ALEX R. MURRAY - "KILLED IN ACTION"

Before 1986 I was a teacher of Geography, and Computer Studies, but, in the summer of that year, I retired from the career in which I had been employed all my working life. I decided that I could happily devote my newly gained time to topics in which I had become seriously interested. One of these was investigating the family genealogies of my wife and myself.

Part of my research was helped by the family bible which I had earlier inherited from my father. As many readers will know, bibles of this sort are often large, leather-bound, boldly printed, and commonly illustrated with coloured pictures depicting religious scenes. Also, they frequently contain pages set aside at the front where family details could be recorded. My bible was no exception, having been bought by, or given to, my great-grandfather, Robert Murray, at the time, I imagine, of his marriage in the early 1860s.

Robert and his wife, Mary, had fourteen children - the first being born in 1863. The names of the first twelve children, written in superb copperplate, are entered in the pages allotted to "Children's Names", but after this there was no more space available there and the final two were inserted in the "Marriages" page. It was the last one of these names, Alex R. Murray, which especially aroused my interest. His birth was given as 8th May, 1888 and beside his name in the list of "Deaths" entries was written the simple statement, "Killed in Action".

I had known that my grandfather, Walter - born in 1866 and the third child of Robert and Mary, had been one of a large family but until I came across it in the Bible I was completely unaware that I had a great uncle who had, presumably, fought and died in the Great War. Consequently, because of my interests in both genealogy and the First World War, I decided to try to find out as much about him as I could. I did not know then how elusive his trail would be.

Whenever trying to trace relatives who have died many years before, the best paths to follow at first are those which lead to old relations who are still alive for often they can be most helpful in supplying information from their usually vast store of memories and recollections. After these sources have been explored the next main steps are searching for and through family letters and documents, visits to Public Records Offices, the investigation of church and school records, and the reading of old newspapers. At first, unfortunately, none of these ways was available to me.

While the Murray side of my family all come from the Borders area of Scotland, I live in Northern Ireland and have lived here for most of my life. Consequently, knowing very little at all about my Scottish relations, the investigative ways which I have described above were not open to me. I concluded, therefore, that the best course I could take would be to write to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Maidenhead to see if it could help me.

I realised that my chances of success were slight for I knew that the information which I could supply was so limited. I could he pretty sure that his first name was Alexander - though this was not a common name in the family; I could guess that the " R" stood for Robert which was a usual name; and lastly I knew his birth date and the names of his parents; I was unaware of the date and place of his death; the regiment in which he had served (indeed even if he had been in the army - for he might have been a sailor or an airman); his rank and army number; where he had been born; and if he was married. Quite a formidable list of negatives!

However I had nothing to lose and in May 1988 I wrote to the CWGC stating all that I knew about Alex and indicated that since he was probably born in one of the towns in the Selkirk, Galashiels, and Hawick area of Scotland it was possible that he had belonged to a Border or Lowland regiment.

Very promptly in ten days I received a reply which gave, based upon my information, the possible name of one soldier. But it could not have been my great uncle for the ages did not tally nor did the parental names correspond. Despite subsequent exchanges with the ever-helpful CWGC I could get no further.

As a last effort I wrote in November 1988 to the Scottish National War Memorial in Edinburgh giving the same details about Alex as I had to the War Graves Commission. Again my luck was out for the courteous reply I received only gave the same person as that already supplied by the CWGC.

Stuck for the moment with Alex I turned my attention to other genealogical investigations and it was not until April 1989 that I wrote to the editor of the " Hawick News" asking him to print a letter from me which requested information about my family. This he kindly did and in early June I started to receive letters from relations there.

These were of great help to me not only in my general family search but also in my particular interest in Alex, for two of the replies were from the eldest and the youngest of his three children. The former, a son, is now over 76 years of age and the latter, a daughter , is over 72 having been born in June 1917. From them I learnt that Alex's full name was Alexander Robertson Murray and that he had been killed in April 1917. At a later date further confirmation came from another relative in a letter which enclosed a photocopy of the Family Service Sheet which was used at Alexander's Commemoration church service in Hawick. This paper showed that " Pte. Alex. Murray ... was killed in action in France on 23rd April 1917" and that he was " interred in Reux Cemetery (Near Arras)" .

The date of his death and the fact that it was near Arras suggested strongly that he had been killed on the opening day of the second phase of the Battle of Arras. However, I was a little puzzled by the name Reux for I could find no mention of it in any reference book or map which I owned.

However, I did now have enough information to call again on the ever-patient services of the CWGC and, consequently, I contacted my correspondent there, Mrs Whitfield. After some research she discovered that Alex was commemorated on the Arras Memorial and that he had served in the Black Watch - so much for my original assumption that he had belonged to a Lowland or Border regiment! She also could find no trace of Reux - though after some more investigation she discovered Roeux Cemetery which is located on the northern bank of the River Scarpe about five miles due east of Arras, and one and a quarter miles south east of Fampoux.

She sent to me the book "The War Dead of the Commonwealth, 1914-1918" of the Feuchy and Auberchicourt group of cemeteries which included the register of the names of those soldiers who were buried in Roeux Cemetery. To quote from page 48 of the introduction to this cemetery, "Roeux British cemetery is ... at a place called Chapelle de St. Hilaire on a minor road to Fampoux. It was made by fighting units in April-November 1917. It contains the graves of 349 soldiers from the United Kingdom, of who 31 are unidentified; but 82 of these graves destroyed by shell fire, are now represented by special memorials". Unfortunately for my search Alexander's name is not there - indeed in the whole cemetery there are only two graves belonging to men of the Black Watch, each from different battalions and killed on 17th May 1917, and 2nd June 1917 respectively.

Mrs Whitfield's book arrived at the end of June just before my wife and I set off by car on holiday to France. Before we went I had determined that we should see Roeux Cemetery; but sitting at home and trying to find its precise position from my four maps which covered the relevant area, was difficult because not one corresponded with the other over the cemetery's location.

Map No. 1, showing the position of Roeux Cemetery, is taken from the CWGC Register. It indicates that the cemetery is about half a kilometre west of Roeux and is best approached along a minor road or track which, skirting the southern side of a hill, runs from the centre of the village parallel to the River Scarpe. Since the Register map was drawn however, the landscape between Fampoux and Roeux has been significantly altered by the construction of the A1 autoroute which now runs more or less north to south between these two villages. As a consequence, many of the minor roads adjacent to it have either vanished or been realigned.

Location of Roeux Cemetery

These changes must, I fear, have confused the cartographers for, on my two Michelin 1/200000 maps (Number 236: showing the Flanders, Artois, and Picardy area, and number 53 of Arras, Charleville, and Mézières) both Crump Trench and Roeux Cemeteries have disappeared. On the fourth map, number 4 of the 1/100000 series Published by the Insitut Geographique National, only Crump Trench Cemetery is shown and this appears to be half in the River Scarpe! As well as this the track which once followed the river was not drawn on any of these three maps. From distant Northern Ireland it seemed that finding Roeux Cemetery might provide some difficulties.

While my wife is not averse to visiting the old battlefields of the Western Front she does object to spending our whole holiday in this occupation. Therefore, a compromise was reached and we spent the first part of our time in France on the Normandy/Brittany border before moving to Cambrai. On Friday, 14th July we toured the Cambrai battlefield and then early in the morning the next day we made our way to Arras on the straight but undulating old Roman road (now the D939 before it becomes a dual carriageway and the N39 near Arras) passing Bourlon Wood and the village of Moeuvres on the left.

The Arras Memorial on which are inscribed the names of, "35,942 OFFICERS AND MEN OF THE FORCES OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE WHO FELL IN THE BATTLES OF ARRAS AND IN AIR OPERATIONS ABOVE THE WESTERN FRONT AND WHO HAVE NO KNOWN GRAVE", is not difficult to find. Situated on the western side of Arras on the Boulevard Charles de Gaulle - a busy dual carriageway; with high walls made from pink and white stone, whose sharp edges are softened by patches of dark green ivy it is easily recognisable from a distance.

Once inside and before we walked around the enclosed cemetery we looked for and eventually discovered Alex's name registered as "MURRAY A". It is recorded high above the ground in a dark corner of the wall in bay six amongst the many other men of the Black Watch who fought and died in this area and whose bodies were never found.

The cemetery which occupies most of the central area of the Memorial was, as ever, beautifully and lovingly maintained. Whenever I enter one of these cemeteries - whether it be the largest at Tyne Cot or a small, remote one hidden away beside a lonely country road - I cannot help but feel that I am intruding into a sanctuary to which I do not rightly belong. No matter how much noise there is outside, once inside there is always an air of tranquillity and peace which I am reluctant to disturb.

According to our much-thumbed and by now rather tattered copy of Rose Coombs' book, "Before Endeavours Fade", there was a grim reminder in Arras that the Great War was not the War which ended all wars. She mentions that by the side of the Memorial, a track leads down to the former moat of the old citadel. At the track's end is the Mur des Fusillés which contains 200 commemorative plaques to those French patriots who were shot between 1941 and 1944. We took this road and after a bumpy drive we arrived at this dismal place in which, even though it was a hot, sunny day, we both felt a cold despair at the cold-blooded and calculated executions which had been carried out there.

Shrugging off this feeling with difficulty, we left Arras by the N39 and just after crossing the Al autoroute, turned left to Monchy le Preux. From there it was just a kilometre or two before we crossed a bridge over the River Scarpe and reached Roeux.

Once in the centre of this sleepy little village we had expected, according to the CWGC Register, to turn left to Roeux Cemetery. However, we either did not see this junction or it no longer exists, so we drove on and very shortly we came across the familiar green signpost to the British War Graves which pointed to the left off the road we were on. Following this sign we drove slowly down a rough unmade road (the dotted line in Map 2) until out of respect for the car's suspension we stopped in a small glade of newly planted trees under the lee of the Al autoroute.

New Entrance to Crump and Roeux Cemeteries

Leaving the car we made our way by foot along the track which continued ahead of us. It is hard now to remember the distance, but in what must have been about two hundred yards we arrived at Crump Trench Cemetery which, enclosed by a low flint wall and peacefully set among trees, was on our right .

Crump Trench Cemetery

The track becoming narrower and increasingly overgrown with trees and bushes still led on ahead. Walking along became more difficult for the path was overgrown with grass which concealed the hardened ruts made by tractors in wet weather. In about another two hundred yards the track ended in a small square clearing in the trees which now surrounded us. On the left and above us stood the entrance to Roeux Cemetery.

Like Crump Trench, Roeux Cemetery is rectangular in shape, surrounded by a low flint wall and enclosed on all sides by trees which in both cases help to preserve the tranquillity of the cemeteries by blocking out almost completely the traffic noise from the Al which runs close by. However whereas Crump Trench is laid out on comparatively level ground, Roeux is constructed on a hillside with the entrance at the bottom of the slope and the Cross of Remembrance at the top.

Roeux Cemetery

I had hoped that by visiting the cemetery I might find something which the CWGC had missed and discover for myself a clue that Alex was interred there. Realistically I knew that this was a forlorn wish and so it proved to be for, although we examined carefully every grave and memorial, there was nothing which indicated that this had been his burial place.

On the 16th we visited the Somme battlefield. During a previous expedition we had confined ourselves to the Thiepval district and those places closely associated with the 36th (Ulster) Division's attack. This time we covered a broader area. Starting at Courcelette we first stopped at Adanac Cemetery where I wanted to photograph the grave of a distant relation; then by way of Miraumont, Puisieux, Serre, and Auchonvillers we reached and explored the Memorial Park at Beaumont Hamel. From there we looped over the peaceful and dappled Ancre passing through St Pierre Divion and followed that river downstream as far as Authuille. Climbing out from the valley we passed the tiny village of Thiepval on the road to Mouquet Farm, and Pozières It was a very hot and sunny day and the calm which now surrounds Mouquet Farm on top of the ridge was disturbed only by diminutive whirlwinds which twisted up into the blue sky from a dusty road. After a late lunch in Albert we took to the road again to La Boisselle, and the Lochnager Crater (which still had poppies and wreaths at its base laid there during a Remembrance Service held a few days earlier), Contalmaison, Bazentin le Grand, and Longueval and the outstanding South African Memorial in Delville Wood. It was now getting late and sadly we had to make our way back to Cambrai and could only pass through the villages of Flers and Thilloy without stopping.

The next day, and our penultimate one in France, we travelled in the opposite direction to the Somme and went by Le Quesnoy to the Forest of Mormal. From there we stopped in Le Cateau and then, following yet another old Roman road as far as Beaurevoir and Gouy, we finally explored the tunnels and entrances of the St. Quentin Canal at Le Catelet and Ricqueval.

Early in August I wrote again to Mrs Whitfield at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission telling her of the changes which had been made to the approaches to Crump trench and Roeux cemeteries. I also enquired if she had gleaned any more information about Alex.

In her reply she said, among other things, that if I could uncover enough evidence about Alex's place of death it was possible that a memorial might be erected to him in Roeux Cemetery. I felt, however, that this decision was not mine to make for I was, after all, only a distant relative of his. It seemed much more proper that it should be made by his children. Accordingly, I contacted his daughter, but she - never having known her father, and in old age herself - was content to let things stay as they were and not resurrect a painful episode which had happened so long ago.

However, before I received this old lady's reply, I had written in September to the Regimental Headquarters of the Black Watch in Perth requesting information about Alex. The answer which came back contained a surprise for me. Firstly it stated that the Regiment could give me no help with Alex's service record because firstly, they did not have it, and, secondly, that such records were only divulged to next of kin. But it did go on to say - and this was the surprise - that prior to his service with the 6th battalion of the Black Watch, Alex had served with the Scottish Horse. Finally, the writer recommended that to gain details of the 6th battalion's actions I read volume two of A G Wauchope's book "A History of the Black Watch in the Great War, 1914-1918".

Eventually, a few weeks later, my local library obtained a copy of this book for me from the British Library at Boston Spa in Yorkshire. When I read those parts which related to Alex's service they increased the suspicions in my mind about whether he was, in fact, buried in Roeux Cemetery. These doubts had already been raised by Mrs Whitfield's August letter for in it, and when writing about the possibility of erecting a memorial plaque to Alex, she had said that although there are 31 unidentified servicemen buried in that cemetery, nothing in the cemetery documents identifies them as belonging to the Black Watch.

Firstly, however, the book solved the puzzle of how Alex had come to be in the Black Watch from the Scottish Horse. At the Somme battle of Beaumont Hamel on 13th November 1916, the 6th battalion Black Watch had suffered severe casualties when 224 men had been killed or wounded. Afterwards on 9th January 1917, while out of the line at rest in Senlis, it had received a draft of men from the Scottish Horse. It would seem from this then, that Alex was only a member of the Black Watch for a bare two and a half months before he was killed at Arras.

To deal with my reservations about Alex's actual burial place I think it is necessary to give first of all a little background history about the 6th battalion. It formed, with the 7th Black Watch and the 5th and 7th battalions Gordon Highlanders, the 153rd Brigade; and this brigade together with the 152nd and 154th brigades made up the 51st Highland Division. As I have already mentioned, the 6th fought in the last days of the Somme and, after it had recovered from this ordeal was, on 16th March 1917, moved as part of the 153rd Brigade to the Roclincourt section of the line to prepare for the Arras Offensive. The 51st Division became part of XVII Corps which was itself a member of Allenby's Third Army.

These preparations, in atrocious weather with "frost and snow being followed by thaw and rain, which reduced the trenches to a deplorable state", involved the 6th in the construction "of assembly trenches, wire cutting, raids for identification purposes and ... practising the attack on taped-out ground behind the front area". These raids - with their not, at times, insignificant cost in casualties and the consequent German retaliatory artillery activity, made life most unpleasant and dangerous for those soldiers who had to endure it.

The first part of the Battle of Arras started on the morning of 9th April but, some hours before this - on the night of 7th, the 6th battalion was relieved and moved back to Ecoivres and then Ecurie; but on 15th it was ordered to take over the line near Fampoux. Here it received orders to prepare itself to take part in what was to be the second phase of the Battle which began on 23rd April.

Overall Allenby's intention was to push British forces further east and thus help divert German soldiers from Nivelle's shattered attack on the Aisne which had started on 16th April. In the Arras area after the initial offensive of 9th April had ended, the front extended roughly in a north/south direction from west of Gavrelle to the River Scarpe east of Fampoux. In particular, east of Arras, the British front line trenches were only a few hundred yards beyond Fampoux while those of the enemy were well west of the Gavrelle to Roeux road and included (Map 3) Roeux station, the chemical works, and Roeux village itself. The chimney of the chemical works, the high ground at Greenland Hill, and Hausa and Delbar woods all offered excellent observation points to the Germans from which they could command the British troops in the restricted assembly ground afforded by the marshy land on the north bank of the Scarpe. As a result, the 6th Black Watch and their comrades were subjected to constant and accurate artillery fire.


Area of 6th Battalion's Attack

The 153rd brigade's part in the overall plan was an advance eastwards from Fampoux and it is the position which the 6th battalion occupied at this time which has lead me to my doubts about where Alex is buried.

The attack was led by the 7th Gordon Highlanders on the left with the 7th Black Watch on their right. The front line area here was very confused but as far as I can discover the 7th Black Watch held a shallow trench which ran - on the left - from slightly to the north of the northern side of the railway embankment to where - on the right - the railway crossed the river. The 7th Gordon Highlanders held a north/south line parallel to the Gavrelle to Roeux road. Behind the 7th Black Watch were the 6th Gordon Highlanders while at the rear of the 7th Gordon Highlanders was the 6th Black Watch.

The plan was for both the 7th Black Watch and the 7th Gordon Highlanders to capture at least as far as the first line of German trenches, then the two other battalions were to "leap-frog" through to take further positions to the east. The 6th battalion Black Watch objectives were the Gavrelle to Roeux road and Greenland Hill.

Zero hour was set for 4.45 a.m.; but the attack got off to a bad start for even before this time heavy machine gun fire inflicted serious losses to both the 7th Gordon Highlanders and the 6th Black Watch. By 6.20 a.m. the Gordon Highlanders had barely secured the German trenches and it was only with the greatest of difficulty and danger that the 6th Black Watch advanced past them and, in a series of rushes from shell hole to shell hole, eventually gained a tenuous foothold on the Gavrelle road. To the right the 7th Black Watch and 6th Gordon Highlanders were suffering similar problems for the whole brigade front was swept with fire which was particularly heavy from the chemical works and Greenland Hill. By early afternoon the 6th Black Watch was precariously established on the lower western slopes of Greenland Hill while to the south the outbuildings of the chemical works were in British hands. For the rest of the afternoon the Germans made repeated counter-attacks but these were all beaten off with heavy casualties caused to the enemy.

At about midnight on the 23rd the 6th battalion was relieved and reformed in the former German front line. The next day it moved to billets in Arras. Those few hours of fighting had cost the lives of five officers with four wounded, while the other ranks had suffered 25 killed, 123 wounded, and 48 missing. The 7th battalion, withdrawn at the same time, had sustained even heavier casualties with five officers killed and five wounded plus 64 killed, 194 wounded, and 65 missing amongst the other ranks.

The battle as a whole dragged on for another eleven days or so with the British trying to move forward to establish a good defensive line. This was never reached and after further fruitless assaults on 3rd and 5th May the attack was at last called off. At Fampoux the line stayed more or less where it was on the afternoon of 23rd April with the ruined remains of Roeux staying uncaptured.

My account of the 6th battalion's part in the attack shows that it was, at its nearest, over a mile away from what is now the site of Roeux Cemetery. Alex could have been killed at almost any time on the 23rd and I find it hard to believe that his body was carried to there over the railway line and across what must have been heavily cratered land, when there were other cemeteries such as Brown Copse and Level Crossing closer to hand. I do not have the register which includes these two cemeteries, so I do not know how many men of the Black Watch are buried in them. But the one which I do have includes Sunken Road. Here there are nine Black Watch interred with two of them from the 6th battalion who were killed on 23rd April.

Although the Family Service Sheet indicates that he was buried at "Reux cemetery", I am inclined to believe that in the grief which followed his death, his family - who may not, anyway, have been given accurate information about the exact place of his interment by the authorities - came to believe that a cemetery at Roeux was the same as Roeux Cemetery. Who can fault them in this, for it must have been difficult to believe that so many soldiers could be killed in such a small area of about nine square miles centred on Fampoux, and that there would be a need for thirteen cemeteries?

After two years of investigation my curiosity had been partially satisfied for I did have some information about Alex's service career and the circumstances of his death: but the solving of some mysteries had only lead to others. However, for me, the most unsatisfactory aspect was that although I had these facts they were, in a sense, only superficial for I was unable to ascribe them to a person whom I could visualise and understand. The only people who could possibly help were his children, but I had no wish to raise their almost forgotten memories. For this reason alone I am sure that, for the present, it is best to make no further enquiry into the death of my great uncle, Alex R. Murray.


At Aberfeldy in Tayside, there is a memorial raised to the Black Watch Regiment. To see a picture of it, and to read a little of its history, click below.

Black Watch Memorial


Copyright © Karl W. Murray, May 1996


After the engagement was over the 6th Battalion's Commanding Officer wrote an account of what had happened. To read this report click here


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