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The King's Own Scottish Borderers
(The Dumfries & Galloway Regiment) in World War 1
By Bob O'Hara
The horror that World War 1 became could not be foreseen at its outbreak on 4th August 1914. Despite some public reticence, it was mostly accepted that there had to be a war to maintain the balance of power in Europe and to contain the expansionist ambitions of Germany and Austria. However, the politicians and generals assured the nation that the Great War would be over by Christmas and that it would be the "war to end wars".
The UK National Archives in London, do not indicate how many enlisted men served in the ranks of the British army during WW1 because of the damage done by a German bomb in June 1940, but some personal records do survive. [i]
Before the outbreak of War, the British Infantry consisted of a number of regiments, each with two battalions. However, although the first flush of enthusiastic recruits was absorbed into this structure, it quickly became apparent that two battalions in each regiment would not be enough and the War Office issued an 'Augmentation Order' which resulted in a vast expansion into what became known as the "New Army". The names of the regiments remained largely unchanged but as many as 40 or 50 battalions were added to some regiments. The King's Own Scottish Borderers, (KOSBs), the regiment of Dumfries and Galloway, reached a maximum of 10 battalions.
At 11.0 a m on 11th November 1996, Armistice Day, the personal records of soldiers who had served in World War 1 were opened to the public at the National Archives in London for the first time.
Approximately 60% of the records of all soldiers who served in WW1 were destroyed by enemy action in WW2. Of those not destroyed, the records of 2.75 million men had been filmed and were immediately available for public inspection. These are known as the 'unburnt' collection and are archived in Class List WO 364. The majority of the surviving records suffer from the effects of fire, smoke and water damage; they have become known as the 'burnt' collection and are held in WO 363. Much conservation work had to be done before the 'burnt' collection could be filmed and made available in the NA.
The filming was made possible by a substantial grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the work on the 'unburnt' collection was undertaken involving a selection in each case from the end, the beginning and the middle of the alphabet. The whole process took six years to complete.
The surviving records of the soldiers of the King's Own Scottish Borderers are amongst those held in WO 364 and WO 363. At the outbreak of war, two battalions of the KOSBs, (like most infantry regiments), were already in service.
The 1st battalion was on duty at Lucknow in India and sailed from Bombay on 2nd November 1914. They arrived in Plymouth just after Christmas, under the command of Lieutenant Colonel A S Koe. They joined the 29th Division, and sailed for Egypt arriving on 30th March. By 25th April they were ashore at Gallipoli and engaged in some of the heaviest fighting in that theatre. Before the week was out, 296 of the 1st battalion had been killed including Lt Colonel Koe. [ii] Archibald Stephen Koe was the son of the late Stephen L. and Mrs. Koe; husband of Fanny Gwendoline, of East Woodhay House, Newbury, Berks. He had served on the North West Frontier of India, and the Tirah Chitral Campaigns.
The 2nd battalion, which had been stationed in Dublin, joined the 5th Division which landed at le Havre on 15th August 1914 under the command of Lt Colonel C M Stephenson. On 23rd August they came under fire from the Brandenburg Grenadiers and moved to Petit Wasmes, (a small Belgian village near the French border). The official war diary states that the 2nd battalion sustained heavy casualties.
Amongst the first to fall in WW1, were three soldiers of the 2nd Battalion on 23rd August 1914.
Fred Johnson Dale, son of Joseph and Hannah Dale, of 1, Stokoe St., Newcastle-on-Tyne; husband of Annie Dale, of 5, Cemetery Rd., Gateshead-on-Tyne.
George Peterkin, who was born in Greenwich, Kent; son of Mr. and Mrs. Peterkin, of 49, Usk Rd., Battersea, London
Robert Storrie who was born in Roxburgh and who enlisted at Berwick.
All three are buried at La Ferte-sous-Jouarre which is a small town about 50 miles to the east of Paris. [iii]
A fews days later, the 2nd battalion was involved in the major Battle of le Cateau. The battalion continued in the front line for the next three months until relieved in a much-weakened state in December by the 2nd battalion of the Duke of Wellington's Regiment. [iv]
Subsequently, the 1st and 2nd battalions of the KOSBs joined other British Infantry to break the deadlock of trench warfare. After a seven day artillery bombardment, at precisely 7.30 am on 1st July 1916, the British Divisions on the River Somme attacked the German Second Army. Of course the 1st and 2nd battalions were there. "Going over the top" with them were thousands of amateur enthusiasts who made up the ranks of the 'New Army' including the 6th, 7th and 8th battalions of the KOSBs. [v]
The British lost more than 500,000 men killed or wounded on this one-mile deep, 20-mile-wide section of the front line between July and November 1916. On the first day alone, in the KOSB battalions, 128 soldiers were killed in action, including William Lightbody and John Small who had enlisted in Dumfries and John Ovens who had enlisted in Galashiels. It is known that Private Lightbody is buried at the Beaumont-Hamel British Cemetery, but the whereabouts of the graves of Small and Ovens is not known. The final tally of British fatalities for 1 July 1916 was 21,000 killed with another 36,000 wounded or captured. [vi] It was, and is still, the worst single day in the British Army's history. And the War was to last a further two years.
The National Archives record great acts of courage for which Gallantry Medals were awarded. The most prestigious of these is the Victoria Cross, which was instituted by Royal Warrant in 1856 with the words:-
"It is ordained that this Cross shall only be awarded for most conspicuous bravery, or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy". The Victoria Cross could be awarded to any officer or man in the British armed services regardless of rank.
The VC is the most highly coveted and valued decoration, which might be awarded for performing a single act of valour in the presence of the enemy. Bars were awarded for subsequent acts of extreme courage. Until 1942, the medallions were made from the bronze of cannons captured from the Russians in the 1854 Crimean War. The award was made available to Colonial forces in 1867 and to the Indian Army in 1911.
Four VCs were awarded to soldiers of the KOSBs during WW1. The accompanying citations are indicative of the great courage involved:-
7th KOSB. Loos, 25th September 1915. At the outset of the battle, the battalion was confronted by poison gas and heavy artillery fire. [vii] The legendary 'Piper of Loos' led the assault from the trenches, playing the Regimental March and Charge. Although badly wounded in the legs, he followed the Jocks towards their objective until the severity of his wounds forced him to withdraw. Piper Laidlaw's actions were also recognised by the French Government who awarded him the Croix de Guerre.
William Henry Grimbaldston
On 16 August 1917 at Wijdendrift Belgium, Company Quartermaster-Sergeant Grimbaldston noticed that the unit on his left was held up by enemy machine-gun fire from a blockhouse. Arming himself with a rifle and hand grenade he started to crawl towards his objective, and when he had advanced about 100 yards another soldier came forward to give covering support. Although wounded, he pushed on to the blockhouse, threatened the machine-gun teams inside with a hand grenade and forced them to surrender. This action resulted in the capture of 36 prisoners, six machine-guns and one trench mortar. Like Laidlaw, Grimbaldston was also awarded the Croix de Guerre
John Kendrick Skinner
On 18 August 1917, also at Wijdendrift when his company was held up by machine-gun fire, Company Sergeant-Major Skinner, although wounded in the head, collected six men and with great courage and determination worked round the left flank of three block-houses from which the machine-gun fire was coming, and succeeded in bombing and taking the first block-house single-handedly. Then leading his men towards the other two block-houses he cleared them, taking 60 prisoners, three machine-guns and two trench mortars. He was subsequently killed by a sniper's bullet. At his funeral, there were nine other holders of the V.C. from the 29th Division, six of them acting as pallbearers.
Louis, (Lewis), McGuffie
On 28 September 1918 near Wytschaete Belgium, during an advance, Sergeant McGuffie entered several enemy dug-outs and, single-handedly, took many prisoners. During subsequent operations he dealt similarly with dug-out after dug-out, forcing one officer and 25 other ranks to surrender. During the consolidation of the first objective, he pursued and brought back several of the enemy who were slipping away and was also instrumental in rescuing some British soldiers who were being led off as prisoners. Later in the day, while commanding a platoon, he took many more prisoners, but this very gallant soldier was subsequently killed by a shell on 4th October 1918. He was aged 24 and the son of Mrs Catherine McGuffie of 1 North Main Street Wigtown. He is buried at the Zandvoorde British Cemetery, Zonnebeke, Belguim. There are 1,583 servicemen of WW1 buried in this cemetery of whom 1,135 have not been identified. [viii]
For outstanding bravery by commissioned officers, which does not merit a VC, the Military Cross may be awarded. Some of those officers from the KOSBs who received this distinction include:-
Adam Prentice Nimmo, son of James and Mary Nimmo, of 10, Priestfield Road, Edinburgh. Enlisted 1914 and gazetted in 1915. He also served at Gallipoli as a Mining Engineer. He died on 17th November 1917 and was buried at Kantara War Memorial Cemetery which is situated on the eastern side of the Suez Canal, 160 kilometres north-east of Cairo.
Andrew Durward, son of the late Robert Durward and of Mrs. Durward, of 4, Graham St., Edinburgh. M.A., Edinburgh University. He died 16th October 1918 and was buried at Dadizeele British Cemetery which is located 10 miles east of Ypres in Belgium.
For outstanding bravery by other ranks, which does not merit a VC, the Distinguished Conduct Medal may be awarded. The KOSBs won 152 Distinguished Conduct Medals. B H Cunliffe, W Hillyard, J Milligan and H B Turnbull received bars, (or second awards), to their DCMs.
Some other soldiers who died include:-
Robert Townsend, (another holder of the DCM), son of Charles and Mary Townsend, of 54, Bank St., Dumfries. Born at Hawick, Roxburghshire he died on 21st November 1917 and is buried in the Cairo war memorial cemetery, Egypt.
William McRae, born in Galashiels, son of Mr. and Mrs. Alexander McRae, of 103, High Buckholmside, Galashiels. Private McRae died of wounds on 3rd November 1918. He is buried at the British Cemetery near Peronne in the Department of the Somme.
The case of James Jardine is particularly poignant. [ix] He died on 16th November 1918 from wounds received before hostilities ended at 11.0 am on 11th November 1918. He was the son of the late Mr. and Mrs. John Jardine, of 39, Moat Rd., Annan, Dumfriesshire; husband of Elizabeth Lauder Jardine, of Longnewton, St. Boswells, Roxburghshire.
Two privates of the KOSBs were shot at dawn for desertion in the face of the enemy. It is now widely believed that many of the men who suffered this fate in WW1 were not cowards but were experiencing stress related illnesses. The Secretary of State for Defence has been asked repeatedly to provide a blanket pardon for over 300 soldiers who were executed in WW1 including the two unfortunate KOSB soldiers. [x]
Thanks to all who supported the campaign. With your help a very stubborn Government has been forced to do an about turn.
The portion of the "butcher's bill" for the whole of the war paid by the Dumfries and Galloway Regiment was over 6,500 killed in action with many more wounded or disabled. For a sparsely populated, agricultural region this was a terrible price. The loss and suffering, not to mention the harvest of 1919 and for many years afterwards, was a heavy burden for those who were left. Their comfort was in the knowledge that the Great War was the "war to end wars".
The Creetown War Memorial. KOSB is the predominant regiment of most of those on the memorial although one of Bob O'Hara's ancestors, Private Robert O'Hara, died in 1917 whilst serving with the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders.
Bob O'Hara is a native of Galloway and had many relatives who served with the KOSBs in WW1. As a schoolboy, he helped to gather the harvest during WW2, in the absence of able-bodied adults.
[i] In the British army, those who are not commissioned officers are referred to as 'Other Ranks' (O.R.s), or enlisted men.Return to text
[ii] WO 95/4311. Return to text
[iii] Much of the information about deaths and places of burial in this article is taken from the National Archives data on 'Soldiers Died in the Great War' and from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Return to text
[iv] WO 95/1552. Return to text
[v] WO 95/1953. Return to text
[vi] For comparison, there were 57,591 US fatalities in the Vietnam War. Return to text
[vii] WO 95/1953. Return to text
[viii] Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Return to text
[ix] TNA - SDGW. Return to text
[x] Readers who wish to comment on this campaign should write to:-
Secretary of State for Defence
House of Commons
Return to text
R W O'HARA
15 Ruskin Avenue
TW9 4DR England
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