REVIEW: The 51st (Highland) Division in the Great War by Colin Campbell

Book Review of The 51st (Highland) Division in the Great War – An Engine of Destruction, by Colin Campbell. The 51st Highland Division was officially formed in 1908 in a reorganization of the Territorial Army, as a collation of all the kilted Highland regiments. Over the years that followed, until its deactivation in 1967, the 51st Highland Division served with great distinction. Their exploits in the Second Word War may have earned them their legendary status, but the Highland Division had been renowned since the First World War for their bravery and ability in combat.

Formed for WWI, the Regiments for the Division was formed in 1915 and evolved as detailed in the order of battle below;

152nd (1st Highland) Brigade

  • 1/5th (The Sutherland and Caithness) Bn, the Seaforth Highlanders
  • 1/6th (Morayshire) Bn, the Seaforth Highlanders
  • 1/8th (The Argyllshire) Bn, the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders (from 154th Bde. April 1915)
  • 1/4th Bn, the Cameron Highlanders (until February 1915)
  • 1/6th (Renfrewshire) Bn, the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders (from 154th Bde. April 1915 to June 1915)
  • 1/6th (Banff and Donside) Bn, the Gordon Highlanders (from June 1916)

153rd (2nd Highland) Brigade

  • 1/6th Bn, the Black Watch
  • 1/7th (Fife) Bn, the Black Watch
  • The Shetland Companies, the Gordon Highlanders
  • 1/4th Bn, the Gordon Highlanders (until February 1915)
  • 1/5th (Buchan and Formartine) Bn, the Gordon Highlanders (until February 1918)
  • 1/7th (Deeside Highland) Bn, the Gordon Highlanders (until October 1918)

154th (3rd Highland) Brigade

The original brigade comprised the following battalions until April 1915 when some of the battalions moved to the 152nd Brigade:

  • 1/7th Bn, the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders
  • 1/6th (Renfrewshire) Bn, the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders
  • 1/8th (The Argyllshire) Bn, the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders
  • 1/9th (The Dunbartonshire) Bn, the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders
Battle of the Scarpe. Capture of the Greenland Hill by the 51st Division. Daylight patrol of the 1/6th Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders working forward towards Hausa and Delbar Woods. North-east of Roeux, 29 August 1918. Troops firing into a dug-out in a deserted German trench to dislodge any remaining Germans.

Between 18 April 1915 and January 1916, the brigade was replaced by the battalions of the 164th (North Lancashire) Brigade from the 55th (West Lancashire) Division.

  • 1/4th Bn TF, the King’s Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster)
  • 1/8th (Irish) Bn, The King’s (Liverpool) Regiment
  • 2/5th Bn, the Lancashire Fusiliers
  • 1/4th Bn, the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment
  • 1/6th Bn, the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles)

After early 1916, the brigade contained the following battalions:

  • 1/4th (Ross Highland) Bn, the Seaforth Highlanders
  • 1/4th Bn, the Gordon Highlanders
  • 1/9th (Highlanders) Bn, the Royal Scots Regiment
  • 1/7th Bn, the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders

The 51st (Highland) Division in the Great War by Colin CampbellThe lack of fighting familiarity amongst these newly introduced units hampered division efficiency and the division could only fare moderately in the actions at Festubert and Givenchy. General Douglas Haig commented that the 51st was, at the time of Festubert, “practically untrained and very green in all field duties”. Moved to the quiet Somme front in late summer of 1915, the division had yet to satisfy the expectations of those expecting the familiar Highland flair in battle – this was the period of Harper’s Duds. It may have been an unfair assessment, but war is cruel like that and the tenor of unit is quickly measured by its perceived performance on the battlefield.

The situation was resolved later in January 1916, the Lancashire brigade left the division and their place was filled by original Highland battalions released by the regular divisions and by battalions of the Black Watch not originally in the division. Given the chance to show their mettle in July 1916, they assaulted High Wood, which they attacked forcefully in the midst of a murderous field of fire without shelter. Though they failed to take the position, they had shown the fighting spirit expected of Highlanders. The division’s reputation grew, and they were chosen to capture the notorious fortress village of Beaumont-Hamel in November 1916. The 51st were “Harper’s Duds” no longer, now they were, according to the German nickname, “The Ladies from Hell”, a more appropriate assessment of the Division.

Men of the 1/4th Battalion, Gordon Highlanders crossing a trench, Ribecourt, France, 20 November 1917.

By 1917, the 51st was considered a leading assault division and was handed more and more difficult tasks, throughout the year, from Arras in April/May to the combined tank-infantry assault at Cambrai in November. By early 1918, the division was below-strength due to losses in 1917 and the tired survivors were given a quiet part of the front line to hold. Unfortunately, the Germans had by chance chosen that location as one of the focal points for their Kaiserschlacht, the last great German assault on the West in March 1918. The neighboring Portuguese troops bore the brunt of the initial German assault and when they started to retire from their positions and ran across the 51st’s positions, they were mistaken for Germans in the poor visual conditions and the 51st opened fire on them, causing casualties. The under-strength 51st was also pushed back, but eventually held as the German offensive ebbed and flowed. The remains of the division survived the Spring battles and received reinforcements in time for Haig’s Allied offensives of August 1918 onward.

They served in France in the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in 1915 and achieved a great deal on the Somme, at Beaumont Hamel, Arras, the 3rd Battle of Ypres, Cambrai and the Auber’s Ridge before the final costly actions of the First World War.

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