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== 51st (Highland) Signal Regiment History ==

1st Aberdeenshire Engineer Volunteers

Founded in 1874 in the City of Aberdeen, the unit has always maintained close links with that city. They were affiliated to the 1st Lanarkshire Engineer Volunteers and close links were always maintained with their much stronger sister unit in Glasgow. Their first CO was Captain W Hall, and Colonel Sir A H Grant became Honorary Colonel in 1890 and granted permission for them to wear the tartan of Clan Grant.

On the reorganisation of the Reserve Army in 1908 they became 51st (Highland) Divisional Telegraph Company RE TF, and as such were mobilized in 1914 and moved to their war station at Bedford on 15 August 1914. Initially they were under strength and their horses were of inferior quality, but these defects were put right before the unit embarked for France with the Division at the end of April 1915. The winter of 1914/15 was a wet one and an epidemic of measles – which affected the Highlanders badly, killing 10% of those affected. Contrary to popular belief the staff work was of a very high order at this time, but one of the greatest difficulties at this time was to put across to the independent Highlanders the idea that orders were not a basis for argument, and that training was not a recreation to stop when the got tired. The Signal Company came on very fast and was outstanding in this respect.

On arrival in France they joined the Indian Corps of Haig’s 1st Army in Busnes, Robeq and Lillers. On 11 May 1915 they became the 51st (Highland) Divisional Signal Coy RE TF, and were commanded by Major A Robertson. They arrived during the 2nd Battle of Ypres and on 19 May went into the line without any period of acclimatisation. The unit sustained its first casualties on 29 May when Div HQ got shelled and several Signallers got killed. The first attack in divisional strength was at Festubert on 15 June, when after two days of bombardment the infantry went over the top only to find the German wire uncut, and they were decimated by German machine gun fire in their attempt to storm forward, and were forced back. After this they were much troubled by sniper fire. All told it was not a happy settling in period, and they learned the lessons of war the hard way.

At this time there was much rivalry between the Territorials and the New Armies of Lord Kitchener, and much experimenting was carried out by all arms. In addition, they moved to another part of the line where they took over a good trench system from the French with overhead cover of 3 foot of earth, yet in subsequent bombardments even this was insufficient to afford good protection. The winter of 1916/17 was a bad one, rain, frost, snow, thaw, all had their adverse effect on the chalk trenches and life was most miserable.

General G H Harper took over command on 24 September 1916, and during the winter the Division wryly began to call themselves “Harper’s Duds”. They were in the line in January 1917, and the rest was badly needed. After which all units of the Division went into furious training. It was during this period that they developed their “bounding principle”. The Division now took over a sector north of Arras in March 1917 in fine fettle after its rest and training in spite of intermittent bad weather. The new area was to become the spiritual home of the 51st in France. The ruins of Ecuri, Anzin, Marquil, Bray, Ecoivres and Mont St Eloi. The enemy, however, were constantly overlooking them from Vimy Ridge. Later, in May the Division took over the whole of the XVIIth Corps front, as preparations went on for the Somme Battle.

The 51st was committed to the maelstrom of the Somme Battle on 21st July and attacked High Wood – the highest point in Picardy. This position had been taken but the Germans had regained the position after a fierce counterattack. No advance was made against a pitiless cross fire despite great gallantry, the misery was intense, incessant bombardments, intense heat, swarms of flies and on 25 July the Germans used phosgene gas for the first time, it crept up insidiously like the smell of sweet apples, there was no water supply in the forward area and the suffering was great but they hung on until relieved on 8 August. Again General Harper used the time to rest and train his division and a short spell in the line at Armentieres and Hobuterne did much to help.

Beaumont Hamel

The village of Beaumont Hamel was a natural defensive feature. It contained caves and cellars ideal for sheltering hundreds of men in addition it was honeycombed with dugouts and criss crossed by trenches. A place of tremendous strength, and very difficult to clear.

An attack on this position on the first day of the Battle of the Somme had been a disastrous failure, since which time it had come to be regarded as impregnable. Harper refused to attack with a 3 brigade front and only used 2 brigades in his first line with one in reserve. The attack took place on 13 November 1916 after repeated bombardments. This however was a distinct advantage as it increased the extent of the artillery bombardment. On D Day the infantry advanced close to the edge of the bombardment. In addition Harper had placed the bulk of the Division’s machine guns on a slight rise, this gave an intense barrage of close support fire to the leading forces. Moreover, the morning of the attack was clouded by a thick fog. Nevertheless great difficulty was experienced in advancing as parts of the battlefield were impassable due to the great depth of the mud.

The division took all it sobjectives and Beaumont Hamel was the foundation of the Highland Division. No more did they call themselves with wry humour, "Harper's Duds".

Arras, Passchendale, Cambrai, Marne, Vimy Ridge, Canal du Nord

For the 51st (Highland) Division Signal Coy on the Western Front there was little rest, war to them was of three phases: offensive, defensive and static; in the first two phases HQs changed location often and at practically no notice; it was a task to link up the Battery’s Battalion and the Divisional HQ irrespective of enemy action. In the static phase cables were buried, line tidied, test points constructed. These in turn were destroyed by high explosive and shrapnel fire, lines cut, poles smashed, cables uprooted, communication trenches destroyed. Despite the bitter unrelenting hail of German gunfire during the savage battles of High Wood, Armentieres, Beaumont Hamel, Third Ypres, Cambrai, and Lys Champagne, brigade and Divisional Signal Officers suffered direct hits repeatedly, loss of communication was measured in minutes. In addition to lines wireless, electric lamps, pigeons and runners were all used.

The terrain over which they laboured and in many cases quietly worked alone, was moonscape like in its savage bleakness and often impassable with bog like mug. At Cambrai a line party in no mans land captured two German airmen in their aircraft which had force landed. At the same battle in the confusion of the first tank battle, at Flesquieres, the advancing infantry were surprised to be met by a Signals Subaltern and lineman quietly smoking.

Monday 30th July 1917


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