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52489 Lance Corporal
ALEXANDER ERSKINE, M.M.
Royal Engineers

by
Lieutenant Colonel Edward De Santis
2002. All Rights Reserved.

1. INTRODUCTION

Unless otherwise noted, the details supplied in this narrative were obtained from the soldier’s service papers found in the Public Record Office at Kew, Richmond, Surrey. Lance Corporal Erskine’s papers were found among the burnt records and are, therefore, difficult to read in places. The author has attempted to decipher the entries on the papers as accurately as possible; however, errors in place names and dates should be expected. Data have also been obliterated by the damage in some places; hence, the narrative may be missing some details of Erskine’s military service. Details pertaining to the movements and actions of Erskine’s company in France and Flanders from 1915 to 1919 have been taken for the most part from Volume V of the History of the Corps of Royal Engineers.

2. EARLY LIFE AND FAMILY INFORMATION

Alexander Erskine was born on the 21st of December 1894 in the Parish of Auchterderran, near the town of Auchterderran. Auchterderran is located in the County of Fifeshire, Scotland on the peninsula of land between the Firth of Forth to the south and the Firth of Tay to the North, approximately five miles northwest of the coastal town of Kirkcaldy and about nine miles northeast of Dumferline. Alexander’s parents were James [1] and Margaret Erskine [2]. The Erskines were members of the Presbyterian Church.

Sometime before 1914 the Erskines moved to Ye Olde Hotel in Leuchars, Fifeshire. Leuchars also is located on the Fife peninsula approximately 22 miles northeast of Auchterderran and four miles northwest of the coastal town of St. Andrews. It is not known whether the Erskines were the proprietors of the hotel, whether they just lived there, or whether they simply worked as staff at the establishment. Alexander lived with his parents at Ye Olde Hotel until he enlisted in the Army in 1914. As a young man he worked as an "engineer." At least this was the trade that he listed for himself on his Army attestation papers. In the late 19th century, the term engineer was used by men who worked literally as operators of "engines," usually of the steam variety.

3. PHYSICAL DESCRIPTION

The following is a description of Alexander Erskine at the time he enlisted in the Army in 1914:

Age:

19 years and 270 days.

Height:

5 feet 8 inches.

Weight:

141 pounds.

Chest (expanded):

38 inches.

Chest (normal):

34 inches.

Physical Development:

Good.

Complexion:

Fresh.

Eyes:

Grey.

Hair:

Light brown.

Distinctive Marks:

Mole on the left shoulder blade.

Vaccination Marks:

Two on the left arm.

4. ENLISTMENT AND TRAINING

Alexander Erskine enlisted in the Royal Engineers at Dundee, Scotland on the 17th of September 1914 for a period of three years or for the duration of the Great War of 1914-1918. At the time of his enlistment he answered the questions normally put to the new recruit by stating that he was never an apprentice, he was not married, and that he had never been imprisoned by civil power. Erskine indicated that he had no prior naval or military service in the Regular, Militia or Volunteer Forces and that he was willing to enlist for General Service. His Certificate of Medical Examination was issued at Dundee on the same date as his enlistment and he was found fit for service in the Army. On this same date, also at Dundee, his Certificate of Primary Military Examination was issued and he was found fit for service in the Royal Engineers [3]. Immediately following the formalities of his enlistment, Alexander Erskine was issued Regimental Number 52489 and the rank of Driver and was posted to the Royal Engineers Depot at Chatham, Kent for training.

Erskine appears to have undergone a much-abbreviated period of recruit training, perhaps as a result of his civilian skills or perhaps as a result of the need by the Royal Engineers to fill vacancies in field units. In any case, on the 7th of October 1914, Driver Erskine was posted to the 80th Field Company at Colchester in Essex.

5. ASSIGNMENTS AND CAMPAIGN SERVICE

Driver Erskine served with the 80th Field Company, Royal Engineers at Colchester until May of 1915 when the company moved to Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. Up to that point the company had been training in preparation for joining the division to which it would be assigned for active service during the war. The company joined the 18th Division at Salisbury Plain during the period from the 4th to the 12th of May 1915 in preparation for large-scale division field exercises.

The deployment of the 18th Division to France and Flanders was scheduled for July of 1915, and as the division completed its training it was inspected by H.M. King George V at Codford on the 24th of June [4]. The 18th Division subsequently embarked for France, arriving in Boulogne on the 27th of July. Driver Erskine, however, was no longer with the 80th Field Company when the division deployed. He had been posted to the 157th Field Company with the 16th (Irish) Division in Fermoy, Ireland [5].

After a period of training in Ireland, the 16th Division along with its three Royal Engineers field companies, the 155th, 156th and 157th, moved to Blackdown in Hampshire in September of 1915. This move was made in preparation for the division’s embarkation for France. During this period the 157th Field Company lost its first man. 46985 Corporal Alexander Smith died at home in Aberdeen, Scotland on the 7th of September.

Driver Erskine embarked with the 157th Field Company on the 19th of December 1915 and landed in France on the following day. The 16th Division did not immediately go into the front line and was not actually moved up until the 27th of April 1916 when it arrived in the Hulluch sector to prepare for the large British offensive on the Somme.

The 157th Field Company took part in the Battle of the Somme but not in the initial assaults made in July and August of 1916. Erskine and his company took part in the Battle of Guillemont between the 3rd and 6th of September 1916 and they were present at the action at Ginchy on the 9th of September. The 157th Field Company lost four men in this latter battle, two killed in action and two who died of wounds.

The remainder of 1916 and the early part of 1917 were quiet for the men of the 157th Field Company. It was not until the 7th of June 1917 that the company was again actively engaged in operations against the enemy, this time at Wytschaete in the Messines sector. During this action the 16th Division formed part of the British IX Corps. The Chief Engineer of the IX Corps at this time was Brigadier General G.P. Scholfield. The Commander Royal Engineers (CRE) of the 16th Division was Lieutenant Colonel R.F.A. Butterworth. The Battle of Messines resulted in one fatality for the 157th Field Company.

The action at Messines was followed by the Battle of Pilckem Ridge in the Ypres sector from the 31st of July to the 2nd of August 1917. The 16th Division was now assigned to the British XIX Corps whose Chief Engineer was Brigadier General A.G. Bremner. This corps formed part of the British Fifth Army. The attacks made by the British forces at Pilckem Ridge went well, but not so well as had been hoped. The Germans counter-attacked strongly at noon on the first day, but by the evening of the 31st of July the British gains amounted to about 2,000 yards on a frontage of nine miles; that is, around the entire perimeter of the Ypres salient. The British losses in this battle were heavy and six of the attacking divisions had to be relieved during the next few days.

Pilckem Ridge was followed by the Battle of Langemarck and again the 16th Division took an active part in the fight. The British attacked failed to capture the Gheluvelt Plateau near Langemarck between the 16th and the 18th of August 1917. This objective was an important one to both sides, as the Germans had massed the greater part of their artillery on the plateau, and its capture was vital to the British operations on either flank of the front line. Pilckem and Langemarck resulted in two fatalities in the 157th Field Company, both of them Erskine’s fellow Drivers and both killed in action.

Things were relatively quiet for the men of 157th Field Company during September of 1917. Quiet enough, in fact, for Driver Erskine to take leave in the United Kingdom. His records do not indicate where he went while on leave, but one can assume that he went home to Scotland.

On the 19th of November 1917 the London Gazette announced the award of the Military Medal [6] to Driver Erskine for his actions at Pilckem and Langemarck. He was also presented with a certificate signed by Major General W.B. Hickie, Commanding the 16th Division. The certificate read as follows:

"Everywhere and Always Faithful"

The Irish
Brigade

52489 Dr A. M. Erskine
157
th Field Coy R.E.

I HAVE READ WITH MUCH PLEASURE THE REPORTS OF YOUR REGIMENTAL COMMANDER AND BRIGADE COMMANDER REGARDING YOUR GALLANT CONDUCT AND DEVOTION TO DUTY IN THE FIELD ON Aug 1st to 16th 1917 AND HAVE ORDEREDYOUR NAME AND DEED TO BE ENTERED IN THE RECORD OF THE IRISH DIVISION.

Note: The certificate contains an error, indicating that Erskine had the middle
initial M. This middle initial is not to be found anywhere in his records.

On the 20th of November 1917 Driver Erskine and the men of the 157th Field Company again were in action, this time in an attack to the north of Bullecourt in the Ypres sector. After this action things became very quiet for the company through the winter of 1917/1918 and into the early spring of 1918. The Germans soon put an end to this on the 21st of March 1918 when they launched their great spring offensive on the Somme. The action in which the 157th Field Company took part is referred to as the Battle of St. Quentin and lasted from the 21st to the 23rd of March.

The enemy onslaught on the first day of the German offensive was so terrific that the field companies had to be thrown into the line to fight as infantry. Two sections of the 155th Field Company and two sections of the 157th Field Company fought at Lempire as part of the garrison there. Erskine’s company lost Lieutenant G.H. Baxter, mortally wounded, before falling back on Villers Faucon in the late afternoon of the 21st of March [7]. At Villers Faucon, the remainder of these two companies defended the village under the command of Major P.F. Whittal, DSO, R.E., the Officer Commanding the 157th Field Company. On the following day the 157th Field Company was tasked to support the rear guard of the 48th Infantry Brigade. This brigade consisted of the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Munster Fusiliers and the 1st Battalion, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Along with these two battalions and two companies of the 11th Hampshires (Pioneers), the 157th Field Company fought a valuable delaying action in the town of Doingt. Major Whittal gained a bar to his Distinguished Service Order for his conduct on this occasion. The 16th Division was subsequently taken out of the line and replaced by the 39th and 66th divisions. The division’s field companies were withdrawn to the west of Cappy. In addition to Lieutenant Baxter, the 157th Field Company lost two Sappers killed in action and one Sapper who subsequently died of wounds.

Driver Erskine and the men of the 157th Field Company got little rest after arriving at Cappy. Although they were not actively fighting the Germans, during the period from the 24th to the 31st of March the men of the company were involved with many engineer tasks. Alternately, they formed bridgeheads at river crossings or defensive flanks to assist the infantry; dropping their rifles to dig or to wire, and picking them up again to repel an attack. During this period, the 157th Field Company is credited with participation in the Battle of Rosieres, which took place on the 26th and 27th of March 1918. The company lost 61677 Pioneer David Randall who was killed in action during these operations.

Erskine’s company was taken out of line on the 4th of April 1918 and was sent to Hallencourt to rest. On the 16th of June the company was temporarily assigned to the 14th Division, returning to the 16th Division on the 13th of August 1918. On the 28th of September the 157th Field Company advanced with the 16th Division in the pursuit of the German forces to the River Mons.

The "Pursuit to Mons" took place between the 28th of September and the 11th of November 1918, Armistice Day. During this period the 16th Division was assigned to I Corps (Chief Engineer, Brigadier General H.W. Gordon) in the British Fifth Army. The CRE of the 16th Division at his time was Lieutenant Colonel F. Summers.

The role of the Fifth Army in the general offensive plan was to exercise continual pressure on the enemy and to take advantage of any opportunity for exploitation which offered itself, rather than to stage any major attack. Fifth Army, with active patrols, advanced its line to the Lawe River, and then by stages to the thickly populated areas of Lille, Tourcoing and Roubaix. There was little heavy engineering work required beyond clearing the roads. The field companies were almost continually on the move during this open warfare stage of the campaign. The 157th Field Company took part in the final advance in the Artois area and on Armistice Day the unit was repairing and strengthening bridges on the River Schelde when the cease firing was declared. During this final pursuit of the retreating Germans, the company had four additional fatalities.

Erskine returned home for demobilization on the 8th of January 1919. In addition to the Military Medal that he won in 1917, Lance Corporal Erskine was also awarded the 1914-15 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal for his service during the Great War of 1914-1918 [8]. He was also awarded the Silver War Badge, Number B292919 for "Services Rendered for King and Empire."[9]

Driver Erskine saw a great deal of action in France and Flanders, as did his entire company. The 157th Field Company had a total of 31 fatalities, as shown in the table below:

Casualties of the 157th Field Company, Royal Engineers From 1915 to 1918


Name

Regimental Number


Rank

Cause
Of Death


Date of Death

Adams, Ralph Henry

94705

2nd Corporal

KIA

11 Apr 1916

Argent, George Percy

63651

Pioneer

DOW

10 Sep 1916

Baxter, Gavin Hector

 

Lieutenant

DOW

23 Mar 1918

Bevan, Hiram

213534

Sapper

Died

31 Oct 1918

Braley, F.

154681

Sapper

KIA

20 Nov 1917

Challenger, John Shaw

98342

Sapper

DOW

1 Feb 1917

Cumper, William

47375

Driver

DOW

9 Nov 1918

Dayton, Samuel George

113994

Sapper

DOW

24 Sep 1916

Dew, Ernest Lloyd

159945

Sapper

KIA

5 May 1917

Dunnington, Henry

139880

Sapper

KIA

12 Oct 1918

Eldridge, Alfred

95557

Sapper

KIA

9 Sep 1916

Elvey, Robert

480716

Sapper

KIA

25 Mar 1918

Gates, William Alfred

136672

Driver

KIA

27 May 1917

Hall, Frederick James

63170

Sapper

DOW

28 Apr 1916

Hession, John

36776

Sapper

DOW

23 Jul 1916

Hourihan, Michael

47321

Sapper

DOW

9 Mar 1916

Hughes, William

108728

Sapper

DOW

6 Sep 1917

Ingham, Horace

61326

Driver

KIA

17 Aug 1917

Lear, Paul

44093

Sapper

KIA

9 Sep 1916

Macdonald, Ronald

224470

Sapper

DOW

22 Mar 1918

Macey, Ernest

95931

Sapper

DOW

3 May 1916

Mc Donald, Robert White

224464

Sapper

KIA

23 Mar 1918

Millward, Samuel

215240

Sapper

DOW

5 Apr 1918

Naylor, James Greenwood

216244

Sapper

KIA

27 Nov 1917

Randall, David

61677

Pioneer

KIA

28 Mar 1918

Smith, Alexander

46985

Corporal

Died

7 Sep 1915

Smith, William Henry

159932

Sapper

KIA

13 Jan 1917

Solley, George Richard William

60832

Driver

KIA

17 Aug 1917

Stedman, Henry Walter

38780

Driver

DOW

30 Oct 1918

Tant, Louis

89531

Pioneer

KIA

7 Mar 1916

Williams, Edward

41055

Sapper

Died

11 Dec 1916

Legend: KIA – Killed in Action; DOW – Died of Wounds; Died – of disease or accidentally killed.

The following is a statistical analyses of these deaths by various categories:

1. Total Company Casualties from all Causes: 31

2. Deaths by Rank

Lieutenants: 1
Corporals: 1
2nd Corporals: 1
Sappers: 20
Drivers: 5
Pioneers: 3

3. Deaths by Category

Killed in Action: 15
Died of Wounds: 13
Died of Disease or Accident: 3

4. Deaths by Year

1915: 1
1916: 11
1917: 9
1918: 10

5. Deaths by Battle or Campaign

Guillemont (3-6 Sep 1916): 0
Ginchy (9 Sep 1916): 4
Messines (7-14 June 1917): 1
Pilckem (31 Jul – 2 Aug 1917): 1
Langemarck (16-18 Aug 1917): 1
St. Quentin (21-23 Mar 1918): 3
Rosieres (26-27 Mar 1918): 2
Pursuit to Mons (28 Sep – 11 Nov 1918): 4
Non-Battle Specific Deaths: 15

Driver Alexander Erskine was awarded the Military Medal for gallant conduct and devotion to duty during the period from the 1st to the 16th of August 1917. The 157th Field Company was engaged in the actions at Pilckem and Langemarck during that period. Drivers Ingham and Solley were both killed in action on the 17th of August 1917. Apparently the company’s operations during that period involved the Drivers to a considerable extent and exposed them to a great deal of danger, such that two were killed and Erskine was awarded a medal for his conduct during the actions.

It is also interesting to note that the company lost fifteen men, roughly 50 percent of the total deaths, during non-battle specific periods of the war. This number illustrates the dangers the Sappers faced even when they were not involved in offensive actions or in defensive battles.

The company suffered five combat deaths during the period from the 21st to the 27th of March 1918. This period coincides with the German spring offensive of 1918 and the number of deaths illustrates the dangers of fighting on the front line as infantry, as the company was ordered to do at that time.

6. PROMOTIONS AND CONDUCT

a. Promotions: Alexander Erskine served for all of the period of the Great War of 1914-1918 as a Driver. He was appointed to the rank of paid Lance Corporal on the 12th of December 1918, one month after the end of the war.

b. Conduct: Erskine received no Good Conduct Badges during his time in service. His name appears four times in the Company Defaulter’s Book. His service papers indicate that he had the disciplinary problems indicated in the table below:

Date of Offence

Date of Punishment

Nature of Offence and Punishment

6 April 1915

Reported by Corporal Thornely

8 April 1915

Returned late from leave. Awarded 4 days confinement to barracks and forfeiture of 2 day’s pay for overstaying his leave by 25 hours. Punishment awarded by Captain T.G.M. King, Officer Commanding, 80th Field Company at Colchester.

22 June 1915

Reported by
Corporal Thornley

23 June 1915

For trotting his horse contrary to orders [10]. Awarded 5 days confinement to barracks by the Officer Commanding, 80th Field Company at Salisbury Plain.

14 July 1915

Reported by
Lance Corporal Duckett

15 July 1915

Returned late from leave. Awarded 7 days confinement to camp and forfeiture of 1 day’s pay for overstaying his leave by 9 hours. Punishment awarded by the Officer Commanding, 80th Field Company at Salisbury Plain.

10 December 1915

Reported by Sergeant Johnson

10 December 1915

For smoking near the stables while on active service. Awarded 5 days confinement to barracks by the Officer Commanding, 157th Field Company at Blackdown.

7. EDUCATION AND QUALIFICATIONS

a. Education: There is no evidence in Alexander Erskine’s service papers to indicate that he earned any Certificates of Education during his time in the Army.

b. Qualifications: Alexander Erskine did not earn any special qualifications during his time in service.

8. MEDICAL INFORMATION

The medical information in the table below was taken from Erskine’s service records. There is no indication that he was ill, injured or wounded during his time in the Army.

Location

Date of
Admission

Ailment

Period of Hospitalization
or Treatment

Colchester

Oct 1914

Smallpox vaccination

None

Blackdown

4 Dec 1915

Smallpox vaccination

None

Unknown

21 Jan 1919

Medical examination prior to demobilization

None

Erskine did not claim a disability due to military service at the time of his demobilization. Based on the results of the medical examination administered on the 21st of January 1919, Lance Corporal Erskine was placed in Medical Category A; that is, he was fit for general service should he need to be called back to the Colours.

9. MARRIAGE AND PERSONAL INFORMATION

Alexander Erskine lived with his parents in Leuchars, Fifeshire prior to enlisting in the Army at the age of 19. He was not married when he enlisted, and there is not indication in his service papers that he married during the war. His parents are listed as his next of kin on his military documents. At the time of his demobilization from the Army after the war, Alexander Erskine indicated that he would be returning to Ye Olde Hotel in Leuchars, presumably to reside with his parents once again. He was 24 years of age when he was discharged.

10. DISCHARGE

Alexander Erskine was issued his Protection Certificate and Certificate of Identification on the 1st of February 1919 in preparation for his demobilization from the Army at Kinross in Tayside. The certificates show that his Record Office and Pay Office were located at Chatham. He was transferred to the Army Reserve on demobilization on the 28th of February 1919, thus effectively ending his military service. His total service was reckoned as shown in the tables below:

Location

Period of Service

Chatham, Kent

17 September 1914 to 6 October 1914

Colchester, Essex

7 October 1914 to 11 May 1915

Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire

12 May 1915 to July 1915

Fermoy, Ireland

July 1915 to September 1915

Blackdown, Hampshire

September 1915 to 19 December 1915

France and Flanders

20 December 1915 to 7 January 1919

Kinross, Tayside

8 January 1919 to 1 February 1919

 

Location

Period of Service

Home Service

1 year and 110 days

Service Abroad

3 years and 26 days

Total Service

4 years and 136 days

11. POST SERVICE LIFE

No specific information is available regarding Alexander Erskine’s post service life other than his intended place of residence in Leuchars, Fifeshire.

REFERENCES

Books

1. INSTITUTION OF ROYAL ENGINEERS. The History of the Corps of Royal Engineers. Volume V. The Institution of Royal Engineers, Chatham, Kent, 1952.

2. JAMES, E.A. Historical Records of British Infantry Regiments in the Great War, 1914-1918. Henry Mills, Ltd., Birmingham, 1975.

3. LETTS, C. Roadbook of Britain. Charles Letts and Company Limited, London, 1977.

Documents

1. Soldiers Service Papers Consisting of the following Documents:

a. Attestation Paper, Army Form B. 2065.
b. Description on Enlistment.
c. Medical History.
d. Military History Sheet.
e. Statement of Services.
f. Squadron, Troop, Battery and Company Conduct Sheet.
g. Protection Certificate and Certificate of Identification.
h. Statement as to Disability.
i. Acknowledgement Receipts for the Military Medal.
j. Casualty Form – Active Service.
k. Record of Vaccinations.

2. Military Medal Index Card.

3. Medal Index Card for the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal.

4. Reproduction of the 16th (Irish) Division Certificate for Gallant Conduct.

5. Original Copy of the Certificate of Transfer to Reserve on Demobilization, Army Form Z. 21.

Computer Software

1. 1881 British Census and National Index. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, 1999.

2. Soldiers Died in the Great War. The Naval & Military Press Ltd., Heathfield, East Sussex, 1998.

 ENDNOTES

[1] It was not possible to accurately pin down the ancestors of James Erskine with any degree of accuracy. If one assumes that James was between 20 and 30 years old in 1894 when Alexander was born, then he would have been between 7 and 17 years of age in 1881 when the census was taken. Assuming that he was born in Auchterderran, the 1881 British Census shows two possible families living there at that time with young boys between 7 and 17 years of age. James and Catherine Erskine lived at 2 Brewery Court and had five children, with a son James age 12 years. George and Jane Erskine lived at 34 Granger Street and also had five children, with a son James age 9 years. Although it cannot be known for certain, either one of these boys could have been Alexander Erskine’s father.

[2] The Vital Records Index through 1888 was checked for the marriage of James and Margaret Erskine. Unfortunately no data could be found.

[3] His civilian trade as an "engineer" would have made him well qualified for service with the Royal Engineers who were always looking for men with specialized skills.

[4] Codford is located approximately 12 miles northwest of the town of Salisbury and was probably the location of the camp of the 80th Field Company.

[5] Fermoy is located on the Blackwater River in northeast County Cork in southwest Ireland.

[6] This medal is in the author’s collection.

[7] According to Officers Died in the Great War, Lieutenant Baxter was the only officer of the 157th Field Company to be killed during the war.

[8] These medals are in the author’s collection.

[9] This badge also is in the author’s collection.

[10] This is certainly a very unusual offense and it is the first time that the author has ever seen this offense listed on a man’s record.