Read CHAPTER FIVE of The Black Watch A Record in Action, free online book, by Scout Joe Cassells, on

As we the other scouts and I advanced, firing details, which had been left behind under close cover by the Germans, did a good deal of execution amongst us. The hay-stacks, particularly, gave us a great deal of trouble. More than once, one of them would be disrupted as though by some sort of explosion from the inside, and machine guns would begin spraying our skirmishing lines. So it became an important part of our scouting operations to search all hay-stacks and farm houses. And continually we were under what, ordinarily, would be termed heavy fire.

The ground over which we were passing had been the scene of sharp fighting, earlier. We came across scores of dead Germans and a few French. In the midst of a field dotted with a particularly large number of hay-stacks was a farm house. When we were about thirty or forty yards from it and on opposite sides, we leaped up and dashed toward it as hard as we could run. It is a fact that this is the safest way for patrols to approach a house. If any of the enemy are inside, they become excited when they see men rushing toward them and are likely to open fire instead of waiting until the scouts get inside and then killing them noiselessly. Their aim is also more uncertain at a running man than it is at one sneaking along slowly, and, most important of all, whether the scouts are killed or not, the noise of the rifle fire alarms the main body and the party in the house is detected.

Troolan (my scout partner) and I arrived at this particular farm house on a dead run without having drawn any fire or detected the least sign of life. We tried all the doors; they were locked. The windows, too, were bolted from the inside. Troolan smashed one in, got inside, and opened the door for me. We searched the building rather hurriedly and discovered no sign of any one having been there. Just as we were going out, I had a premonition that I ought to look further.

“Wait outside and watch,” I said to Troolan, “and I will take another look around.”

He posted himself outside. Very cautiously I stepped down the cellar stairs. The boards seemed to squeak and groan like a lumbering farm wagon. It was dark as pitch, but I did not dare to make a light. It would have been fatal if any one really was lurking there. Something scurried across the floor. I felt the hot blood surge under my scalp. For a second I expected to see a red flash in the utter darkness and feel a bullet smash into my body. Then I discovered that it was only a rat.

I thought I heard breathing. I stood stock still, and strained my eyes on every side till they ached as if they would burst from their sockets. I was trying to catch the reflection of some stray beam of light from the eyes of a man or the barrel of an automatic, but I do not believe that so much as a pin point of light was diffused in that whole black pit. Suddenly I almost laughed aloud, although I knew that to do so might mean instant death. The breathing that I heard was my own. Cautiously I thrust out my foot to descend another step.

There was a shout outside.

“Run to the door quickly,” Troolan was yelling.

I leaped up the stairway regardless of what might be behind me and dashed toward the kitchen door to get outside the house. Just as I did so, I saw a shadow flit along the ground past the kitchen window. Guessing where the man must be who cast it, I fired through the wooden wall of the kitchen at about the height of the average man’s breast. Then in a couple of bounds I was outside. There stood Troolan looking very much surprised and grieved when he saw me. His rifle was half drawn up to his shoulder, and he was in the attitude of getting ready to fire.

Perspiration broke out on my forehead. I realised that the shadow had been Troolan’s and from the look of him I had come very nigh to killing him.

“What the h was that for, ye muckle galoot?” he threw at me.

“I saw a shadow,” I said, “and let drive.”

“Ye’re an auld wife, that’s what ye’ are,” said Troolan disgustedly, “a’firin’ after shadows.”

“Never mind now,” I said, “what did you see?”

“I saw a big boche,” said my scouting partner, “or, at least, I thocht I did. Maybe I’ve been takin’ you fur him the same as you did me.”

“Maybe,” I said, “but the best plan is for you to watch this house while I go and report.”

“All right,” said Troolan. I started away. I had not gone a dozen paces when I heard scuffling behind me. I turned round and started to run back at the same instant. What I saw lent speed to my feet. The helmet of a German officer was just coming through a window. Troolan, who had evidently been concealed from the German’s view, was aiming a blow at his head with the butt of his rifle.

As usual, Troolan had lacked finesse. He had rushed so clumsily to the attack that both the officer and I had heard him. The German dodged just in time to evade the blow, and Troolan’s rifle banged the window sill.

How the boche did it, I do not know, but it seemed as though he was propelled by strong steel springs under his feet. He fairly shot out of the window like a dart from a catapult and landed on Troolan’s neck. Both men went down. I dared not fire. They were rolling over and over one another, kicking and striking with their fists. The boche was fouling Troolan in a way that would be prohibited in wrestling. I jumped into the fray and tried to find the German’s throat, but the men were so entwined that it was hard to get a hold on him. Suddenly a heavy boot struck me in the pit of the stomach, and I rolled over and over to find myself gasping for breath a dozen feet away.

Painfully I got up and staggered toward the struggling men, but I was too late to be of any use. After a particularly frantic struggle Troolan managed to get on top of his adversary, with his right arm free. His mighty fist came smashing down full in the other’s face. The German staggered to his feet, but Troolan leaped clear of him, seized his rifle, and, this time, brought the butt down with a thud on the other’s skull. Then Troolan burst into some of the most profane Scotch it has been my doubtful privilege to hear.

“What are you cursing about?” I asked him.

“I want to mak shair that Deevil’s deed!” he said.

Later that day we were relieved by other scouts.

Toward nightfall troops began to arrive on either side of us in great numbers, and dispatch riders with various insignia continually dashed up on their speedy motorcycles to our brigade headquarters. Everyone realized that we must be approaching something big, for previous to this we had been fighting, for the most part, isolated engagements. As a matter of fact, it developed that we were preparing for the Battle of the Marne.

We remained at this spot all night. At dawn, orders were given that we were to take the high ground the Germans were occupying a few miles ahead of us. Our brigade marched in skirmishing order, followed by the cavalry and artillery. We passed scores of dead some French but the majority German. Dead horses were intermingled with the bodies of men.

We were under heavy shell fire until we descended into the shelter of a gully. Here we met a few of the French Chasseurs. Four or five farms were clustered together, and the sights we encountered in the yards and on the roads were the worst we had yet seen. Pools of congealed blood; bodies of dead soldiers partly covered with sacks and straw; the barns so filled that the feet of dead men were protruding. The Chasseurs appeared very pale and silent.

The ridge was densely covered with hazel-wood. We got the command to fix bayonets and extend into skirmishing formation. The Black Watch with the Camerons were to take the ridge, while the Coldstreams and Scots Guards were to be in reserve.

An incident occurred during the ascent of the ridge which illustrated the reckless, devil-may-care spirit of the men in our battalion in a way which impressed even me. The front-line men came upon a lot of blackberry bushes. They began plucking and eating the berries, shouting gleefully to one another to signal the discovery of an especially well-laden bush. Until the officers sternly warned them of the peril they invited by such noise and incaution, you would have thought they were schoolboys on a lark.

I was one of the scouts sent up the ridge to try to locate the position and number of the enemy and report at once. Wriggling along on my belly like a snake, I made my way foot by foot. I could hear our fellows shouting, and it rather disconcerted me as I felt they would attract the enemy’s attention, but I continued on my way nevertheless.

I never knew that so many sharp stones could be scattered in so short a distance. It seemed as though some of them were forcing themselves clean in between my ribs.

Presently I came to a hastily constructed barbed-wire entanglement at the edge of a thicket. Ahead of me was a clear rising space of about fifty yards which did not show from below. Beyond this was a plateau. Before advancing farther I peered through the thicket and scanned the crest.

Suddenly I heard a familiar, unmistakable rattling. It was the opening and closing of rifle bolts. My skin prickled all over. I knew that it meant troops getting ready to fire and I had no doubt the Germans had discovered me and were preparing to shoot. I wriggled backward a few feet into the thicket, expecting every second to hear the crash of a volley and to pass into oblivion. But the crash did not come. Evidently they had not seen me.

Under cover of the underbrush I crept forward again until I could see the helmets of German troops in the woods atop of the ridge. They outnumbered our troops. I crawled to the left until I came to a point where I could command a view of the crest, where they were in waiting, but apparently unaware of our near approach. I crawled back until I was out of sight. Then I leaped to my feet and ran as if I were once more on a cinder track in the old barrack days. Brambles tore my hands and face and lacerated my bare knees, but I did not heed them.

I had seen enough, and the sooner we could make the attack the better. Besides, they might even yet see me, and I preferred the scratching of brambles to the bite of a steel bullet.

In safety I got back to our lines. The boys could see from my excitement that something was up.

“Did you find them, Joe?” they shouted.

“Where is the adjutant?” I demanded. Somebody told me, and I hurried to him.

“How many of them are there?” he asked when I told what I had seen.

“All I can say, sir, is that they outnumber us and are waiting,” I answered.

Orders were given for an immediate attack.

I went forward again, but this time in my own place in the company, with men either side of me, and with real business ahead. We made our way in silence through the woods toward the terrace. Still the Germans did not fire. We wondered whether they were really unaware of our approach, or, just holding their fire for close range? This was the first time we had been in a big attack of this kind and we knew that bayonet work would be the end of it.

The answer to our questioning soon came. It was in the form of a burst of fire from the ridge above us. Twigs fell all around us and here and there a man dropped too.

We could not do much in the way of returning the fire, for we had not yet reached the open. The blood was pounding through my arteries. I felt much as I used to before the start of an important race. The second platoon to my right went forward, while our fire covered their advance. Crouching low, the men dashed on at full speed. Here and there one of them toppled backward. Then the platoon nearest to us advanced. It would be our turn next. We ceased firing and prepared to rush. Our lieutenant looked at the commander, whose whistle had just blown a shrill blast. He signalled for us to go forward.

Like one man, we leaped to our feet. The thin line swept out onto the open terrace. Each man had but one friend then, his rifle with the bayonet fixed.

We had arrived at the point where I had previously encountered the barbed wire. Throwing ourselves flat on the ground, we returned the enemy’s fire. After cutting the barbed-wire, we awaited orders. The word came to charge. With one mighty shout, we made for the crest. When one goes out with the bayonet he goes to kill or to be killed, but with the former in mind.

The German fire thundered out as though it had been tripled. The trees and bushes were cut as by scythes, but they were only shooting in a direction they could not see us clearly. Up, up we went. Loose stones rattled under our feet, and went tumbling down the slope, but we picked ourselves up and pushed always forward and upward. At last we saw the Germans who were firing at us over their trenches. Our men were yelling like demons.

Then the German fire stopped as though every man had, on the instant, been struck dead. An instant later, they leaped out of their trenches, with bayonets fixed, and dashed toward us. Every man among them looked a giant. One of our boys was ahead of all the others. He was a bow-legged little fellow, and, even at that moment, he looked ludicrous with his bare knees and kilts. A big German was over him. The little fellow seemed to drop his rifle. He had caught it in both hands, close under the handle of the bayonet. He straightened up, heaving his shoulders, brought up his forearms with a jerk, and the steel blade drove through the soft spot in the German’s throat just under the chin. The Prussian’s last cry was drowned by the fierce yell of the little bow-legged man. It was the spirit of the bayonet which made him yell like a savage.

There was no time to see what was going on around me any more. We were fighting knee to knee. I can but faintly recall the actual close fighting, but I seemed to make good use of my bayonet. Sometimes I was knocked off my feet, but the next instant I was up again. I was not thinking of what might happen to me. It was fight, fight, and keep on fighting. One seemed imbued with a superhuman strength.

One of our boys seized a German’s rifle, and wrested it from him by a trick which seemed to break his arm. A little farther away two Germans were rushing upon one man. Mechanically, I leaped into action. The butt of my rifle felled the nearest boche. Somebody knocked the rifle out of my hands. Somehow I ducked a thrust made at me and ran in on the German who made it, and smashed my fist on the point of his jaw.

They began to waver now. They did not seem to care for our company with our kilts and our steel we whom they later learned to call the “Ladies of Hell.” (Because of our kilts.) At last they broke and ran. We were after them. A machine gun rattled away at the head of a path down which some of our boys were dashing. It almost wiped out B company before we could silence it.

Just over the crest of the ridge we came upon their combat wagons and a field gun. Three men and an officer were trying to save the gun. The men who were hitching the horses to it broke and ran. The officer did not hesitate a second to shoot them in the backs. Then he fell with one of our bullets through his head. We captured the gun.

By this time I was regaining my proper senses. A feeling of exhaustion seemed to envelop me; my legs wobbled. Then I dropped to the ground. Every bone, muscle, and nerve ached, and I felt as though I had just been through a tough wrestling match.

When we had counted up, we found that two company officers, Captain Drummond and Captain Dalgleish, had been killed. We picked up about fifty German rifles and broke them over the trunks of trees. Our casualties were one hundred and fifty killed and only God knows how many wounded.

Our prisoners amounted to about one hundred and forty. Among them was a man who had worked in London as a watchmaker. In very broken English, he asked if he could get his job back if he were sent to London. We told him that he would get a job all right, but that somebody else would see to the watchmaking.

After capturing the crest, upon looking from the far side, we could see great numbers of German cavalry and infantry in retreat. The plateau was strewn with I should judge about five hundred dead bodies of the enemy. Their horses that had been wounded were left behind left to die. We let go a few volleys of long-range fire to hurry the boches on their way.