SERGEANT ALEXANDER MACLEOD, DCM, Cr. of St.G.
Alexander Macleod, DCM, Cr. of St. G. – Hero from Loch Broom
The red light from the blazing oil, flashing and glittering on the long line of bayonets, was a sight to fire the imagination.
So recorded a historian as he witnessed the sight of the 13th Battalion of The Royal Highlanders of Canada on the dawn of the 15th August, 1917, as they stormed their way into the ruins of coal mining villages immediately in front of Hill 70, near Lens in France.
Leading his men in this assault was Sergeant Alexander Macleod, the son of Alex and Margaret Macleod of Achiltibuie. Alexander had grown up as a boy and youth in this wild and beautiful part of Wester Ross. However, the life, though tough, did not present the kind of challenge and excitement sought by young Alexander. Prior to emigrating to Montreal in 1911, he had been employed as an assistant blacksmith, although much more important to him had been the two years he had served with the Lovat Scouts. The first corps of the Lovat Scouts, some 250 men, had originally gone to the South African War in 1900 and on their return Lord Lovat organised two further regiments of 500 men in 1903. (Today, in Beauly, there is a war memorial commenorating those in the Lovat Scouts who lost their lives whilst serving in various wars.)
Alexander, after emigrating to Montreal at the age of 20, enlisted in the country’s Non-permanent Active Militia, organised by the astute Colonel Sam Hughes, who had already anticipated the inevitability of The Great War. Alexander then joined the Expeditionary Force – the 5th Battalion of the Royal Highlanders which was affiliated to the oldest Scottish Regiment, The Black Watch. At Valcartier, in Canada, he was transferred to the 13th Battalion of the Royal Highlanders, which was later to earn the reputation of being the most revered and famous fighting force in the country’s military history.
By September 30th they had embarked on the RMS Alaunia and by October 13th they arrived at Plymouth. After travelling up country to Salisbury, they then marched 10 miles to Salisbury Plain where they underwent intensive training. This was carried out in extremely rainy and muddy conditions which, ironically, must have proved to have been very valuable experience considering what they were about to endure in France in the months ahead.
On arriving in France in February they were first billeted in Armentieres, quickly finding themselves being taken on short “tours” of duty in trenches as close as 100 yards from the Germans!
There they had their first taste of what trench warfare was to be all about. Inevitably, casualties and fatalities were soon incurred and it was as early in the war as this that the following prophetic war song became popular:
I want to go home, I want to go home,
The Germans shoot dum-dums, I don’t like their roar,
I don’t want to go to the front any more,
Oh my! I don’t want to die
I want to go home.
By July, Alexander was now entrenched at the infamous Ypres Salient, where the exploits of The Royal Highlanders were to fill new pages in Canada’s history. The battalion was now to encounter at first hand the enemy’s newest weapon – chlorine gas. It was here at Ypres that a historian present recorded the following, after some particularly fierce trench warfare: “The 13th Battalion of The Royal Highlanders were inspired by gallant leadership and fought a dauntless fight, but even that sublime courage could not withstand fire and steel.”
During desperate fighting the Canadian-made Ross rifles were to prove most unreliable, letting the battalion down in its hour of need. There were many casualties but Alexander survived – though he was wounded in the leg. This was later on followed by an attack of measles, which had swept through the battalion.
A goat, found at Ypres, now named “Flora Macdonald”, accompanied the troops as their mascot. With the advent of Spring, fighting continued on the battlefields of Festubert, Ploegstreet and Messines.
By June 1916, the Ypres Salient confiict had resurged with vengeance. Conditions deteriorated rapidly with death ever present amidst deep mud-filled craters.
Alexander was now fighting in some of the bitterest battles of the war, as the Germans continued to make significant gains and his battalion sought to prevent the Germans advancing further in an area between Sanctuary Wood and Mount Sorrel. The following is recorded in the Battalion’s official historical war accounts. “15 Germans advanced and succeeded in getting close to a forward post now garrisoned only by Sergeant Macleod and one other man. The doughty pair, viewing with dislike the possibility of being surrounded and captured, organised a counter-attack, which was principally a bombing affair, fell upon the astonished Germans and drove them in confusion back to their own wire. The counter-attack then re-formed and returned in safety.” On June 23rd it was announced that decorations had been awarded and that the Distinguished Conduct Medal had been awarded to (newly promoted) Sergeant A. Macleod for his heroic action at Ypres Salient. Later, in The London Gazette of 27th July, 1916, the following report was published: “Sergeant A. Macleod for Conspicuous Bravery. After a heavy bombardment, the enemy sent over some reconnoitering parties, but Sergeant Macleod jumped the parapet and bombed them back to their wire, 160 yards. He set a fine example.”
Such actions were unlikely to be sustained without death or serious injury, and on June 23rd at the now devastated Sanctuary Wood, two pieces of shrapnel pierced his helmet whilst in action. The entry in his actual medical record at this time recorded: “two pieces of shrapnel in mid-parietal line, not taken out. Well healed. To duty.”
During July 1916, the 13th Battalion was under heavy trench bombardment as the Germans strove to advance. During one of their attacks a small party of soldiers entered a trench quite near to the position that Alexander and a few others, including a Lance Corporal Johnson – a Russian in the 13th ranks – were occupying. A flare suddenly revealed that they were wearing flat caps with Red Cross brassards. Challenged by Johnson they made a guttural, unconvincing reply. Johnson, suspecting a trick, replied with a bomb. The Germans duly returned the compliment. However, they under-estimated the courage and spirit of this tiny bunch of men of the 13th, who duly drove the Germans back towards their lines, although they then found themselves under machine gun fire as they retreated to safety and the welcome support of a rapidly re-manned line of Canadians.
The following month Alexander was awarded The Cross of St. George (Russian 3rd Class). He was one of only 200 awarded this decoration who were not Russian by birth, and it was awarded “in recognition of an extreme act of bravery in the face of the enemy.” The decoration meant that a number of benefits were automatically awarded to the recipient, such as “freedom from taxes upon retirement from Military Service”. Sadly, Alexander was to receive none of them. After fighting at the Somme he returned to Ardgay, in Ross-shire, where he stayed with his brother Murdoch, a shoemaker, and enjoyed a brief period of rest and tranquility before returning once again to the battlefields of France. After the winter of 1916 Alexander was entrenched at the bloody and deadly Vimy Ridge, where it was “decreed” that “the Canadian Corps would succeed in capturing it” (where others before them had failed). The regiment did indeed play a huge part in its eventual capture, but not without severe losses, suffering over 10,000 casualties. Once again Alexander survived, although only to fight one more battle. No one had managed to capture Hill 70, to the north of Lens, and once again the Canadians, under Lieutenant General Sir Arthur Currie, were asked to take it. The following is from the 13th Battalion’s historian’s account:
……. found were buried together in several large shell holes, care being taken to identify all the bodies. In the soil they had captured, lay buried the bodies of Scots who were part of the heart of the 13th Battalion of the Royal Highlanders. A cross was erected and unveiled at Vimy Ridge by the Canadian Premier, to commemorate all those who had lost their lives there whilst serving in the Canadian Regiment.
Six Books of Remembrance are displayed in the Memorial Chamber in the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill, Ottawa, a new page being opened each day in the poignant ceremony.
Examination of the names of all those who died reveals that many were either of Scottish parents who had emigrated in earlier years, or Scots, like Sergeant Alexander Macleod, DCM, Cr. of St. G., who had arrived in Canada seeking a new life and who died in France while serving in the Canadian Armed Forces, and who are remembered daily on Parliament Hill, Ottawa.