The 51st (Highland) Division in World War I

02 March 2022
The Battle of Cambrai, November-december 1917 Troops of the 4th Battalion, Gordon Highlanders (51st Division) crossing a trench. Ribecourt, 20 November, 1917
Stephen Wynn recounts the bravery and battles involving the men of the 51st (Highland) Division in the Great War of 1914-18.

51st (Highland) Division World War I battle honours:

  • Second Battle of Ypres (1915)
  • Battle of the Somme (1916)
  • Battle of Arras (1917)
  • Third Battle of Ypres (1917)
  • Battle of Cambrai (1917)
  • German Spring Offensive (1918)
  • Hundred Days Offensive (1918)

The 51st Highland Division was first formed in August 1908, as part of the British Army’s new Territorial Force, which had come into being on 1 April that same year as part of the enactment of the Territorial and Reserve Forces Act 1907. This saw the amalgamation of what had been the Volunteer Force, formed in 1859, the Yeomanry, whose origins can be traced back as far as the 1790s, along with the Honourable Artillery Company which had been formed during the reign of King Henry VlIl of England, in 1537.

At the outbreak of World War I the 51st Highland Division was comprised of twelve battalions that were taken from three infantry brigades:

  • The Seaforth and Cameron Brigade (152nd Infantry Brigade)
  • The Gordon Highlanders Brigade (153rd Infantry Brigade)
  • The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Brigade (154th Infantry Brigade)

Because of the need for more fighting men on the Western Front in France and Belgium, a number of Territorial Force battalions were sent across the English Channel to support Regular Army units. The downside of this was that the Divisions they were taken from were then left under strength. The 51st Highland Division was no exception, and within just a few months of the outbreak of the war, found themselves at only half strength, which meant as a combined force they were unable to be sent overseas.

Understanding the importance of having the 51st Highland Division at full strength, British Military authorities added two battalions of the Black Watch (Royal Highlanders), along with the North Lancashire Brigade, once again making it a deployable unit.

The Second Battle of Ypres

The Second Battle of Ypres began on 22 April 1915, and it wasn’t long before German forces took the upper hand. The relevance of the battle was that it provided the victor with control of the tactically important high ground to the east and south of Ypres in Belgium.

The 51st Highland Division entered the affray in May 1915, in what can only be described as a baptism of fire, an experience which was no doubt a traumatic one. There was to be no respite as the fighting continued for the men of the 51st into the Battle of Festubert, which was also part of the Second Battle of Artois. They also saw action at nearby Givenchy. 

Although the individual bravery of its men was not open to question, the overall effectiveness of the 51st Highland Division as a fighting unit most definitely was. The Commanding Officer of the British First Army at the time, Lieutenant General, Sir Douglas Haig, described them in his diary as being, “practically untrained and very green in all field duties”.

In September 1915, command of the 51st Highland Division was handed to Lieutenant-General Sir George Montague Harper, who by then had served in the British Army for 31 years, having first been commissioned back in 1884. It would be fair to say his leadership did not bring with it immediate successes, and his men quickly gained the somewhat unfortunate nickname of, “Harper's Duds”.

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Battle of the Somme

On the night of 22-23 July 1916, during the Battle of the Somme (1 July-18 November 1916), two battalions of the 51st Division attacked the strategic position known as High Wood. Despite sustaining heavy casualties, they managed to hold their own and remained in the wood until they were eventually relieved by men of the 33rd Division on 11 August. With their fighting reputation now greatly enhanced, they were no longer referred to as “Harper’s Duds”.

The Battle of Ancre

The Battle of Ancre raged for six days between 13 and 18 November 1916, and was notable for being the last of the major British attacks during the Battle of the Somme. On 13 November, men of the 51st Division were tasked with attacking and capturing the German stronghold at the village of Beaumont-Hamel. Despite the thick fog, heavy mud and overall inclement weather, the 51stmanaged to outflank the German forces on both sides of the village, eventually forcing them to surrender. 

Their continual improvement as a fighting unit greatly raised their reputation, making them one of the ‘go-to infantry divisions’ to turn to for perilous tasks.

The Battle of Arras

The Battle of Arras (9 April -16 May 1917) saw British forces, including men of the 51st, attack German defensive positions on the outskirts of the city of Arras. The surprise and temerity of the attack initially provided the British with success, but the Germans recovered quickly, leaving the battle a costly stalemate, with combined casualties for both sides being somewhere in the region of 400,000.  

The Battle of Cambrai

The Battle of Cambrai (20 November - 7 December 1917) was a British combined tank and infantry attack on Cambrai, a town in northern France that was an important German supply centre. The battle saw the men of the 51st Division tasked with taking the strongly-defended town of Flesquieres, where it would be fair to say they did not have it all their own way.  

The German Spring Offensive, which began in March 1918, was what turned out to be Germanys’ final attempt at winning the war before America’s arrival on the Western Front could have a telling affect for the Allies. During their advance the Germans managed to push back the soldiers of the Portuguese Expeditionary Force. Whilst in full retreat they ran un-announced straight into the positions being held by men of the 51st Division, who, believing they were dealing with an attack by the Germans, opened fire, resulting in a number of dead and wounded.

Tired, hungry and having sustained a large number of casualties, the 51st Division’s final involvement in the First World War came during the Allied Offensive known as the Hundred Days Offensive (8 August - 11 November 1918).

By the end of the war, the Germans often referred to the men of the 51stDivsion as “The Ladies from Hell,” a testament to their aggression and wearing of kilts in battle.

The bravery of the men of the 51st (Highland) Division was recognised by the issue of numerous military awards for individual acts of bravery throughout the war. The following six men were awarded the Victoria Cross:

  • Sergeant William Gosling, Royal Field Artillery 3rd Wessex Brigade
  • Private George McIntosh, 1st/6th Battalion, Gordon Highlanders
  • Sergeant Alexander Edwards, 1st/6th Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders
  • Lance Corporal Robert McBeath, 1st/5th Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders
  • Sergeant John Meikle, 4th Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders
  • Lieutenant William Davidson Bissett, 1st/6th Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders

Brave men, one and all.                       

About the author

Stephen’s first book, Two Sons in a Warzone, was published in 2010, and told the story of his son’s first tours of Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009. His younger son served with 2 Para, whilst the other was with 42 Commando, Royal Marines, one of them was injured and the other was shot. It is an emotional story which also includes Stephen’s account of what he went through as a parent of having son’s away fighting in a war, whilst wrestling with the dilemma of having the natural protective instincts of being a father, and not being able to do anything to protect them. Putting his personal thoughts down on paper left him with the writing bug.

At the end of March 2022, his latest book St Nazaire Raid - 1942 is due out. It will be his 56th book that he has had published.

Read Stephen's article on the 51st (Highland) Division in World War II here.

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