[Great War manuscript diary/memoir detailing events in 1916, including the Battle of the Somme and attacks on Longueval village].
MACPHERSON Capt. J. E. ([c. 1919-1935].)
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Autograph(?) manuscript diary, written in blue and navy ink on rectos; versos used for notes, additions, etc.; a handful of ms. annotations and amendments (such as missing names filled in) to rectos, seemingly in the same hand; pencil drawing of church(?) at “Auxi-le-Chateau, Dec 1916” pasted in. Original limp brown cloth, slightly worn, some staining (white paint) to top right corner of upper cover, otherwise very good. Approx. 60 pages, not incl. ms. on versos. N.p., n.d.,
Written after the war (likely between the close of WW1 and commencement of WW2), the memoir records Captain MacPherson’s experiences on the Western Front. An engaging writer, he gives an immersive and unusually descriptive account of life as a company commander (‘A’ Company) in the 12th Battalion (Royal Scots) of the 9th (Scottish) Division during 1916. The manuscript importantly covers the Battle of the Somme and contains much useful information to contribute to the history of the Royal Scots during that conflict.
The manuscript opens with a single page, concerning 1914. The nine dated entries account for MacPherson’s entry into Kitchener’s Army; providing the dates of when he volunteered, applied for commission and for when he was posted to the 12th Battalion.
Three pages of short dated entries follow, covering the period from Jan. 28th to June 4th 1916: his arrival in France in mid February; the first view of the trenches in late February; leave in April and May; the movements of the battalion before joining the front line; final preparations in late June, “… fighting kit arranged and everything in order for action”.
Then comes the the bulk of the diary (starting with dated entries, but soon turning into a paragraph-by-paragraph account), which begins on the first day of the Somme (July 1st 1916) and ends with him returning home on December 28th 1916. This section details MacPherson’s part in all of the significant actions he, and the rest of the 12th Battalion, faced during those six months: the attack on Bernafay Wood (3-8 July); the two attacks on Longueval Village (14, 15 July); a turn in the line at Vimy Ridge (15-23 August); a period in Snag Trench during the Battle of Le Transloy (19-21 October).
He writes openly on the realities of each conflict, not only reporting the facts, but relating the specific, often surreal or gruesome, scenes and events that confronted him. Certain images are lasting, such as that of him collapsing, exhausted into sleep, on a makeshift surgeon’s table in a German trench. He also notes the moments of tenderness and brotherhood; none more striking than his almost familial concern and eventual relief at losing his men in the midst of the “first big shell gas bombardment” of the battle, only to find them “in an old trench … asleep while wearing their gas helmets”.
The most remarkable pages are arguably those concerning the two failed attacks on Longueval village, as MacPherson was promoted to commanding officer for both actions. His promotion was a last-minute change caused by the death of the previous C.O., Lieut.-Colonel H. L. Budge, who was killed by a shell during the march to the line on the night of the 13th. As an experienced and trusted leader Budge was a great loss, particularly to MacPherson, who writes of taking over command “with a heavy heart”.
With little time to adapt to his new role he was taken away from his battalion and stationed in Caterpillar Valley, where he received updates on the action. Though the first objective (the capture of the enemy’s front defences) was secured, the second (to take Longueval village) was a far sterner test; especially for the 12th battalion who lead the attack.
MacPherson describes the extreme difficulty of this second stage of the offensive and, in turn, the challenges of his new role; explaining that while brigade asked for “progress reports and exact map references as to points attained by the battalions”, such information was nigh impossible to give as nearly all of his company commanders were dead. In his immense frustration and worry for his men, MacPherson went against orders and “pushed up to the line”. Once there he “found that casualties had been considerable, over 60 percent”. The burden of responsibility amongst such chaos is a recurring theme, but is felt most strongly here.
Unsatisfied with the result, MacPherson’s superiors ordered a second attempt the following day, which again resulted with the battalion being forced back to their lines. In the wake of the retreat he faced criticism, which he notes in the diary, arriving at the conclusion that he could not have done anything more to make the offensive a success: “I do not consider the result was other than could be expected.” Historical consensus would agree with the mammoth scale of the task; John Ewing states that “The death of Lieut-Colonel Budge proved a great misfortune; for the task of the battalion, to secure Longueval … was one of extraordinary difficulty” (p.114. History of the 9th Scottish Division 1914-1919. London: John Murray, 1921).
Soon after Longueval, MacPherson was replaced as C.O. and, excepting a short period as second-in-command, was restored to his position as the company commander of ‘A’ Company. He keeps this position for the rest of the time covered by the diary and, despite a number of near misses, is spared as bloody an offensive as Longueval. There are however other harrowing passages; the short spell in Snag Trench during the Battle of le Transloy, which had only just been gained after a brutal struggle, is particularly vivid: “It was one of the worst spots I ever struck — concentrated horror of war”.
The remaining entries detail a narrowly avoided offensive near Flers in late October (weather conditions determined a late change of plan), MacPherson’s time attending a course at the Army school at Auxi-le-Château and a brief return to the trenches. He took leave on Christmas Day, spent the 26th in Calais (where had a “jolly dinner” and procured silk stockings) and, having begun to “experience the joys of civilisation again”, reached home on the 28th of December.
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