Moray’s Bonny Fechters Lost in the Labyrinth

After spending more than ten weeks out of the line resting, training, and providing working parties, the 6th (Morayshire) Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders, returned to the trenches on 11 March 1916. They took over from the 78th French Infantry Regiment an area just north of Arras known as the Labyrinth due to the maze of trenches dug during fierce fighting in 1915. Some old sections of trench were barricaded off with barbed wire and sandbags and still contained the rotting corpses of both French and German soldiers. A thoroughly unhealthy place in all respects the French also informed them that in addition to the hazards above ground the Germans were busy mining underneath them! Over the coming weeks the 6th Seaforth spent several periods in the front line interspersed with periods in the support lines or resting, and casualties were regarded as light with 12 men being killed by mid April.

April 25 saw the battalion moving back into the front line for another tour of duty. All was quiet until the morning of the 28th when, at seven minutes past two, the Germans exploded some mines under the front line positions. Reports from different sources indicate that between four and eight mines were fired, most of them under the sector held by Captain Archibald Macdonald’s ‘A’ Company. Some forward outposts were blown up along with their small garrisons, but in others the men fought until overwhelmed by the attacking German infantry. In ‘C’ Company’s sector two men, Privates Smith and Harrold, had been on duty in one of the forward posts. They had just been relieved by Privates Alexander Mackenzie and Charles Fraser and had only moved back 20 yards when the mines exploded. Both Mackenzie and Fraser were killed instantly. Andrew Smith was nearly smothered by the falling earth but struggled free, and Private Harrold was buried up to his neck for half an hour before being rescued. Twenty year-old Private Edwin Clark was among the missing and his brother Harry, also serving in the battalion, wrote to their mother at Murdoch’s Wynd, Elgin, saying ‘I am sorry that I have to convey the sad news of Edwin’s death. He was on duty in the sap along with five others, when the enemy sprang a mine. I am feeling his loss terribly, for he was a good brother. He was doing extra duty at the time, and he had only an hour to go before being relieved. They have got some of their bodies this morning, but there is no sign of Edwin’s yet’.

When the Germans tried to advance beyond the outposts the Seaforths fought them to a standstill using grenades and rifle fire. All fought gallantly but one officer, Lieutenant Arthur Cross, had a particularly eventful time. Rushing out from his damaged dug-out he slipped into a crater and was attacked by three Germans. One knocked him down, sat on him, and hit him over the head with a cosh while shouting in English for him to give in. Although stunned Lieutenant Cross managed to reach his revolver and killed two of his assailants and wounded the third. More Germans then arrived and he played dead as they tried to drag him away. After a short while they gave up and concentrated on their wounded comrade instead. While they were otherwise occupied Lieutenant Cross managed to escape from the crater and got back into the Seaforth’s trench where, after suffering a brief collapse, he recovered sufficiently to continue the fight. Although he had been wearing his newly issued steel helmet he still had an egg-sized lump on his skull, but the helmet had undoubtedly saved him. He was later sent to hospital suffering from concussion.

During this action the battalion suffered about 70 casualties of whom 15 were killed and another 19 were reported missing presumed dead. Among the losses were several married men with families including Sergeant William McLeod who had five children, the youngest only three months old; Sergeant James Fraser who had three young children, and 40 year-old Private Alexander Sutherland, a porter with Gordon and MacPhail, who had a daughter and two sons.

Throughout the day and the following night the battalion worked hard to repair the damaged trenches, but then had a few quiet days before being relieved by the 5th Seaforth on 2 May. Following this incident a number of medals were awarded for bravery with Lieutenant Cross receiving the Military Cross and five men the Military Medal.

As the Morayshire Seaforths left the line on 2 May 1916 they could reflect on their first full year of service on the Western Front. They had been blooded in battle and had built a reputation as a reliable battalion, but this was at a cost of one officer and 115 men killed and many more wounded. Much as these losses affected them they were not to know that they would need to endure another two and a half years of fighting, and that the future toll of casualties would be far higher - let us all remember their sacrifice.

The grave of 26 year-old Sergeant James Fraser, with tributes left by his grand-daughter during a visit in 2000. Originally listed as one of the missing men, it appears that Sgt Fraser’s body was recovered long after the battle and buried in Nine Elms Military Cemetery, close to the site of the Labyrinth.

Photo: A. Sinclair

 

Maroeuil British Cemetery, near Arras, contains the graves of 15 Morayshire Seaforths killed by the mine explosions and fighting on April 28, 1916. Eighteen men are also named on the Arras Memorial to the Missing. Photo: D. Bird

 

 
Sgt William McLeod, a 33 year-old weaver from Elgin, was killed in one of the forward posts. He was married with five children.
Photo: The Northern Scot
 
Private George Allan, a 21 year-old gardener from Elgin, died when ‘he was buried under hundreds of tons of earth.
Photo: The Northern Scot
 

 

 

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