The 15th Battalion arrived at St Nazaire, France on board the SS Mount Temple, which had been one of Titanic rescue ships, on 15 February 1915. The battalion did a short familiarization period ‘up the line’ between 23-27 February with the 1st Battalion Sherwood Foresters of the 24th Brigade of the British 8th Division in front line trenches on the Fletre-Armentieres part of the front.
Although this very early war period photograph has previously never been dated precisely to time and location, it was almost certainly taken during the battalion’s time with the Sherwoods in February 1915.
The image in the photograph is typical of the poor early war trenches in the French-Belgian Flanders area and matches the description in the Regimental history of what the battalion found there: ” the trenches were built up above ground level and all were wet. The parapets were walls of mud….with dugouts built into the walls, low hovels roofed with..sandbags.”
Closer study of the image reveals small bits of detail that help to confirm the time and location.
A number of the men are clearly British soldiers as evidenced by their peaked forage caps (the Mk I steel helmet had not been introduced yet) and the Short Magazine Lee Enfield (SMLE) Mk III which was not issued to Canadian units at that point in the war. The soldier leaning on the trench wall is Canadian by virtue of the Mk III 1910 Ross rifle he is holding and the oversized knitted wool balmoral he is wearing was unique to the 15th Battalion. This floppy balmoral was issued in the UK prior to embarkation and worn by the 15th Battalion until shortly after 2nd Ypres in April 1915 when it was replaced by the standard British Army balmoral worn by Scots units. The balmoral, never worn by the 48th Highlanders prior to World War, became its service or field headdress and continues to be worn to the present day.
During this familiarization period with the Sherwoods, the 15th Battalion suffered its first two casualties of the war. German snipers wounded Pte. J. Ford on the 26 Feb and killed Pte F. Ferland the next day on the 27th. Ferland was buried in Houplines Communal Cemetery and he was the first in what would become a very long list of Fallen by the war’s end.