This article is derived from my study of Pte S/11329 David John Macleod, carried out in 2021.
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.
I also found newspaper mention of one of the other men of the battalion killed that month, John Gaffney.
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.
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.