|Trench Raid at Armentières|
Two aspects of trench warfare familiar to the soldiers of the Great War were ‘patrolling’ and ‘trench raiding’. After the trench lines became fixed in late 1914 the British decided on a policy of trying to dominate No Man’s Land by every means possible. This meant that small patrols would creep out under the cover of darkness to gather intelligence about the Germans’ activities and defences. Trench raids were a larger enterprise and ranged from a few men trying to enter the German lines to capture a prisoner, to a full battalion raid where several hundred men, fully supported by artillery, would try to isolate a portion of enemy trench and enter it to capture or kill the occupants and to cause as much confusion and damage as possible.
The 6th (Morayshire) Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders, were ordered to carry out a trench raid east of the French town of Armentières in the autumn of 1916. Lieutenant Alastair Macdonald, Forres, was given the task of planning the raid, and patrols went forward every night into No Man’s Land to find the best location and to ascertain the state of the German defences. They chose the ‘Railway Salient’ – the point where the German trenches crossed the Lille - Armentières railway line.
Forty men were specially picked for the raid and split into two parties; leading the raid would be Lieutenants Donald Jenkins, Burghead, and James Sainter, Craigellachie. At dusk on the 15 September 1916 the raiders assembled at Battalion HQ to receive their final orders and for the issue of equipment and ammunition. Faces, knees and anything else that might show were blackened, and once ready they moved up to the front line.
To break through the German barbed wire Bangalore Torpedoes were used. These were lengths of explosive-filled tube that could be screwed together, slid stealthily under the wire, and when detonated they created a path through to the enemy trench. With the wire about 20 yards deep the torpedoes had to be very long and it took about six men to carry each one forward. The two torpedoes were successfully laid by 8 p.m., and the rest of the raiders moved forward to take up positions close by. At the appointed time the torpedoes were fired, the raiders rushed forward, and the artillery opened a ‘box barrage’ sealing off both sides and the rear of the raid area to prevent the movement of German reinforcements.
The party led by James Sainter found their part of the trench well held. Two sentries were killed, and bombs (grenades) were thrown into a dug-out killing another four Germans. At the next dug-out two Germans emerged and were shot dead before the dug-out itself was bombed. Three more Germans were then killed in the trench and one captured man was passed back to the clearing party, but he refused to leave the trench and was killed. Lieutenant Sainter's party was in the German trench for just six minutes.
When Lieutenant Jenkins' party entered the enemy trench they initially found no sentries, although there were rifles and equipment hanging up. Four dug-outs were bombed as they advanced along the trench until progress was halted by a German bombing party. A two-minute bombing duel then took place in which the Germans were either killed or wounded; the Seaforths sustaining five casualties, two slight and three serious, during this fight. When the orders to retire were being given the party encountered a number of the enemy appearing from the rear. Three of the Seaforths managed to grab one of the Germans, and Lieutenant Jenkins was reported as carrying him bodily back to the British lines. Finding that some of his men were missing Lieutenant Jenkins, accompanied by Private A. Macdonald, made three perilous journeys back to the wire in front of the well-alerted Germans to rescue wounded men.
One man from Lieutenant Sainter’s party, Sergeant Henry Anderson, was unaccounted for. He had last been seen going along the German parapet in an effort to outflank a German bombing party.
The raid was deemed to be a success, although it was felt that more prisoners should have been captured. It would appear that the Germans were frightened by the sight of the lassoes that the Seaforths were carrying and, perhaps thinking they were to be hung, they lay down in the trench and refused to move, leaving the raiders little choice but to kill them. In fact the lassoes were just intended as a method of quickly tying up a prisoner and leading him back to the British lines without him being able to escape in the dark and confusion.
As a result of the bravery shown before and during the raid a number of decorations were awarded. Both Lieutenants Sainter and Jenkins were awarded the Military Cross; Corporal Hamilton was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal; with Lance Corporals James Matheson and A. Wood, Privates Goldsmith, A. Macdonald, and James Innes being awarded the Military Medal.