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Book of the Month

September 2005

The Sixth Battalion
Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders

Loos: 1915

Sp Coll MS Gen 1376 & MS Gen 532

September 2005 marks the 90th anniversary of the Battle of Loos in the First World War. Our feature this month therefore focuses on a small archive relating to the 6th Battalion Queens' Own Cameron Highlanders, Scottish soldiers who played an heroic but costly role in the action. These papers were presented to the University in 1974 by the Battalion's Reunion Club and include written reminiscences, photographs, press cuttings, and other memorabilia.

MS Gen 1376/6
excerpt from diary of James Campbell

War against Germany was declared by Britain at midnight on 4 August 1914. Within days, Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for war, appealed for 100,000 men to volunteer to fight in a temporary 'New Army'. There were over 100,000 recruits from Scotland alone by October 1914.

MS Gen 1376/11/9
Rushmoor Camp, Aldershot: October 1914
Postcard home from George Kerr: 'this is a photo of our tent'

Colonel D. W. Cameron of Lochiel was in charge of the recruitment campaign for the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders. He stipulated that men joining together should remain together. Over 200 students and staff of Glasgow University volunteered under this proviso, forming the nucleus of the 6th Battalion's B Company. The 6th was one of four extra service battalions formed for the duration of the war.

The early volunteers began their military careers at Rushmoor camp, near Aldershot. It was a rude awakening to the realities of army life for the keen recruits. The quarters were inadequate, up to 17 men having to share tents designed for 8. Equipment was sparse and there were no uniforms. For the first month they drilled in civilian clothes until being issued in October with old militia uniforms with bright red tunics. This Crimean era garb can be seen clearly in the postcard to the left.

One of the first Glasgow University men to enlist was Francis John MacCunn. From Tarbert in Scotland, he was an Oxford graduate. In 1914, he was working as an assistant in the Department of History, having just completed his book The Contemporary English View of Napoleon. A Captain in the Officers' Training Corps, his enthusiasm to join up is probably not surprising. He wrote home regularly throughout his military service and these letters are now also preserved in Special Collections (MS Gen 532) and supplement the Battalion's archive in providing a first hand record of the experience of the Great War.

His first letter home, sent on 27th September 1914, is typical of the spirit of optimism that prevailed amongst the recruits of Kitchener's New Armies during the early months of the war. He predicts that 'in all human probability' he will survive the war, even suggesting that there is 'a chance of the war being over before we go out'; but if they are sent on active service, he doubts that they will be involved in any 'serious affair'.

MacCunn began his service with the Camerons as a lieutenant and was soon put in command of a platoon of University men. His letters often criticise the cumbersome, rather amateurish, army machine in which he had found himself embroiled. He found 'military life very stunting to the intelligence' and, in his opinion, not much could be expected of the New Army 'for some time'. He was especially scathing about many of his superior officers: while the men included some 'excellent material', and the subalterns were keen, he found the captains 'woefully ignorant' and 'stupid'. He referred to his own Company Commander as 'Captain Panic' and complained that the men were being taught wrongly -  'How we got through the Boer war with such officers, goodness only knows'.

MS Gen 1376/11/1
Francis MacCunn

MS Gen 1376/11/2
Officers of B Company near Bramshott, other ranks (from no 5 Platoon) standing easy at roadside
 February 1915

The Battalion moved to Bramshott in the middle of November for further training. On open moorland, the camp's ground was often intolerably muddy and the huts were leaky. MacCunn described it as 'the coldest spot in England'.

The photograph on the left shows B Company on a training exercise in early 1915. The Company Commander, Major W. R. D. Mackenzie, is seated on a horse. To his right is the second in command, Captain A. J. Campbell-Colquhoun; 2nd Lieutenant G. B. Mackenzie stands in the foreground, with Francis MacCunn to his left and 2nd Lieutenant Guy Cameron on his right. The men in the background are MacCunn's platoon: 'splendid' men, 'the very best type of Glasgow University ... much more suited to be officers than many who have got commissions'.

MS Gen 1376/11/9
No 5 Platoon, B Company at Basingstoke: March 1915

In February 1915, the Battalion moved to Basingstoke. Conditions were more comfortable here, the men being billeted with local families. Kilts were at last issued, and the dreadful red tunics could be discarded. By this time, it was becoming apparent that there would be no early conclusion to the war, and casualty lists were growing longer. MacCunn had now spoken to men who had been on the Western Front, and he had visited a badly wounded friend in hospital. Although he now realized that they were unlikely to get through unscathed, his attitude was that 'we don't mind much'.
Towards the end of April, an 'excellent' camp at Chiseldon became the Battalion's new home. A period of intense training began. According to the official history, it was here that the unit 'really got together'. MacCunn tells a slightly different story, however. He commented that the training was 'not very interesting, and I doubt whether our higher command is up to very much'. Exercises at night, meanwhile, were 'a wild side of chaos'. By this time, MacCunn was second in command of the Company, and his long awaited promotion to Captaincy came in May, backdated to March. The photograph on the right was taken on a run to Weymouth where he visited his brother, Billy, who was serving with the King's Own Scottish Borderers. A 'cheery' evening together was only marred by the draconian licensing laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol after 9pm.

The 6th Battalion eventually moved to France in July 1915. Major Mackenzie was left behind owing to ill health, and MacCunn was therefore in command of B Company. After a romantic night crossing, they arrived in Le Havre at about 1am on July 10. For MacCunn, 'the great adventure' had at last begun.

MS Gen 1376/11/3
G.B. Mackenzie, Billy MacCunn and Francis MacCunn at Portland Citadel
 April 1915

MS Gen 1376/4
opening from John Kenneth Bulfin-Crawford's diary for September 1915

The first few days were relatively 'quiet and uneventful' but after much journeying, the Battalion gradually neared the hostilities. MacCunn reported on their first trench duty on 23rd July: 'a most interesting experience'. Instructed by an English territorial battalion, although subjected to some close shelling they were all apparently too much interested to be frightened. The Company then settled in to the monotony of trench warfare. During periods behind the lines they amused themselves by hunting for spies amongst the French, and by the end of August, MacCunn reported that he had still not seen a corpse. On 9th September he celebrated his 27th birthday. A letter home jauntily reports that 'really the perils of trench warfare are very much exaggerated' while he speculates on where his next birthday will be, 'I trust in the hills of Scotland'. In reality, however, the allies were preparing for a massive offensive. It is only in a letter to his brother as a fellow officer that MacCunn can speak of the great advance, 'a serious and rather terrible thing to look forward to'.

On September 23rd, the 6th were ordered to begin moving up to the firing line. On the 25th, the Battle of Loos began. It was the first attack by the Allies on a large scale, made possible by the arrival of Kitchener's volunteers in vast numbers. It was not a success.  John Kenneth Bulfin-Crawford, a private with the Camerons, sums up one of the main causes for defeat in his active service diary, the lack of support. He also laconically notes the 'heavy casualties'. 

MS Gen 1376/4
entry from John Kenneth Bulfin-Crawford's diary for 26 September, 1915

Another diary relates the experience of the 6th Camerons at Loos more graphically. This manuscript notebook, written up after the war, was kept by James Campbell, a Lewis Gunner. It covers the period 8th July 1915 to 16th March 1918. 

MS Gen 1376/6
Diary of James Campbell: excerpt of entry for 25th September, 1915

The 15th (Scottish) Division, which included the 6th Camerons, were given a final objective of some high ground nearly five miles away. The distance to be covered incorporated two villages, Hill 70 and three well fortified German trench systems. The Camerons were in the second line of attack. On the 24th they spent an uncomfortable and sleepless night in a communication trench, with shells 'screaming on all sides'. At 5.50 on the morning of the 25th they moved towards the firing line: 'we were all keyed up with excitement at the prospect'. Campbell's section reached the front line at 8am. By this time, the first of the wounded were already making their way back and the 'dressing stations were packed'. At this point, however, the attack had gone quite well: the German front line had been captured, taking the village and hill behind. The Camerons were at first engaged in digging new communication trenches and then were sent over the top to help defend the left flank of the division. By now, those in the first line of attack were being forced to fall back. According to Campbell, 'by the time we got out they had had to retire to this side of the crest, having been well over it. It was hard lines'. Many of the 6th Battalion were killed and wounded attempting to form new positions, having to traverse open ground at the mercy of heavy machine gun fire from higher ground around Hill 70. As Campbell reports, 'the place was absolutely swept by rifle fire ... we lost, out of a section of 25 men, 5 men in as many seconds'. 

MS Gen 1376/6
Diary of James Campbell: excerpt of entry for 25th September, 1915

The Camerons were engaged in heavy fighting for the rest of the day. Lack of reinforcements was a huge problem. As Campbell records, 'we had no one on our left all day, but we hung on like grim death until night came'.

MS Gen 1376/6
Diary of James Campbell: excerpt of entry for 26th September, 1915

The plan for the second day was for the German defences on the crest and back of Hill 70 to be assaulted, following a 'terrific' bombardment. In Campbell's account this artillery was not entirely successful, failing to take out a German battery 'which kept on giving us a hot time'. Campbell himself had a narrow escape when a piece of shrapnel went right through the canteen that was attached to his belt. The 6th Camerons lead the attack on the left. Unfortunately, in places the wire had not been cut. Although the Germans started to evacuate the top of the hill, the few remaining men of the division were insufficient in numbers to accomplish a successful attack and they were slowly driven back by intense rifle and machine gun fire.

MS Gen 1376/6
Diary of James Campbell: excerpt of entry for 26th September, 1915

In all, four attempts were made to capture Hill 70. By this time, men were scattered, ammunition was low and - once more - reinforcements had failed to appear; even worse, the brigade on the left retired leaving the Camerons exposed. At about 1pm, an order came to retreat to the old German line. For Campbell, it was 'a bitter moment'. A shell landed directly in his emplacement just moments after he moved his gun, 'so in a way we were lucky'. The order to retire did not reach all the commanding officers, however, with the result that some fell back while others carried on fighting. Mixed units occupied the hill for the remainder of the day and night. When Campbell reached the line, he had 'only one man of our gun team of 12 left'. Undeterred, he attached himself to a machine gun officer and advanced once more with him, utilizing an abandoned machine gun. Despite several further attempts to advance, they were unsuccessful in holding the ground they had previously gained.

At dawn on the 27th, the exhausted remains of the battalion were relieved and returned to their billets at Mazingarbe for rest and reorganisation. The Battle of Loos was called off in failure on the 28th, recommencing on 13 October. 

James Campbell was awarded the Croix de Guerre for conspicuous gallantry for his actions on Sunday 26 September 1915. He was still on the roll of the Battalion's Reunion Club when it disbanded in 1974.

MS Gen 1376/7
From Souvenir Booklet of the Sixth Cameron Highlanders: 1916  (page 52)

MS Gen 532/62
Excerpt of letter from Francis MacCunn to his parents, 24 September 1915


Francis MacCunn was not so lucky. In a letter home written the day before the battle commenced, he had bade his family a 'provisional goodbye'. Optimistic, at least for his parents, he stated that 'I do not think this will be such a desperate undertaking for us, owing to the terrific strength of our artillery'. In his opinion, the attack would 'decide the war on the Western front.' He was tragically wrong on both counts. He was posted as missing, presumed dead, following the battle on Hill 70 on 26th September, two days after this letter was written. Having joined the army on 26 September 1914, his service had lasted exactly one year.

MacCunn's fellow officer in B Company, Lieutenant Guy Cameron ('an almost ideal officer .. has absolutely "got at" the Glasgow University men whose compose the platoon' ), was severely wounded; although he lived for many years, he never fully recovered.

MS Gen 532/62
Excerpt of letter from Francis MacCunn to his parents, 24 September 1915

MS Gen 1376/11/12
postcard depicting ruined church at Loos


It had been keenly anticipated that the Battle of Loos would act as a breakthrough for the Allies on the Western Front. In fact, the action made very little difference: it had brought about 'nothing but useless slaughter of infantry'. In all, the British army lost 60,392 men in an attack that was ill fated through a lack of shells, cover and adequate numbers of support troops; the bombardment had not used enough ammunition to break the German defences; even the use of gas was hampered by an unfavourable wind - where it was released, in some places it blew back to poison the British troops. The German regimental diary describes 10,000 men walking in ranks across open territory 'offering such a target as had never been seen before, or thought possible. Never had the machine gunners had such straightforward work to do, nor done it so effectively. They traversed to and fro across the enemy's ranks unceasingly' (quoted by Urquhart). For the New Army volunteers, Loos was undoubtedly the beginning of the 'martyrdom' of the British army.

Despite its failure, the Highland regiments had played an immense role in the battle and gained themselves a reputation for having a fearsome fighting spirit. The official history of the Camerons records it as 'one of the greatest in the History of Scotland'.

The 6th Camerons' participation in the battle was celebrated in a souvenir booklet, written by members of the Battalion during a divisional rest in 1916. It was compiled as a tribute to fallen comrades to record the history and achievements of the Battalion. It was edited by W. D. Robieson. A history graduate, he later became the editor of the Glasgow Herald (1937-1955), and was knighted in 1948. From 1956-72 he was the Chancellor's Assessor at the University.

The 6th Battalion went on to see action at the Somme, Arras, Ypres and the Marne. It was disbanded on June 25, 1919.

MS Gen 1376/7
From Souvenir Booklet of the Sixth Cameron Highlanders: 1916  (page 52)

MS Gen 1376/16
Telegram from Duke of Edinburgh to members and guests celebrating fortieth anniversary of Loos (1955)

These papers were presented to the University in 1974 by the Battalion's Reunion Club at the invitation of the principal, Sir Charles Wilson. Formed in 1929, the club met for the last time in 1974 when it was decided that the growing infirmity of the few remaining members made its meeting no longer possible. As well as the material described here, the deposit includes the club's roll and minute books (1945-1974) containing annual reports with details of meetings, dinners and activities for each year. The written up accounts of speeches are a fascinating source for members' reminiscences of their years as soldiers. Sir William Robieson was the last president.

MS Gen 1376/16
Continuation of telegram

The letters of Francis MacCunn were donated to the library in 1968 by J.A.F. Thomson (1934-2004). A lecturer in the Department of Medieval History, he was MacCunn's nephew.

Papers of Alec Lawrence Macfie
MS Gen 1517/1: correspondence from 1917-18, to his mother, describing military training in Cambridge and elsewhere and war service in France; comprises of 76 letters, 10 postcards, & 1 letter journal.
MS Gen 1643/580-642: material from his brother, John Mandeville Macfie, relating to the Salonika campaign; includes maps, postcards and photographs.

MacCallum Scott papers
MS Gen 1465: Alexander MacCallum Scott (1874-1928) was Secretary of the League of Liberals against Aggression and Militarism, and Secretary of the New Reform Club before becoming Liberal M.P. for the Bridgeton constituency of Glasgow in 1910. During the First World War he was Parliamentary Private Secretary to Winston Churchill. The papers include correspondence with constituents and contemporaries, drafts of speeches, and political diaries: items 5-9 are particularly relevant, being his political diaries from 1914 to 1919.

MS Gen 1302: collection of typescript documents relating to the Protective Coloration of Ships etc. in the Great War, compiled by Sir John Graham Kerr.


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Julie Gardham September 2005