9th Argylls at Ypres: A Soldier's Tale

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This account is based mainly on details given in the autobiography of the Rev Charles L.Warr, “The Glimmering Landscape” (1960).

Charles Warr (1892-1969) was the second son of the Rev Alfred Warr, parish minister at Rosneath from 1887 until his death in 1916. When Charles graduated in arts from Edinburgh University in the summer of 1914, war was just about to break out.

When it did, this was his reaction:

We young people were very excited about the War, of course. We were furiously angry about little Belgium. We were all for joining up at once and going out to fight the Germans with bands playing, colours flying, and cavalry charging.

Charles set about petitioning Lord Inverclyde, the Lord Lieutenant of Dunbartonshire, for a commission in the 9th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, since that was the county battalion. He already had some experience with the Officers' Training Corps while at Edinburgh.

His Lordship was happy to oblige, although there were some alarms and excursions before everything was in order, and in due course he set off to join the Argylls at their training camp in Bedford.

In February 1915, with the pipes and drums in full play, they marched to a waiting train for Southampton, there to be transported across the Channel to Le Havre.

Once in France, the men were entrained for a place called Cassel, the first of several staging-posts before reaching the Western Front. The train eventually pulled off for what was to be the start of a seemingly interminable journey .

It was a miserable enough journey for the officers, who were in first class carriages. For the men, who were in cattle trucks, packed forty to each, it must have been unspeakable.

The commanding officer of the 9th was Lieutenant Colonel James Clark, whose family business centred on thread manufacture in Paisley. He had been associated with the Volunteers and then the Territorial Army since his youth. In fact, he had only recently been brought in to serve as commanding officer, as the previous commander, Colonel Leith Buchanan, had been deemed unfit for overseas service.

Colonel Clark, at the age of 56 years, was himself well beyond the call of duty for overseas service, and only achieved his wish to do so by dint of all the persuasion and influence he could bring to bear. This is how Charles describes him:

This big, handsome silver-haired crusader had the courage of a lion. But in the face of human suffering and distress, his sympathy was as tender as a woman's. He could express his opinions in startling and highly unconventional language, but, with simple sincerity, he would conduct religious services for his men when no chaplain was available . . . Clark was in fact deeply and personally concerned with the welfare of every man in his battalion, and the men knew it. By that strange gift which marks a great headmaster, he knew most of them by name. That was the secret of his power over them.

The 9th (Dunbartonshire) Battalion Princess Louise's Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders came into being in 1908, when pre-existing Volunteer units were re-formed into the new Territorial Force. The dress included kilt, hose and sporran, replacing the trews. The battalion was comprised of eight companies: Helensburgh; Kirkintilloch; Dumbarton; Milngavie; Bonhill and Jamestown; Alexandria and Renton; Clydebank; Yoker.

It was at Cassel that Charles heard for the first time the distant rumble of the guns. It was here too that the battalion became acquainted with what was to be their place within the British Army. They were to be included in the 81st Brigade of the 27th Division of the 5th Army Corps of the Second Army.

The 81st had originally been comprised of the 1st Argylls, the 1st Royal Scots, the 2nd Camerons, and the 2nd Gloucesters. It was now being strengthened by the addition of two territorial battalions, the 9th Argylls and the 9th Royal Scots.

Soon after arrival at Cassel, Charles heard that the officers were to be addressed by General Sir Horace Smith-Dorien, Commander of the Second Army. He afterwards learned that the General had confided in Colonel Clark that “he had it on best authority that the War would be virtually over in six weeks”.

At this juncture, Charles discloses that some twelve years later he discovered the likely source of this “best authority”. In attendance at Balmoral, he had been in conversation with King George V, who mentioned a meeting in 1914 with Sir John French, the then Commander-in-Chief of the British Army.

Sir John had told the King to prepare for a Victory Parade in time for Christmas 1914. This had greatly surprised His Majesty, who had been briefed by his own ministers to expect a war lasting for not less than three years.

By stages, the battalion was prepared for the time when it would be entrusted to its own section of the trenches. In the lead-up to this, the men undertook a share of trench duties, but were used more often in a back-up role, carrying forward essential materials, digging communication trenches, and the like, while also receiving training in the techniques of trench warfare.

On March 26, the battalion was moved to Ypres. Although it had been badly battered, the town had still managed to retain a good deal of its character.

Ypres was still a lovely little town, partly enclosed by its mediaeval wall and moat. Centuries and centuries of Flemish and Spanish builders had jumbled their architectural ideas together in an elegant and fascinating indiscrimination.

One day I wandered into the charred and crumbling ruins of the cathedral. The great stone-vaulted roof had been smashed in pieces. Walls were falling, and strong pillars were bent and misshapen like giants in agony. Then I saw a wonderful thing. A little girl came in and knelt to pray among the rubbish. I was suddenly moved by an indescribable emotion. That child was the answer to all this madness.

The task in hand for the British was to take over a stretch of trenches formerly used by the French. Charles informs us that the French were evidently much more adept at making themselves comfortable than the British, although they had left the dugouts in an appallingly filthy state.

Curiously, though, there were no loopholes, and weeks were spent making good the parapets and inserting loopholes. At night, the practice was to withdraw most of the men, with only a skeleton force being left behind, but with the use of deception ploys to convince the Germans otherwise. Charles was one of those detailed to remain on duty.

It was really very eerie out there all by ourselves, and when the time came for us to retire, we ran back as we had never ran in our lives.

Towards the end of April, the Germans began to shell both Ypres and the trenches in front of it very heavily, the certain prelude to a big attack. By contrast, the British reply was desultory, in consequence of the war machine still not being sufficiently geared up.

At dawn on Monday May 10, the Second Battle of Ypres began. There was savage artillery fire, and as Colonel Clark had no adjutant, Charles was asked to stay by him and serve in that role.

It was a day of bright sunshine, and as the hours passed, the enemy threw themselves in wave after wave upon the British positions. They attacked and fought with the greatest of courage, and their losses must have been enormous. Our battalion put up a magnificent fight all through the day and the following night. The men had been in the trenches for three weeks without relief, and hadn't tasted solid food for three days.

There reached a stage where Colonel Clark, accompanied by Charles and several others, had to advance up a slope swept by murderous artillery and infantry fire. There, they managed to rally some troops forced back after a gas attack, and formed them up as a line of defence in a waterlogged ditch. Charles found himself crouched on a ledge, where at least it was drier.

The Colonel was up to his knees in water in the ditch. He had been slightly concussed by a bursting shell, and was looking very exhausted. With the greatest difficulty, I persuaded him to change places with me, upon which I slithered down into the ditch.

Just at that moment, two shrapnel shells exploded overhead with an ear-splitting bang . . . only two of us out a group of eight were left alive. The Colonel died instantaneously.

Although Charles was alive, he was in a bad way. He continues:

I came very near to death that day, and would have met it but for the bravery and devotion of Sergeant David McInnes of Helensburgh. Under heavy fire, he half dragged half carried me back to the little hut in Sanctuary Wood which was serving as battalion dressing station.

My left elbow was blown away, and my right arm was shattered. A bullet entered my left leg, a shrapnel splinter smashed the third finger of my right hand, and my scalp was slashed open. I was saved by the regimental badge of my glengarry — steel helmets had not yet been invented — which deflected the bullet as it hit my head. The badge, which was split open by the bullet, is a much-vaunted souvenir.

There then followed days with long bouts of delirium and unconsciousness, though Charles relates that somehow his mind remained crystal-clear, and he could recall even tiny details. Perhaps amazingly, a purpose seemed to form in his mind, making it clear that if he survived, he had a destiny to fulfil. Long afterwards, though, the medical officer told him that he had not been expected to live.

The next challenge came in the form of a gas attack. Masks had not yet been invented, and the only defence was to fit gauze padding over the mouth, secured round the neck with an elastic band. Somehow, the wounded were evacuated to a safer place with underground cellars.

Eventually, the time came for Charles to be evacuated by motor ambulance. This involved a dash through Ypres, which by then was a blazing inferno.

He was placed for some time in a hospital at Boulogne, where further bouts of delirium and unconsciousness followed. During a lucid spell, he was told his left arm would have to be amputated, otherwise he risked gangrene and death. Charles flatly refused, despite his situation, and the wounds were simply cleaned and re-dressed.

In due course, Charles arrived back in Britain, where there were many weary weeks of painful therapy. He did recover, although the upshot was that his left arm had to be set at right angles and his right hand was impaired. Given his condition, any prospect of further military involvement was out of the question.

One remarkable sequel to that fateful day on May 10 was the return of a silver cigarette case which had been lost on the battlefield. It had later been picked up by a soldier from an English regiment, who found it contained several photographs, one of which depicted Charles' father.

By amazing coincidence, the soldier had once worked as an apprentice at Kilcreggan, and was able to recognise the Re AlfredWarr. In consequence, he had been enabled to post off the cigarette case to its rightful owner. Charles was absolutely delighted, as the case was something that meant a great deal to him.

In later life, Charles went on to have a distinguished career as a churchman, including being called as minister to St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh in 1926.

Following the terrible events of May 10, and a deadly gas attack on May 24, the 9th Argylls were subequently reduced to two officers and 85 men — three surviving officers had been granted leave, but were killed in the tragic rail collision at Quintinshill, near Gretna, on May 22.

By the end of the month, the 9th Battalion was amalgamated with the 7th, which had also suffered huge losses. By the close of the year, the combined battalion was deemed insufficient, and was in due course disbanded, although many men went on to serve in other battalions and regiments. After the War, the 1/9th was reformed, although it ceased as an infantry force prior to the start of World War Two.

In October 1914, a second unit of the 9th was created, which came to be known as the 2/9th Battalion. It played a role in coastal defence, and in producing drafts for the Army. In 1915, a third unit of the 9th Argylls was created, one of the main roles of which was to help train recruits.