Student and Sniper-Sergeant

A memoir of J.K. Forbes, M.A.

In The Trenches

After a week’s rest the battalion set out once more for the trenches, this time, as it proved, for a long spell and for duties such as were to try it as it had never been tried before, and bring forth the iron endurance and patient heroism of the


members of this battalion, which by now was a trained and veteran unit.A six miles’ heavy march took them to Ypres desolate beyond description. As they trampled through the city, the wanton destruction made their hearts burn with indignation and steeled them to the dangerous work ahead. Two miles east of Ypres, on the famous Menin road, they halted, and took up their position which they occupied for twenty-six eventful days. Forbes was now lance-sergeant, having been promoted in one bound from lance-corporal to his new rank, and during these days he displayed still more effectively the qualities of skill and coolness which had won him his sergeant stripe.

The situation on the Ypres-Menin road was far from enviable. A little earlier in the year, backed by a multitude of guns of heavy calibre and resorting to the use of asphyxiating gasses, the Germans had penetrated our lines, and the tide of battle went ill with the British. The enemy rolled on in great numbers and took up their position on the west side of Hooge, where they were checked for the time by a handful of dismounted cavalry. The 8th Brigade, of which the 4th Gordons formed part, came into action again and set about preparing trenches and consolidating the position to keep back the Germans. The period of twenty-six days so spent was one of continuous and intense bombardment from the enemy’s artillery. To add to the discomfort, a hot sun glared down and scorched the troops by day with unrelenting rays, while by night the sweat poured from their brows as they went on with their digging, generally in full fighting kit, for none knew the moment that an attack might be made. Such a spell would demoralize the strongest of men, especially as rations were not over-sufficient always, and water was desperately scarce; but the troops were wonderful, and J. K. appears to have found it a time of uncommon exhilaration. One day a platoon which had been holding a detached portion of a trench was spotted and heavily shelled by the Germans. Of course the men had to lie where they were till night fell as there was no communication trench, and, when at last they did manage to crawl back to the main trench, they had lost half their number. Next morning volunteers were called for to hold that section of the trench and Forbes was put in charge of them. He chose six of their number, and with these he crawled out to the battered trench, eager for the dangerous post, yet solicitous about his men, for he says: “One hardly likes to ask men to come, for one may be leading them to their death”. This little incident is just one of many which show how his worth and efficiency had come to be recognised in the battalion.

The bombardment to which they were subjected had its comedy as well as its tragedy, and one humorous occurrence which he describes for us annoyed him more than all the terrors of shrapnel and ‘whizz-bangs’. “Tea is almost ready,” he writes, “and the mess tin lid is going strong; ham just frizzling to the critical point beyond which it is no more ham, but simply burnt pig. Already our mouths are beginning to water, when comes the warning whimper, crescendo more pronounced than usual, then the final savage swish earthwards, and a Vesuvius eruption almost at our very side. This time it is but three or four yards away, and probably only the fact that there is a railway line between us and the explosion has saved us. A Vesuvius eruption, then the overwhelming of Pompeii, and the two of us are flung bodily to the ground, though whether it is the draught of the explosion of the instinct of self-preservation is hard to say. It matters not: breakfast is ruined, this is the catastrophe!”  

Besides taking his share in digging and other duties, J. K. At this time did much valuable work in scouting and reconnaissance. He often went out with a comrade in the early morning to watch any movement in the enemy’s lines and perchance get a shot at an unwary Hun. “Out again,” he says, “bent on the work of death, out through the dripping grasses, till the enemy line is in clear view. Then to lie there, rifle in readiness, till an opportunity may show. Then for perhaps half an hour, lying, two of us, among the wet grass, until the lifting mists drive us cautiously in again. One shot fired, with what result we know not.”

At length the position was ready for the attack which all had expected. The British, owing to excessive strain and arduous labour, were ready first, and the attack was planned for 16th June, 1915, the hundredth anniversary of the battle of Quatre Bras. The object of the attack was to capture the German lines in and beyond a strip of trees called Y wood, about half a mile long and two or three hundred yards deep, the idea being to link up the trenches on the right – just west of Hooge – with the British position on the left, some distance north of the Menin road. Early in the morning our artillery opened, and for a full hour and a half rained shells of every calibre, transforming a fresh green wood into a few withered and scorched tree-trunks. While this was taking place, J. K. Coolly began to “drum-up,” saying, “we must have a good meal while yet there is time and opportunity”. At the moment due the attack went over and was forthwith a great success. Success favoured us till the afternoon, when in desperate and repeated counter-attacks the Germans swarmed on our lines and would fain have thrust back. It was at this point that part of the 4th Gordons, though originally meant for reserve, was called up as supporting reinforcements, and at this part of the day Forbes displayed the utmost coolness and alertness, observing with his glasses the Germans’ every movement and picking off the enemy as they showed themselves a target for his rifle. He escaped himself without a scratch, but lost one of his closest friends, one who had been with him since the Bedford days, of whom he writes, “I knew not until he was gone how close he had actually come to me”.

On the night of the 18th day of June the battalion was once more relieved – weak in numbers and weak in strength, yet prepared to “carry on,” retaining still the qualities that lead a regiment from strength to strength, from victory to victory.

Sgt 2820, John Keith Forbes was born in Aberdeen on 12th April 1883 and killed in action 25th September 1915 age 32

This story has been extracted from the book Student and Sniper Sergeant. A memoir of J.K. Forbes, M.A. By William Taylor, M.A. and Peter Diack, M.A. Printed by Hodder and Stoughton 1916.