World War One: Skye's Band of Brothers

Image copyright Ross family
Image caption Sergeant Major William Ross, the Portree postman, was second in command of the Skye territorials

In World War One, friends signed up and served together, shoulder to shoulder. One burst of machine gun fire could hit scores of men from the same village and destroy a community. Portree on Skye lost 10 men in a single night near the French town of Festubert in 1915.

There is a war memorial in Portree harbour with 104 names on it, the final reckoning from four years of industrial warfare.

Most of the men had grown up in a remote, Gaelic-speaking community of just 1,000 people.

Skye historian Murdo Beaton says the poverty on the island was one of the reasons so many men ended up in army.

A territorial army force was set up on Skye in the years before the war and Mr Beaton says: "The fact they got paid for this was a great inducement to sign up and they got a fortnight's camp in the summer time which was, for them, like a holiday away from home."

Military historian Trevor Royle says: "People who trained together would go off to war together and they would do it because they were in the company of friends - that is a great boost to morale."

The part-time recruits, who were led by the local lawyer and the Portree postman, were nicknamed the Saturday Night Soldiers.

The men were from the Skye harbour town of Portree
Image caption The men were from the Skye harbour town of Portree

Twenty-eight of the Skye territorials lived within sight of Portree harbour.

When Europe exploded into war in the summer of 1914, the Portree men - the bank clerk, the fisherman, the plasterer, the stable boy - were all mobilised and prepared to leave their Highland home.

Trevor Royle, who has carried out detailed research into the men who went to war, says: "They trusted their officers, they trusted their sergeants, by that stage they were pretty well equipped and they thought they could go across there and beat the Germans before Christmas."

But it was not to turn out that way.

The Portree men, as part of the Cameron Highlanders, spent six months in Bedford in the south of England before being sent to the Western Front in France in February 1915.

By the end of 1914, German and Allied forces were dug in along a line through France
Image caption By the end of 1914, German and Allied forces were dug in along a line through France

At a farmhouse north of Neuve-Chapelle they faced the German machine gun for the first time.

The Maxim gun had been invented by an American living in London and deployed by General Kitchener to devastating effect in colonial wars such as Sudan.

But Kitchener, who was now Secretary of State for War, did not think a gun which was capable of shooting 666 bullets a minute was suitable for a European war.

Trevor Royle says: "The central problem here is that Kitchener and his subordinate field commanders still dreamed of a battlefield where men showed individual dash, heroism, courage and initiative."

So while British factories produced fewer than 400 Maxim guns in 1914, German factories produced 500 a month under licence.

German military historian Jack Sheldon says: "This is an army that has thought deeply about it and invested a lot of money."

The Maxim gun could fire 11 bullets per second
Image caption The Maxim gun could fire 11 bullets per second

The Germans reckoned each machine gun was worth 80 riflemen in terms of fire power.

For two nights in March 1915, the Portree men defended a farm house in Neuve-Chapelle armed only with Lee Enfield rifles.

On the third night they were ordered towards the German machine guns.

When they were about 100 yards from the German line they were ordered to stop and lie down in a turnip field and await orders.

Sergeant Major William Ross with soldiers in a trench Image copyright Ross family

They lay in the mud with rifle fire, machine gun fire, flares and artillery blasts over head.

By dusk that night they were ordered to withdraw but as they turned for home, the German troops opened fire on them again.

Private John Kennedy, who worked for MacBrayne's Ferries, was fatally injured and three others were seriously injured.

The battle of Neuve-Chapelle was a strategic failure at great cost. Overall 11,000 troops were killed, wounded or missing.

Two months of relative calm followed but on 11 May they were despatched to Festubert.

Six days later the Territorials would be ordered to attack and face the power of the German machine gun again.

Captain Ronald McDonald and family. He was a Portree lawyer who was injured at the Battle of Festubert and died a year later. Image copyright Isobel MacDonald/Acair
Image caption Captain Ronald McDonald and family. He was injured at the Battle of Festubert and died a year later.

Jack Sheldon says the Portree men had the misfortune to come up against a Jager battalion, elite infantry men who had their own machine gun unit with six guns.

The Germans not only had far more machine guns but had studied the best methods of deploying them.

The guns were used to form a curtain of fire from the flanks, a kill zone through which it was incredibly difficult to pass.

The Skye men had the classic infantry task of attacking and holding the German line.

In advance of the attack the British launched a 48-hour artillery barrage on the German positions but their defences remained pretty much intact.

At 6.30pm on 17 May, the Portree and Kingussie companies joined up on the left.

On the right were two companies for the Bedford regiment.

An hour later the order was given for them to charge and as soon as they stepped forward they were engaged by machine gun fire.

The Skye men's commanding officer Captain Ronald MacDonald, the Portree lawyer, was shot in the throat as the men advanced.

His company Sergeant major, Willie Ross, the Portree postman, took command and a led a bayonet charge towards the German trench.

Private John McFarlane, who was killed at the battle of Festubert, with his father Thomas McFarlane, who built the Portree War Memorial Image copyright Skye Museum of Highland Life
Image caption Private John McFarlane, who was killed at the battle of Festubert, with his father Thomas McFarlane, who built the Portree War Memorial

They got into the trench and four Germans raised their hands as if to surrender.

But when Ross dropped his guard those same four turned on him and shot him dead.

This act unleashed Highland fury and all the Germans in the trench were shot and killed.

The Portree men had made it to their goal but already four of their comrades lay dead or dying in the mud.

Taking the trench had been a nightmare but holding on to it would be harder still, especially as the Bedford companies had been forced back.

The Portree war memorial contains 104 names
Image caption The Portree war memorial contains 104 names

The trench the Skye men occupied was shallow and offered little protection and by the early hours of the morning, with no sign of relief, the men were running out of options.

The commanding officer, Captain John Campbell of the Kingussie company, ordered a retreat and minutes later Campbell himself was shot and killed, pistol in hand, while attempting to cover the escape.

The survivors crawled through the mud and ditches all the way back to the British lines.

The retreat would claim the lives of a further four Portree men.

A single night of battle and the positioning of the German guns had devastated a far away Highland community.

Twenty-eight men from Portree, a band of brothers, had left the town's harbour at the start of the war.

One night at Festubert claimed the lives of 10 of them.

Only eight would survive the war.

The Machine Gun and Skye's Band of Brothers is on BBC Two Scotland at 21:00 on Monday 24 March.

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