Acland in the Regimental History – Part III….

-2This is the third and final post documenting each significant mention of Peregrine Acland in Kim Beattie’s marvelous regimental history, The 48th Highlanders of Canada: 1891-1928.

As you’ll recall, Acland was lightly wounded in the action at Mont Sorrel but soldiered on; come September he and the 48th found themselves on the Somme.

At 7 p.m. on the 4th of September, 1916, the unit began moving into the Somme, passing through Pozières towards their front-line positions.  They got hopelessly lost on their way to the front:

23014LR“No. 2 Company suddenly appeared walking along the parapet of the front-line.  They didn’t know where they were, they were so tired they didn’t care, and their guide and those in front, including Major Acland, whom they greatly admired, had taken many insults that night from the harassed rear, doubling to keep up” (Beattie: p. 163).

Note: If you’ll imagine a column of men marching, what often happens is the men at the front set an uneven pace.  Invariably this increase in pace, followed by a slackening, ripples through the entire column as each rank adjusts their pace, rather like an accordion.  The gap between each man is thus magnified at the rear of a column; you’ll be plodding along and very suddenly there will be a twenty yard gap between the tail of the column and its body.  Hence the men at the rear have to run to catch up, if only to curse the men in front of them more forcefully.

At 1:45 a.m. on September 8th, the unit moved out of the line.  Only a week’s stay, but the shelling had been constant and the 48th took over 100 casualties (Beattie: pp.166-167).  After some time in the rear, the 48th Highlanders began marching back towards the Somme battlefield on the 24th of September.  Their destination was Courcelette, two miles east of Thiepval, where they would launch an attack on the 26th.  The map below is taken from page 171 of Beattie’s book: the 15th Battalion’s lines are just west of Courcelette; they would be attacking the Regina trench to their north.  This battle is where Acland receives his devastating wounds that will knock him out of the war; it is also the battle described in the climactic final chapters of All Else is Folly.

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On pages 170-172, Beattie reproduces the operation orders for the battle.  Operational Orders contain the nitty gritty detail of who is supposed to be where during the battle, contingencies, objectives, when and where artillery will support the advance, etc.  In short, it’s the plan.  There are four items of interest for the Acland enthusiast in these orders:

230111). Filed under “Assembly:” three companies of the 15th Battalion will be engaged in the attack, No. 1 on the right, No. 2 in the centre (under Acland’s command), No. 3 on the left.

2). Filed under “Connecting Units:” to the right of the 15th Battalion’s battle formation are the 14th Battalion, the Royal Montreal Regiment.  If you’ll recall the final battle scene from Folly, where Falcon gives his pistol to a French Canadian soldier that ends up wandering off, this is the likely biographical source for this detail.

3). The 16th Battalion (the Canadian Scottish Regiment) were in support.  Cy Peck was the commanding officer of the 16th during the Somme, and in fact the 16th and 15th Battalions were often in the same area of the front from ’15 onwards.  Acland was the Battalion intelligence officer before being given a company to command, and indeed Peck was in the room when Acland sent one of his officers to Battalion HQ requesting permission to halt the attack at Mont Sorrel.  Circumstantial evidence to be sure, but I believe this strengthens my contention the two men knew each other, and explains why Peck was relatively gentle in his criticisms of Folly as compared to other Canadian war novels.

4).  Filed under “Medical:” “During the attack no one is to remain behind with wounded officers or other ranks.  The stretcher-bearers will attend to this duty” (Beattie: 172).

23019At 12:35 p.m. on September 26th, the 15th Battalion attacked.  A trench thought to be unoccupied, called “Fabek Graben Trench” about a hundred yards ahead of the 15th’s trenches to the north-east, suddenly erupted with machine-gun fire.  This obstacle would have to be overcome before the rest of the attack on the more northerly German trenches could proceed.

“Men were falling throughout the length of No. 2 Company’s front in serious numbers…. No. 2 Company was still held to ground, principally by a wildly traversing but bravely-manned machine-gun.  Major Acland’s early waves were already badly cut up.  He, with the man or two next to him, headed for the stub of an old communication trench.  The Major fired up this with his Colt and a signaller near him heaved a bomb.  It was a dud.  A potato-masher dropped at the Major’s feet.  Another dud.  Then along behind the trench came Major Girvan and the pair of black-headed fighting bombers.  [They all proceed to clear the trench].  A few seconds more and the Highlanders in front swarmed over the stubborn trench and it was ours….  Major Acland said afterwards: ‘Major Girvan was truly magnificent'” (Beattie: p. 176).

As the attack presses towards the Regina Trench, “a number of Huns popped out of the ground, after firing until the line was close, and either surrendered or fled.  One Hun, standing up, fired directly at Major Girvan, who with Major Acland, was getting the right flank of the delayed line up with Major Mavor on the left.    The Hun, firing the shot, dropped his rifle and skyward went his arms.  The Major grabbed the scruff of his neck and kicked him mightily in the rear… The line was laughing hysterically and shouting inanities to one another.  Major Girvan didn’t get far beyond the Fabeck Graben.  He went down shortly, hit in the chest, and those near him knew he was “in a bad way.”  Major Acland shook hands with him and went on” (Beattie: p. 177).

23017The attack continues; it is now just shy of one o’clock.  “Just after breasting the slope, and away from the surprise of the Fabeck Graban, there had been a right-incline which was carried through in perfect parade-ground style, officers well in front of the line, blowing whistles which weren’t heard.  Major Acland gave the field-training right-incline motion with his arm and the entire left section of the line turned half-right as if on manoeuvres [sic]” (Beattie: p. 177).

The 15th Battalion is surging forward toward their objective, but then suddenly the advance slowed.  “At 1:30 p.m. Major Acland was wounded, and so badly that no one expected him to recover.  The line went on and he lay in a shell-hole all afternoon and evening and at midnight recovered  enough to move.  Stretcher-bearers had done what they could for him.  Then he was hit again, in the face, by a whizz-bang, a piece lodging over his eye, which was later found in the back of his brain.  He was an invalide for many months, but miraculously lived.  Major Acland had been with the Battalion in France since May, 1915., and had always been one of its most dependable and outstanding officers” (Beattie: p. 178).

The 15th Battalion would come up just short of their objective that day; Acland was one of 14 officer casualties in the attack, and as we know, his war was now over.

All quotations taken from Kim Beattie’s, 48th Highlanders of Canada 1891-1928.  Toronto: published by the 48th Highlanders of Canada, 1932.

Stretcher Team

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