One hundred years ago this week the Battle of the Somme finally came to an end. In a new week-long series Conor Riordan looks back at the brave North-east soldiers who fought and died in the infamous conflict.
“It was raining heavily and very cold,” said one soldier – that was before fighting in the Somme had even started.
This week marks a century since the guns fell silent at the site of one of history’s deadliest battles.
The 141-day stand-off ended with more than one million casualties on both sides – and the North-east’s Gordon Highlanders battalions fought from day one.
They formed part of the 51st Highland Division, dubbed “Harper’s duds” after commander Major-General George Harper and because there were doubts about its ability.
However, by the end of the Somme they would be given a new nickname by the Germans – Ladies from Hell, because of their kilts and deadly effectiveness.
Curator of the Gordon Highlanders Museum Ruth Duncan said: “It was an unimaginable experience for them.
“The 141 days of fighting around the Somme sector have left a profound mark on the history of the Gordon Highlanders Regiment and on countless other regiments who made up the Allied Forces.
“It is an extremely sad but important episode in our history that we must remember and we must ensure that their efforts not be forgot.”
Both regular battalions of the North-east regiment were involved, together with four battalions of territorials and two of volunteers.
The 2nd Battalion saw action on the first day. In what was dubbed a “dress rehearsal” for the “big push”, soldiers underwent a regime of tactical exercises to get newer recruits working together as a battalion before the first day.
The shape and course of the northern French battlefield was laid out in some cases – including replica trenches.
Private Norman Beaton recalled practising charging the enemy.
He said: “It was raining heavily and very cold.
“This was a rehearsal for the real thing that was to follow later on.
“We had to charge through long grass which was soaking wet.
“It was very uncomfortable for us in kilts, but it had to be done.”
Some 1.7 million shells were fired along a 25-mile front in the week leading up the first day of fighting on July 1 – with 220,000 shot in the final hour beforehand.
Dawn signa-lled time to go over the top. The Gordon Highlanders 2nd Battalion trudged out of their trenches and marched slowly, advancing wave after wave, shoulder to shoulder with bayonets held high.
German artillery was already firing.
The men’s objective was to capture Mametz village, “a miniature fortress”.
A five-day bombardment had cut through wires so the Gordons were able to reach the first line of German defences before they could be attacked by stockpiled grenades.
The men captured the town, but German machine guns took a heavy toll – 127 men and eight officers lost their lives, with 13 bodies never recovered.
In total the British had 60,000 casualties that day.
And that was just the first – 140 further followed with more of the Gordon Highlanders getting involved.
Artillery bombarded enemy lines in the lead up to the next attack, destroying trenches and defences.
Under the cover of darkness, troops edged closer to the German front lines for another push on July 14. The Gordons captured Bazentin-le-Petit, Bazentin-le-Grand and their woods, Longueval and part of Delville Wood.
By the end of the month 4th, 5th and 6th battalions were part of an attack on High Wood.
Dense forest made it difficult, with tangled branches and tree stumps providing cover for the Germans.
Through a murderous field of fire they pushed on without shelter.
Gas from shelling on both sides hung in the damp air which increased the troops’ misery, forcing them to wear gas masks for hours.
There were some gains in July, but the front line on the left flank remained much the same as at the start.
August and September was largely a stalemate but all Gordon Highlanders were in the fighting trenches.
There were occasional attacks, often resulting in considerable casualties for little or no material gain.
By October, winter was closing in.