The Scots are a much travelled nation. They have spread across the world often accompanying the expansion of the British Empire in its earliest of phases, always maintaining their unique identity by taking with them the traditions of their native country. They have found homes in every corner of the globe, but rarely have they found a country to colonise more suited to them than Canada. Furthermore, the regiments of Scotland have served in North America with distinction particularly during the 18th century in the French and Indian War and afterwards, where the kilt, the hackle and pipe was found upon many a bloodily contested ground. There are few more renowned highland regiments than the Black Watch of Ticonderoga fame and the subject of this book, ‘The Red Watch’ or the 48th Highlanders of Canada, formed in 1891, is its equal in heritage and spirit. This book concerns the actions of the Canadian Highlanders during the First World War on the Western Front. The author, colonel of the regiment, takes his readers to war in company with this famous regiment of the 1st Canadian Division as it fought at Neuve Chapelle, the Ypres Salient, and St Julien among many other pivotal actions. At St Julien the men of the Red Watch in the forward trenches were practically annihilated as they stubbornly held their positions against overwhelming German assaults and this account of the action is essential reading for students of the Great War. Full of military detail and interesting anecdotal material this book is an essential source work by someone who took part in the events described and who was in a position to overview them comprehensively.
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The sun was shining a red rim on the horizon in the east. The sickly green clouds of the gas appeared denser in some places than others. The wind was just right for the infernal curtain that gradually drew over the trenches. The thickest pall was blown against the right of our line between McGregor’s company and the left of the 8th Battalion, where there was an open space protected only by a small trench and barbed wire. Of those on our right hardly a man was left to tell the tale.<br>
All those who stuck to the trench and did not use wet bandoliers or handkerchiefs died. Some tried to get out, only to fall stricken with the deadly vapour before they had gone many yards. Among these was Lieut. Taylor, an Oxford scholar, one of the best athletes in the First Division. He won out of the trench only to die on the Gravenstafel Ridge. Company Sergeant-Major Hermitage and his brother Sergeant Hermitage were stricken down also but managed to crawl out. The latter lost the use of his vocal chords for some time. They were burned with the fatal gas. Lieutenant Mavor, who was in this section, fell, but they managed to get him out before he succumbed. Some of the men fell back to the left to a communicating trench which they held till the German infantry attack came when they rallied to the parapets and drove the Germans out with their bayonets.<br>
A very dense cloud of gas was directed against the centre of our line and Captain McLaren was one of the first to fall. Some of his men succeeded in getting him out. For days his life was despaired of, and his lungs were scarred forever. Lieutenant Maxwell Scott, of Abbotsford, kindred of the great Sir Walter, author of Waverley, one of the finest officers in our battalion, fell from the effects of the fumes. They succeeded in getting him out also. His life was dispaired of.<br>
The only thing the soldiers had to stave off the poisonous gas were their wet handkerchiefs or wet bandoliers where they happened to have them. Pads and masks were not then known or issued.
My lungs were sore for months from the gas we got at the village of St. Julien and here, which was a second dose.<br>
When the German attack came many of the men had fallen. Others were too weak to fight, but there were still some left and they counter attacked and drove the Germans out of the trenches with the bayonet. The fighting was very strenuous while it lasted. It was a case of butt or point whichever came handiest. I noticed a number of men straggling back through on our right and went over to see what was the trouble, thinking that they were retiring without orders. I found, however, they were all badly gassed and wounded so they could be of no further help. Those who were able to shoot were halted and put into the supporting trenches, over which the Germans were putting a curtain of fire filled with asphyxiating gasses which smelled like ten thousand “camphor balls turned loose,” as one man said, as he turned sick with the gas and smell.<br>
When the Germans were driven off they again turned their guns and rifles on the brave few who were hanging on. Captain McGregor went down with a wound in the head, but he still kept on using his rifle till a second bullet laid him low. Lieutenant Langmuir, revolver in hand, fell after he had killed eight of the foe. He had more than evened the score at the head of his platoon. Smith and Macdonald fought like lions. Again and again they charged the Germans with the bayonet. Lieutenant Bath, a quiet and mild mannered youth, greatly distinguished himself. Captain McKessock was operating his machine guns like mad. One of the guns he turned over to “Rolly” Carmichael, the tallest man in the regiment, a daredevil who did not know the meaning of fear. With a wound in his shoulder McKessock took one gun out of the forward line, mounted it in rear of a ruin about two hundred feet behind its original position and began ripping holes through the German ranks that were appalling. He was finally overcome from loss of blood. Major Osborne, badly gassed, fought on with a wound in the shoulder till a bullet caught him in the face. He was put into a communication trench from which he directed his men.<br>
The line held against the first attack. Although the Germans broke through in several places they were driven back and paid a fearful price for their daring.<br>
The gasses rolled to the supporting trenches and made life unbearable. The pungent smell was awful. Shells and rifle fire were forgotten in the scorching livid breath of the chlorine. Scores of men died where they stood. Some tried to crawl away. The bearers brought some out from the front line, but when I examined their pulses I found them dead. Poor fellows, their features were distorted and their faces livid. Blood-tainted froth clung to their lips. Their skins were mottled blue and white. They were a heartbreaking sight to behold.<br>
Chlorine gas killed! No wonder the poor ignorant Turcos fled. But the indomitable “Red Watch” held on.