The 8th (Territorial) Battalion the Royal Scots in World War One
Administrative changes mean that East Lothian, once home to the 8th Royal Scots, now includes Musselburgh, which was then in the catchment for the 7th Royal Scots.
The part-time 8th Battalion could trace its history back to Napoleonic Volunteers raised in the burghs of the county but it faced the onset of war in 1914 with a structure created in the Territorial Force reforms of 1908. The reforms gave it a change of title and a firm place in the Army’s regimental structure as the 8th battalion, The Royal Scots (The Lothian Regiment).
East Lothian provided 4 of the 8 companies of the battalion, the remainder coming from Midlothian and Peebleshire. Its headquarters were at Haddington. The companies were based in the larger towns and the component parts of each company trained in community drill halls under professional drill NCOs, usually seconded from the regular army. The battalion met each summer for two weeks of intensive training. The territorials were only expected to serve within the UK but in 1914 many volunteered for overseas service. This prompted a neccessary period of reorganisation.
After the battalion mobilised it began to gear up onto a war footing – combing out the unfit and elderly from the volunteers. The eight peacetime companies were reorganised to the four required by the table of organisation of service infantry battalions. The battalion spent the first days of the war at Haddington while necessary changes were instituted. As this was going on, it had to keep up coast defence duties and a host of other tasks generated by the needs of the military authorities. Spare hands identified during this period went to the newly formed second line battalion (below) or other units; men of the 6th Battalion Royal Scots and the 8th Highland Light Infantry arrived to fill out the wartime table of organisation.
The 1/8th became the first Scottish Territorial battalion to make it overseas, crossing to France early in November 1914. They were in the firing line on the 15th and spent the winter on duty near Flembaix. They were withdrawn in March 1915 to prepare for a major set-piece battle and were committed at Neuve-Chapelle, losing many men. In a battle at Festubert in May they lost more, including commanding officer Lieutenant-colonel Alexander Brook. This pattern of repeated deployment, action and rest took a severe toll on the battalion and on 27th July it was designated a pioneer battalion, first to the 7th Division and then to the 51st Highland Division of the 3rd Army. In less than a year the battalion lost 17 officers and 350 men killed or wounded.
Pioneer battalions dug roads, trenches and shelters – but were also infantrymen, working at the Front, often under appalling conditions. The battalion’s strong connection with East Lothian’s mining communities was presented as the main reason for their outstanding reputation in the new role. But their reputation was hard-won. In the Somme battle of July 1916 the 1/8th incurred over 100 casualties in one 24 hour period from shellfire as they dug trenches and consolidated other forces’ gains. Of necessity this had to be done in the open and in full view of the Germans. The battalion faced these most dangerous tasks time and time again. So proficient was the battalion in the pioneer role that it often had under command detachments of other new designated pioneers for training.
The 1/8th spent 1916 in support of their division. Often they could see the work of a week destroyed in just a few minutes of shelling. Despite the setbacks, they honed their efficiency such that a team of 9 could erect 50 yards of barbed wire barrier in just 9 minutes and the 1/8th trained their division to match this standard. In 1917 it had spells with the 12th and 4th divisions and then had a particularly trying spell at Ypres: roads, railways, trenches, and dug-outs were built under shelling and the new peril of gas attacks.
In March of 1918 the battalion was in line standing off the advancing Germans. Their ability to entrench and wire as well as fight was all that saved them several times: over 200 casualties were recorded in the space of five days. In April they lost another 174 in similar fluid fighting. A month later they recorded 12000 yards of 8×6 foot trenching and 23000 yards of wire constructed – on top of their normal duties. The last months of the war were spent on the offensive, often in open countryside, celebrating the Armistice in quarters near Cambrai. Early in 1919 they were in Belgium with demobilisation underway and the cadre of the battalion was welcomed home to Haddington on 30th April 1919.
During its service the 1/8th battalion recorded 1669 casualties, including 309 fatalities or missing.
The 2/8th (Territorial) Battalion was raised in the autumn of 1914 to serve as a draft and training battalion for the 1/8th overseas. It mustered at Haddington in the autumn of 1914, where its role included the old Territorial duty of coast defence. It moved several times before in February 1916 coming under the command of the 65th Division in Essex. In January 1917 it went to Dublin where it was disbanded later that summer. Its men were redeployed to battalions in France.
The 3/8th was the third battalion to be raised from the peacetime 8th. It was embodied in December 1914 at Peebles, was at Prestonpans in late 1915, but returned to Peebles and then Stobs where its independent existence ceased in July 1916. A reorganisation brought all the 3rd line Royal Scots Territorial battalions into a new formation, the 4th (Reserve) Battalion, which for the rest of the war provided training and drafts to the active service Territorial battalions.
Other battalions of the Royal Scots spent periods based in East Lothian during the First World War. After training, some went overseas, others performed Home Service duties and yet others managed the logistics of providing drafts, or replacements, for the fighting battalions in the same manner as the expanded 8th, outlined above. Recuperating men could then find themselves serving in a sequence of battalions. Some idea of the complexity of the situation is outlined here.
If your relatives served in the Royal Scots during World War One it’s possible to attempt to reconstruct their experiences from surviving photographs or newspaper accounts. Many of the resources at the John Gray Centre can help.
Keywords: World War One, First World War, WWI, WW1, World War Two, Second World War, WWII, WW2