On the outbreak of war there were seven Black Watch battalions - for in addition to the Regular 1st and 2nd Battalions and 3rd (Special Reserve) Battalion there were a further four Territorial ones which had become part of the Regiment in 1908. They were the 4th Dundee, 5th Angus, 6th Perthshire and the 7th Battalion from Fife. The 1st Battalion was in action at the very start of the war taking part in the Retreat from Mons before turning on the Germans at the River Marne and the subsequent advance to the Aisne. Trench warfare then set in and the 2nd Battalion arrived from India, both battalions taking part in the Battle of Givenchy. Meanwhile the Territorial battalions had been mobilised at the start of the war but only the 5th was in action in 1914.
1915 saw the participation of all the Territorial battalions and some of the newly formed “Service Battalions” of the Regiment in the battles along the Western Front. The 2nd, 4th and 5th Battalions were at Neuve Chapelle in March and a total of six battalions fought at Festubert in May where two Victoria Crosses were won by members of the Regiment. Then in September came the initially successful but horrifically costly attacks at Loos in which the 9th Battalion suffered over 700 casualties. Throughout the war the Highlanders garnered as fearsome a reputation with the Germans as they had with the French in previous centuries.
In 1916 the 2nd Battalion was withdrawn from France for operations against the Turks in Mesopotamia for the attempted relief of Kut-el-Amara. Such was the urgency to get forward that the advance was made without proper preparation and heavy casualties were incurred. The losses at Shaikh Sa'ad were so heavy that the Battalion had to be merged temporarily with another Highland battalion which had suffered similarly. This year also saw the 10th Battalion taking part in operations in the Balkans. On the Western Front, 1916 was dominated by the Battle of the Somme. Five battalions of the Regiment were involved with particularly fierce actions at Contalmaison, High Wood, Delville Wood and Longueval - the last named changing frequently as the Germans counter-attacked and further assaults were made to regain it. Eventually it was held but by then the 8th Battalion was reduced to just 171 men. The year ended with the extremely hard fought battle at Beaumont-Hamel with the 6th and 7th Battalions particularly distinguishing themselves.
April of 1917 saw the launch of the 1st Battle of Arras. With the support of some of the first tanks, with more sophisticated artillery fire and improved tactics the five Black Watch battalions involved made some progress. They then held on tenaciously to the gains made at such cost against fierce counter attacks. Subsequent attacks in the Second and Third Battles were less successful but equally costly in lives. July saw six battalions of the Regiment taking part in the Third Battle of Ypres and the endeavours to extend the Salient. In this the 4/5 Battalion was reduced to no more than company strength, indicative of the terrible losses and conditions at Passchendaele. However the 6th and 7th Battalions were taken back to train with tanks for the initially successful Battle of Cambrai. Advancing behind the tanks and passing through each other the battalions made significant gains but most of this ground was later to be lost to German counter attacks. Meanwhile in Mesopotamia the 2nd Battalion had taken part in the fight for Sannaiyat and in March had entered Bagdad before fighting across the desert to Mushaidie and thence to the ferocious action at Istabulat. There Private Melvin won the Victoria Cross for single handedly overcoming a group of nine Turks.
After the conclusion of operations in Mesopotamia the 2nd Battalion moved to Palestine and took part in Allenby’s eminently successful action at Megiddo in September. In France the spring brought in the final massive German offensive. In a confused withdrawal all the battalions suffered heavy losses, those of the 9th at Arras being so great that it had to amalgamate with the 4th/5th. Attack followed attack through March and April until the German offensive was exhausted. Then came the long fight to recover the lost ground. At Chambrecy the 6th Battalion, attacking alongside a French unit, was awarded the Croix de Guerre for its bravery - a distinction still worn by the Territorial soldiers of the Regiment. By September the 1st Battalion was involved in the successful attack on the last German fortified trench system, the Hindenberg Line. By the time of the Armistice in November 8000 members of the Regiment had lost their lives during the four years of this terrible conflict.
Two decades of peace followed, but when war broke out once again it was to be on just as vast and disastrous a scale.
When war broke out with Nazi Germany in September 1939 the 2nd Battalion was already on active service in Palestine and was to be deployed in a successful rearguard action against overwhelming Italian forces in Somaliland in July 1940. It was then sent to Crete to help defend the island from the anticipated German invasion. Meanwhile the 1st, 4th and 6th Battalions had been despatched to France where they faced the German blitzkrieg in May 1940. Against this massive armoured assault the ill-equipped British troops were forced to withdraw to Dunkirk . The 4th and 6th Battalions were successfully evacuated from France but the 1st Battalion, with most of the 51st Highland Division, was less fortunate. When it proved impossible to rescue the Division it was ordered to surrender at St Valery.
May 1941 saw the first ever airborne assault take place when German paratroopers descended on the 2nd Battalion at Heraklion in the north of Crete. The initial offensive was most effectively repulsed but later landings elsewhere forced the withdrawal of the garrison. Five months later the Battalion was moved to the besieged fortress of Tobruk and in November was to suffer very heavy losses in the attempted breakout to link up with the 8th Army. The tanks failed to provide the planned support and within one hour over 300 men had become casualties - but the objective was taken. In August 1942 the re-formed 1st Battalion along with the 5th and 7th Battalions arrived in North Africa as part of 51st Highland Division in time to take part in the momentous battle of El Alamein, the turning point in the War. This was to be followed by the pursuit across the North African desert with the many hard-fought victories notably Mareth and Wadi Akarit and the triumphant entry into Tripoli. During 1943 the 6th Battalion also became involved in the North African campaign, joining the 1st Army and taking particular part in the attack on Sidi Medienne.
n July 1943 the 51st Highland Division spearheaded the invasion of Sicily, the first Allied return to Europe. After a successful assault landing the Allies met increasingly stiff German opposition as they advanced over ground dominated by Mount Etna. After heavy fighting by the 1st Battalion at Gerbini and by all at Sferro, Sicily was conquered. The 51st Highland Division returned home to prepare for the invasion of Normandy. However the 6th Battalion was to remain in Italy, taking part in the hard-fought advance North against the several well prepared German defensive lines and most particularly at Monte Cassino. Its final actions were in the battles of the Gothic Line at Forli after which it was despatched to Greece in December 1944 to counter Communist partisans.
The 1st, 5th and 7th Battalions, still in the 51st Highland Division, were all landed in Normandy on or shortly after D Day, 6 June 1944. They were heavily involved in the actions leading to the breakout from Caen and the Falaise Gap, the 5th Battalion in particular experiencing severe fighting at Breville and Colombelles. There was then little action for the Regiment except for the capture of Le Havre until the autumn and winter fighting in the low lying country astride the River Maas in Holland. All three battalions were employed in the operations to stem the last German offensive into the Ardennes in the bitter weather of January 1945. It was then back to the battles of the Reichswald Forest on the Dutch-German border with the 1st Battalion being the first Allied troops on German territory. Then on the 23rd March 1945 the Regiment played a key role in the Crossing of the Rhine under a massive smoke screen and overcoming the final, albeit crumbling, German resistance.
After its enormously varied war fighting in Somaliland, in Crete and at Tobruk, the 2nd Battalion was sent to India, which was under threat from the rapid Japanese advance through Malaya and Burma. There it was specially trained for participation in the Second Chindit Expedition. Divided into two columns and often working in smaller groups, the Battalion spent 5 months operating behind the Japanese lines, disrupting their communications, their supplies and flow of reinforcements. Resupplied entirely by air drop the columns attacked and ambushed enemy columns in savage actions, generally in thick jungle and in appalling conditions of heat and disease, made worse once the monsoon broke. The Battalion ended the War training as a parachute unit for the planned invasion of Malaya.
Two World Wars had tested the mettle of Scotland’s most famous regiment to breaking point, but throughout it all the Black Watch held firm. It may be imagined that with such slaughter the latter half of the 20th century would be a peaceful one. Sadly, it was not to be.
The Charge of the 1st Battalion Queens Own Cameron Highlanders at Escaut Canal, Belgium, 21 May 1940 by David Rowlands. The last Highland Regiment to wear a kilt in battle.
Many Scottish units wore the kilt in combat during the First World War. In particular, the ferocious tactics of the Black Watch led to their acquiring the nickname “Ladies from Hell” from the German troops that faced them inthe trenches. The Highland regiments of the Commonwealth armies entered the Second World War wearing the kilt, but it was rapidly recognized as impractical for modern warfare, and in the first year of the war was officially banned as combat dress. Nonetheless, individual exceptions continued, and it is believed the kilt was last widely worn in action at the evacuation of Dunkirk in May 1940. However, on D-Day, June 1944, Lord Lovat, commander of 1 Special Service Brigade, was accompanied by his personal piper Bill Millin, who wore a kilt — and played the bagpipes.