Upon the outbreak of war on 4th August 1914, our Saracens 1st XV forward Walter Cairns Black wrote to his parents, confirming his decision to enlist with the London Scottish Regiment
“Dear Father and Mother
I am writing this letter on the eve of what may be the greatest war the world has known. I have been thinking seriously and have come to the conclusion it is my duty to join the Territorial Force. I know you have another two sons there, and you may consider it too big a sacrifice to have half your family on active service, but the way I look at it is this: I am healthy, strong, unmarried, and beyond you two have no ties in the world. It is men like myself to whom the country ought to look for help…”
‘Wattie’ Black’s evocative letter continues to both inspire and move the modern reader and typifies the patriotic commitment of so many young men from this era.
Having joined the 14th London (London Scottish) Regiment, Black did not have to wait long for his first taste of action. First, however, the necessary bureaucracy… He had to sign his agreement to serve “outside the United Kingdom in the event of National emergency” having previously signed his joining papers on the 6th August. He also got measured up, coming in at 5 foot 10 1/4″, with a waist of 31 inches, expanding to 34″. Not large proportions for a modern rugby forward, but a considerable lump of Scottish Beef by the standards of the day!
By 15th September – a drastically short training period compared to other regiments – they were transferring out to France. The battalion was to see its first action as part of the battle on Messines Ridge in late October 1914, attached to the Cavalry Corps. Messines would be a common and bloody battleground once the war had ground to its halting, attritional state of trench warfare. However, in 1914 the fighting was still part of the great ‘Race to the Sea’ as German and Allied armies attempted to outflank each other through Belgium. It was in these engagements that Black was to prove his bravery, and leadership, earning a promotion to Lance-Corporal, with the citation “for tending wounded under fire and general good conduct in the field.” His Medal Card also records him earning the Victory and Star for having been involved in these early engagements.
How Black felt about being a part of these battles can be taken from his own diaries and letters home, access to which we are hugely grateful to his family, now mainly living in Australia and New Zealand. In particular, his direct descendant, Robin Black, has produced a comprehensive account of Wattie’s military experience, which has been invaluable.
The Battalion was moved up to Ypres, and on October 30th Wattie shared the situation they were facing with his parents “I write this under most peculiar circumstances. Shells are shrieking over our heads while rifle and maxim fire is continuous in front of us. It is simply hellish. It is the only word I can get for it.”
Having been interrupted to go forward and support the attack near the village of Wytschaete, 2 miles north of Messines,he resumed his letter on November 2nd:
“Just managed to start rewriting this after a perfect nightmare of circumstances. I had to stop to take a fellow down who was wounded in both legs and the back by shrapnel. When I got back we were ordered to retire and dig ourselves in. We did so and lay there for hours in the cold listening to the rifle fire and howls and yells of our chaps keeping the Germans off. Cowper Mackie and I then went out on patrol and were sniped at all night. About 12 o’clock we got orders to advance, and did so through a hail of bullets, to the trenches where we were comparatively safe.”
The roll call, pictured above, was answered by only 150, although more survivors were to come in over the following few days. On the 5th November, he found time for another letter home, in which he noted “I have been one of the lucky ones and have got through without a scratch, but it was an awful experience, while it lasted.”
Despite describing the trenches as comparatively safe, they were also intensely boring for Black. On November 10th, deployed only 50-150 yards from the German lines, he complained:
“Being shelled heavily. My head aches with the concussion of the earth. I am about three feet down and two or three feet in, so I feel every thud. It is marvellous how one spends the time. I found myself busily filling a spent cartridge case with earth. I was packing it carefully and methodically; evidently the mind has to find some relaxation.”
Although the war of movement continued until mid October, with various thrusts and counter-parries coming from German forces, their commanders had concluded that the Vernichtunsstrategie (strategy of annihilation) should be replaced by Ermattungsstrategie (strategy of exhaustion), enabling Germany to concentrate resources decisively elsewhere. The trench warfare that was to dominate for 4 years was beginning, and Black’s experiences – the constant concussion of the earth coupled with intense boredom – would become commonplace.
Wattie survived what he called “A day of terror” under heavy bombardment on 12th November, which resulted in a number of deaths and severe casualties “Hundreds of J.J.’s have been shrieking over our heads all day: early in the morning one landed right on the side of Maclean and McIntosh’s trench, wounding them both severely; poor McIntosh, I am afraid, will have to get both legs off…”
Fortunately there was relief at hand, as on the 15th November the severely depleted Scottish were at a strength of fewer than 300. They transferred to billets in Pradelles: resting, training and re-organising down from 8 to 4 battalions. Black wrote on the 26th November that:
“We have not much to do in the billets; route march in the morning, then usually a fatigue or two in the afternoon. The frost has gone and with it the snow, but it is cold and very damp. Today we have had our fur coats served out and they should be very warm.”
As their break from the front line was extended into December, their Division was honoured by a visit from the King and the Prince of Wales on December 5th.
The following week, Wattie recorded his participation in some sporting activities on 3 successive days:
Dec 11 – “Had a game of football today; enjoyed myself A.1.”
Dec 12 – “Football today again; nothing else doing”
Dec 13 – “Church parade in the morning. Played right-back against E. Coy. Decide soccer is nothing like so heavy and hard as rugger; could never have stuck 3 days of rugger.”
His love of team sports suitably stimulated, Wattie wrote to his parents on 17th December to update them on his latest activities:
“We are all very fit again, and since our old Colonel went home we have had a regular officer in command. He has made a lot of changes, one giving us permission to play football during the afternoon, the result being that I have had several pleasant afternoons. Today I have been trying to organise a rugby game and have succeeded; the next thing is to get permission.”
Sadly, but perhaps appropriately for our Scottish Saracen, this letter home was to be his last recorded written words…
The restful period behind the lines was soon to be broken. At the request of the French army, then struggling in Arras, the British were to launch six small offensives to draw off the Germans. This was despite the shortages in both men and ammunition being faced. The First Battle of Ypres, fought a month previously, had been repelled with heavy losses, and British munition reserves were at their lowest levels, with just forty rounds allocated to each gun. The strategy for attack had not yet advanced to include innovations such as rolling barrage, so was instead a brief bombardment, followed by a frontal assault by infantry into lines of barbed wire, trenches and machine gun nests. That most of the small number of shells were shrapnel shells which had a limited effect on the fortified positions made matters worse. The Indian Corps, who had been some of the first Empire Troops to serve on the Western Front, were to the fore of the fighting and suffered heavy losses.
With added fur coat and new boots, in December 20th 1914 Lance-Corporal Black and the London Scottish were deployed hurriedly to Givenchy, the orders interrupting a further Sunday football game.
A nine hour march of thirty miles followed, in ‘mud over our ankles the whole way’ and left ‘everybody terrified.’ The brigade was being thrown in to successfully counteract a strong German counter-offensive, a defensive shift for which they would not receive relief for nearly a month. Robin Black’s publication from 2000 summarises the events of December 22nd, as Walter Cairns Black lost his life:
“After occupying the forward position during the previous night, Wattie was exposed in “Scottish trench” and was shot in the forehead by rifle fire and killed. In the morning light it was seen that the 1/14 Londons had taken over a support trench and that between them and the German front line was a haystack in which two German snipers were later located and killed. From the Commonwealth War Graves records it appears that at least 3 of the 7 deaths that day were from the snipers’ fire. His paybook and identification disk “dog tag” were removed by Captain Low and sent back to base for forwarding to his parents in Scotland. It is unsure if any of Walter’s belongings did get returned.”
On December 23rd, Wattie’s body was taken back into the reserve lines and he was buried between la Bassee and Givenchy. However, this area was subsequently destroyed by German artillery action and his body was never recovered.
His sacrifice is commemorated in the Le Touret Memorial Military Cemetery, where we visited to pay our respects in September 2018
Wattie’s diary and letters home have ensured that an informative, emotional and highly personal legacy survives. Robin Black concludes “The text that Wattie left the family gives a very clear feeling of the way he felt about the war in the first few months of the conflict. The feelings expressed are very much those of an enthusiast, a believer in what he was doing, but, as time progressed, he wished that the war would end.”
At the time of writing, Walter Cairns Black is the first Saracen to be killed in action in the First World War. We are proud to be able to share the story of his patriotic commitment, bravery and sacrifice with Saracens and rugby fans everywhere.