Creetown brothers’ tragedy at the Somme

The Gordon Higlanders marching to the Battle of the Somme in July 1916
The Gordon Higlanders marching to the Battle of the Somme in July 1916

July 1st, 1916, was the blackest day in the history of the British Army after 19,240 men were killed in 24 hours as the Battle of the Somme commenced.

The British were hoping for a war ending attack to break the stalemate of trench warfare. To that end a massive pre-attack bombardment was supposed to annihilate all the Germans and their defences. The men going over the top at 7.30am that morning were told to walk towards the German lines as no enemy soldiers were expected to have survived.

They were wrong.

The Germans had dug down 30 feet below their front line and most had survived the onslaught, racing up and out to man the machine guns that would send wave after wave of the steadily advancing Allied soldiers to their deaths.

Two brothers, Frank and Lawrence Butler, from Mill Street, Creetown, were with the Gordon Highlanders that morning. One died and one survived. Here is their heartbreaking story as printed in The Galloway Gazette in July 1916:

Mr and Mrs Lawrence Butler, Mill Street, Creetown, have just received word that their son Private Frank Butler, was killed in action on July 1st. The news was sent to their home by Frank’s brother Lawrence, who was with him when he died.

Lawrence wrote: “It is with a sore heart I write these lines to you tonight. You would hear of the terrible battle which took place. We were to go over the parapet on Saturday morning at half past seven. It was a beautiful morning till about half past six. Then the bombardment started - with shells bursting over the trenches.

At 7.30am we mounted the parapet amid a hail of bullets and shells bursting over our heads and all around us. We went forward to the attack quite calmly. By this time the machine guns were spitting out their deadly hail of bullets. We were in the open but made for shelter, so terrible was the fire.

“Frank was just in front of me, and he knelt down and cried out to me to come beside him. I had just got down beside him when he was struck by a bullet. He fell over into my arms. I stripped off his tunic and saw he had been hit below the armpit. I put a field dressing on his wound but it was no use. He died in my arms, lasting only about three minutes. It was swift and sudden. God did not keep him long in agony and he died a noble and glorious death.”

After telling his parents to bear up under this terrible blow, and expressing his assurance that his brother was always “a good boy”, Lawrence continued: “I had to leave him and go on again. I had to crawl on my stomach as the bullets were whistling over my head. I got a hundred yards further on when I had to stop and lie close to the ground. The shrapnel was now bursting over my head and at one point I thought I was blinded, so terrible was the shock.

“I came crawling back and lay close into the bank, the only shelter we had. Then the sun came out and shone its fierce rays down on us as the shells were bursting over our heads. We had to lie there not daring to move thinking every minute was to be our last.

“At four o’ clock the tide turned. We had got the enemy on the move and soon we were driving him on before us. We kept at him and gained our objective. The artillery kept peppering it into him, but he made a counter-attack, but was driven back by our fine artillery, who, I think, should have the honours of the day.

“I think it will not be long now till he is cornered and he knows the game is up. He has been driven back on every side and is getting back what he gave us at the start.

“I will never forget Saturday, the 1st of July. It will always be in my memory. It was a fine sight to see the kilted lads stepping over the parapet into bursting shrapnel and machine gun fire.

“I am sorry Frank is not here with me to see the end, and, although I am sorry, I shall always be glad I was there to hold him up to the end.”

Frank and Lawrence Butler joined the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders a few months before the Battle of the Somme and were drafted into the Gordons just before going out to the Frontline. Another brother was also on active service in 1916.