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12 Days in France - The Story of of Lieutenant James Keith Trotter, 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders

- by Lt Cdr RN (Rtd) Joseph Jeffrey

The short WW1 service of Lieutenant James Keith Trotter, 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders

When we think of the casualties of the First World War, our minds may often settle on the image of a young boy going over the top on the Somme battlefields. We think of trenches, mud and the stalemate that was the Western Front for the majority of the war. If you were asked to name a moment from 1914 you might choose the infamous Battle of Mons or the First Battle of Ypres in Flanders. You may picture the Christmas truce (the only one of the War) that happened in some sections of the front line. You probably wouldn’t choose to think of the lesser known Battle of Le Cateau or the 8482 men of the BEF who lost their lives in this engagement. This is the short story of one of those men.

James Keith Trotter was born on 19th December 1888 in Malta to the then, Major James Keith Trotter of the Royal Artillery and his wife Alice Trotter who’s sister I am descended from. He followed his father into the Army but unlike his father who was an artillery Officer, James chose to serve in the infantry and was commissioned on 15th October 1909 as a Second Lieutenant in the Gordon Highlanders.

Having held his commission for just over a year, he left his Regiment in November 1910 in order to serve as Aide de Camp to the Commanding Officer of the South Coast Defences in Portsmouth, a certain Major General James Keith Trotter. The 1911 census shows James, now a Lieutenant, living with his parents and their 6 servants at Government House in Portsmouth.

Major General Trotter retired from the Army in July 1911 at which point James re-joined his battalion which was now stationed at Colchester. There is very little information about his service in the years between 1911 and 1914 however it is known that by 1913 he was in command of the battalion’s machine gun section which he would eventually lead in action.

A 1912 pattern Vickers-Maxim machine gun; the same model as would have been used by the men of Lieutenant Trotter’s section.

3 years after re-joining his battalion, Lieutenant Trotter found himself once again in Portsmoth, this time preparing for war. The 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders sailed for France on 13th August 1914 and disembarked the next day in Boulogne. The battalion were then moved by train to Aulonoye and then marched north to Goegnies-Chaussee on the France-Belgium border.

James, now having served in the Army for just under 5 years would have seen his first action on 23rd August 1914 at Mons where the 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders contributed to the halt of the German army’s advance. Despite the British losses at Mons exceeding 1600, the Gordons suffered only minor casualties and was largely intact when the BEF disengaged and withdrew.

The second and arguably last action of the 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders in the war came 3 days after at Le Cataeu. The Batallion formed part of the 8th Infantry Brigade which under the command of X held positions in the British line beyond Audencourt between the towns of Caudry and Beumont. As at Mons, James would have commanded his machine gun platoon consisting of two Vickers-Maxims[1] placed in strategic positions. During the course of the battle, the majority of the 8th Brigade held their positions against German attacks for most of the day and crucially, did not receive the order to retreat until much later than other units. The majority of the 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders were cut off from the British retreat and either killed or captured. Only a handful of men escaped to re-join the BEF.

This sketch by war artist William Barnes Wollen depicts the Gordons in action at Le Cateau. Wollen attributes no names to the men in this scene but I like to think that the officer whose last moments are captured in this depiction may well be James.

Initially listed as missing, James’ death was not confirmed until almost a year later by an eyewitness account which stated that he had been shot through the head whilst observing the fire of his machine guns through field glasses (binoculars). His initial burial place before his reinternment in Caudry Military Cemetery in 1924, was very close to the original positions occupied by the 8th Brigade and almost certainly very near to where he was killed aged 25.

James’ parents were now living in Yorkshire. His father briefly came out of retirement to command the 62nd (2nd West Riding) Division in 1915 however now aged 66, he did not see active service and handed over command of his Division prior to their deployment on the Western Front. Coincidentally, this is the division that my Great Grandfather on the other side of the family fought with during the war.

He is commemorated on the War Memorial in Ailsby, Yorkshire as well as a private memorial to both him and his father in Greyfriar’s Kirkyard, Edinburgh. Both the Edinburgh memorial and his headstone in France carry the inscription “That They all May Be One”. It is a passage from John 17:21 which speaks of the Father and Son being of one and I can only imagine that this was the focus of Major General Trotter and his wife when they chose the words that would appear on the grave of their only son.

The grave of Lieutenant James Keith Trotter bearing the inscription chosen by his parents.

[1] At this point in 1914, the British Army did not recognise the significant part that machine gun would play in the conflict and a mere two of the weapons per battalion was deemed sufficient.

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