On 7 October 1916 the 6th (Morayshire) Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders, entered the trenches in front of Beaumont Hamel for the first time, and over the following weeks became acquainted with the area chosen for the final attack of the Somme campaign.
During periods out of the line they carried out practice attacks, before moving forward on the 23rd in anticipation of attacking the next day, however, bad weather forced a 48-hour postponement. More rain led to further postponements until a spell of drier weather allowed the attack to be rescheduled for 13 November.
The 6th Seaforth’s final preparations begin at a conference held at Battalion HQ on 11 November, and after a hot meal on the evening of the 12th they moved up to their assembly positions in the front lines. They were in place by 4.30 a.m. on the 13th and ‘in good form and eager’, although with assembly completed a ‘deep and ominous quiet brooded over the silent trenches’; understandable as they were to attack over the ground where, on the fateful 1 July, the 29th Division had been cut down by machine-gun fire and suffered over 5,200 casualties, 1,600 of them killed. Capturing Beaumont Hamel would be difficult but the Highlanders were confident of their abilities.
The Highland Division put two brigades in the attack, with the third brigade in reserve. The 152nd Brigade was allocated the northern sector in front of the village and led with two battalions, 8th Argylls on the left and the 5th Seaforth on the right, each split into four waves. The 6th Seaforth would follow in two waves across the whole of the brigade front; ‘A’ and ‘D’ Company in their first wave and ‘B’ and ‘C’ Company in the second. All six waves would advance together with 50 paces spacing between them. Once in the village parties from ‘A’ Company were detailed to capture two caves, with the rest of the battalion then forming a single wave to continue the advance. The 6th Gordons were held in reserve.
At 5.45 a.m., as the first signs of dawn appeared, a mine under the Hawthorn Redoubt was fired, the artillery opened a devastating barrage onto the German positions and the infantry advanced. The 5th Seaforth and 8th Argylls advanced into a thick mist to capture the German front line before the 6th Seaforth passed through them and pressed on to the second line. Here some men started to become scattered and Lieutenant James Bliss had to collect them together before resuming the advance. They then reached the outskirts of the village before being forced back by machine-gun fire, and finding some of the enemy still in the second line they had to contend with clearing dug-outs and getting prisoners to the rear, as well as working into the afternoon to consolidate the position before helping the 5th Seaforth in finally clearing the village.
The parties led by Second Lieutenants Macvicar and Edwards captured the two caves, and the latter had an eventful time when he arrived at the entrance and called on the occupants to surrender. They agreed, not realising how few men were outside, and his gallant little party took charge of a large number of prisoners, some reports say as many as 400. Shortly afterwards some German troops appeared at the cave entrance and forced Edwards to surrender himself. He was then taken to a nearby dug-out and questioned by German officers. Then the sounds of rifle fire and grenades indicated that the situation outside had changed again and Edwards suggested that, as they were probably now surrounded, it would be prudent for them to surrender to him, which they did. Edwards took charge of his prisoners and marched them back to the Battalion HQ. For his bravery, and audacity, George Edwards was recommended for the Victoria Cross, but subsequently awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
It took a day of hard and determined fighting to secure Beaumont Hamel and, while the Highland Division did not reach its objectives beyond the village that day, the men had performed magnificently. They had overcome both the strong German defences and the very difficult conditions, with reports of waist-deep mud in places. The battle was later hailed as being ‘the foundation stone on which the reputation of the Highland Division was built’.
Their success, however, came at a high cost and 14 officers and 263 other ranks were absent at the Morayshire battalion’s roll call; 5 officers and 75 other ranks had been killed, and more died of their wounds later. Most of their bodies were recovered from the battlefield and taken to Mailly Wood Cemetery for burial including Captains Eric Anderson and Andrew Macgregor, and Second Lieutenants Raymond McLean and Robert Smith. The fifth officer killed was 19 year-old Lieutenant Donald Jenkins who had recently been awarded the Military Cross for his part in a trench raid. He was reported to have been deep in the German positions, beyond the third line, leading his men with great bravery when shot by a sniper. The names of the 14 men whose bodies were lost are carved on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing.
The subsequent announcement of bravery awards saw the Military Cross awarded to the Medical Officer, Captain A.G. Peter, to Lieutenant James Bliss, Forres, and to 19 year-old Second Lieutenant George MacBey, Elgin, his citation stating ‘although severely wounded he remained on duty collecting men and directing operations. He set a splendid example throughout, and captured 50 prisoners’. The junior officers proved themselves to be brave and resourceful, unfortunately they were also very likely to become casualties. The Distinguished Conduct Medal was awarded to Sergeant George Grant and Private George Court, and the Military Medal was awarded to Corporals F.G. Nabbs and E. Rae, and Privates Peter Coull, A.G. Bridgeman, W. Mackenzie, James Hardie, Gordon Grigor and J. Watt.