Private James Leith, 24th Battalion, Machine Gun Corps

Private James Leith, 24th Battalion, Machine Gun Corps (Inf)

James Leith, the third son son of John and Jane Leith, was born on 3rd November 1897 on the family farm of Courtieston, Leslie. John Leith died at Courtieston aged only 43 in 1904. Shortly after, his widow and four sons moved to the farm of Piperwell at Duncanston, Kennethmont. It was from Piperwell that James and his elder brother John left to go on active service. John served in the Royal Field Artillery and was also killed in action. This accounts for the brothers being commemorated by name on both the Leslie and Kennethmont War Memorials.

James was working as a farm servant at Newbigging, Leslie when he was mobilized and posted to the 3rd Battalion Gordon Highlanders at Aberdeen on 30th Nov 1916. He had already enlisted for Military Service in June 1916 and was given the service number 15919 shortly after universal conscription came into effect with the Military Service Act of May that year. Conscription applied to all men regardless of marital status between 18 and 41 years. Working at home on the farm may have been classed as a ' reserved occupation ' prior to this date.

While with the Gordons James became a member of the battalion's specialist Machine Gun (M.G.) section. on 11th February 1917 he was transferred to the Machine Gun Corps ( MGC ) and trained at Grantham.

At the beginning of WW1 each infantry battalion was equipped two Maxim Machine Guns served by of an officer and twelve other ranks. This was increased to four guns in February 1915. However, production of weapons did not keep up with the expanding army, and the BEF was still 237 guns short of the full establishment in July 1915. The Vickers Company could, at most, produce 200 new weapons per week, and struggled to do that.

The experience of fighting to date had proved that machine-guns required special tactics and organisation. The BEF established a Machine-gun School at Wisques, SW of Calais to train new regimental officers and machine gunners, both to replace those lost in the fighting to date, and to increase the number of men with MG skills. A Machine Gun Training Centre was also established at Grantham, Lincolnshire.


Members of the MGC

Unknown members of The Machine Gun Corps


The Leith brothers, Kennethmont

John and James Leith


On 2nd September 1915, a definite proposal was made to the War Office for the formation of a single M.G. Company per Brigade, by withdrawing the Vickers guns from the Battalions. They would be replaced at Battalion level by Lewis guns. The Machine Gun Corps was created by Royal Warrant on October 14th, 1915, followed by an Army Order on 22nd October. The MGC would consist of infantry machine-gun Companies, cavalry machine-gun Squadrons, and Motor Machine Gun Batteries. The pace of reorganisation depended on the rate of supply of Lewis guns. It was completed before the Battle of the Somme. The Base Depot of the Corps in France was established at Camiers, close to the Infantry Base Depot at Etaples.


The Vickers .303 Machine Gun - Mk 1

The Vickers .303 Machine Gun - Mk 1

The Vickers Machine Gun, which became a standard gun with the British Army for the next five decades, was fired from a tripod and cooled by water held in a jacket against the barrel. The gun weighed 28.5 pounds, the water another 10. The tripod weighed 20 pounds. Bullets are assembled into a canvas belt, which held 250 rounds, which would last 30 seconds at the maximum rate of fire of 500 rounds per minute. Two men were required to carry the equipment, and two the ammunition. A machine gun detachment also had two spare men.

The original 72nd and 73rd MG Companies Joined the 24th Division on 14th March 1916 at Ouderdom, Belgium. They moved into No 24 Bn, MGC on 5th March 1918.

On 10th August 1917, as a member of 5th Battn MGC, James landed at Boulonge and arrived at the MGC Base Depot at Camiers the following day. He joined the battalion's No 17 company in the field on 25th August.


Area of german advance, Spring 1918
Click on image to view large map.(48k)


The German High Command had carefully planned to launch a massive offensive, codenamed Operation Michael, from the Hindenburg defences in 1918. The Germans withdrew to these defensive positions in March / April 1917.

When it became apparent late in 1917 that America would join the Allies, sending soldiers in great numbers, they decided to move at the beginning of the year when the worst of the winter weather had passed.

The Hindenburg Line, or Siegfried Stellung as they called it, was a vast system of defences in Northern France constructed by the Germans during the winter of 1916-17. It ran from a position east of Arras all the way to beyond St Quentin on the British sector, and consisted of deep and wide trenches, thick belts of barbed wire, concrete machine-gun positions, concrete bunkers, tunnels and command posts. It was considered virtually impregnable by the Germans.

The British offensives during the summer of 1918 were to prove otherwise.


James Leith was killed in action on his 224th day in France during the The Battle of Saint Quentin ( 21st - 26th March ) at the beginning of The German Spring Offensive ( 21st March - 5th April 1918 ) when the Germans broke through the British front and overwhelmed the defenders. Following a short, intense bombardment, three German armies (70 divisions), 1700 artillery batteries, and 1000 aeroplanes struck along a 45-mile front near Arras. Within 48 hours, the Germans had penetrated 10 miles, the greatest single day’s advance on the Western Front since 1914.
In just three weeks the German army overran over 1500 square miles of territory, including the former Somme battlefields, a gain unequalled since 1914, before they were finally halted on 5th April having pushed the front line back 40 miles.
They failed, however, to reach their ultimate objective, Amiens, with its vital rail links to the Channel Ports, Paris and beyond. This ultimately meant that Germany could not win the war.


The Hindenburg Line

A section of the Hindenburg Line to the north of Morchies

It is known that at the opening of this action the 24th Division were in the line at Le Verguier to the south east of Arras. They fought a fierce battle to defend the village but were eventually overwhelmed and the line broken. At the sharp end of the defensive line their Machine Guns were positioned both to obstruct the attackers as well act as a buffer to allow troops to withdraw behind them and regroup.

In this way they became the first obstacle the advancing Germans had to overcome and put out of action. The guns and their crews became targets of every available enemy weapon.


On the same day Lt Allan Ebenezer Ker, 3rd Battalion Gordon Highlanders, attached 61st Battalion MGC (Infantry) was awarded The Victoria Cross for his actions near St Quentin.

Lt Allan Ebenezer VC
Born 5.3.1883 / Died 12.9.1958

London Gazette 4/1/1919 - Citation
For conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty. On the 21st March, 1918, near St. Quentin, after a heavy bombardment, the enemy penetrated our line, and the flank of the 61st Division became exposed. Lieut. Ker, with one Vickers gun, succeeded in engaging the enemy`s infantry, approaching under cover of dead ground, and held up the attack, inflicting many casualties. He then sent back word to his Battalion Headquarters that he had determined to stop with his Sergeant and several men who had been badly wounded, and fight until a counter-attack could be launched to relieve him. Just as ammunition failed his party was attacked from behind with bombs, machine guns and the bayonet. Several bayonet attacks were delivered, but each time they were repulsed by Lieut. Ker and his companions with their revolvers, the Vickers gun having by this time been destroyed. The wounded were collected into a small shelter, and it was decided to defend them to the last and to hold the enemy as long as possible. In one of the many hand-to-hand encounters a German rifle and bayonet and a small supply of ammunition was secured, and subsequently used with good effect against the enemy. Although Lieut. Ker was very exhausted from want of food and gas poisining, and from the supreme exertions he had made during ten hours of the most severe bombardment, fighting and attending to the wounded, he refused to surrender until all his ammunition was exhausted and his position was rushed by a large number of the enemy. His behaviour throughout the day was absolutely cool and fearless, and by his determination he was materially instrumental in engaging and holding up for three hours more than 500 of the enemy


A total of 170,500 officers and men served in the MGC of which 62,049 became casualties, 12,498 being killed. They well earned the nickname ' The Suicide Club '.

Created in time of war the Machine Gun Corps was disbanded in 1922.

24th MGC area of operations March 1918

Location of front line held by the 24th M.G.C. in 24th Division on 21st March 1918

James Leith has no known grave. His name is recorded with over 500 of his Machine Gun Corps comrades on The Memorial to the Missing at Pozieres.

Two more men from Kennethmont fell in the same area during the 1918 Spring Offensive and also have no known grave.

John Stewart from Haremyre with 7th Gordons also fell in action near St Quentin the following day, 22nd March. His neighbour from Braefolds, Alexander Pirie fell on 25th March serving with the 6th Gordons trying to halt the advance near Sailly.
Their names are recorded on The Memorial to the Missing at Arras.


Leslie Kirk and War Memorial

Leslie Kirk and War Memorial

1914- 1919
Erected by public subscription
in memory of
the undermentioned officers and men of Leslie Parish
who died on service during The Great War

Lieut Col. Geo A Smith, DSO

Major Harry T Lumsden
Capt John S Grant, M.C., B.D.
Corpl William Milne
Gunner John Leith
George Thomson
Private George Benzie

Private Alex Gordon
Alex Jamieson
James Jamieson
John G Johnston
James Johnston
James Leith

Alex Duncan - F Tough - James Petrie

1939 -- George J Morgan - John G Smith -- 1945

Leslie Parish War Memorial

Leslie War Memorial bears the names of James and John Leith


Leith family headstone at Leslie

Leith family headstone at Leslie

Loving Memory of
John Leith
Farmer, Courtieston, Leslie
who died 28th Aug 1904 age 43
Also his wife Jane Mair
who died at Newbigging, Inverurie
3rd Feb 1953 in her 89th year
Also his second son John
Gunner R.F.A.
who fell in action in France
1st June 1915 aged 20
and his third son James

Private M.G.C.
who fell in action in France
21st March 1918 age 20


Leith family headstone at Leslie Leith family headstone Daun family headstone

The Leith Family headstone in Leslie Kirkyard

Photographed February 2002

The Next of Kin Memorial Plaque

Bronze Memorial Plaque

The Memorial Plaque

This circular bronze plaque, 4.75 inches (120mm) in diameter, was first issued in 1919 to the next of kin of those British and Commonwealth servicemen and women who lost their lives on active service during the Great War. Each one was different in that the commemorated individuals name was embossed in raised letters within a tablet.

The design shows Britannia bestowing a laurel wreath on the rectangular tablet. A lion stands in the foreground, with dolphins above and an oak branch in the lower right. A lion cub clutching a fallen eagle in its jaws decorates the exergue. The wording around the circumference states: HE (or SHE) DIED FOR FREEDOM AND HONOUR.

The final total manufactured is estimated to be in the vicinity of 1,150,000 units, and represented the most universally distributed numismatic work ever cast or struck, excluding money.

Due to some similarity with the old one pence coin it was commonly known as a Dead Man's or Death Penny. The plaques were despatched in stiff card wrapping enclosed within a white envelope bearing the Royal Arms.


Insch & District Memorial Roll

James Leith's name is also recorded within the entrance of Insch & District War Memorial Hospital
which was built as a memorial to the Fallen of neighbouring parishes including Leslie.

Insch & District War Memorial Hospital

Photographs of James are reproduced here by kind permission
of his nephew Robert Leith, Inverurie.