20th September 1914, Sottegem
The crash of artillery broke the still of the night, the British lines were being pummelled by high explosive rounds, the gunners aim was not perfect, many of the shells were falling short of the line but enough were landing nearby to create a suitable facsimile of hell. The territorial soldiers were hunkered down in the trenches, waiting out the storm of steel. The older men who had served in South Africa had some idea of what it was like to be under shell fire but for the majority it was a horrifying ordeal. Their training had not adequately prepared them for the ferocity of the German guns, fortunately the lines were long and the Germans lacked the numbers, weight of guns, time and ammunition for truly heavy shelling such as that endured at Liege, Lille and Namur. Casualties amongst the British forces were relatively light, requiring a direct hit on the trenches to have any significant effect.
More shell fire had fallen on the British artillery positions, little thought had been given as to camouflage from the air and with the gunners laying their pieces out as if on parade the Germans had been able to identify suitable targets for the heavy guns. Many 15 pounder guns were damaged and dismounted in the initial shelling and worse than that many of the field telegraph lines had been cut, their vulnerability to shell fire was another lesson that would be rapidly learnt in the crucible of war. The territorial force artillery units would start this battle with another challenge to add to inexperience and poor equipment.
The gunfire ceased with the rising of the sun, to the southwest of the positions held by the Seaforth and Cameron Highlanders brigade there appeared a solid mass of German infantry, at least a brigade in strength with another forming up behind it. The infantry had stood too as soon as the shelling ceased, each man taking confidence by the presence of his comrades beside him. Each man had several of the 12 round box magazines ready, more rounds in preloaded stripper clips that could load either directly into the rifle with the bolt locked open or more usually with an adapter that fitted onto the top of the magazine.
The rimless bottle necked rounds were shorter than a .303 round but slightly thicker, this made them easier to load and feed into the rifle. The rifle had dual extractor claws to reduce the risk of jamming, this was also aided by the taper of the round that made it unlikely to seize in the barrel when rapid fire was taking place.
The highlanders did not have their sword bayonets fitted, the FHSLR having been designed from the outset to take a Pattern 1907 Sword bayonet, the territorials who had all carried the pattern 1888 bayonet found the greater length of the new model to be reassuring. The young private commenting on the bayonet to his Corporal said “Cha toil iad tha suas iad fein” his corporal liking the joke repeated it loudly in English for the rest of the section, “They do not like it up em”. Then the bugles blew and the German infantry spaced much more closely than any British unit would think sensible, began to advance.
The German line was 1600 yards away when the advance began, the Cameron Highlanders had a machine gun section of consisting of four maxim guns. Every battalion in the brigade had four guns rather than the usual two, the value of the additional firepower had been demonstrated by the London Scottish. With their wealthy London backing pre-war, they had privately purchased four Vickers Machine guns of a newer and superior design to that being used by the rest of the army. When they had joined the Seaforth and Cameron Brigade the Battalion commander had prevailed on the Brigade commander to double the size of each machine gun section from two to four guns, these guns had been sourced by means both fair and foul. Two guns was the normal pattern throughout the army and the Command team of the London Scottish felt it was insufficient, speaking to the innovative approach taken by the Battalion. Like their adaption of the FHSLR and the improved tactical drills they had practised pre-war and shared with their new comrades, they were an elite regiment and it showed.
Many of the London Scottish had served with in the Boer war and when the war started, older former men had re-joined the colours. Many electing to transfer to the other battalions of the Seaforth and Cameron Brigades bringing them up to strength and bringing useful battlefield experience. The others joining the rush of volunteers into the newly forming 2nd/14th Battalion, The London Regiment (London Scottish).
The machine guns were well positioned, one of the brigade staff officers was a former regular who had been a machine gun officer in South Africa and in Waziristan and his notes on gun deployment and use were being circulated throughout the Division.
The machine gun crews had sheltered in the bottom of their trenches along with the other members of the Battalion, when the shelling ceased, they had quickly mounted the firing step taking their positions. They did not open fire, the orders were to wait until the leading brigade advanced to within 600 yards. The section officer was using a range finder, counting down the advance 1200 yards, 1000 yards with respective sights being adjusted as the advance continued.
It was felt that allowing the Germans to advance to within 600 yards before opening fire would maximise the effectiveness of both the rifles and the machine guns. This decision was a risk as this was within the effective range of the German Gewehr 98 but the German soldiers would be in the open, whilst the Highlanders were behind cover.
The Brigade’s artillery was unavailable, runners had been sent back to try and get the guns on target but with the field telegraph system disrupted it was unlikely they would contribute much to this first attack.
The steady advance of the German brigade was unnerving, they marched in near line abreast, a solid phalanx of Teutonic terror grinding forward. Their polished pickelhaubes glinting in the sun and regimental flags aloft. The advance was more widely suited to the Napoleonic war than anything else, all that the German’s were missing was the bands, the men were there of course but as stretcher bearers. The Highland Brigade’s pipers and drummer were likewise ready as runners and stretcher bearers, but each company had at least one piper and drummer available to keep up suitable music for military occasions.
The piper attached to D company the Queens own Cameron Highlanders was a Macleod, his company commander was a nephew of the Chief and many a time had the piper played for the Chief and his family, the young officer was his uncle’s heir and the piper hoped to play for him in the future when they were safely back on Skye. The tune he had selected to give heart to his comrades was the Black Bear and a useful reminder to all the Cameron’s that on the line were the London Jocks in their funny looking kilts. Much sport had been made of the Londoners but whilst their connections to Scotland were often more romantic than real, they were held in high regard by most.
The Germans had finally covered the 1000 yards from their start line to within 600 yards of the British front line, the pace of the advance had not been even with some German units faster and others slower so that what had started out as a solid line had degenerated slightly, the Officers and NCO’s were doing their best to tighten up the advance but the unit advancing on the Cameron’s was in the lead it had advanced almost 100 yards ahead of the regiments on either flank. The battalion commander of the Cameron’s took the decision to have his battalion hold fire until either the London’s or the Seaforth’s opened fire, giving the German’s another 100 yards of life but drawing more men into the trap.
From the right came a sudden tat-tat-tat-tat-tat-tat as the Seaforth’s machine gun section began its work. With that the command to open fire was given and death was the order of the day, the machine guns cut down the advancing Germans like a scythe each gun was not firing at the men directly in front of it rather they were aimed in enfilade, a bullet that missed one man assured by the density of the target striking the man beside or behind him.
Even without the rifles it was likely that the advance across open ground against guns capable of firing 600 rounds a minute would have failed, when the individual highlanders with their FHSLR’s opened up, it turned a massacre into an annihilation. Each man had benefited from weeks of brutally hard training since receiving the FHSLR, marching all over England and firing hundreds of rounds at targets both near and far, out to the almost ludicrous range of 1200 yards on more than one occasion. Whilst their skills were not as good as the regulars they were trained and equipped with a rifle that was superior in range, accuracy, rate of fire and killing power to any other small arm on the battlefield. They had had time to become accustomed to the rifle and they were in a simple tactical position, stay in your trench and keep shooting till the enemy run away or die.
The attacking brigade melted as it was flailed with fire, after what only seemed like minutes the brigade broke, men fleeing back to the German lines, the machine gunners delighted in shooting these men in the back cutting them down hundreds of yards from safety. Others sought cover and returned fire on the British troops, those men braver or more foolish than their comrades and figuring that fleeing was likely as dangerous as fighting were soon targeted by numerous British rifles, putting an end to their resistance one 160 grain round at a time.
The dead and wounded carpeted the slope before the Highland division, the other two brigades, lacking the additional machine guns and with the older Magazine Lee Enfield rifles had had a harder time of it. They had managed break up the German attack before it even reached the barbed wire, the entanglements were somewhat the worse for wear after the initial bombardment, but still presented something of a barrier. The Germans now pushed their artillery forward, they had identified the front line now are they resumed shelling shrapnel and high explosive shells being intermixed, the British remained in their trenches waiting out the barrage. The signallers had managed to repair the telegraph lines, with the first attack having been repulsed the surviving 15 pounder guns had no targets and they remained silent. All eight of the 5” howitzers had been undamaged by the initial artillery attack and they did have targets to service. Artillery observers for both batteries were able to identify a number of German 7.7 cm gun positions, these guns were being pushed forward to support the next attack and they made a suitable target for the elderly British Howitzers. The howitzers had been positioned almost 2000 yards back from the British front lines, at maximum range they could therefore reach 1200 yards into the German lines and with the observers looking down slope at the germans their positions were clearly laid out and vulnerable.
The guns fired slowly, their shells failed to explode as often as not, and the accuracy was poor but the 8 guns of the 3rdHighland Brigade RFA were adding to the challenges faced by their opposite number. The artillery duel eventually petered out, ammunition and gunners exhausted on both sides, again little damage had been done on the front line.
The second attacking brigade now marched forward, they had seen what had happened to the first brigade and it was obvious that their morale had not been improved by the experience. The file closers were having to work twice as hard to keep the men in their lines, again the British let them advance without any response. This time the Artillery would get in on the act, the fifteen pounders had repositioned under fire, moving closer to the front lines but without the parade ground dressing that had made them such an inviting target.
Seventeen of the fifteen pounder guns were ready to fire, they watched the advancing grey tide with interest but little in the way of fear, infantry in the open was the best target for the fifteen pounder guns. Lacking a explosive shell it was in fact just about the only target for guns of the 1st and 2nd Highland Brigades RFA and they would do their part. The command soon came and with it the seventeen guns fired, like the howitzers their shooting was not particularly spectacular, but no rounds fell so far short as to harm the British lines. Many were short, a few were long, and others were dud’s but at least one round in 4 was on target, each well targeted round released hundreds of half ounce balls in a deadly swath. The fifteen pounder gun was nothing like as good as the eighteen pounder which had replaced it, they were noticeably slower to fire, but the crews serving the guns had seen many of their comrades killed or horribly wounded this morning and they had something to prove. They loaded their guns as well as they had ever done keeping up a steady 8 rounds per minute for two minutes before slowing to a more sustainable 3 rounds per minute. Allowing for duds, overs and unders, the effect of the artillery on the second wave was almost as devasting as the concentrated machine gun fire on the first. The second wave made it to within 800 yards of the British front line, when the machine gunners added to the carnage, the second wave broke.
A significant fraction of an entire German division was lying dead, dying or wounded before the British front line, a line they never managed to reach.