Shetlanders at the Battle of Loos

Some 26 men with Shetland connections served with the Black Watch during World War One. Two of them were killed at the Battle of Loos. Jon Sandison explains more.

A summer break in alluring and tranquil Perthshire provided harsh reminders of not so peaceful times, 100 years ago.

Perth is the home of the striking revamped Black Watch and Castle Museum. It was a fine warm July day, but it was hard not to get drawn inside.

The museum site contains historic and dramatic Balhousie Castle, set in its own grounds. It was established in 1952, and in 2013 reopened to the public following a major redevelopment project with extra visitor facilities and a new shop and cafe.

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The Black Watch is one of the most famous regiments of the British Army, having served the Crown in every major war for nearly three centuries. Almost anywhere you go across the globe their name can conjure up fond recognition, visions of bravery, valour, true Scottish grit and determination. Today, the spirit and record of the regiment is carried forward by the Royal Regiment of Scotland, created in 2006 by the amalgamation of all the Scottish infantry regiments.

With the 1715 Jacobite Rebellion, companies from loyal clans Campbell, Grant, Fraser and Munro were raised. In 1725, six companies were formed in order to stop fighting between the clans, clamp down on smuggling, cattle rustling, and to curtail the carrying of weapons. In 1739, George II agreed to the raising of more companies, and the first muster of the Black Watch took place near Aberfeldy.

The regiment saw action in Flanders in 1745, in North America during the mid to late 19th century, and during the Napoleonic Wars and India during the early to mid 19th century. Now, their birthplace is commemorated by a monument. From 1881 the regiment was officially known as The Black Watch.

A visit to Scone across the river in Perth was also a reminder that this was the location where the Shetland Territorials spent part of their time before embarking to the Western Front, 100 years ago.

As these Shetland men prepared for war, others were already in the thick of it. Walking around the Regimental Museum rooms, a poignant memorial section to the Great War stood in a blackened, sombre room with a memorial book at the front. On the wall were seamless white wall patterns.

Closer inspection revealed the more sobering realisation that in fact every set of white dots surrounding the wall were names of all of the Black Watch men killed during the Great War, including 14 Shetlanders.

A total of 26 men with Shetland connections are estimated to have served with the Black Watch during 1914-18. Although more Shetland men served with other regiments such as the Gordon and Seaforth Highlanders, the attrition among those who served with the Black Watch was higher. Two of them were killed during the Battle of Loos. Lance Sergeant Peter Tait Petrie, 8th Battalion, 9th Division, and Sergeant Charles Cowan Thomason, 9th Battalion,15th Division.

Upon the outbreak of war, there were seven Black Watch battalions – the 1st, 2nd and 3rd along with four territorial battalions. The1st Battalion was in action from the outset of the war, taking part in the retreat from Mons, the Marne and Aisne. As part of the 1st (Guards) Brigade, they took part in three separate battles which made up the First Battle of Ypres.

With a force of around 7,850, they held back the Kaiser’s elite Prussian Guard which numbered around 17,500. By 1915, the Territorial and newly formed “service battalions” were to see action.
By the end of the war, over 50,000 men served in 25 battalions. More than 8,000 were killed and over 20,000 wounded.

Britain was under pressure from France to play a more active part, and take over more of the Western Front line. In September, 1915, the British section of the Western Front reached from Ypres in the north, to Loos-en Gohelle, just to the north of Vimy Ridge further south. During April and May in 1915, the British Second Army had been engaged in a defensive battle in Belgium at the Second Battle of Ypres. This was a desperate struggle with the Germans almost breaking the British line, incurring significant loss.

The British First Army, commanded by Sir Douglas Haig began three efforts to break the German lines in northern France. Compared to what was to follow, these were comparatively small scale engagements.

The Battle of Loos was to be the largest and most ambitious British offensive to date and was a final effort by the French and the British to push the German army out of France before winter set in.

When the battle began on Saturday 25th, it was the largest involvement for the BEF in the war up to that time. In all, six divisions were to take part, amounting to 75,000 men in the initial attack. Some of Kitchener’s volunteer army would be involved in battle for the first time. At this stage, the BEF was unrecognisable from that which had arrived in the autumn of 1914, being a mixture of territorials, reservists, and individual volunteers, quickly trained and fast tracked to the front. Between May and September 1915 up to 15 divisions of Kitchener’s “New Army” landed in France and Belgium.

It is understandable that Loos is often referred to as the “Scottish Battle” given the large numbers of Scottish troops in action. The recent commemoration in Dundee in September is testament to that. It is estimated that 30,000 took part.

Of the 72 Infantry Battalions who in the initial phase of the battle, half were Scottish. Scottish losses were to be so severe that no part of Scotland was unaffected. Shetland was no different.
The date for the battle had been originally set for 8th September. Delays in preparing the Champagne sector for action resulted a postponement until the 25th.

A preliminary bombardment of four days was a sure sign that an attack was coming. Assaulting troops arrived into position on 23rd and 24th September. Shortly before soldiers went over the top at day break on the 25th, rum rations were served out. The infantry attacked at 6.30am. In response, the Germans moved up reserves. Their lines were strongly defended – and had hardly been touched by the British artillery.

9TH DIVISION

Loos was a battle that would be fought before artillery had had a full opportunity to churn up the landscape that we so equate with the Western Front. Troops would go into it wearing flat caps. The initial version of the Brodie steel helmet was only issued for active service in April 1916, and only regarded as standard issue by the summer of 1916. Going forward, men clutched on to rifles with bayonets, moving over wooded areas, the coal slag heaps and built up towns.

For the 9th Division, their objective was Hohenzollern Redoubt. It was a thousand yards south of Auchy, a coal mine with a high and strongly defended flat-topped spoil heap which had a strategic view.

This German position was nearly 500 yards in front of their lines and near the British front line. It provided a pivotal position for observation; a strong point dominating much of the northern sector. It was connected with their front by three communication trenches that led to the defences of Fosse 8 Trench.

The 9th Division, including Shetlander Peter Petrie and his battalion of the 8th Black Watch, was to capture the Hohenzollern Redoubt and then to push on to the buildings and dump of Fosse 8 Mining Area, where they would have to clear the miners’ houses, and the buildings of its pithead. Here Lance Sergeant Peter Tait Petrie, 8th Battalion, was killed on 27th September, aged 34.

A continual fascination with the Great War is how local links are tied to wider events. Peter was the son of James and Joan Petrie, of 4 Church Lane, Lerwick. His parents were originally from Snarburgh, Unst. He had five siblings, and had enlisted with the Black Watch in Lochgelly, Fife, where he lived. The Black Watch were his local regiment.

Prior to joining the Black Watch, Peter had formerly been a member of the local 7th Volunteer Battalion of the Gordon Highlanders. He enlisted in the first month or two and was possibly promoted to lance corporal due to previous military experience. It may have just been a temporary promotion. His medal card shows his rank as private when he first went to France.
In the same way he seems to have been again given a temporary promotion to lance sergeant which is mentioned in the article from the time of his death, while the medal card shows corporal.

He had been employed as a shoemaker with the Lochgelly Co-Operative Society.
Petrie’s battalion joined the 26th Brigade of the 9th Scottish Division, and was formed in Perth in August 1914. They mobilised for war and landed at Boulogne on 10th May, 1915. Peter was listed in The Shetland Times of 3rd October 3rd, 1914, as having been “appointed a lance-corporal in Lord Kitchener’s Army – 8th Black Watch”.

In early and mid-September, they had been in billets at Bethune. By 21st September they were in the trenches and witnessed the continuous bombardment on the German trenches by the British artillery. By the 24th, the 5th Cameron Highlanders relieved Peter’s battalion in the frontline and support trenches.

Containing around 10,000 men, the 9th Division was commanded by Major-General Thesiger and attacked with the 26th Brigade and 28th Brigade on a front of 1,500 yards towards their objective. As part of the division, Peter’s battalion, as well as the 8th Gordons, followed behind the 5th Camerons and 7th Seaforths.

A smokescreen would hide the advance, with Stokes mortars providing a covering barrage of smoke shells. New assembly trenches were dug close to the redoubt, and engineers led digging of shallow tunnels which stretched across no man’s land. During the darkness of the 24th, Peter’s division opened up these tunnels and dug out assembly trenches which helped to ensure a degree of surprise in the opening minutes. This was to cause problems for support troops as they were hampered by poorly formed trenches.

With the initial assault at 6.30am, and after 40 minutes of gas, artillery and machine gun bombardment, the 9th Division attack on the German high ground began, and then pushed on to their first objective.

A decision had been taken to use chlorine gas and smoke as there was a shortage of shells for the artillery. It is estimated that 140 tons of chlorine gas was released by the British from 5,000 cylinders placed on the front line.

The combined regiments continued forward, taking Dump Trench, just to the west of Fosse 8 Trench. Severe casualties were endured a result of heavy machine gun fire from a position further on the left hand side of the divisional attack, as well as Haisnes to the east.

The 8th Black Watch, who had waited in the rear of the 5th Camerons, were moving towards the Coron Houses. As they crossed one of the target trenches, they became hidden behind the contours of the ground. There was no other target to focus on.

German guns swung round to wait for them to come out. The advance over the top, rather than allowing the men to take a slower but safer route along the German trenches, cost the Black Watch dearly. Battalion bombers entered a maze of trenches, and began clearing dug outs. As they began clearing the houses, heavy machine gun fire swept through the streets, causing heavy casualties. The houses were in the battalion hands by 9.30am. This line contained a mixture of Black Watch and Camerons holding from the southeast corner of the Corons along the eastern face of the Redoubt.

The line was held until 1.30am, under heavy shell fire, and much rifle and machine gun fire from the east and southeast. Relief from the 73rd Brigade eventually came. But, just as this was in progress, a German counter attack on the right came, which was held back by machine gun and rifle fire. The regiment then retired to original lines after relief was completed. On the 26th, they took up their old position and got ready to resist any counterattack by the Germans.

This line was held all day and the following evening. On the day that Peter was killed, they had moved forward again.

On 28th September 1915, the battalion was withdrawn early in the morning to the reserve trench. Peter’s Medal Card notes date of death as being the 27th. His body was never found. He was awarded the 1915 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal. By the 29th, his battalion was back in billets at Bethune. Peter was noted as the first Co-Operative employee to be killed.

15TH DIVISION

The 9th Scottish Division, including Peter Petrie, had been fighting south of Auchy under heavy shell fire and counterattack from the Germans.

Meanwhile, further south, the 15th Scottish Division were to storm two German defensive lines and capture the village of Loos, taking Hill 70. Among them was Sergeant Charles Cowan Thomason, 9th Battalion Black Watch.

He was the eldest son of Thomas Thomason, a crofter and postman, and Helen Thomason, of Post Office House, South Dale, Fetlar. He had six siblings.

His battalion was formed at Perth as part of Kitchener’s Second New Army, K2, and moved to Aldershot to join the 44th Brigade, 15th Division. By early July, 1915, it mobilised for war and landed at Boulogne. Its involvement in the Battle of Loos was its first major engagement. Charles arrived in France on the 14th of July, 1915.

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Days before the Loos assault, the com­mand­ing officer had issued all details of impending operations. The battalion moving by companies, took up positions on their lines of trenches to the west of Lens Road Redoubt. Charles, with his battalion, was in position by midnight on 24th September. Being a sergeant, Charles would have been checking up on the men around him, providing instructions and most likely passing on words of encouragement.

At 5.05am, on 25th September, orders were received for the gas cylinders to be discharged. At this point, the Germans started a heavy bombardment of the battalion trenches. As the wind was not strong enough, a portion of the gas came back onto their own trenches.

At zero hour, the men climbed out of the trenches and formed up ready to advance. Two machine guns on the Lens road targeted across them. An observer gave note of their progress: “No one present will ever forget the attack. As one the leading two platoons of ‘A’ Company leapt on the parapet and, making their way through the British wire, steadily advanced toward the German front line, followed by the remainder of the battalion at regular intervals. It seemed impossible to realise that these lines of disciplined soldiers had been, 12 short months before, almost all civilians… The distance to be crossed varied from 80 to 200 yards and, despite the fierce fire, not a line wavered or stopped.”

They moved forward and captured the German first line of trenches. The 8th Seaforth Highlanders had been allotted the task of assaulting on the left, 7th Cameron Highlanders in support of both Black Watch and Seaforths, and 10th Gordon Highlanders in Reserve.

The 9th Battalion, and the Seaforths, had taken the second German lines and fought their way through the village of Loos. The brigade had entered the streets around 7am, and intense street fighting took place and many Germans surrendered.

Many of the Black Watch came into the village and separated into small groups, breaking into houses, taking further prisoners, and rescuing civilians; the majority of these were women and children.

By around 8.30am, the officer commanding the 9th Battalion received information that they had established a position on Hill 70. During this day and the night, the brigade held on and the
position was maintained. Remaining positions of the Battalion were scattered along this zone.
The familiar pattern developed – the division was now threatened with the counterattack, and during the afternoon became pinned down on the forward slope of Hill 70. At 9am on 26th September, the division, reinforced by the 21st Division was ordered to attack and recapture
Hill 70. But, no breakthrough could be achieved.

For Charles Thomason, this part of his Loos experience was over. His battalion, by early October, were in billets at Lillers and were undertaking a programme of training. On 25th October they were ordered to take over a new line of trenches. The 10th Gordon Highlanders and 7th Camerons were in the front line, with the 9th Black Watch and 8th Seaforths in support. That day, three men were killed by a German shell as they were taking over the line. This is the day Charles is recorded as being killed on his Medal Card.

The Shetland News, of December 16th, 1915, reported: “Shetland Soldier Killed – Mr Thos. C Thomson, sub-postmaster at Fetlar, has received official intimation of the death of his son, Sergeant Charles Cullen Thomson, of the Black Watch. We understand that the deceased soldier has been reported missing for some time. Sergt Thomson was a fine young man, possessed of considerable ability, as is shown by the rank he held. The deepest sympathy is extended to his relatives in their sad bereavement.”

Charles obtained the Victory Medal, British War Medal and 1915 Star. His brother Thomas was in the Royal Engineers.

Before leaving for war, Charles was engaged to be married. His fiancée, Izzy Hutton, kept in touch with mother and sister for many years after. She came up to Fetlar to visit Charles’s mother after the war. Izzy never married, just like many women of that time.

The arguments raged then as now. This battle was meaningless in what was actually achieved. In all, there were an estimated 48,367 British casualties in the main Battle of Loos attack. German casualties were estimated at around 26,000. It is estimated that just over 6,300 were lost on the first day alone; the highest death rate in the 7th Division with 1,565 killed and 15th Scottish Division with 1,595 killed.

There are 20,598 names of officers and men on the Loos Memorial, who have no known grave. The Cemetery of Dud Corner is located just to the west of Loos. Surrounding the cemetery on three sides is the Loos Memorial. It is estimated that of the 20,598 names on the memorial, one-third are Scottish. Little wonder that the Loos Centenary commemoration was centred around Dundee in September.

Dundee’s Own, the 4th Battalion, part of the Meerut Division, arrived in France in February that year. Its strength came to 900. Out of 20 officers, 19 were killed or wounded. Out of the 430 men who took part in the attack, 230 were killed or wounded.

Two names on the memorial wall are Peter Petrie and Charles Cowan Thomason. Both on Panel Reference 78-83. The Memorial stands almost on the site of a German strong point, the Lens Road Redoubt, captured by the 15th Division on the first day of the Battle.

Overall, the Black Watch had significant casualties. The 9th Battalion were to lose 680 men, of which 20 were officers, in the first hours of the fighting as part of the first wave of the 44th Brigade.

For the 8th Black Watch, they were to lose 511 men of which 19 were officers, while being reserve reinforcements of the 26th Brigade.

In all, there are 829 Black Watch names alone on the Loos Memorial. The 15th Division lost 6,896,while the 9th Division lost 6,058.

Seven other Shetlanders died in this battle, and the diversionary attack at Bellewaarde east of Ypres. This attack on 25th September, on the trenches held by the Germans in the vicinity of Hooge and Bellewaarde Lake, was made with the object of distracting attention from a “full-dress” attempt to break through at Loos, to the south, and to contain the German’s reserves.

This Shetland list is a reminder that Shetland men served beyond just the Scottish Regiments.

  • James Blance, S/2200, 8th Gordon Highlanders, died 25th September, 1915
  • James Gifford, S/9655, 1st Gordon Highlanders, died 25th September, 1915
  • Lieutenant Walter Inkster, 4th Gordon Highlanders, died 25th September, 1915
  • Andrew John Blance/Blanch(e), 9039, 13th Northumberland Fusiliers, died 26th September, 1915
  • Lawrence Andrew Edgar, 26401, 1st King’s (Liverpool) Regiment, died 25th September, 1915
  • William Gibb, 9253, 1st Cameron Highlanders, died 28th September, 1915
  • John Omond, 12970, 12th Royal Scots, died 12th October, 1915.

Moving on from the 100th anniversary of Loos, and to other key dates, it is important to reflect on these men, and the others who fell during this month, on all sides. We can only wonder why war continues to blight our earth.

There is one other anecdote. In the fighting north of Loos, Rudyard Kipling’s only son John, a lieutenant in the Irish Guards, was reported missing, believed killed.

It was Rudyard Kipling who composed the wording used on the gravestones of soldiers who could not be identified at the time of burial: A Soldier of the Great War/Known unto God’. He also chose the line: “Their name liveth for evermore”, from Ecclesiasticus, which features on the Stone of Remembrance.

John had been in France for about six weeks when he was killed during the battle. Along with so many others, Kipling spent the remaining years of his life somehow trying to cope with his grief, while also looking to find his son’s remains.

His grave was formally identified in 1992. He is listed as being buried in St Mary’s Cemetery, Haisnes.

There was little further fighting after 14th October, although military operations did not officially stop until 4th November 1915. One of the main stumbling blocks in all fighting on the Western Front was the lack of proper communication in relation to the advanced technology of weaponry available.

Orders which came up the line were often too late, or not correct. Attacking divisions went in without accurate maps.

Also, too many attacks were carried out against well dug in machine guns which the British artillery bombardment had not destroyed.

The failure at Loos resulted in the departure of General John French from his position as commander-in-chief of the British Army. His replacement was General Douglas Haig on 19th December, 1915. Despite the severe knockbacks, volunteers continued to build the ranks of Kitchener’s New Army, which was fortunate because by March 1916 the British sector of the front extended from Ypres to the Somme, the French having abandoned Artois to fight in the infernal cauldron of Verdun.

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The mistakes made at the Battle were not learned and repetition of such loss was to be hauntingly mirrored on the Somme in 1916.

Back to last summer, and my visit to the Black Watch Museum in Perthshire – as we walked out the tea room was quiet, and the car park had emptied. It felt like we were the last ones to leave. It was time to head back to the holiday home.

We had missed the sun on that nice Perthshire day. It really was too warm to be inside. Somehow though, it didn’t seem to matter. We could only think back about standing in that darkened memorial room, looking at the names upon it, and reflecting that we’d hopefully have another day to see sunshine.

All those men never saw any more glorious summer days. The names of 1916 were to continue on a seamless white list in the museum.

At the going down of the sun
and in the morning
We will remember them.

Sources and Acknowledgements:

  • September 1915: Shetlanders and the Battle of Loos, by Graham Johnston
  • Emma Halford Forbes, museum manager, The Black Watch Museum
  • Commonwealth War Graves Commission
  • A History of the Black Watch, (Royal Highlanders in the Great War, 1914-1918). Vol 3, p133. Edt A.G. Wauchope.
  • Mimie Hughson and Sonya Gray for family information on Charles Cowan Thomason
  • The Shetland Times, 3rd October, 1914, The Shetland News, 16th December, 1915
  • Sir John French Despatch of 15th October, 1915, Pen and Sword Books, 2013, pp110-113
  • Dundee Courier of 7th December, 1915
  • Loos – Hohenzollern. By Andrew Rawson. Pen and Sword Books. 2003, p62
  • Loos – Hill 70 by Andrew Rawson. Pen and Sword Books. 2002.
  • The Battle of Loos, by Philip Warner. Wordsworth Military Library. 1976
  • The Western Front, by Richard Holmes.
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