, and particularly that the 1st and 32nd Divisions had taken over the trenches east of the Yser, was detected by German intelligence. Plans were quickly made for the Marine Korps Flandern to launch a pre-emptive strike against those units holding the bridgehead. At 5.30am on 10 July the massed German artillery, including three 24cm naval guns in shore batteries and 58 artillery batteries, opened up on the British positions in the bridgehead. Mustard gas (“Yellow Cross”) was used for the first time in the barrage, much of it aimed at the British artillery on the western bank and as far away as Coxyde (Koksijde). All but one of the bridges over the Yser River were demolished, isolating the 1st Northamptonshire and 2nd King’s Royal Rifle Corps. At 8pm, the Marine Korps launched an infantry assault, by which time the two British battalions had suffered 70-80% casualties. The Germans attacked down the coast, outflanking the British and then turning inward behind the trenches in the dunes. Their attack was then followed by waves of German Marines, supported by flamethrower teams to mop up dugouts. After a gallant defence, the two British battalions were overwhelmed. Only 4 officers and 64 other ranks out of some 1600 who had been in the trenches managed to reach the west bank of the Yser. The total British casualties amounted to approximately 3,126 of all ranks, killed, wounded, and missing.

The main attack from Ypres that began on 31 July 1917 never achieved its objectives of breaking out through the German defences and the proposed offensive operation along the coast never took place. The Nieuwpoort sector however remained most active, with constant artillery fire and use of gas by both sides. It was in this period that David became a casualty.

The 33rd Division, which included David’s battalion, did not move to the coastal sector until after the terrible attack on the Lombardsijde bridgehead and only just as the Ypres offensive was beginning. The battalion moved north by train on 1 August. It arrived at La Panne (now called De Panne) and on 3 August marched out to Oost-Dunkerque Bains (Oostduinkerke-Bad). This seaside village lies within and behind deep dune land, ideal for sheltering troops and training in this rear area. On 17 August, it moved about half a mile inland to the village now called Oostduinkerke-Dorp and came into reserve ready to relieve a unit in the front-line sector.

On 23 August 1917, the 2nd Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders marched to relieve an outgoing unit in the Saint-Georges sector (Saint-Georges now being called Sint-Joris). It remained there until shortly after David’s death, so we must assume that he was in the vicinity illustrated below.

The front line is marked by a solid dark blue line on the right of this image. Note the curve in the line, forming a salient east of Saint-Georges and essentially following the line of the River Yser as it flows towards Nieuport (Nieuwpoort). Also note the location of Coxyde (Koksijde), west of Oost-Dunkerque.
The war diary of the small staff at the headquarters of 98th Infantry Brigade provides precise locations defining the front held by the brigade. Its right-hand boundary ran from the lower of two red crosses that we have overlaid onto this map, thence back along the Noordvaart drainage channel towards Nieuport (which is off to the left of this image). South of this line came the 11th Belgian Brigade. Its left-hand boundary ran from the upper red cross thence along the Plassendale Canal towards toward. North of this line came 19th Infantry Brigade, also of 33rd Division. Very few British-held trenches are shown on this map (in blue), but there is more detail of the German front (in red). The area in between was largely under water, after the strategic decision taken by the Belgians in the height of the crisis of 1914 to hold the Germans by flooding the hinterland. The Yser Canal, which runs directly through the middle of the brigade’s front, was the operational boundary between two battalions that it used to hold the line. The image is of two maps, stitched together using Linesman software.

When it moved into this front, David’s battalion took over the brigade’s sector between the Yser Canal and the uppermost of the two red crosses. On 24 August 1917, its “C” Company carried out a probing raid against the enemy-held “Rose Trench” which can be seen directly east of the red cross. “A” and “C” Companies held the front, while “B” Company was held in a lose support position in Nieuwpoort and “D” Company was held in reserve back at Oost-Dunkerque. Sadly, David’s company and exact location when he came under shellfire is unknown.

My two red crosses are fixed in position but now overlaid onto a present-day map. The area has considerably changed, partly due to the creation of the “Spaarbekken” basin; partly due to the construction of the E40 motorway; but mainly as a result of economic growth and much building in the Nieuwpoort region.
A view from the top of the King Albert Memorial in Nieuwpoort today. The waterway in the left is the Plassendale Canal; the water to the right in the distance is the “Spaarbekken” basin. “A” and “C” Companies of the 2nd Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders held the front line between the two in late August 1917. Near the foot of the King Albert Memorial is a British memorial to the missing of this sector, on which David’s battalion comrade Pte S/17792 John Drysdale is listed. He lost his life two days before David John Macleod.


Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders

33rd Division