Ladies from Hell

Posted by Dan Rubin, Publications Manager

Advancing in skirmish order against the enemy

Black Watch performs at the Armory Community Center
through June 16.
“Dan: My favorite sobriquet for the Black Watch is ‘Ladies from Hell;’ so named by the Germans in WWI, when they would come charging out of their trenches, bagpipes blaring. Assume it’s true . . . ,” A.C.T. Library Cataloger Roy Ortopan wrote me in a note after reading Words on Plays. In my research, I had not come across that name applied to the Black Watch, but, sure enough, in his autobiographical account of the Great War entitled “Ladies from Hell” R. Doublas Pinkerton (who fought with the London Scottish Regiment) writes a beautifully haunting passage about the tragic advance of the Black Watch—or “‘Ladies from Hell,’ as the Germans call the Scottishers.”—in May 1915.

It was now 2:30. The attack, our attack, was to begin at three. Ahead of us the Black Watch had gone forward. Excitement rose to fever pitch. Our time had come, but no. At 2:50 the brigadier's runner came through, bearing a countermand. If curses could have killed a man, that man would have gone west on the double-quick. After delivering his order he was off to stop the Black Watch.

But he never reached them. A cry went up from down the trench. The Black Watch were going over alone. Utterly regardless of machinegun-fire, our heads popped up over the parapet. Not four hundred yards away were those chaps. We'd been chatting with them two hours before. They were as cool as on home parade. There was no shouting or yelling, just a clean, collected string of men at double-quick, rifles at their sides, bounding across no-man's-land.

There is something awful in such a sight eight hundred men headed for sure destruction, and with no chance to help them. We were fascinated by the spectacle. Our captain took in the situation at a glance, and rushed to the brigadier's dugout, where he pleaded and begged to be allowed to go over with them; but already the brigadier had used too many men. The charge of the Black Watch was a mistake; they had failed to receive the countermand. At some place between us and them the despatch-bearer had fallen, and eight hundred men went with him.

It was perhaps seven or eight hundred yards from our trenches to the German line, nearly half a mile, and over this space went the "Ladies from Hell," as the Germans call the Scottishers. Even the Hun, with all his horrors, seemed stunned by their advance. The shell-fire slackened visibly, and only the machine-gun bullets remained to remind us of our personal danger.

That day, it is estimated, the Germans had a machine-gun for every five yards of front. A machine-gun can pour out six hundred to six hundred and fifty bullets per minute. It was into this hail of steel that our friends, the Black Watch, plunged.

A hush fell over our lines. Half-way across, and only a scant six hundred of the original eight hundred remained. Another hundred yards took their toll, another, and then another. Then they came to the dummy trench, some twenty-five or thirty yards in front of the German first line. This dummy trench was filled with barbed wire, and a rivulet had been turned into it for the occasion. Two hundred men reached that trench, two hundred men went into it, but only one hundred crossed it and dashed on over the last few yards.

Then they were gone from sight. Sixty of the eight hundred had reached the German trench. It was all over; but, no! Their signaler is on the German parapet calling for help, and he is calling for the Scottish, for us! And we had orders to stay! God, man, it was awful! During those minutes of agony I grew old. The signaler had barely finished his message when he was shot down, and we sank back into our trench, dumb with the horror of it all. That stretch of no-man's- land, dotted with still or writhing figures, swam before my eyes.

A cry went up. They were coming back. Yes, sure enough, twenty-five or thirty of them, divested of all equipment, were running back toward us.

Then the heart that actuates the Teuton army showed itself for what it was. Running across no-man's-land came thirty brave lads who had fought a brave fight and lost. They were entitled to the honor of any soldier, be he friend or foe; but do you think they got it from the Hun? They did not.

Here they came running toward us, the last of eight hundred. Behind them you could hear the crack of a German machine-gun going into action. Like pigeons at a pigeon shoot they were trapped, but without half the chance of escape that we give the bird. Away over to the left I saw McDonald stagger and collapse. On across that fleeing line of heroes traversed that German machine-gun. One by one the boys dropped until not one remained. KULTUR!

Our men at first were dazed; they didn't believe their own eyes. It was impossible barbarism. Thirty men entitled to all the scant privileges of war had been shot down like gutter-dogs. Then, as the reality broke in upon us, a cry went up, and a demand to go over and avenge that wholesale murder. If discipline was ever put to the test it was then. It seemed for a minute as though nothing could restrain that wild rage, that thirst for vengeance, that desire to rid ourselves of the hideous sense of impotence in the face of such horrors. But the months of training told, and with a few steadying words the officers kept control of the situation.

The day was done. Our artillery had failed to sever the German barbed wire sufficiently, and as our men cut away at it they had been shot down like rats. Lille was still to be won.

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