Monday, 9 April 2012

The First Battle of the Scarpe - On this day in Scottish Military History - 1917

The attack and capture of Vimy Ridge by the Canadian Corps ninety-five years ago will be in the news today. Five thousand Canadian students and the Governor-General will be among the many paying their respects at the magnificent memorial which stands on the ridge and commemorates the eleven thousand men of the C.E.F. who died on the Western Front and have no known grave.

Vimy Ridge was just one part of a larger offensive which started on 9th April 1917 and would last until 16th May. It would also involve thousands of soldiers from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Newfoundland (this island colony was not actually part of Canada until 1949).

On the same day the four Canadian divisions attacked Vimy Ridge the three Scottish Divisions on the Western Front were also in action around Arras as part of Third Army, in what is officially known as The First Battle of the Scarpe (after the River Scarpe which runs through the centre of the battlefield). 

15th (Scottish) Division was in VI Corps, while 9th (Scottish) Division and 51st (Highland) Division were in XVII Corps. In total fifty-two Scottish infantry battalions across several divisions, including the three Scottish divisions and 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 7th, 30th, 33rd and 34th Divisions, fought at Arras during the offensive* 

In fact since thousands of Scotsmen enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force there were probably more Scots in action around Arras on this day ninety-five years ago than Canadians. 

One particular Scottish regiment paid a heavy price in the Arras Offensive. All the battalions of the Seaforth Highlanders on the Western Front were in the front-line on the first day. The three Territorial Force battalions - 1/4th (Ross-shire); 1/5th (Sutherland and Caithness) and 1/6th (Morayshire) all served in the 51st (Highland) Division. The 1/4th suffered two hundred casualties, the 1/5th three hundred. 

The 7th (Service) and 9th (Pioneers) Battalions served in the 9th (Scottish) Division and the 8th (Service) Battalion was in the reserve in 15th (Scottish) Division.

The regular 2nd Battalion was in the 4th Division and on 9th April it advanced four and a half miles inside German lines. It was too good to last and two days later at Fampoux the German counter-attack cost the 2nd Seaforths five hundred and twenty six casualties or ninety-three percent of their strength. One of the casualties was Lieutenant Donald Mackintosh whose bravery on that day would earn him a posthumous Victoria Cross. 

When it came to picking a spot on the Western Front after the war to erect the Celtic Cross war memorial to the eight thousand four hundred and thirty two Seaforth Highlanders who died in the First World War it was the site of the 2nd Battalion's heavy casualties at Fampoux which was chosen  - at the heart of the Battle of The Scarpe where seven of the eight front-line battalions of the regiment were in action on the same day**. 
Seaforth Highlanders
War Memorial, Fampoux

Not far away from the Seaforth's Celtic Cross at Fampoux is a massive and very Scottish Cairn***. It is the First World War memorial to the 9th (Scottish) Division. Like the Seaforths the sacrifices of the Division at places like the Roeux Chemical Works made Arras the choice of location out of all the battles the Division had been in; from Loos in 1915 to the final offensives of 1918. Its inscription commemorates one Scottish division but its sentiment could be applied to the tens of thousands of Scots who served near Arras on 9th April 1917 and the bloody days which followed. 

When you hear about the Canadians on Vimy Ridge today then also...

Remember with honour
The 9th
Scottish Division
Who on the fields
Of France
And Flanders
Served well

Unveiling of the 9th (Scottish)
Division War Memorial

* Not included are 2nd Dragoons, Royal Scots Greys in 2nd Cavalry Division; 4th Regt South African Scottish in 9th Division; the four Tyneside Scottish battalions in 34th Division; London Scottish in 56th Division and the men serving in the artillery, engineers and other corps recruited in Scotland and attached to the Scottish divisions.
**The other battalion - 1st Bn Seaforth Highlanders was on the front-line in Mespotamia on 9th April 1917
*** In 2006 the 9th (Scottish) Division memorial was moved a short distance from its battlefield location at Athies to a location next to Point du Jour British Military Cemetery to accommodate road improvements.

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