Imagine digging a six foot deep ditch, putting a step about 18 inches above the bottom and letting it fill up with water; then imagine crouching or huddling on the step so that your head does not come above ground level during daylight. You will have to spend four or five days and nights in the middle of winter there, you are only allowed to sleep for a couple of hours at a time, and you have to spend some of the night standing looking over the edge without dropping off. It is very hard to imagine; but that is exactly the experience many of our grandfathers and great grandfathers had 100 years ago in the trenches of the First World War.
The last veterans of the trenches are now no longer with us, so few people can have empathy for the experience of the trenches, particularly in winter. However those who have experience of sleeping rough understand all too well. In a recent article highlighted by ToffeeWeb, Everton in the Community's Lee Johnson spoke eloquently of his experiences living on the streets, and in particular the cold: “You feel ill,” he says. “You wake up and you feel like you are frozen. You don't just feel cold, it's much more than that. It's as if your bones have literally been frozen.” Add to this the insecurity and I think Lee's insights are as close as most of us will get to knowing what trench warfare was like. Lee's story is inspirational, as is the club and Everton in the Community's commitment to helping young homeless people through the ‘Home is where the Heart is' initiative and David Unsworth and the under 23 team's fundraising efforts.
Trench warfare is a phrase which still has resonance a century on from it coming into common use. It is often used as a metaphor in football; a struggling side who lose in the early rounds of the FA Cup are sometimes described as being “left with only relegation trench warfare”. Unlike many words and phrases which have survived from the First World War, words like casualties, which is so often misunderstood, and “lions led by donkeys” which nobody at the time actually said, trench warfare is relatively true to its original meaning.
Of the ten men who played for the Everton football club of Walton on Merseyside and who died serving in the First World War, two were killed at Gallipoli in Turkey, one died of illness in the UK and seven were killed on the Western Front. Of the seven only three fell in major battles; the other four died while holding the trenches. This is the story of one of those four men. Donald Sloan was a Scottish born goalkeeper who represented the League of Ireland, crossing the Irish Sea and Stanley Park in the process. It is a story that reflects the harshness of a Scottish mining upbringing, an escape into a career in football and the terrible sacrifice that the Sloan family made in WW1. All of the stories of the Everton players who were killed are tragic, but the story of Donald Sloan is the most tragic of all.
A Short History of the Trench
As autumn turned into winter in 1914 Belgian, British, Indian and French troops faced the Germans along a static line that ran over 400 miles from the North Sea to the Swiss border. For the first time in large scale warfare there was no flank to turn, so both sides dug into the ground to protect themselves from artillery and machine gun fire. For the Germans, who had gambled on defeating France quickly, it was a question of hanging on to territory and seeing what turned up. For the German High Command the Western front became the border of the new Reich, and they began to fortify it with their customary expertise.
For the French, Belgians and British, the opposite was the case. Belgium, for whom the British Empire had gone to war, was reduced to a narrow band north and south of the city of Ypres. Critically the Germans held the ports of the Belgian coast, a key strategic problem for Britain. For the French the territory they had lost contained much of their coal and steel making capacity and a large captive population. For the Allies the trenches were seen as a temporary measure until the war of movement could be re-established.
What followed was effectively a huge siege and trenches had long played a part in siege warfare, particularly in the age of gunpowder. Digging mines under the enemy's walls had an even longer history. Faced with an enemy fortification, trenches and gun pits would be constructed to bombard the walls and get assaulting troops as close as possible to any breach. The trenches that ran towards the enemy fortifications were called saps, and the men who dug them became known as sappers, which is still the basic rank of the Royal Engineers to this day.
The British Expeditionary Force's first brief experience of trenches was on the lower slopes of the Chemin de Dames ridge above the river Aisne in mid September 1914, where they found the Germans dug in along the crest following their retreat after the battle of the Marne. The war of movement, which had seen the long British retreat from Mons in Belgium to a position south east of Paris was coming to an end, but both sides tried to outflank each other by moving troops north. The BEF left the Aisne and joined other British divisions arriving from Britain in Flanders, starting from a position near the French town of La Bassée south west of Lille. It was here the British first dug the trenches they would occupy for the next four years. They were forced onto the defensive by coming up against larger German formations making outflanking moves, culminating in the first battle of Ypres in October and November 1914. The British and French fought a series of rearguard actions in hedges, ditches and hastily dug trenches to hold the Germans back. The cost to the British was terrible, with the regular divisions that had gone to France just three months before suffering 100% casualties.
As autumn turned to winter in 1914 the British held just 27 miles of front, between the Belgian village of St Eloi south of Ypres and the French town of La Bassée. Their trenches did not last long in the winter rain; an unsupported trench that was six feet deep and three feet wide would be three feet deep and six feet wide after a day of rain, with the bottoms often knee or even waist deep in mud. There are reports of troops spending all day bailing water with anything they could lay their hands on. Apart from losses from shellfire and sniping, troops began to succumb to ailments caused by exposure to wet and cold, including the notorious trench foot, an extreme form of chilblains, where the feet would swell as the circulation was lost. One man found his foot frozen into mud while on guard duty on Christmas Eve and tore his ankle ligaments so badly trying to get free he was invalided out of the army. Despite the mythology of the 1914 Christmas truce and the football matches it was as much about being able to get out of the trench, get the feet dry, the circulation back and move around a bit. In the low lying Lys valley the truce was extended to allow both sides to build earth and sandbag walls called breastworks on top of the wet ground.
As the British took over more of the front during 1915 the troops and engineers faced many challenges alongside drainage and defence. The front lines ran mostly across fields but also through villages and towns, through industrial and mining areas, and were crossed by railways, canals, rivers and streams. Each feature required a different approach, but the danger from enemy snipers, artillery and mortars was ever present. Very rapidly the trenches were modified to include fire bays giving them the characteristic zig zag pattern when seen from the air. If a shell landed in a trench only one bay would be affected, and in the event of the enemy getting into the trench they could not fire down its length. The trenches became a multiple system, with support and reserve trenches dug further back, with the lines winding across the landscape to take advantage of the geography, or to minimise the disadvantages.
The engineers came up with schemes to improve the trenches themselves, with trench sides shored up with wood, woven branches, chicken wire or corrugated iron depending on the ground conditions. Above all sandbags were used for trench construction; the British alone are estimated to have used 1,300,000,000 during the four years of the war. On the side facing the enemy a fire step was created below the parapet to allow troops to shoot at the enemy, and a slightly higher bank called a parados was raised on the rear edge to prevent the troops being silhouetted against the sky when firing. Pumps were installed in low lying areas, and drainage channels and sumps were dug at the bottom of the trenches to collect the water. These were covered by simple wooden slats on a frame called duckboards, hundreds of miles of which were installed. These were not without their dangers, as Tim Coleman, who had played inside forward for Everton before the war found out. Coleman was a popular character on and off the pitch and was a prolific writer of letters from the trenches, particularly to the Merseyside press. His escapades were also the subject of several letters from his mates in the 17th Middlesex, the first footballers' battalion. One describes how he was escorting the first prisoners taken by the battalion along a communication trench to the rear when he fell through a rotten duckboard into a drainage sump, becoming stuck up to his waist. He did not get much sympathy from his comrades who appear to have had a good laugh before pulling him out, while another former footballer took the prisoners back to battalion headquarters and got the congratulations.
Coleman might have blamed the pioneers for his mishap. Most regiments formed a pioneer battalion which was often designated as the 11th; these were fully trained troops who specialised in construction and maintenance of the trench systems. The Royal Engineers designed the trenches but it was the pioneers who did much of the construction, for which they got extra pay. The first former Everton man to be killed on the Western Front, Harry Norris, was serving as a pioneer corporal with the 11th King's Liverpool when he was killed near Ypres, probably working on trench construction during the night of the 26th/27th August 1915. The editors of the famous trench newspaper ‘The Wipers Times' were part of the pioneer battalion of the Sherwood Foresters, and knew the same trenches that Harry Norris had worked on. One of their contributors penned a little rhyme that sums up the conditions: The world wasn't made in a day
And Eve didn't ride on a bus
But most of the world's in a sandbag
And the rest of it's plastered on us
In 1915 trench life settled into an uncomfortable routine for most troops, only rarely punctuated by attacks. The experience of most front line soldiers was of boredom and discomfort with short periods of deadly danger. Holding the trenches meant living and sleeping in the open in all weathers with only damp dugouts or rough openings in the side of the trench called funk holes for shelter. Dirt was everywhere and there was little opportunity to wash and no opportunity to change clothing, often for days or even weeks. Lice infested the soldiers' filthy bodies and rats made the most of the debris. Latrines were just deep holes usually with planks to sit on, and they would often be targeted by the enemy. Where bodies of men or animals were left in the open flies and the terrible smell were torments, especially during the summer months. All of this resulted in serious risk of disease. Food was usually very basic and tins of bully beef and Machonachie's stew became famous along with plum and apple jam. Fresh food had to be cooked well behind the lines and brought forward, a process that often resulted in it being covered with mud like everything else. Even water was often a problem as fresh supplies had to be carried to the front lines in tins; to drink any other water was to risk disease. However a rum ration did something to keep out the cold, to this day the earthenware jars bearing the letters ‘SRD' still turn up in the ground. SRD stood for ‘Service Rum Diluted' but the soldiers had various other interpretations, of which ‘Seldom Reaches Destination' is perhaps the most common.
In theory a unit would have four or five days in the front line, the same in the support trenches just behind, four or five in reserve and then then four or five days' rest. Rest was a loose concept however, and could involve heavy work behind the lines. Often the periods in the front line or in support could be longer depending on the availability of relief troops. Reliefs usually took place at night and the presence of two lots of men going in opposite directions in pitch dark made the process slow, and could be hazardous if the enemy realised what was going on. Even without reliefs there was a constant flow of men moving through the communications trenches carrying the paraphernalia of war. At night parties went out into no man's land to repair the barbed wire and often saps were dug out in front of the trenches to create listening posts trying to hear enemy activity. Lookouts were posted at all times and the men in the trenches had to maintain a high level of readiness 24 hours a day. Men had to wear full kit and have their rifles to hand with bayonets fixed at night. They could not move about without permission, and sleep was snatched between the various duties, perhaps hunched on the fire step with a cape to keep out the rain. Only when out of the line would men be able to get proper sleep. Fatigue, exposure and boredom led to loss of concentration which in turn could lead to sudden death or injury, particularly from snipers.
Despite being in the open the perspective of the men in the trenches was very limited. They could see the sky but other than that their world was constrained by the sides of the fire bay they occupied. Unless they were involved in an attack they would not see the landscape around them and during an attack they did not have time to admire the view. During daylight it was suicidal to peek over the top of the trench and periscopes had to be used to scan the enemy lines. Yet during spring soldiers responded to the new growth of wild flowers in the parapets and of birds singing, and filled their letters with detailed descriptions. For most people today the image of the trenches is of muddy ditches crossing a moonscape of waterlogged shell holes with not a green shoot in sight. However for most of the time the vegetation grew wild and in profusion, and needed cutting to prevent the enemy using it for cover. During summer the trenches dried out and dust even became a problem. Even after a major battle like the Somme the ground recovered remarkably quickly, with wildflowers like poppies which require sunlight to germinate their tiny seeds, growing in profusion in the shell disturbed ground.
Left at Mud Corner then on Down Rats Alley to Piccadilly
The maze of trenches were confusing due to the lack of sight of the landscape around; consequently they were named and signposted to direct the troops to the right sectors. The trench names marked on the contemporary maps are an echo of the dark humour that kept the men going. Some, like Whizz-bang Corner, Dead Cow Farm, Hellfire Corner, Rats Alley, Shell Trap Farm or Mud Corner give a realistic description of the location. Hellfire Corner on the Menin Road just east of Ypres was under artillery fire for most of the war and had the reputation of being the most dangerous place on earth.
Other trenches and locations were given street names familiar to the troops that first occupied them. For example the trenches in Authuille Wood near Thiepval on the Somme read like an A to Z of Liverpool. There is a Mersey Street and an Aintree Street, along with Lime Street, Tithebarn Street and Stanley Street. Some names for particularly unpleasant sections of trench were heavily ironic, with names from the smarter parts of the West End of London abounding. Hyde Park Corner was on the edge of Ploegsteert wood, and today a cemetery takes its name from the trench junction. It contains the grave of the England Rugby Union captain Ronnie Poulton-Palmer, of the original Liverpool FC and part of the Huntley and Palmer biscuit family. Junctions and trenches would be signposted to prevent new troops getting lost and once established the names stuck even though the troops who originally came up with the names had moved on.
Other small landmarks in the trenches took on a superstitious life of their own. The French had a habit of burying their dead in the sides of the trenches and these bodies occasionally emerged from the mud. There is at least one story of British troops going into the line shaking hands with the French skeleton for luck.
Coalboxes, Crumps and Whizz-bangs
The lack of vision meant that sound and smell became important senses. Where the trenches were close together the food that the Germans were cooking could be identified and their conversation heard. The ever present danger of enemy artillery spawned a whole lexicon of names to differentiate different kinds of shell, with the sound of the incoming shell or the characteristic colours of the explosion smoke identifying the type of gun. The low trajectory field guns were often referred to as whizz bangs, as the shells came fast and low so the explosion followed rapidly on the sound. The higher trajectory howitzer shells spent much longer in the air and their arrival was heralded by a shriek; these were often identified by the smoke with names like coalboxes or Jack Johnsons, from the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion. The sound of the shell exploding led to some units using the word crumps. The German 15 centimetre howitzer, probably the most effective artillery piece on either side was much feared and unusually was often referred to as a 5.9, this being the diameter of the barrel in inches.
The distance between the opposing front line trenches varied from a matter of yards to hundreds of yards in places. At Hill 60 south east of Ypres the German lines were at the top of a bank of spoil heaped up when the nearby railway cutting was dug, while the allied lines were at the bottom of the bank, only yards away. Such sections of line had grim reputations, made worse by both sides mining under the opposite trenches. By the end of 1916 some areas like Hill 60 and Railway Wood at Ypres and Givenchy near La Bassée became crater fields. At La Boisselle on the Somme only a farmyard at the western end of the village separated the Germans and the French in 1914. After relentless mining the front lines were pushed apart by the accumulating craters, an area that the British troops christened the Glory Hole when they took over mining operations in late 1915.
Hill 60 aerial view from the German side showing the mine craters, probably 1915. The feature in the bottom left of picture across the railway line is part of the feature called the Caterpillar (Imperial War Museum)
Both sides deployed short range mortars of various sizes. One British version fired a round projectile attached to a long stick which was fired by a cartridge in a steel tube; these were known as toffee apples or footballs. The Germans had a range of mortars which they called minenwerfers, mine throwers. The bombs these fired had various names: blind or flying pigs, moaning minnies, oil cans or sausages. The Germans had a heavy 15 centimetre version which could flatten whole sections of trench and even dugouts. It was possible to see the mortar rounds as they rose into the sky and troops could dodge the incoming rounds by running from one fire bay to another.
Gas was another danger. By 1916 the Germans were firing gas shells as an alternative to releasing the gas from cylinders in the front lines. The tell-tale signs were a plopping noise as the gas shells landed and a characteristic first smell before the gas release became strong enough to cause asphyxiation. At the first sound or smell the shout “Gas Gas Gas” would go up, the gas hood would be pulled on and the alarm raised by banging an empty shell case or sounding a klaxon.
The experience of being in the front lines was one of discomfort and exposure, overlain with a high level of stress and punctuated with periods of severe danger. The fortitude of the men who endured it is remarkable.
A typical trench. This is the Lancashire Fusiliers at Messines. The gas horn can be be seen in front of the sitting men cleaning a Lewis gun and the wind vane to indicate the direction that any gas would blow is above the man on the right. Without sandbag reinforcement the sides of the trench nearest the camera have slumped into the bottom of the trench. Imperial War Museum image Q4649
New Year's Day 1917 — Arras
On New Year's Day 1917 five privates of the 8th Battalion, the Black Watch sheltered in a dugout probably in the support line between the town of Arras and the small village of St Laurent-Blagny. The narrow river Scarpe ran through the town and the village and passed through both sets of lines, creating a marshy expanse of no man's land. The dugout that the men sheltered in was on the north bank of the river and gave the five some respite from the bitter weather, as the winter of 1916-17 was the coldest in living memory. One of the five men was Donald Sloan, a miner's son and he was a relative veteran of the trenches, spending his second winter on the western front.
Donald Sloan was born on 31st July 1883 in Rankinston, a mining village twelve miles south of Ayr. His parents were John and Esther and their address was 218 Rankinston as the village consisted of just one street at the time. John and Esther had twelve children of whom nine boys and one girl survived to adulthood. Donald was the sixth child born to the couple. His upbringing would have been hard as conditions in the Scottish mining industry were grim. Two of his brothers would emigrate to Canada, and Donald left Rankinston and its mines and quarries, crossing the North Channel to Belfast just after the turn of the century. He had made a name for himself as a goalkeeper in Scottish amateur football and was signed by Linfield Distillery. His background is strikingly similar to that of his contemporary, Everton's legendary centre forward Sandy Young who came from Slamanan, another Scottish mining village 45 miles to the north west on the other side of Glasgow.
Donald was a regular in goal for Distillery between 1903 and 1906 and first came to Everton's attention in 1905 according to the board minutes. He had represented the league of Ireland in an international fixture against the English league at Manchester City's Hyde Road ground on 14th October 1905, and two Everton directors who watched the game were impressed. The game was notable in that it was recorded by the early pioneers of film, Mitchell and Kenyon. Donald is probably the man wearing a cap as the Irish league team takes to the pitch:
Everton made a transfer enquiry to Linfield soon after but this was initially rebuffed; however in April 1906 a transfer fee of £250 was agreed and the newspapers reported the deal in a footnote to Everton's preparations for the Cup Final at Crystal Palace. Donald Sloan officially signed on the 24th, three days after Everton's first FA Cup triumph, in which Sandy Young scored the goal that beat Newcastle.
Donald Sloan from contemporary team photographs
Donald came over to Merseyside that summer with his new wife, Edith Emily nee Page, but his first team opportunities at Everton were limited by the excellence of Billy Scott. He made just six first team appearances, two in season 1906-07 and four in 1907-08 and was transfer listed in the close season of 1908. He joined Liverpool for a fee of £300 on 2nd May 1908 becoming understudy to Sam Hardy. The following season 1908-09 he made six appearances for Liverpool but was unable to keep a clean sheet, and was released by Liverpool in the summer of 1909, returning to Linfield as player-manager.
Donald returned to Scotland after finishing playing for Linfield and became a miner, although he appears to have continued playing probably semi-professionally, and was reported as moving to East Stirlingshire from Bathgate in August 1912. He and Edith had three children by the outbreak of war in 1914 and were living in Shettleston, just east of Celtic Park. Donald enlisted in Glasgow and was posted to the 8th (Service) Battalion of the Black Watch (Royal Highlanders) becoming S/9311 Private Sloan D; the 8th being the first of Lord Kitchener's New Army battalions raised by the regiment.
Oh We Don't Want To Lose You But We Think You Ought To Go
What we know of Donald's service is based on the medal records that were kept after the war. This gives us his battalion and the date he went overseas. Donald would also have had a set of army records detailing postings, periods of leave and medical treatment. Unfortunately these records suffered from a warehouse fire during the Battle of Britain in 1940 and roughly one in five survived. Donald's were not among them. To reconstruct his period in the trenches we have to follow the progress of his battalion through the regimental history and the war diary, the day to day account of what happened to the 8th Black Watch while on active service.
Like hundreds of thousands of volunteers Donald would have spent the winter of 1914-15 doing basic training, quite probably without experienced officers, weapons or even a uniform, at least initially. The British army was completely unprepared for the success of Kitchener's call to arms and it took a long time for even the basics to become available. The 8th Black Watch was based first in Perth, before moving south to Aldershot and then to France in May 1915, albeit without Donald Sloan who was presumably still in training. The battalion took part in the first big offensive mounted by the British, at Loos beginning on 26th September 1915. The 8th lost 511 men killed, wounded or captured out of probably 850 to 900 in three days, a not untypical loss rate among the battalions that fought in the battle. Among the dead was the second in command, Captain Fergus Bowes-Lyon, the present Queen's uncle. He was buried in a small chalk quarry close to the front lines in front of a German strongpoint called the Hohenzollern redoubt, but his body was thought to be lost until, nearly 100 years after his death, the Bowes-Lyon family established that he was somewhere in what is now Quarry cemetery. A special memorial was erected saying he is known to be buried there, but his name is still on the Memorial to the Missing of the Loos area at Dud Corner a few miles away. Private David Murray, another Scot who had moved from Everton to Liverpool like Donald Sloan was killed in the same area in December 1915 when an unsafe dugout collapsed and buried him. He may also be in an unidentified grave in Quarry Cemetery and his name is also on the Dud Corner Memorial.
Donald Sloan arrived in France as 2nd October 1915, in a reinforcement draft to replace the losses that the 8th Black Watch had suffered at Loos. Three days after Donald Sloan's arrival another draft disembarked, this time including a man called William Fleming. It is possible that the two men knew each other for they had much in common. Like Donald Sloan, William Fleming came from a Scottish mining family and had also escaped the hardships of the pits to become a professional footballer for Newcastle United. Most formations in the British army had a football team and the game has been described as an obsession in WW1.
It seems likely that the two former professionals would have been part of the 8th battalion team. The two men had something else in common. Most of Donald Sloan's first team appearances for Everton were as a team mate of the great Sandy Young; William Fleming was Sandy's cousin and the Youngs and the Flemings were close.
The 8th Black Watch were to spend the last months of 1915 rebuilding their strength in the trenches of the Ypres salient. The remnants of the 8th Battalion had moved from Loos to Poperinge just west of Ypres and on the 4th October went into the front lines between where a railway cutting and a canal passed through no man's land. The railway cutting was the site of the notorious Hill 60, a spoil heap created from the cutting, and the bank thrown up by the digging of the canal was known as the Bluff. Both were held by the Germans and each had a grim reputation by the end of 1915. The 8th Black Watch spent five days in the line before being relieved and it is likely that Donald Sloan would have reached the battalion during this period, probably on a slow train from the coast and then marching the last few miles from the railhead west of Ypres. He is likely to have had his first experience of shellfire on the approach, the front lines curved around the town and the Germans could shell almost from three sides. The Ypres salient was a grim place for a first experience of the trenches and the sector between Hill 60 and the Bluff were particularly dangerous.
On the 13th October the 8th battalion went back into the front lines just north of their previous position in trenches on the south side of the railway cutting overlooked by Hill 60. On this side of the railway the spoil had been heaped into a bank which looked like a caterpillar from aerial reconnaissance photographs and the name stuck. Now the weather turned wet and cold and the sides of the trenches collapsed resulting in a morass in the bottom which made movement difficult, while exposing the men to sniper fire from the Germans on the banks above them. In some places the mud was knee deep and rubber waders were issued along with leather jerkins and goatskin fleeces for warmth. Even coming out of the front line was dangerous. The battalion headquarters was in another spoil heap from the railway cutting aptly called the Dump and from it the communication trench ran back across the fields to the village of Zillebeke about a mile away. The communication trench was full of water and at this stage of the war the British had not introduced steel helmets, which meant shrapnel shells were another danger if they burst above men struggling across the open fields in the pitch black.
British Soldiers in Goatskins (skels - Great War Forum)
The Black Watch were a kilted regiment as can be seen from Donald Sloan's picture taken before he embarked for the front. This presented a unique set of problems in flooded or muddy trenches, with the kilts and the khaki apron that was worn over it for camouflage becoming sodden and heavy. However the fierce reputation of the Highland regiments made wearing the kilt a badge of honour. The Germans reputedly called them “ladies from hell”, although this is another of those phrases from WW1, like “over by Christmas” for which there is no contemporary evidence, at least on the German side.
The trench holding routine of four or five days in the front line, the same in the reserve trenches a hundred or so yards further back and then another four or five days in billets a mile or two behind the lines was followed into December. Casualties were depressingly regular, but on 21st October the battalion suffered a serious loss when the Germans started dropping heavy mortar rounds onto the front line. The troops evacuated the section of trench being bombarded but a mortar bomb landed in an adjoining section crowded with troops trying to move away. It wrecked 30 yards of trench killing thirteen and wounding five. Conditions in the trenches were such that the battalion war diary for 16th November makes specific mention of the battalion having communal baths at Dickebusch, a village just behind the lines. Ypres was a very unpleasant place in late 1915 and would remain so almost to the end of the war, but if you survived the salient like Donald Sloan you had earned your spurs.
Donald Sloan and the 8th Black Watch were relieved from the front line along with the whole of the 9th Scottish Division and went into reserve far behind the lines just over the French border around the town of Ballieul. However the mud and flooding followed them and they spent a miserable Christmas in makeshift huts. The flooding was so bad that boats intended for pontoon bridges had to be used to ferry the troops across the worst areas.
On 24th January the 9th Division went back into the front line, this time six and a half miles south of Hill 60 and the Caterpillar, taking over the Ploegsteert Wood sector down to the Belgian/French border and the river Lys. The wood and the village on its western edge were called Plugstreet by the troops, one of many examples of often comic anglicised pronunciations of French and Flemish names. Apart from Plugstreet there was famously Wipers for Ypres, which became the title of a trench newspaper, “the Wipers Times”. There was the Somme village of Auchonvillers, which was known as Ocean Villas and Doignes, south east of Arras, which was called Dog Knees. A country lane called La Quinque Rue near Festubert was the title of a war poem by Edmund Blunden, and was known as Kinky Roo; however at the time kinky meant tightly curled rather than its modern meaning. Perhaps best of all was a Flemish named village just inside France on the way to the Ypres salient that Donald Sloan may have passed through; Goederversvelde. It came to be known as Gertie wears velvet.
Ploegsteert was a quiet area and the battalion history makes clear how pleased the battalion were to be away from Ypres. The front line ran along the eastern edge of the wood and then across the floodplain of the river. The area at the south end of the wood that the 8th Black Watch were allotted was not trenches but breastworks built above ground due to the high water table. The thick sandbag and earth bank did not afford as much protection as a trench and shellfire and even bullets could penetrate the defences. There were no communication trenches to the front line due to the boggy character of the ground and the main source of casualties were from German machine guns firing onto known paths across the wet fields at night as troops moved back and forwards. However the area was relatively safe in comparison to the Caterpillar trenches.
Although Donald Sloan would have known not to poke his head above the parapet, if he looked out over no man's land through a trench periscope he would not have seen the moonscape of mud and shell holes which is most people's image of WW1. Such devastation was relatively rare, particularly at this stage of WW1. What he would have seen would be long grass, weeds and the remains of the last root crops sown in the fields before war broke out. Many soldiers reported how spring came with lots of flowers and blossom on the trees, indeed some of them actually planted bulbs and flowers. Nature's resilience in the face of war was a source of wonderment.
Ploegsteert Wood — Spring 2015
A few yards to the south of the 9th Black Watch the 6th Royal Scottish Fusiliers were in the line. Their commanding officer was Lt. Colonel Winston Churchill and he was a regular visitor to the front lines. He was identifiable by the French steel helmet he habitually wore, a gift from French army officers who he regularly visited. Churchill had resigned from the government in the aftermath of the disaster of the Gallipoli operation in Turkey, a failure for which he took the blame, although he was by no means the only culprit. Instead of staying on the back benches in Parliament he pulled strings to get a front line posting while he and his wife Clementine used their connections to intrigue for a return to government.
Churchill was a popular commander by all accounts due to his personal courage on regular visits to the front line and on occasion into no man's land, and also for his lax attitude to the spit and polish side of army discipline. With his characteristic energy he paid particular attention to the morale and training of the men under his command, and learned much about the realities of trench warfare. After six months in command he returned to Parliament, and would assume the role of Minister of Munitions when his friend Lloyd George took over as Prime Minister.
By the time summer came in 1916 Donald Sloan had been ‘in the trenches' for seven months. However only part of this time was in the front line, and it is possible that he may not have seen a German soldier. But all that was about to change.
The Big Push
Around the same time as Winston Churchill left Ploegsteert so did Donald Sloan and the 8th Black Watch. The 9th Division was to be part of what was known at the time as the “Big Push”; what we now know as the battle of the Somme. From the 1st to the 25th June the battalion moved south on foot and by train, exchanging the low lying Flanders fields for the dry chalk uplands of Picardie around the town of Albert, 50 miles to the south.
On the disastrous 1st July 1916 the 8th Black Watch was in reserve around the village of Carnoy just behind the front lines and took no part in the fighting. This area saw the major success of the first day as the Liverpool and Manchester Pals took the village of Montauban, attacking next to the French army. The 9th Division had then taken over the area and the 8th Black Watch had gone into the captured German trenches north of Montauban on 8th July. They were able to survive the heavy German bombardments by sheltering in the deep German dugouts cut into the chalk geology, leaving a few men on the surface as lookouts.
If Donald Sloan took his turn to keep lookout during the day during this period and was able to peer over the parapet he would have seen a horseshoe of woods, in the process of being reduced to matchwood by shellfire. To his left was Mametz Wood, probably smoking from shellfire as the Welsh Division struggled to clear it. To his right was Bernafay Wood, and behind it Trones Wood a few hundred yards to its east, only the northern end of which would be visible. Trones Wood was also in the process of being cleared, with the Liverpool and Manchester pals involved. Both Mametz Wood and Trones Wood would be taken at heavy cost during the first two weeks of the battle. Ahead of him woodlands dominated the ridge in front; on the left of the ridge were the woods around the village of Bazentin-le-Petit and on the right was Delville wood, with the village of Longueval nestling at its south western corner. On the skyline on the ridge beyond the Bazentin-Longueval crest was High Wood.
Had the attack of the 1st July gone to plan these woods would not have played much part in the battle, being bypassed by the advance east. However the only successes of the first 48 hours were on the southern section of the line where it swung west to east to meet up with the French part of the line. Here the British captured the whole of the heavily fortified German first trench system. Despite opposition from the French the decision was taken to change the axis of the British attacks from west to east to south to north, which meant attacking into the horseshoe of woods that Donald Sloan might have peeked at from his lookout position.
In order to put this strategy into action four problems needed to be solved; first, there had to be a huge effort to re-route the supply lines, and move guns, ammunition and stores to the southern part of the front. Second, Delville Wood and Trones Wood which flanked the line of attack had to be cleared, and this was achieved, albeit at great cost. Third, the artillery had to cope with a shortage of ammunition due to the huge number of shells fired in the week before the 1st July. The fourth problem was the distance between the new British line and the Germans over much of the front to be attacked, over a distance of three quarters of a mile at the eastern end.
Rather than dig trenches between the German first position to the second, a daring night attack was planned, with five divisions attacking on a frontage of less than three miles. The shortage of ammunition meant that the increased concentration of artillery would fire a short but violent hurricane bombardment on the German defences on the ridge. The infantry would leave their trenches and form up in the dark following white tapes on the ground as indicators of their allotted positions, and wait in the open while the bombardment was taking place.
At 3.20 in the first light of dawn a five minute hurricane bombardment fell on the German second line of defences running along the ridge from Bazentin-le-Petit to Longueval. The British troops had quietly moved forward across three quarters of a mile of no man's land in some places in the dark to wait just outside the German wire, some were within 50 yards of the German front line trench. At the western end of the attack two German trenches guarded the village of Bazentin-le-Petit; they were called Aston Trench and Villa Trench. The front trench took its name from a small Copse called Villa Wood which was close to a ruined farm called Contalmaison Villa. Perhaps the intelligence officer who named them was a Birmingham City fan, whatever the reason the trenches were deluged with shells and the attackers poured out of Mametz Wood where the lines were quite close to take the village and the wood adjoining it. The Germans were taken completely by surprise, their artillery response fell way behind the attacking troops and where some of the attackers were held up by uncut wire other units were able to spread along the German trench lines and knock out the German machine guns.
The 9th Division were the eastern most of the five attacking divisions and the 8th Black Watch were in the first wave with their objective the village of Longueval and Delville Wood behind it. They began to move forward from the village of Carnoy at 7pm on the 13th July and waited in a captured German trench called Breslau Alley until it was dark at 11pm. They moved out into the wide no man's land and took up position in waves, but they were forced to move even further forward to avoid German shelling. As soon as the British hurricane bombardment started they cut their way through the wire and stormed into the village in the first light. At first the dazed German defenders fell back but as it got fully light German resistance stiffened and they found the going harder. The Germans were adept at fortifying villages and would reinforce the cellars of the houses and often tunnel beneath them to create deep shelters and link the houses together. The 8th Black Watch fought house to house but by 10 am on the 14th they held most of the village; only a strongpoint at the south eastern end of the village held out and was not taken until 5pm. Patrols sent into the adjoining wood found it empty, but the battalion had taken serious casualties and the Germans were now shelling the village heavily and counter attacks forced the 8th Black Watch back from the northern end of the village. German reinforcements held on to the edge of Delville Wood on three sides making the position of the British troops who had entered the wood very perilous, while the enemy artillery pounded the newly taken positions and the ground over which reinforcements and supplies had to move.
Donald Sloan's C company were on the right of the village and had he had cover to be able to look to his right he would have seen a hive of activity going on in the captured trenches. The attacking troops first had to search the front, support and reserve trenches to ensure that no Germans were hiding in deep dugouts. Then they had to ‘turn' the captured trenches so that they could be defended from the opposite side and repair the damage done by their own shells. Communication had to be established back to the old British front line by the laying of telephone wires, and all of this had to be done while under increased shellfire. Speed was of the essence as the Germans usually mounted counter attacks quickly, before the attackers were prepared. But on this occasion the surprise attack had caught them off guard, and for a few hours around midday of the 14th July there was a big gap in the German defences. A British officer was able to walk from the newly captured trenches up to High Wood which was found to be empty of defenders. However by the time British reserves were able to advance on the wood the Germans had recovered and by nightfall the wood was strongly held by the defenders.
A contemporary news photo of Longueval after its capture. The background may be the stumps of Delville Wood (Imperial War Museum)
Donald Sloan would have had to have his head down in Longueval either to shelter from shellfire or to catch up on some sleep, as by early evening he had been fighting for 24 hours. Had he been able to look over towards High Wood a mile to his left at around 7pm he would have seen a rare sight: a cavalry attack. The cavalry came across the valley and over the ridge to the 8th Black Watch's left quite close to Donald's position; they caught some German soldiers in the open fields over the ridge but were driven back with the loss of many horses.
Longueval and Delville Wood were now relentlessly shelled for the next five days as the 8th Black Watch fought hard to hold the village which was the only supply route into the wood. The new line bent around the wood making a salient jutting into the German lines. In the wood the South African Brigade was holding the interior of the wood but was almost completely surrounded. Not only was the village bombarded but the approaches were shelled making the movements of wounded out and supplies in dangerous and difficult. At dawn on the 18th two companies of the 8th assisted in the capture of the northern end of the village only for a big German counter-attack to be mounted in mid-afternoon after a huge bombardment. This pushed the Scottish troops out of the wreckage of the village but they rallied just outside the ruins and retook it, forcing the Germans out and back to the northern part of Delville Wood. The ferocity of their charge took them into the wood where they were caught in crossfire and suffered heavy losses. When the 8th Black Watch were relieved on 21st July there were only 171 unwounded men out of 739, the rest having been killed, wounded or captured.
The ruins of Longueval photographed by the Daily Mail after the battle
After the losses sustained at Longueval the battalion was transferred north to the Vimy Ridge area north of Arras to rebuild its strength. The Germans held the top of the ridge and it had been the scene of terrible fighting between the French and the Germans in 1915. However during their time there the 8th Black Watch found the sector very quiet, although the sound of the artillery on the Somme 20 miles to the south might well have reached them.
The Vimy Ridge today
In October 1916 the 8th Black Watch returned to the Somme battle. By this time the front line had moved 3 ½ miles north of Longueval to near the village of Le Sars. Here a prehistoric burial mound called the Butte de Warlencourt dominated the area and the Germans had tunnelled deep into the mound and fortified it. The battlefield was also much changed since their epic defence of Longueval. Gone were the hot days of midsummer to be replaced by autumn rains and a landscape of mud.
On the evening of the 9th October the battalion went into reserve occupying the old German trenches near High Wood about a mile from the ruins of Longueval. They were in front of artillery batteries which were firing night and day, and in turn being fired on by German heavy guns. They may have been relieved to go forward on the evening of the 12th to reserve positions near the ruins of the village of Flers.
On the evening of the 18th October the 8th Battalion took over the newly captured Snag trench, with the South African brigade on the left of Donald Sloan's C company. What followed early the next morning was an example of the tactics that the Germans used during the later phase of the Somme fighting. They would give ground by holding the front lines with relatively few troops using long range machine gun fire to weaken the attackers and then mount strong counter attacks using fresh formations.
The official history of the 8th Black Watch describes what happened vividly.
“At 5.30 am on the 19th the Germans started a counterattack by bombing [using stick grenades]; on the right D company easily held its own, an attack with a flamenwerfer [flamethrower] being stopped by Private Tait with a well aimed Mills bomb. On the left things went badly, the South Africans were bombed out of their trench and crowded into C company's line, completely blocking the trench. The German bombers were close after them, and, hurling their bombs into the overcrowded trench, caused heavy casualties on C company. Second Lieutenant Anderson was killed while trying to organise a counterattack, and the company commander and company sergeant-major were wounded. During the confusion which followed the Germans succeeded in capturing C company's line and pressed down on A, but a counterattack headed by Second Lieutenants Campsie and Craven drove them back; Craven was unfortunately killed and Campsie wounded.
At 7.30 am Captain Taylor brought up B company, which had been in support, and by vigorous bombing attacks succeeded in recapturing C company's line, with the result that by noon the 8th had retaken the whole of its line, though touch with the South Africans was not regained until 5pm when the whole position was reoccupied.
Throughout the day rain fell in torrents, and the trenches were in an appalling state, movement along them being practically impossible; in fact, the conditions under which the fighting took place could not have been worse, and its success in recapturing the position speaks highly for the determination and fighting spirit of the battalion.” A. G. Wauchope, A History of the Black Watch (Royal Highlanders) in the Great War, 1914-1918, Vol. III (London, 1926).
The history of the 9th Division is equally eloquent about the performance of the 8th battalion and its aftermath:
“The whole of the defences were then reorganized, but the enemy did not venture again to tackle the Black Watch”.
At the time the exhausted survivors of the battalion might not have felt much triumph. Their losses were 206 killed, wounded and missing, and when they were relieved on in the early hours of the 20th October it took them 8 hours to cover the two miles back to the trenches in the High Wood area, such was the state of the battlefield.
The Butte de Warlencourt by William Orpen (copyright the Imperial War Museum Art Collection)
The battalion again left the Somme battle area and made their way to the town of Arras 15 miles to the north, where it was able to add new drafts to bring it back up to strength. At first they were billeted in the town which was remarkably quiet during the late autumn of 1916, so quiet that some of the town shopkeepers returned to provide the troops with alternatives to their rations. However as the winter began preparations started for a major spring offensive around Arras and British artillery was moved up from the Somme to shell the German defences. The Germans retaliated and the previously quiet front line on the edge of the town became a hot sector. This was in contrast to the weather which became bitterly cold; 1916-17 would turn out to be the coldest winter of the war.
On Monday 1st January the 8th Black Watch were in the front line running north from the river Scarpe facing the German lines on the eastern edge of St Laurent-Blagny. As we have seen Donald Sloan and his four comrades were sheltering from the cold and German heavy mortars in a dugout, which were usually protection against everything apart from a direct hit. But a heavy mortar round did score a direct hit on the bunker and all five men were killed.
The front lines at St Laurent-Blagny in late 1916 with German trenches in red (National Library of Scotland collection)
The bodies of the five men were recovered and carried back to be buried on the western side of Arras near the great Vauban fortress at Faubourg d'Amiens, just under two miles behind the lines. Donald Sloan was 33 years old. After the war the beautiful Arras Memorial to the Missing was built next to the cemetery and overlooks Donald's last resting place.
Donald Sloan's headstone
Donald Sloan served in the trenches for just shy of 15 months. During this time he would have been due at least one leave, and his time in the very front line opposite the Germans would have been surprisingly short. That said the support and reserve trenches were not without their risks, and even further back there was still the danger of shelling. However of those 15 months, only the 8th to the 21st July and the 9th to the 20th of October 1916 were periods where Donald's battalion were engaged in a battle, a period of three and a half weeks. It is possible that Donald Sloan may have been wounded during these engagements and may have missed some of the events described; certainly the odds of him emerging from the village of Longueval unscathed were long. However we can say that he must have faced danger and, with his comrades faced it with courage.
The loss of one son would be hard enough to bear for any family, but that Donald was the fourth Sloan son to be killed makes his story especially tragic. The first brother to fall was Robert Sloan, a younger brother who had emigrated to Canada. He was killed on 22nd April 1915 serving with the 10th Canadian Infantry battalion (Alberta Regiment) during the heroic action at St Juliaan near Ypres following the first use of asphyxiating gas by the Germans on the Western Front. Robert has no known grave and is remembered on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres. Another younger brother William had emigrated in search of a better life and was killed serving with the 2nd Tunnelling Company of the Canadian Engineers on 28th June 1916 also in the Ypres salient. He is buried in Railway Dugouts Cemetery near Zillebeke. Less than three months after William died Thomas Sloan was killed in the major offensive of 15th September 1916 on the Somme. He was serving with the 1st Battalion of the Scots Guards in the attack on the village of Ginchy. William has no known grave and is remembered on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing.
Esther Davies, Donald Sloan's grandniece and Sloan family historian told me that on hearing the news of William Sloan's death the family wrote to the War Office and asked that Donald be moved away from the front line. The family tradition is that the request was refused, with the comforting message that it was an honour for the Sloan brothers to die for their King and country. The reply does not survive, and it is often the case that family traditions can be wrong, or at least become embellished over time. However I believe the story, as much because it sounds authentic, and that it was likely to have come from one of Donald's elder brothers, Alexander ‘Sanny' Sloan. Sanny Sloan was a tireless worker for the miners of South Ayrshire throughout his life, first through the trades union movement, then as a local councillor before being elected as MP for South Ayrshire in a by-election in 1939. He became known as the Miner's MP, and possibly due to the loss of four brothers in the war was a passionate and outspoken pacifist between the two wars. He was one of only eight MPs to vote against war in 1939, and was re-elected in the 1945 Labour landslide victory just before his death.
But misfortune had not finished with the Sloan family in 1917. On 11th April Donald's youngest son Robert died of whooping cough complicated by pneumonia and meningitis. He was 15 months old. He had been born after Donald had gone to France and his father may only have seen him once or possibly twice while on leave. There is a possibility that Donald may not have seen him at all, but without his records we cannot be certain. Donald's widow Edith returned to Belfast to be near her family, and there is a family story that Everton offered to set her up in a little shop, but no evidence for this has come to light.
Apart from his last resting place Donald Sloan is commemorated on Everton FC's Roll of Honour, on the plaque honouring the fallen of Lisburn FC (Distillery as they were known), and on the war memorial in the village of Rankinston together with the names of his brothers. Their mother was invited to unveil the memorial, but was too ill to attend. The inscription reaches back 2,500 years to find the right words, to Pericles of Athens:
“They gave their bodies to the commonwealth
And received each for his own memory
Praise that will never die,
And with it the noblest sepulchre —
Not that in which their mortal bones are laid,
But a home in the minds of men.”
They are noble and fitting words, but for the Sloan family the sacrifice was terrible and disproportionate, and created a burden of sadness which only the closeness of the family and community could help them bear. That feeling of family remains strong to this day; for the Sloans a Glasgow saying is how they remember their losses:
It's enough to bring a tear to a glass eye.
EFC Heritage Society 2017
The Sloan family: Daphne Sloan, Ingrid Tierney senior, Ingrid Tierney junior, Esther Williams and Peter Sloan. Esther's biography of her grandfather Alexander Sloan MP is an excellent read.
Lee Johnson for permission to use his quote. The Just Giving page for the Home is Where the Heart is appeal is here.
Billy Smith for his encyclopaedic knowledge and excellent Bluecorrespondent website
JP Levinge for her help with the family history.
Mike Haigh for his help with the history of the 8th Black Watch.
Dave Waite for his photos from Faubourg d'Amiens.
Kjell Hannsen for his help with family contacts and on Donald Sloan's Liverpool career.
Chris Baker's Long Long Trail website.
The Battlefields of the First World War: Peter Barton.
Reader Comments (13)
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
Add Your Comments
In order to post a comment, you need to be logged in as a registered user of the site.
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.