There are some famous phrases that have a life of their own. “Play it again Sam” will forever be linked with the Humphrey Bogart classic Casablanca; except the phrase doesn’t actually feature in the movie. There are familiar phrases associated with WW1 which are regularly used in media coverage of the conflict. Home before Christmas is used to identify the belief in August 1914 that the war would be short, and I’ve heard it said that “everyone” thought this. As with so much about WW1 the truth is more complex. The use of the phrase is very difficult to find in the contemporary accounts, and while some members of the public undoubtedly thought the war would be short many in British government and the military circles feared it would not be. The closest phrase uttered by a military leader was “home before the leaves fall” which was a typically bombastic statement by Kaiser Wilhelm in a speech to his troops. How wrong he was.

Another phrase that is often used to describe the shortcomings of British generals in WW1 is “lions led by donkeys”. This was attributed to German general Erich Von Ludendorff and described the bravery of the ordinary Tommy compared with the stupidity of their leaders. The phrase was used by Alan Clark in his 1962 book “The Donkeys” which was a critique of the British leadership during and after the battle of Loos in September and October 1915. The phrase struck a chord in the early sixties as the war came under much more critical scrutiny, typified by the musical “Oh What A Lovely War”. Clark would go on to have a career as a politician and cabinet minister, and the phrase “lions led by donkeys” would be often repeated, notably by Neil Kinnock to describe the miners’ strike in 1984-85. Unfortunately nobody had been able to find the original quote, and Clark, an engaging writer but not one to let the truth get in the way of a good story allegedly admitted what many suspected; that he made it up.

A third phrase is “Ladies from hell”, which is often said to be the nickname the Germans used to describe the kilted Highland troops in WW1. However like the two previous phrases it is also very difficult to find its origin. It was in common currency in WW1, but on the allied side, first appearing in print in the New York Times to describe a kilted Canadian unit of which there were several. No German source has so far been found, although where there are references to kilted Scots units these tend to be humorous rather than respectful, concentrating in one example on what the Scots wore underneath their skirts. It may be that the nickname originated in the British Army and like all good phrases just spread, becoming what we now might call an urban myth. Regardless of this it was and is a badge of honour particularly for the Black Watch, the senior Highland regiment.

Given Everton’s historic Scottish connections it is no surprise that several men who had pulled on the famous blue shirt served in Scots regiments in WW1 and some donned the kilt. Tom Gracie and David Murray were two of Everton’s Scots soldiers, and both died within two months of each other at the end of 1915. Neither man was a household name, like Alex “Sandy” Young or his namesake Alex the golden vision, nor do they feature prominently in Everton’s rich Scots history, like Sharp or Gray. But they played what was then called “the greater game” and their stories are for me just as important.

Thomas Gracie

Thomas Gracie was born on 12 June 1889 at 40 Edmund Street, Dennistoun, Glasgow. He grew up in the area and made his way through junior football before signing for Morton. His performances at centre forward came to the attention of the Scottish selectors and also Everton’s board and he was signed just before the England v Scotland international at Goodison Park on 1st April 1911 for which he was a reserve. Everton beat off competition from Burnley and Blackburn for his signature, the Ewood Park outfit having had a bid of £1,000 turned down.

He failed to make a breakthrough at Everton, scoring just once in 13 appearances and crossed the park in February 1912 in a part exchange deal. He made 33 appearances for Liverpool over two and a half seasons scoring just five goals. Contemporary reports suggest he was unlucky with injuries but lacked what we would now call that extra yard of pace; however he does appear to have been very well liked as a character. He returned to Scotland with Hearts in 1914 and was an immediate success; being joint top scorer in Scotland in 1914-15 with 29 goals in 37 appearances. He and his Hearts teammates joined the 16th battalion of the Royal Scots in late 1914, Tom Gracie signing up on the 8th December. The 16th were better known as McCrae’s battalion after Sir George McCrae who raised them, they were the first of the footballers’ battalions and served as an inspiration for the 17th Middlesex who began recruiting professional footballers in England soon after.

The Hearts team in the uni form of the Royal Scots – a non-kilted regiment. Tom Gracie is on the back row far right

The Hearts team in the uniform of the Royal Scots – a non-kilted regiment. Tom Gracie is on the back row far right

In March 1915 Tom Gracie found out he had leukaemia, but he hid this from all but the secretary of Hearts, John McCartney. He continued to train and play at weekends but fell ill after McCrae’s battalion transferred to Ripon in Yorkshire for further training. His leukaemia was discovered and he was transferred to hospital in Glasgow; despite his illness Tom was reported as being remarkably cheerful. He died in Glasgow’s Stobhill Hospital on 23rd October aged 26 and was buried in Craigton cemetery. There was a large turnout and many messages of condolence came from his friends on Merseyside. His mother wrote a moving letter of thanks to the Liverpool Echo:

“I have to thank you most sincerely for your article regarding my dear son, Tom. Tokens of respect such as you have written help to lighten the burden the loss of him is to us who loved him so much. Only God knows what I have lost in my darling boy, and when I state that another loved son of mine fell in battle on September 28, only three and a half weeks before Tom died, you will understand what my loss is, and how much I appreciate any little words of praise”.

Tom’s brother John was mortally wounded on the 4th day of the battle of Loos fighting with the 5th Battalion of the Cameron Highlanders around the Hohenzollern Redoubt. His burial records suggest he was evacuated back to a casualty clearing station in Béthune six miles behind the lines, and he is buried in Bethune Town Cemetery.

It is hard to imagine Mrs Gracie’s devastation.

The Battle of Loos

Corporal Tom Gracie

Corporal Tom Gracie

Loos in late September 1915 was the largest attack mounted by the British since the war began. It was in support of two even larger French offensives: one in Champagne and an adjoining one to the south of the British sector whose objective was the Vimy Ridge and a break out onto the plain of Douai.

The area for the British attack was just north of the German held city of Lens up to the La Bassée canal. It was a flat coal mining area dotted with pit heads, slag heaps and small mining villages all of which were held by the Germans giving them excellent observation of British lines. The local army commander Sir Douglas Haig was unenthusiastic about attacking in the area, describing it as “most unfavourable ground”, particularly as aerial reconnaissance had identified that the Germans were digging a second defensive system out of the range of most of his artillery. Haig wanted to attack north of the La Bassée canal where three previous attempts had failed in the spring and early summer; however the French as the largest allied army insisted on an adjoining attack.

Despite Haig’s misgivings and doubts expressed by the British commander in chief Sir John French, Lord Kitchener in the War Office ordered French and Haig to conform to the wishes of the French and planning began for the attack. It was to be mounted by six divisions on a front of roughly six miles. The shortage of heavy artillery and adequate supplies of ammunition which had bedevilled the British throughout 1915 remained a serious problem, but Haig’s pessimism changed completely when he was given a new weapon for the attack.

“The accessory” as the new weapon was code named was chlorine gas. The Germans had introduced chlorine to the Western front at Ypres in April of 1915 and were condemned for their barbarity; however the British and the French immediately began to work on their own gas weapons. For the Loos attack 140 tons of chlorine was manhandled by the Royal Engineers in cylinders which were placed in the front line trenches.

A four day preliminary bombardment opened on the 21st September 1914, but was so light that the local German commander refused to believe that it could mean an attack. The wind direction was critical for the release of the gas and the breeze in the early hours of the 25th was not sufficient. The order to release the gas was given none the less and in some places the gas hung in no man’s land and in some places rolled back into the British lines causing casualties. Further British casualties were caused by men finding they could not see out of their primitive smoke hoods and removed them.

The attack began at 6.30 am on 25th September with smoke shells fired to make the gas cloud seem more extensive. The main effect of the gas and smoke may have been to obscure the attacking troops from the Germans who would at least be wearing their own gas masks.

In the north the attacks alongside the La Bassée canal failed with heavy casualties due to the barbed wire being uncut. In the centre the 9th (Scottish Division) overran the field fortress known as the Hohenzollern Redoubt and got into the pit village and mine workings beyond. Tom Gracie’s brother John would have been at the forefront of this attack with the 5th Cameron Highlanders. South of the Hohenzollern Redoubt the attacks pushed towards a set of chalk quarries and the village of Hulluch. The most spectacular progress was made in the south of the attack area where the 15th (Scottish Division) swept across the German front line and took the village of Loos. They consolidated the village and then moved on to take a low rise beyond the village called Hill 70. This exposed the lightly held German second line to attack and the three reserve divisions were needed to exploit the opportunity. Although the situation was confused all along the line an opportunity for a breakthrough seemed possible.

British Troops moving forward behind the gas cloud on the morning of 25th September 1915

British Troops moving forward behind the gas cloud on the morning of 25th September 1915 (Imperial War Museum Collection)

Unfortunately for the British the reserves were under the command of the Commander in Chief Sir John French. Unforgivably he had moved his headquarters without establishing telephone contact and had to be found by car. He agreed to release the reserves but they were too far back from the battle zone and by the time they started moving it was early afternoon. They had a nightmare approach march though the chaos of the British rear areas and were exhausted, hungry and thirsty by the time they were in position. The attack was postponed until the following morning.

The Germans used the delay to reinforce their second line and retake Hill 70. The attacking troops had lost most of their officers and had bunched up on the forward slope of the hill in an exposed salient. They were exposed to heavy artillery fire as they tried to dig in suffering heavy casualties, as at this stage of the war they did not have steel helmets as protection against shrapnel. Gradually they were forced back and a spirited German counter attack drove them off the top of the hill. The Germans also reinforced the village of Hulluch to the north and the gap was closed.

The following day the reserves were sent into attack between Hulluch and Hill 70. The troops were the first Kitchener volunteer units to see action and theirs was a baptism of fire. The gap which existed the previous day was now a trap as the raw troops advanced in columns toward the German second line. Caught in crossfire between machine guns in Hulluch and on Hill 70 they were slaughtered; 8,000 out of 10,000 attacking troops became casualties, of which between 2,000 and 3,000 are likely to have been killed outright. There is evidence that the Germans stopped firing and allowed the walking wounded to retreat. The Germans called it “das Leichenfeld von Loos”- the Corpse Field of Loos.

On the 27th and 28th September the Germans mounted a series of counterattacks particularly on Loos village and around the Hohenzollern Redoubt, it was during this fighting that John Gracie was killed. The British troops were at a disadvantage in trench fighting because their various designs of grenades were inferior to the German stick grenade. The Germans completed the recapture of the redoubt on 3rd October and a final British attempt to retake it on the 13th failed with over 3,000 killed, wounded and missing.

The battle of Loos and several diversionary attacks further north cost over 61,000 casualties, of whom over 20,000 were dead. German losses were probably half that number. However to put the losses into context the French lost nearly 200,000 killed and wounded in their two attacks on the Vimy Ridge and in Champagne, neither of which achieved much more than the British at Loos. At this stage of WW1 the defence was utterly dominant.

In the aftermath of the battle of Loos Sir Douglas Haig made sure that the War Office and the government in London knew why he thought the attack had failed: Sir John French’s handling of the reserves on the first day of the battle. French resigned on 10th December and in his place Haig was made Commander –in-chief. His two corps commanders at Loos, Gough and Rawlinson would be promoted to command the Reserve and 4th Armies respectively, and all three men would plan the next “big push”. Amidst all the politicking the lessons of Loos were not properly analysed and the mistakes would be made again 30 miles to the south on the chalk uplands above the river Somme on a sunny Saturday, the 1st July 1916.

The attack on the Hohenzollern redoubt on the 13th October 1915

The attack on the Hohenzollern redoubt on the 13th October 1915, the slag heap and pit head are just visible along the right horizon (Imperial War Museum Collection)

David Murray

David Murray would have recognised the landscape of the Loos area, for he had worked down the pit in South Yorkshire after the end of his professional football career. Loos in late 1915 was not a place where it was healthy to put your head above the parapet however.

He was born in Sheddens just south of Glasgow on 4th December 1882. David was brought by two aunts at the Post Office in Busby, just down the road from Sheddens. In the 1901 census he was a ham curer’s apprentice, but his skills as a full back took him from Busby Rosemont FC to Leven Victoria and he came to the notice of professional clubs. There is some uncertainty as to his early career, Rangers and Newcastle are mentioned and he was reported to have played a trial for the Ibrox outfit, but Everton also offered him a trial and he impressed; in August 1903 The Liverpool Courier reported “Of Murray great things are expected. Playing in a couple of trials for Everton during their Southern tour last season, he showed magnificent form, and it was upon this that the directors there and then secured his services.”

David Murray signed on for 30 shillings a week in summer and £2 in winter with £5 expenses. He made two appearances for the Blues at left back in the 1903-04 season and won the Football Combination with the reserves. Despite this he was released and joined Liverpool in August 1904. He made 15 appearances over two seasons for Liverpool before moving to Hull and then Leeds City where he became captain. His professional career may have been curtailed by injury and he moved to Mexborough in South Yorkshire, turning out for the local amateur team. In early September 1914 he joined up and arrived in France with the 11th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders on 7th July.

David Murray

David Murray

David's service records show he had disciplinary problems, three offences are mentioned: drunkenness, overstaying a leave and then 28 days Field Punishment No. 1 on 8th October 1915. To modern sensibilities this was a harsh punishment which involved a man being tied to a wheel or post for four hours a day four days out of five. The records do not give the charge that led to the punishment, but it was in the immediate aftermath of David fighting though the battle of Loos. His battalion was heavily engaged in the attack on the village of Loos itself and the subsequent capture and loss of Hill 70. It is possible that when he got back to billets in the village of Allouagne west of Bethune he got drunk again; the punishment may have been cumulative because of his previous offences.

The British lines after the end of the battle of Loos in mid-October formed an awkward salient into the German lines and the hastily dug trenches were in poor shape. Consolidating them was a nightmare, and in front of the village of Hulluch a young 2nd Lieutenant of the 1/9th King’s Liverpool regiment organised the wiring of the front line, a task which had proved impossible for preceding units. This would normally be a routine task, but Frank Boundy, one of the founders of CD Everton in Valparaiso in Chile organised and carried it out successfully, so much so that he was awarded the Military Cross.

On 10th December 1915 the 11th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were holding the line in front of the Hohenzollern redoubt. Having been the scene of such terrible fighting during the battle of Loos it continued to be a hot sector afterwards; the trenches were in very bad condition, knee deep in mud and regularly shelled. The battalion war diary records six men killed on the 10th; one of them was David Murray, he was six days past his 33rd birthday. Three were from shells bursting in the trench during heavy afternoon bombardment, and three killed when a dugout that they were sheltering in collapsed after heavy rain. The diary states that the men had been warned not to use it as it was insufficiently propped up.

The Cemetery and Memorial at Dud Corner near Loos

The Cemetery and Memorial at Dud Corner near Loos (author’s collection)

David Murray has no known grave and is remembered on the Loos Memorial to the Missing at Dud Corner. It is possible he may have been one of the three buried in the collapsed dugout; it may be that their bodies were not dug out due to the more urgent need to shore up and drain the trenches. The battalion war diary for the day before David was killed mentions that the sound of mining was heard coming from the German lines and on the 15th a mine was exploded under the British front line. It could be that the mine made subsequent recovery impossible or even obliterated the whole trench.

David Murray’s name

David Murray’s name

Two of the men killed on the 10th were buried very close to the front line in Quarry cemetery, it suffered heavily from shell damage and David may be in one of 10 unknown graves. If he is in Quarry he is in august company; the Queen's uncle, Fergus Bowes-Lyon has a relatively new special memorial stone in there. The ten unknown graves each bear the words "Known Unto God"; the words were chosen by Rudyard Kipling, whose son John is probably buried about two miles from Quarry at St Mary's Aid Post Cemetery.

The Liverpool Football Echo of December 18, 1915 reported David Murray’s death with a touching tribute: “Murray's death is a blow to the Argyll Sutherland Highlanders. David Murray was immensely popular with them, and his quaint humour and unfailing readiness to give assurance to anyone were points in his trench life that make his leave-taking sorrowful. He was killed by a shell this week, and news of his death will be received by the Mersey city and Leeds with deep regret.”

The report is likely to be based on the letter to his next of kin by his commanding officer. The formula was not to detail how a man really died and paint the most positive picture, but there is a sense that David Murray was a real character despite his problems with authority.

David Murray left his effects to his landlady in Mexborough, a Mrs Elizabeth Sleight; he describes her as his adopted mother but this does not appear to be a legal adoption. Mrs Sleight received David's medals after a search by the War Office failed to contact his real family. David's name does appear on the war memorial in Reay near Thurso, where his family were originally from. Nearly 100 years later he is not forgotten as the pupils of Reay Primary School researched the names on their war memorial and painted pictures of the men, David Murray among them, and it was reported by the BBC. The pupils of Gwladys Street School did the same thing for the fallen of the parish of St Luke’s, and displayed them, one on each seat in the church in August 2014. Amid all the ceremonies to mark the start of WW1 involving the great and the good it was the most moving thing I saw.

Postscript: Lions, Donkeys and Ladies from Hell

So were the lions led by donkeys, and what of the ladies from hell? The Germans had gone into the war with little regard for the tiny British army which the Kaiser famously described as “a contemptible little army”. There was not much in 1915 to make them change their view. There was probably some recognition of the sheer bloody minded determination of the British troops, particularly on the defensive, but the Germans recognised that the ordinary soldiers tended to lose direction when they lost their officers. The Germans were very good at targeting officers during attacks for this reason. The Germans were confident to the point of arrogance about their army, so they probably thought all of the British army were donkeys. The Germans were very good at analysing the tactics of the allies and in the aftermath of the fighting in the autumn of 1915 concluded that it was the French that posed the real threat. As a consequence they conceived a plan for 1916 to kill French soldiers in such numbers that the government in Paris would have to make peace. This strategy became Operation Gericht, which means place of execution in this context, and the killing ground would be around the sleepy French garrison town of Verdun.

That the conduct of the battle of Loos was a shambles is hard to refute, but it should be remembered that the size of the British army was increasing exponentially, going from a pre-war strength of about 280,000 to over 2,000,000 at its largest. This required a similar increase in the number of officers at all levels, and many of the pre-war officers were killed or wounded in the first two months of the war. The pool of talent simply wasn’t there, added to which the experienced officers that the army did possess had no training for the type of war they were asked to fight. Any organisation facing that kind of expansion would struggle, but the tragedy was that that struggle meant many brave men died. Modern historians talk of a learning curve; sadly it was drawn in blood.

But did the British fight like lions? There are numerous examples of the sheer bloody minded determination in the face of terrible opposition throughout the battle of Loos, and indeed from the other attacks carried out in 1915. I have focused on the bitter fighting for the Hohenzollern redoubt and the storming of the village of Loos and Hill 70 because of the stories of David Murray and Tom and John Gracie, and these stand out. But one surprising statistic further muddies the lions led by donkeys question. A huge problem for the senior officers throughout WW1 was communicating with the troops fighting at the front to find out what was happening. Many of the disasters of WW1 like the corpse field at Loos were down to not knowing where the enemy was. At Loos senior officers went forward into the fighting lines to try and establish some control and were killed. Three major-generals commanding divisions of 20,000 men were killed. Three Brigadier-Generals commanding brigades of 5,000 and no fewer than twenty nine lieutenant-colonels commanding battalions of 1,000 men also died. Were they lions or donkeys?

Cornflower

But what of the ladies from hell? That the Scots troops at Loos fought like lions is unquestionable, and the kilted battalions were at the forefront. But their sacrifice was terrible. Despite providing two of the six divisions in the attack on the first day all five of the battalions suffering the worst casualties in the battle, and seven out of the worst ten were Scottish. For Dundee it was said that "not a street didn’t suffer a loss", and Loos is the battle that the city most remembers.

For Everton, to our proud Scottish heritage and the long list of heroes from north of the border we can add David Murray, and Tom and John Gracie. They are not forgotten.

Pete Jones, EFC Heritage Society 2015

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank Dr John Rowlands and Billy Smith for first finding and documenting David Murray. Thanks also to my friend JP Levinge who has again come up with lots of information on both the families of Tom Gracie and David Murray. I am grateful also to Lorna and Richard Conaghan for their huge help north of the border, and Kjell Hannsen for his archive of newspaper reports. I would also like to thank Innes Murray, David Murray’s great nephew for his assistance with David’s family background.

Share this article


Reader Comments

Note: the following content is not moderated or vetted by the site owners at the time of submission. Comments are the responsibility of the poster. Disclaimer


There are no responses so far to this article. Be the first to offer a comment using the form below.

Add Your Comments

In order to post a comment, you need to be logged in as a registered user of the site.

» Log in now

Or Sign up as a ToffeeWeb Member — it's free, takes just a few minutes and will allow you to post your comments on articles and Talking Points submissions across the site.


© ToffeeWeb