With their sister battalion from Edinburgh, the 15th Bn Royal Scots, McCrae’s men were assigned to the 101st Brigade of the 34th Division.
Recently arrived in France and together with the greater part of the New Army formed by Kitchener’s volunteers the men were going to take part in a major action for the first time on the 1st July 1916. The opening day of the Battle of the Somme.
The 34th Division under Major General Edward Ingouville-Williams had the task of taking the village of La Boisselle on the right of the Albert Bapaume Road.
They were going to accomplish this by using all twelve battalions of the Division in the initial assault. Four columns of infantry would be employed. Two from the 102nd Brigade either side of La Boisselle, and on the far right two from the 101st Brigade. Following on immediately were the 103rd Brigade.
The 15th Royal Scots would lead the right hand column with the 16th Battalion immediately behind them.
Their task was to capture the First German system of four trenches held by the 110th German Reserve Regiment.
A German regiment like its French counterpart was generally made up of three battalions.
This required an advance of 2 kilometres in 48 minutes (In theory it would now be: 0818 hours).
This achieved they would then continue to the Kaisergraben system in front of Contalmaison (The timetable stipulated : 0858 hours). Here they would consolidate and allow the Northumberland Fusiliers of the 103rd Brigade to pass through them and capture Contalmaison (By 1010 hours according to HQ reckoning).
Contalmaison would be rebuilt after the war but it remains much as it was, a cluster of farms and houses with its church on the square.
Every house in France has its cellar and these had been well organised by the German defenders from the Ersatz Battalion 55th Landwehr.
The preliminary bombardment had certainly destroyed many of the buildings in the village, but as a French general had bemoaned during the village by village fighting in Artois in 1915 — it was all very well knocking the walls down but this merely added to the thickness of the layer on top of the cellars which had been turned into strongholds. How to get at the cellar was the question.
At 0728 hours the huge mine at Lochnagar was detonated and two minutes later whistles blew galvanising the attacking troops to rise as a man and begin their assault.
The 34th Division were coming down a slope and far from being wiped out by the bombardment the Germans were ready and waiting.
Flexible control over the artillery was still two years away and in 1916 barrages lifted to a set programme. So many metres every so many minutes.
As soon as the barrage came off the German front line trenches the garrisons dashed out of their deep bunkers and all hell broke loose as they opened fire with their machine guns on the cascade of British troops flowing towards them.
As the leading troops got held up by the unexpected tenacity of the obliterated defenders the follow-on units became intermingled with them.
The 15th Royal Scots had crept out under the cover of the final minutes of the bombardment and were fortunate in being able to successfully rush the first German lines with ease, pipe-sergeant David Anderson playing them forward (for which he won the French Croix de guerre).
Here though they came unstuck because being so far out in front of the second column to their left (10th Lincolns and 11th Suffolk) they were badly exposed to flanking fire from La Boisselle which cut through their left hand platoons and seriously mauled the 16th Battalion coming up behind them.
This flanking fire forced them far over to their right and off course making them by-pass both the Sausage Redoubt and Scots Redoubt which they were supposed to have dealt with.
It was only on reaching Birch Tree Wood and coming across soldiers from the 21st Division that their error was realised.
By now Captain Lionel Coles of C Company 16th Royal Scots had only half of his men left, but they could see Contalmaison immediately in front of them.
With him were three of the Hearts Players; CSM Annan Ness and Privates Pat Crossan and Harry Wattie.
Moving forward they were attacked by enemy bombing parties (In the trenches of the First World War this phrase implies grenades) causing numerous casualties amongst Coles’s party.
On the right 2nd Lieutenant George Russell had managed to get his small party through the German wire and up into the village. Here they were joined by handfuls of soldiers from the 24th and 27th Northumberland Fusiliers who represented all that remained of the 103rd Brigade’s advance to the second objective.
It was by now about 1035 hours (and thus, long after the village was supposed to have been in British hands), and Russell sent back a runner stating that he was badly in need of reinforcements. Moments later he was killed and the remainder of the party (now down to ten men) under Corporal Michael Kelly withdrew.
Getting out of the German lines was equally difficult as getting into them, and Kelly soon found his way blocked by a party of Germans. He rushed them with his men, getting shot in the chest himself, and the party managed to force their way through and out back into no man’s land.
Coles, on hearing of Russell’s plight made one last attempt to advance. As he rushed forward he was hit by machine gun fire and killed instantly.
It would be another week before Contalmaison would fall — and an English footballer would become the only one from the sport to gain a Victoria Cross: Donald Bell.
The casualties suffered by the 16th Battalion were 256 killed and 320 wounded.