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By Mary Macleod

The story as far as I remember from my father is that as war approached, all the Seaforths territorials knew they would be called up. I think they had formed very close bonds through drill and the summer camps. They gathered round the radio in the Morefield Hotel, Ullapool one of the few in the village at the time, and listened to Chamberlain’s speech announcing the war. Dad sold his bike, assuming he would not be needing it and needing the money more. I don’t know whether it was the next day, but they all collected for the transport: three buses and a car, according to Dad, and one of them said, ‘The car is all they will need to bring us back’. He did not say much about the ‘send-off’; I imagine it was still painful to think about the folk saying goodbye who never saw their boys again.

They were billeted in a granary in Dingwall, which was a misery, apparently, it was cold and loads of them got the cold; they then were sent for training down to England and from there were sent to France by boat. As they approached the French coast, one of them, with a wonderful Gaelic voice (I have it in my head that he said Donnie Beag) at the prow of the ship sang Sine Bhan. It is hard to imagine anything more poignant.

At first in France, things were good. They helped with the harvest where they were billeted and got on very well with the local French. The French loved the kilts and bagpipes and the Seaforths were all upset when they had to wear battle dress instead.

My father’s great friends were Johnnie MacMillan, his first cousin, Colin Charlie Macleod, and Kenny [Macdonald]. Dad spoke of a lot of laughs, from killing and cooking hens (one of the sergeants was reduced to the ranks for this), to drinking their way through wine cellars. In the North when they were sent up – near Metz – they began to encounter the Germans through brief skirmishes. One story was of one such foray, when the officer in charge was completely confused about where they were and was leading them in the wrong direction and Johnnie Macmillan (who was corporal of their platoon) had an altercation with the officer and said he would shoot him if he didn’t go where Johnnie knew was the right direction. All these boys had been poaching on the hills – good practice for that kind of war. They had enormous confidence in Major Fraser, who had been in the Great War, too, in the very area where they were now fighting again. He would join the boys round the fires, said Dad, and ask his batman for his billycan when he had finished with it and eat with them, the same food – a great officer.

They were then transported back through North France to south of the Somme at Abbeville where the June 4th attack took place, with the B company of the 4th Seaforths leading the direct assault on the German positions, up through fields of June grain. The night before, they were billeted at the hamlet and chateau of Les Alleux. Dad said that all the boys were reading their Bibles. I imagine that with the fear of hell drummed into them in church, death and meeting their maker was perhaps even more terrifying.

They were told by Major Fraser to shoot low – disable not kill – at least that is how Dad understood it. They were also told they had to carry on even when any of them went down. When Dad was wounded, shot in the thigh, his cousin Colin Charlie [Macleod] bent down and said, ‘Sorry, Jimmy’. As he stood up he was shot in the head in front of Dad. There were a number of them wounded in the corn field. Dad began to move back but was shot again. They all lay still for an hour or so until bullets stopped coming over then crawled backwards. Dad was taken off in a stretcher and told the medics that another Kenny was still out there. He did not ever know until we were in France that Kenny was picked up. We knew he was because his grave we found in a cemetery further south.

Photos:  Clare Church

[Kenny is buried in the same cemetery as other men from the 4th Seaforths, Mareuil-Caubert Communal Cemetery, in Plot 1, Row C, Grave 18].

Dad knew Kenny was dying because he had been shot in the stomach and was in a bad way. He just wanted to know he had died with his own people and not out in a field.

As you will know from the Linklater account, of a 100 in B company, only 17 were not killed or wounded in that action. I feel very lucky that my Father was one of the wounded and that he was lucky enough to have a surgeon treating him who saved his arm, which was on the point of being amputated. He mourned Colin Charlie and Johnnie all his life. I was so glad that I was able to take him and my Mother to France to visit their graves.

They never ever knew what had happened to Johnnie MacMillan. There were stories that he had died, having been shot while trying to escape – that would have been in Johnnie’s nature, said Dad. He would not have wanted to be a prisoner. His grave is in Dunkirk cemetery, to the North, which bears out that theory.

Dunkirk Town Cemetery.  Photo:  CWGC

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