Sgt. H. McMillan

Sgt. H. McMillan

63141 Sergeant Hector McMillan DCM
CXII Brigade, Royal Field Artillery

Midland Goods Station, where Hector McMillan worked before the Great War (National Library of Scotland)

Hector McMillan was born on 18th February 1888 at 77 Stewart Street, Glasgow. He was the eldest of the four children of Alexander McMillan, a carter, and his wife, Annie (née McInnes). While his early years appear to have been settled, with the family together and living in the Milton district to the north of Glasgow, between the census of 1891, and that of 1901, the four children had gone to live in Kiltarlity, a small village near Inverness. They were living with Jane Frazer, a 77-year-old crofter, and her daughter Annie. It is not known if Jane Frazer was related to the McMillan children in any way.

By 1911, Hector McMillan had moved to Leeds, where he was working for the Midland Railway Company as a goods clerk. He lodged with the Stead family at 31 Northcote Terrace, off Ladypit Lane, where Holbeck meets Hunslet.

Nothing more is known about Hector McMillan’s life before the Great War, or how he came to be associated with Scholes and be named on the village war memorial and roll of service.

Immediately following the declaration of war in August 1914, all railways in Great Britain were taken under centralised, government control, and they would remain under these conditions until 1921. Prior to the war, those working for railway companies were not seen as mere employees of a company but were described as ‘servants’ to their respective companies, and for many, the terms of their employment were better than they might have been had they been employed in a comparable role outside of the railway world. In return for this investment in their ‘servants’ the railway companies expected complete commitment from those employed by them. Many railway companies initially forbade their employees from leaving to enlist in the army because of the importance of their role in the national war effort. Records exist to show that some railway employees who defied these company directives to enlist without permission from their employers were dismissed from the company’s service, and many of them were denied re-employment when they returned because of it.

Site of No. 1 Depot Royal Field Artillery (National Library of Scotland)

The war did not go well for the British Army during 1914. The major defeat of the Retreat from Mons, and the costly battles it fought later shocked both the army, and the wider population as they read of the enormous casualties the British Expeditionary Force had suffered. A hasty reorganisation of the role of the Territorial Force was necessary to ensure that the trained soldiers who served with it could be sent overseas – something that it was not designed to do, and something few of its officers and men had envisaged when they enlisted. As well as bolstering the battered BEF with Territorial Force formations, the War Office, under the leadership of Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, set about recruiting a mass citizen army of volunteers to replace losses, and to expand the army to a size that would be a credible force in the European war. With recruiting for ‘Kitchener’s Army’ beginning in September 1914, the initial target of 100,000 men was reached swiftly, and eventually, four New Armies were raised from the volunteers who had come forward to enlist. The New Armies, or 'Kitchener’s Mob', were the armies of the ‘Pals Battalions’, the extremely successful project launched to encourage men to volunteer. They could enlist together, train together, and fight together. They could serve with their friends, and colleagues, men from their factories, or sports clubs, their area. As well as recruiting infantry soldiers, the formations these men would serve in would also need full complements of artillery, supply, and medical units, and these would be drawn from the volunteers too.

Hector McMillan enlisted in Leeds during the week immediately before Christmas 1914, joining the Royal Field Artillery. His initial period of training, during which time he would learn how to operate as a member of a gun team, was spent at No. 1 Depot, Royal Field Artillery, in Newcastle upon Tyne, the site of which, is now occupied by Fenham Barracks Army Reserve Centre, to the north of the city centre, and on the completion of his training he was posted to his battery.

Artillerymen in training

He was posted to C Battery, 112th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, which was under the command of 25th Division, raised as part of the Third New Army. Like many of the New Army divisions, the 25th Division had been hampered in the early days of its existence by shortages of almost everything a formation under training needed. There were, initially, no uniforms to issue to the men, and in the beginning of their training they had to wear their civilian clothes. Then, as some uniform was issued, the men paraded clothed in a variety of obsolete, and mis-matched items of uniform, such as scarlet tunics accompanied by surplus Post Office blue trousers, with civilian caps and boots, but often it was still only about half the men who had received any form of uniform. As late as February 1915, the infantrymen were still learning their craft only partially equipped with drill purpose rifles and equipment. The men who had joined the Artillery Brigades of the Division will have fared better in terms of their issues of kit and equipment, but the guns they would learn their skills on would likely be obsolete, and of a different pattern than those which they would operate once they went overseas.

By the time Hector McMillan joined his battery, 25th Division had moved from a wholly unsatisfactory location, near Salisbury, to be billeted in and around Bournemouth. At the beginning of May 1915, the division left Bournemouth for Romsey in Hampshire, where it camped for three weeks before marching into the Aldershot area, where its final stages of training would be completed. For 112th Brigade RFA, Leipzig Barracks, between Ewshot and Church Crookham would be their home for the next four months. During this last period of training in Hampshire, the division was finally brought up to establishment, in terms of transport and equipment, although it would be August, a month prior to their departure, before the men of the 25th Division received their service rifles. The barracks had been built in 1900 and had been opened by Kaiser Wilhelm II. They were designed specifically for the use of the Royal Field Artillery and could accommodate 1000 officers and soldiers, and 1500 horses, as well as their guns and equipment.

18 lbr Gun team in action (IWM Q 70189)

With their time in training almost at an end, 25th Division was inspected by Lord Kitchener on 12th August 1915, and three weeks, or so, later by The King. The division began to move to France on 25th September 1915, with 112th Brigade RFA moving to Southampton Docks on 26th September, with men, horses and guns distributed across 11 trains departing at intervals over five hours.

During his training, Hector McMillan had evidently learnt well and impressed his chain of command. He had been promoted twice before leaving for France, making him a corporal, and second in command of an 18 lbr gun and its crew of ten. Six men operated the gun, while four men were responsible for its supply of ammunition. This was no easy task, as each gun limber could carry only 24 rounds of fixed ammunition, that is, the projectile, the charge and the brass cases came, and were loaded in one piece, and under normal firing conditions this only gave eight minutes worth of ammunition in the limber. Under a heavy rate of fire, the crews could fire twenty rounds per minute, but this would normally be only for a short period of time, and ammunition would be piled close to the gun line for that purpose.

After landing at Le Havre, 112th Brigade RFA moved by train to Pradelles, south of Caëstre, about seven miles from the border between France and Belgium. The batteries in the brigade shot their first fire missions on 1st October 1915 from positions near Le Bizet, then a tiny hamlet, just inside Belgium immediately north of Armentières. Their shooting was accurate, and some good hits were observed. Such was the accuracy of the fire the Brigade could deliver, that on 22nd November 1915, D Battery put 200 rounds into a 20-yard section of enemy support trench and destroyed it.

The Brigade remained in the Le Bizet sector until March 1916, when it moved to Averdoignt, between St Pol sur Ternoise and Arras in France, and then to Villers au Bois and Mont St Eloi, north of Arras. It would stay in this area until June 1916, when in preparation for the Battle of the Somme, it moved to Montrelet, north of Amiens in Picardy. When the battle began, the Brigade was tasked with covering targets east of Authuille, from Thiepval in the north to Ovillers in the south and as far east as Pozières. As well as supporting actions carried out by 25th Division, the Brigade also shot fire missions in support of neighbouring divisions to give their artillery units extra capacity.

A notable period of action which included guns from each of the brigade’s batteries was that to capture Mouquet Farm, mid-way between Thiepval and Pozières, north of the Albert – Bapaume Road. The farm had been heavily fortified by the German occupiers, and the trench systems they had dug allowed them to put up a fearsome defence of the area. Repeated attacks on the farm, using different units, and from different directions were repulsed over a period of six weeks, with British and Australian units suffering atrocious casualties as the German defenders defied all attempts to throw them out of the position. Part of the reason that the farm proved to be such a difficult place to capture was that main defensive positions were underground in interlinked bays dug out from the cellars of the farm, and above ground, all approaches to it were under constant observation by German artillery spotters who could call down accurate fire from their guns at any moment.

The first real success in the capture of the farm was when troops of the Canadian 3rd Division captured a part of the farm complex, but a German counterattack threw them out of it again. Nine days later further attacks had secured part of the farm above ground, but the Germans doggedly held on to their subterranean defensive system. Troops from the British 34th Brigade captured the farm, with 9th Lancashire Fusiliers bombing the exits from the underground tunnels, and the pioneers of the 6th Battalion, East Yorkshire Regiment using smoke grenades to force the remaining defenders to abandon the tunnels. The guns of 112th Brigade RFA were in action repeatedly against targets in the farm complex, or against the artillery that supported the troops in the farm during this period. On 26th September alone, the guns of the brigade fired 3430 rounds of 18lbr ammunition, and 720 rounds of howitzer ammunition against targets in and around this position.

Ploegsteert Wood with Targets fired on by 112 Bde RFA, such as Factory Farm (National Library of Scotland)

The Battle of the Somme continued into mid-November, and while the fire put down by the Brigade was no less intense in terms of the volume of ammunition expended, the targets it fired against were less concentrated. Following the closing down of the Somme Offensive, the Brigade moved north during late November and went into billets in the town of Méteren, near Bailleul, four miles from the Belgian border, where it spent the first few days of December 1916 carrying out ‘general duties’, which would have included maintenance and repair of the guns, battery equipment and personal kit, as well as giving the horses a thorough clean up and veterinary inspection. The Brigade then took over gun positions near Ploegsteert, just inside Belgium, where it fired on targets east of Ploegsteert Wood.

The winter weather in Flanders dictated a lot of what activity the batteries of the Brigade could carry out. Visibility was often poor, which meant there were fewer opportunities for battery shoots, but the trench mortar batteries in the infantry lines required supporting artillery barrages to cover their barrages, and these were carried out. Observation of the fall of shot was essential when the guns fired to establish and maintain accurate firing, but on some occasions, this was impossible, and the gunners had to rely on the accuracy of their battery officers’ calculations and trust that the sighting arrangements on the gun positions were sufficient to ensure their firing hit the targets they were aiming for. Intermittent breaks in the mist and low cloud allowed periods where observations could be made, and reports came back to the batteries that their shooting was good. The process of firing without visual confirmation of the fall of shot meant that the rate of fire the batteries worked to was much lower than had been possible on the Somme, but the German gunners opposite were also hampered by the same problems, and so the artillery for both sides was evenly balanced, with neither side being able to claim any advantage over the other. Following a partial relief by New Zealand Artillery units in late February 1917, the remainder of the Brigade was relieved from the line and, after a series of short moves, took up billets in Esquerdes where it spent two weeks resting and training, before moving to Steenwerk.

The Area of Nutmeg Reserve Line and Mortar Farm (National Library of Scotland)

The Brigade went back into the line in early April, but while units to the south of them launched the Arras Offensive in April 1917, the Brigade’s firing during April was mainly designed to prevent the Germans moving troops south to support their units in the Arras area, and in preparation for the coming Messines Offensive. By the beginning of May, the Brigade had been relieved from the line once more and moved back to the Steenwerk area.

Because of the absence of any surviving records relating to Hector McMillan, it must be assumed that he remained fit and stayed with his battery during all this period. It is known that, at some point after he arrived in France, he was promoted to Serjeant.

Almost all the month of May 1917 for the Brigade was spent firing on positions in and around Mortar Farm, and Nutmeg Reserve trench line behind the farm, between Wulverghem and Messines. The position was strongly held by the Germans as it was vulnerable, being a small salient that jutted out into no man’s land with Ontario Farm being the in the corner position. The subsequent infantry attacks in this area were successful, and the gun lines were pushed forward to just south of L’enfer Wood, more than half a mile beyond Mortar Farm.

June brought good weather to the area, and that meant the Germans were able to put up frequent reconnaissance flights, which helped to give great accuracy to the German artillery. This resulted in the batteries of the Brigade suffering numerous casualties in men, horses, and guns from hostile shelling. There was also a heavy toll taken on British observation balloons by German aircraft, and the frustration caused by a perceived lack of British resistance in the air is evident in the Brigade’s war diary.

The Distinguished Conduct Medal

August 1917 opened with Brigade Headquarters stationed in the Ramparts of Ypres. Another unit moved in on 3rd August with Brigade Headquarters moving out to the Forward Waggon Lines at Belgian Chateau to the southwest of the town. The individual batteries were not moved and continued to operate under the orders of C Group Artillery. Four casualties were reported in the Brigade during 4th August, with Sjt McMillan being one of them, although he was not named in the diary.

It appears that Hector McMillan oversaw the signalling section of the battery and was in position in the front line, reporting on the effectiveness of the fire the battery was putting down on enemy positions when he was wounded. The clearest account of the work Sjt McMillan was engaged in during that day comes from the citation for the Distinguished Conduct Medal that he was awarded for his part in fighting.

“For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty with a signalling party in our front line. Finding it impossible to keep a telephone line through to his battery he established a visual station back to the brigade rear observation post, and when the smoke of the barrage made it impossible to flash messages any longer, he undertook the work of carrying them himself, continually passing through heavy barrages with the finest disregard of personal safety until he was severely wounded. He was of invaluable service to his battery, and his splendid determination and high sense of duty on these occasions was only one of many instances in which he has earned the admiration of all ranks.” [London Gazette: 26th January 1918]

According to a report issued by 12th Casualty Clearing Station where he was taken after he had been wounded, he had received a gunshot wound to the head which had fractured the base of the skull. He died in the Casualty Clearing Station at Mendinghem, near Proven on 6th August 1917, and was buried in the cemetery close by that was created by the medical units in the area, and would later become Mendinghem Military Cemetery.

Following his death, colleagues from the Clerical Staff of the Midland Railway Goods Office placed an announcement in the Leeds Mercury.

In the years immediately after the Great War ended, cities, towns, and villages, as well as employers across the country created memorials as a means of remembering their losses. As well as the memorial and roll of service in Scholes, Hector McMillan is also known to be remembered on the war memorial in Kiltarlity and on the memorial created by the Midland Railway Company at Derby, as well as being listed in the company’s book of remembrance.