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Weekending 9th April 1916

The Black Watch is my family, but I do worry about my sons

My name is George Shaw. I am a carpenter from Perthshire. I saw active service in the Black Watch in Africa under Colonel McPherson and fought alongside Kitchener, now the chief of the British Army. My two sons, George and William are now in France with the Black Watch. I am very proud of them but, of course, their mother does worry.  William has this blog, and I have been persuaded to write some of my thoughts for it. I hope this will suffice, for I do not regard myself as a literary man. The news from France is very frustrating. I do not understand why we are not just sweeping the Hun aside and marching to Berlin. We have success in Mesopotamia, why not France? George tells me that it is very different from my day, that modern warfare is fought at distance and death can come from a mile away. It may be that is so, but grit and cold steel won the day in Egypt. Perhaps we should revert to the old ways…

George Shaw in his Black Watch uniform

George Shaw in his Black Watch uniform

 

Working in Gray’s is fine. Their workshop is a busy place, and there is camaraderie amongst those of us engaged in cabinet-making, though we all seem to be getting older and there’s very few coming in to the trade these days. But that’s down to the war, of course. Most days we get a laugh with each other, even when we’re on coffin making duties which we all take a turn at. But yesterday I was asked to make two coffins, and both were for children, so it makes you feel less cheerful. And then today, I read about a German bomb dropped in Ramsgate, down in the south of the country, and there were four children killed in the incident. Things like that boil the blood, and they justify this war against the cruel Hun.

These children were on their way to Sunday school, which makes matters seem even worse, and the driver of a passing automobile was killed too. Some of the bombs from the raid landed on a hospital too, and on shops and private houses, which shows how uncaring and brutal the enemy is. How would I feel if that was my child? I hate to think how I would feel – hateful, desolate, and angry at my powerlessness I suppose. My George and William are both in the army, both have done trench duty, both have been shot at and no doubt bombed by the Germans, but, at least, they and their fellow troops can retaliate. They can fight back, and do to the enemy what is being done to them. And I am fortified by the knowledge that my sons do not go about killing children.

This is a long war, far too long, and there is constantly news coming out in the newspapers about the different fields of conflict. Sometimes the news is good, and sometimes less so, and sometimes there seems to be a lull, but the lull is just as difficult to take because you know the warfare will rekindle. There isn’t a man jack of us here in Gray’s who doesn’t have someone in service, and though none of us, thanks to the grace of God, has lost a son yet, there are a few who have lost nephews and Godchildren. You live with it, but in the pit of your stomach there is always a dread and a fear that bad news might visit your own household.

We are a strong family. While Helen and I discuss our sons a lot, we include our daughters in most of what we talk about. That’s only fair on Christina for after all she is doing all she can to help in this conflict. When she’s not hard at it in the munitions factory, she’s down at the railway station doling out blankets and things to the soldiers returning from the Front. She’s a clever lass, and she can see in the eyes of these men the fear and anguish mixed with the relief at being home. She knows they’ll be going back to whatever it is, and she knows her own brothers are going through the same emotions. She’s said, more than once, that she hopes there are girls handing out blankets, and a kind word, at every station in the country. Christina now wants to be a nurse. She feels that in her time in the factory she has done her best for the cause, but she thinks that in nursing she can offer even more. She speaks to her mother, more than to me, about these things, but she knows we’ll both support her.

Her sister, Janet, is a deeper wee soul. We worried about the change of school, from the country school at Abernethy to the busier school in Dundee, but she seems to have adapted fine. It must be so difficult for her generation, because so many of them have fathers, and brothers of course, off at war. Janet is a grand wee knitter, her mother says she takes that off her granny. Janet has knitted countless scarves and socks, and her classmates do the same – them that can afford the wool. Dundee is a down-at-heel place for many. Some people struggle to clothe themselves so you can hardly expect them to send stuff out for our boys. But though life’s a struggle for some, there’s still a strong spirit of support for the country’s commitment to the war.

More news came in the newspaper the other day. Attested married men are being called to arms, and there was an emergency recruitment drive ordered by Lord Kitchener himself. This is a worrying development, I think. If we’re taking more and more men for the Front it makes it look like it could be a long time before the country is out of this conflict. And, of course, if they are looking for more men then more women are going to be needed in so many jobs. They did also make mention, in the same page of the paper, that ‘Conscientious Objectors’ are going to be put to the land to cover for honest men who have answered, willingly, the country’s cause. Maybe a fairer man than me can sympathise with these people, and for many it’s maybe a religious conviction that stops them, but I have little but disgust for them. Maybe, because I have two boys in the fray, and a girl who does all she can too for the war effort, that I take a high-handed view on this, but just about every man I know feels a bit the same. At a time when our country needs to be defended, I feel that ALL men should do their bit.

After soup for dinner, we had some bread and dripping tonight, and we thought of William because we know it’s something he loves. Jenny turns her nose up at it, but she at least tries a wee bit to show her support for her brother. Christina is starting early tomorrow, and Helen will get up at the crack of dawn to make sure her daughter has some breakfast. Jenny will sleep a bit longer, but she’ll help her mother with the dishes. We are all in this together. I’m at the coffin shop again tomorrow, and I hope I don’t get children’s ones to do.

weekending 12th March 1916

My Name is Lily Galbraith and this is my first blog

My Name is Lily Galbraith and I live with my parents in Abernathy near Perth. I have known William Shaw since our school days and when he returns from the war in France we walk out together. We exchange letters when he is at the front. This is my first entry in this blog…

Lily Galbraith 1914

Miss Lily Galbraith.

I happened to meet Mrs Shaw today, walking down the High Street. She seems to have aged so much in the few months since we last spoke, but, of course, I didn’t tell her so. I asked after William, and his brother George, and she told me how well they seemed to be doing, but it was easy to see that she is pained at their absence.

I am careful to watch what I ask of people these days; it is so easy to stir up emotions, or worse, to be given bad news in the innocent asking. But I knew William was well, and George, because I received a letter from William just three days ago. I was torn between telling Mrs Shaw about the letter or not – it would be beastly for her to be finding out that he’s writing to me if he isn’t keeping up with his family as much. I’m not sure why, but I kept the news of my letter from her.

Mrs Shaw asked if I’d seen the motto in the newspaper that day. When I replied that I hadn’t, she read it to me. It said, It Costs More to Live Now Than Ever Before – But Isn’t it Worth it? What can you say to that? It does certainly cost more and more for things, but if it’s going to the war effort how can anyone naysay that? I don’t think there is a person in the land who would think that it is not a price worth paying, but the problem we all have is that there seems no end to this dreadful conflict.

The newspapers are a constant source of information, but they often carry worrying news. Just this week there was a report of a German seaplane raid in England which killed two men and a boy. It is troubling that aeroplanes can wreak such havoc, and it must be concerning for others in the same area that the war is now on their doorsteps. Of course, I don’t mention that, or indeed any other negative news to Mrs Shaw, or others you know who have men in the war. So we speak about brighter news, like the excellent word of a proposal to extend the shipbuilding industry in Dundee. Not that I’m over there all that often nowadays – working at the farm takes up so much time – but it is easy to see that the town needs work. Hardship can be seen all over this part of our land, but it seems very concentrated in Dundee.

It is strange being a teenage girl in this time. We are doing more and more jobs that used to be done by the young men, though we are happy to take these on. If we can’t be occupied in the war, then at least we do all we can for the war effort in a cheerful and diligent fashion, even if it’s painful or tiring. We do miss having men of our own age around though – you really appreciate what a nice bunch they are when they’re not around. Mind you, doing more work around the farms seems quite ordinary when you compare it to working in the munition factories, where my old friend Lilias and her mother are in occupation. They moved to Thornhill last year, her mother’s parents live there, and now she’s working in a factory in which she is making munitions. We keep in touch by letter, but she never goes into detail about what it is they are doing, though I’m not sure I’d want to know anyway. It is vital work though, and she must feel a more direct sense of helping the war effort than I sometimes do.

Last week my father left his Courier lying on the table when he went to bed. He hasn’t been keeping too well of late because of the swellings in his joints. Normally we files the paper away after he’s read it – he’s been keeping copies since the war started and they are kept flat under a table in the bedroom. My mother grumbled a bit at first, but now she encourages him to keep them. So when he left the one on the table I had a thorough read through it, and it is impossible not to be drawn into events. To read about our men missing and presumed killed brings it very close to home. Of course, each and every one will have a family and friends back home and so each becomes almost a personal tragedy for the reader. There was one report from action around Pilkem which stated that eleven British soldiers were missing after chasing attacking Germans back to their trenches, and it was believed eight of the eleven had been killed. Of course we understand that news from the Front is necessarily vague, but to quote eight as being killed seems to have an air of certainty.

On the same page is a Casualty List from Mesopatamia. It makes dreadful reading, and the Black Watch seem to be suffering a lot. You look at the names of the dead, and of the wounded, and of those reported missing, and though you don’t recognise any of the names still it fills you with dread. I miss William, more and more each day. His letters are so welcome, and yet I feel a sadness that he has to be there, along with his brother and so many other men from our area and our country. I wonder how it will be when he gets back. And when it will be.

I’ve resolved to tell Mrs Shaw that William has started writing me, and that I write back to him. Maybe it will help her, knowing that his letters are cheering me. Maybe it will let her share her thoughts with me, as we are both missing the same young man. I would like that to be the case. I would like her to know that I am so proud to know her son. I hope it helps. Tomorrow I start work at 6.30, and I’ll do my best, but my mind, like everyone around me, will be on our servicemen and what this day might bring to them.

Weekending 5th march 1916

Frustration as we are held from fighting at the front

Sunday post front 5th March 1916At last the weather has started to improve. The snow has gone and whilst it rains regularly, the bitter wind has abated. How busy we are! It seems that we have not stopped since the announcement was made that we are merging with the 5th. We are due to meet at a place called La Belle Hotess (not so very far away) next week to complete the process. My role as a messenger for Capt Cunningham has allowed me to listen to the plans and I am pleased to say that Colonel Sceales will lead the 4/5th and the 4th will make up A and B company under Capt Cunningham and Capt Stevenson, and the 5th will form C and D companies under their officers. At least the lads will be together and will take comfort from that, though they do not know this yet and I have refrained from telling them. After the initial shock, I think we decided that it wasn’t so bad that it is the 5th. After all, it could have been an English batallion Or even and Indian regiment! That would have caused a riot at the mobile kitchens. Though, I must say, the colonial men are admirable fighters.

Sunday Post Verdun mapBy far the main frustration is that we are wasting our time so far from the front when we should be fighting the Hun. The French are feeling some heat at a place called Verdun at the moment. The Sunday Post has described this action as ‘easily the biggest battle of the war’, suggesting that Germany alone may lose a million men from this single campaign. Apparently they are determined to breakthrough on their western front while the Russian armies are still winter bound. I hope they throw everything they have, for they say that Verdun is impregnable and to commit so many must surely bring our victory closer.  Whilst we are deep in the French countryside, the only natives we see are the women peddlers who venture onto our camp. They sell trinkets and cards. But all their men folk are away, at the war.

Sunday post peddlers

 

 

I bought a pretty embroidered card to send to Lily. I cannot tell here where I am, but I am allowed to tell her that I am safe and well.

My first Blog – Helen Shaw, Black Watch wife and mother

Helen Shaw. Wife ,mother, war worker, patriot

My name is Helen Shaw and I am the wife of George Shaw, now a carpenter, but before a sergeant in the Black Watch. I am the mother of George Shaw, now in 1st Battalion, Black Watch, William Shaw, now in 4th Battalion Black Watch, Christina Shaw who works in the ammunition factory on Mains Road in Dundee, and Janet, who is still at school.  I work in a jute factory in Dundee making sandbags for the front. My younger son, William has kept a journal of his experiences in the Black Watch and Has invited me to contribute to it. I was unsure at first, but such  changes are taking place, both here and in France, I feel it a duty to record events as I see them. I am not very good with words, but I shall do my best.

William Shaw Black Watch 1915

A Photograph of myself with my darling William before he left for France

There was a notice pinned to the board in the lodge at the jute mill today. It was an appeal to ‘Every British Woman’ to provide funds for the building of a Home for our ‘Incurably Helpless Soldiers’ – men of our country who have become incurably disabled due to suffering incurred whilst serving in the present war. Give whatever you can, the article said. Give even the littlest amount, as every penny would help. The appeal was on behalf of the British Women’s Hospital – Lady Cowdray is its Treasurer, and the notice said the building was being gifted by the consent of Her Majesty, The Queen.

I blinked a wee tear when I read it. I don’t like showing too much emotion; not for now, not during this awful war. But nobody can read an article like this without thinking of their own, over there, and it just sets off the helpless feeling that those who are left behind have to endure. You thank the Lord that your own are still alive, but, in thanking the Lord, you are faced with a feeling of guilt. Just last week Mrs McDonald, who works here too, got the worst news – her son, wounded at Loos, has died. He fought the great fight, but the wounds were too much to recover from.

Jessie Todd, Mrs McDonalds neighbour and friend, was the one who told us about it. Jessie was distressed herself; hadn’t she looked after Jamie herself so often that he was like a son to her as well? And we stood and listened in silence, for what else can you do. And whether or not you try, the vision of your own comes to you. I thought of George, and I thought of William – both my sons are out there, but I don’t think it doubles the worry and the torment, because it is as deep as it can be even if you have only one at war. But we are all so good at putting on the brave face. We have been putting it on, all of us, for so long now that it has become practised.

There is a sense of unity in the mill, and around the town, and I’m sure it is all around the country. I try consciously not to talk about the war, and I know many think the same, but it is so difficult to cast it from your mind, even for a few minutes. And, while it may be all the harder when you have a loved one over there, it effects everyone the same way. This appeal notice, no matter how honourable, and how well-intentioned, just brings the thoughts back to the forefront of your mind. Every newspaper, every day, carries news of the conflict that we all crave to read, yet we all cower away from.

The women in the mill talk at length about any local gossip or tittle-tattle to take our minds off it, and I daresay I know more about their home lives now than I ever would have before, but we all know that avoiding war talk is a short-lived experience. But we are women together, and the bond that creates somehow lets us share loss, support each other, and talk to each other. This, I think, is so much harder for our menfolk at home.

My husband, George, finds it difficult to talk on these terms. Oh he’s a self-appointed expert on this war, and how it should be fought, and all the men at home seem to be the same, but he finds it so difficult to talk about families who have been affected by loss, and even harder to consider how we might cope if it comes closer to us. Heaven forbid. So when he comes home after his day at the carpenter’s shop, we only talk about George and William in the most general of terms. He’ll ask if we should be sending more socks – I’ve sent enough to keep their feet warm for years – or he’ll ask if there’s been any letters, though he always lets me read them first, but we don’t speak about what they might be facing or where they might be at that moment. I’m certain he thinks about that constantly, but it’s rarely talked about in our household.

Mrs Benzie came to visit last night. She runs all sorts of events in and around the town, and is a Godsend in that regard. She wants me to volunteer to help at a Bazaar she’s planning, and of course I agreed. The funds are to help Cupar and District Voluntary War Workers’ Association who are looking to provide materials for the comfort of our troops in the field. Mrs Benzie attended an event just last week in Cupar, and she wants our Bazaar to follow the same lines. She told me about one event, described as the living waxworks, where some sixty ladies and gentlemen dressed as historical personages. Some of the characters were from fairy tales, or Indians, or even gypsies, and a great deal of fun was had. We discussed who, from our town, might play some of these portrayals and laughed at some very obvious mismatches. Mrs Benzie explained that the funding helped the troops, but it also helped to engender the spirit of our whole country being united in our efforts. The thought of me and George dressing up for it made us both blush, but I’ll be too busy at my stall for that kind of thing, and I’m sure George is grateful for that.

We heard news about Willie Rintoul, and old friend and schoolpal of my husband’s. He farms at Blebo Mains, and we’ve been told he has been badly hurt in Cairo. Although he’s over fifty, he rejoined his old regiment, the 1st Fife and Forfar Yeomanry, just after the war started.  They made him a corporal, and isn’t he a great example of the spirit that swept the country when we got into this situation. Willie was always an outspoken lad, and brave as they come, so we hope that he is well enough to get home soon, and that he mends well enough to get back to his old ways.

I’ve made meatpie for supper. I never make it without thinking of the boys – I easily remember how they would wolf it down when we all sat down together. But our daughters, Christina and Janet, will enjoy it and mealtimes are a fine time to speak to each other. Quite the young lady is Christina, and her skills as a dressmaker are well talked about in Abernethy. We’re proud of her, though we wouldn’t tell her that for fear of embarrassing her. Janet is speaking about being a nurse, but she’s not even twelve yet, and doubtless she’ll change her mind a few times before she’s the age to start working. We talked about the pantomime in Dundee, at the King’s Theatre. A friend of Christina’s was there, and Miss Florrie Forde herself is appearing. It’s Jack and Jill, and it’s supposed to be an excellent production. I’m not sure whether I envy the people around Dundee or not. They have the theatre, and the picture houses, to while away the time, and it must help to take your mind off other matters, but it’s a dark and dreary place to live in so they say. I’d love to go over to the La Scala in Dundee sometime though; they say it’s marvellous. But there’s other things I’d like even more – especially the whole family fighting over the last bit of meatpie.

weekending 30th January 1916

The 4th Battalion are moved behind the lines

sunday post 30th january 1916

Well, we have had a busy time. Landing so far behind the lines, gave us the opportunity to create our camp on virgin land,  However the weather is bitterly cold and wet, with snow thick on the ground. We have been inspected by both General Harper and our Brigadier, General Stewart. They seemed to be well satisfied, even though we shivered in our sodden uniforms. The mobile kitchen has worked wonders, and we eat like kings at the moment. despite the harshness of the season, we could almost be enjoying our holidays except that we are nowhere near the sea.

We spend our time in training. Back to digging trenches, charging with full packs and with our bayonets fixed, from one end of a field to the next. How quickly 600 hundred man can turn a grassy field into a sea of mud! After only a few days, our camp looks like the front in miniature.

From home, the news is that the government is calling for conscription. The Military Service Act will force all men of military age to join up and fight. How times have changed! Only last year, conscription was regarded as the preserve of tyrants. Now we must employ it to fight them.

I have written to Mother, telling her that I am away from the front. At least now she has only George to worry about. Captain Cunningham has insisted on reading all letters out, saying that we can not give away any information that may be useful to the enemy. Even knowing that we are not near the front could be of value to them. Does that mean that we are to be sent elsewhere?

After a week or so, I began to feel rather home sick. We were still in our new camp, so far behind the lines, and whilst we were very busy bringing the new lads up to scratch, the repetition and relative safety of our position has proved difficult for some of us more experienced soldiers to get used to. After only a few days, I found myself barking at a small group who were failing to grasp the simple concept of digging a trench. It is not boredom that I feel, more a lack of any excitement. I dare say the weather hasn’t helped – it has snowed, rained and hailed in equal amount. My fellow NCOs feel a similar lack of enthusiasm. On the one hand, I should be grateful that I have escaped the daily risks of trench rotation for a short time, but on the other I want to be doing something other than digging, charging and cleaning kit.

Sunday post war leaders january 1916

 

 

I saw this picture in the Sunday Post this week. All four leaders of the foreign powers together. Only when I read the description did I realise that this photograph has been fabricated – they have never been in the same room together. And the say that the camera cannot lie!

 

 

 

 

Everyone was hoping for some sort of celebration the  week of Burns night. Of course we had plenty of tatties and neeps, but we had to make do with salt beef instead of a haggis. A piece in the Sunday Post this week told what Rabbie Burn’s patriotism would have meant today. famed for his call for universal brotherhood, he was passionately against ‘ the mighty villains who desolate provinces and lay nations waste’ and was, of course a member of the local militia. I prefer his lines from ‘Scots Wha Hae’: Lay the proud usurpers low, Tyrants fall in every foe, Liberty’s in every blow, Let us do or die’ .

More drill and training the following week and the weather just as cold and wet. We spent our time getting clean and dry only so that we could get ourselves filthy and soaked again. There is a mix of men who have joined us. Some older family men, who try to get by exerting themselves as little as possible, and some younger ones for whom this is a great adventure. I remember that feeling well. The men have been split into sections – bombing sections, machine gun sections, and Danny and I are in the rifles section, which is the best one, of course. Each day, we go off and do our own practice. It takes my mind back to Barry Buddon, when I was training. Only this time, I am showing these men what to do. They know the basic drills, but they haven’t been tested much under live fire. There are certain tricks – how to speed up changing magazines and how to keep your barrel oiled and continue firing, for example that they don’t show you at home. These things can make all the difference. Each day we hold a competition amongst the men and make a note of the winners. There are some here who are naturals and they will be trained as snipers. We didn’t really have any before the war. The Hun have shown us how effective they can be, so now we shall have our own crack shots, picking off their officers and keeping every body’s heads down.

There has been more action than usual in the front lines. Even back here we can hear the guns. We instantly know if they are British or German and this week it has been our turn to take it. According to the papers we seem to be holding our own, though the French have given ground. Many of us are frustrated to be back here, when we could be helping, but we console ourselves in the belief that our turn will come.

 

 

Weekending 17th October 1915

Rest at last and some time guarding prisoners captured at Loos.

Sunday post 17th october 1915

At last we were relieved from out trenches in Givenchy. After the mines and the attack , it all got a bit quieter, though the  nightly excursions into No Man’s land to clear out the craters and bury the dead didn’t get any easier. Three days ago we were marched back behind the lines and given the job of guarding some of the German prisoners taken on the first day at Loos. They certainly don’t seem so threatening now!

german prisoners after loos

There were so many, special camps had been hurriedly built, a little like chicken runs. They were fenced in with barbed wire and, whilst they didn’t seem very eager to escape, they had to be closely watched. There are thousands of them, very sullen and unhappy (or, as Tom Lewis says “Hunhappy”) and reluctant to look us in the eye. There is a continuous rota of feeding them and then putting them out again into  the cages, where they hang about aimlessly, smoking or sitting in groups, waiting for the next meal. We can’t keep them here. Where will they go?

Good news came the other day, firstly, there arrived new drafts of men and officers to replenish the fourth and, best of all, we found our missing pal Jack Gray, who had been wounded in the arm and was able to return to the battalion for light duties. He told us that he had seen Eric Brodie briefly in hospital, he has lost a leg, but was put on a train for Blighty, and, as Jack said, “is probably sitting in front of the fire with a cup of tea, smoking his pipe already”. strange to think that a man losing his leg can seem like good news, but are were all delighted to know that he has come through and I wrote him a letter that very evening. I do hope he is well – perhaps resting in Sandgate!

Weekending 10th October 1915

Warm work at Givenchy as the Hun take their revenge

After the Battle of Loos, Givenchy

Well we have barely stopped since the reorganisation. We have been posted to Givenchy (where Lt Steven was killed only a week after his brother). We are now about three miles south of Neuve Chapelle, very close to Festubert. In other words, in the months between my first proper battle and now, the British army has not moved forwards more than a few hundred yards. The little hill of Givenchy sits opposite the small town of La Bassee and we share it with the 1st Seaforth Highlanders.

Neuve_Chapelle_to_La_Bassee, and Givenchy_1915

The place has been heavily shelled over recent months and we spend much time at night rebuilding the bulwarks and repairing the wire. Of course Hun know what we are doing there and it is very dangerous. Lt Steven was killed inspecting some of the new defences. We all crouch as low as possible so as not to be seen against the skyline. No Man’s Land is full of craters and there is a constant battle between our snipers and theirs. This involves night-time raids – crawling out from crater to crater, trying to clear them. Dangerous enough as, if they do have snipers in them, they can usually see or hear us no matter how diligent we try to be. They are armed with rifles, while we satisfy ourselves with clubs ad shovels. We also have a macabre task in each crater – we must check them for the dead. This is happening all along the lines.  There are so many missing after the last action and, of course, so many mothers, wives and sisters are desperate to know one way or another. By now the bodies are bloated, the skin often grey-green or blue. It is a relief that a man would not recognise his best friend and so, we can be dispassionate about our task. After clearing a crater, and checking those around, we begin to drag the bodies by their clothes towards it, so that we could at least give them some kind of burial. It is very important to take their identity tags for the records. We had to do this on all fours and if the Germans fired a very light, we had to stay completely still or face a blast of Machine gun fire.

Unbeknown to us, the Germans had been mining up close to our lines.  Fortunately, the tunnelling company were able to detect and blow up a mine that was in front of us. However, on the morning of the 8th the Hun exploded two smaller mines destroying part of our parapet. Although it was nothing like the massive mine I had witnessed just before Loos, we were thrown back and covered in earth and debris. For some moments, I was completely dazed, not knowing which way was up. There is a very strange silence after such an event. As if nobody quite knows how to respond to it.  Lt Cunningham was up and in charge immediately, directing those who still had their wits about them to defend the gap, rebuild the parapet and help to dig out the others. The Germans advanced quickly from some of the craters and could only be held back by sustained machine gun fire. I am pleased to say they were soon turned and all their efforts came to nought.  For such an explosion, hardly any of us were hurt, which is a relief after such an awful time last week. I am looking forward to some rest.

Weekending 3rd October 1915

We slowly recover from the Battle of Loos

Sunday post 3rd october 1915

 

We have spent some time re-organising after the Battle of Loos. I have been made up to lance corporal. So has Tom Lewis. This is a result of need rather than ability as, out of 420 who left the trenches last week, only 200 returned. I know I should be pleased, but how can I be? We have been split into two companies and are now attached to 2nd Battalion.

lads

Out of the dozen lads who made 2 section – the ones who joined up with me – five, Ken Collins ( Back row 2nd from the right), Jamie Mann ( Far right back row), Eric Brodie ) front row, middle), Johnny Orton (front row second from right)  and Bob McLeod (front far right) were killed and Jack Gray  (front row far left) is missing.  Of course Robbie died at Neuve Chapelle and Arthur Watson was killed in the lines when I was convalescing. Only Tom Lewis, Danny Robertson and myself are still fit for action. We are all bereft, and having to sort out their backpacks and personal belongings was traumatic for all of us. So many of us have lost close friends and family.

Lt Sidney Steven, Killed at the battle of Loos,

Lt Sidney Steven, Killed at the battle of Loos.

Lt Steven’s brother joined the battalion on the very day of the battle and was one of the first to learn of his brother’s death. He manfully threw himself into re-organising the companies and sending his brother’s belongings home. This week, when we took over the trenches at Givenchy, he too was killed. What an awful blow to his parents, yet there are mothers and fathers throughout Perthshire who have lost this week. I am constantly reminded of my poor dead friends every time I look over the fire step out into No Man’s Land. Thankfully those who died hanging from the wire have been removed – the Hun cleared their lines pretty quickly – but there are hundreds of our lads are out there, victim the to weather and the rats. I received a letter from Father yesterday saying that the whole of Dundee and Perth are in mourning. The news of Colonel Walker’s death has hit the city particularly hard, as he was well known as a man who devoted his life to public service. But there isn’t a street in Dundee, or a family, that hasn’t been affected.

I certainly didn’t feel much like celebrating my birthday this week. To think I was so excited last year, finally old enough to join up and fight the Hun! Little did I think I would be stuck in a soaked ditch, with so many of my friends – who had been just as excited as me –  dead. I remembered my father’s stories of the glory of battle, but there is no glory in this war. just survival. Death is all around us and yet we carry on. The Hun are attacking more courageously than ever and it is all we can do to hold them back.

 

Weekending 26th September 1915

The Battle of Loos – The worst day of my life

sunday post 26th september 1915

The Battle of Loos, that’s what it is being called – and described as some sort of success. I don’t know what they saw, but in my view it was a  disaster. Our biggest push so far, with a week long bombardment and Kitchener’s new army at full strength, has ended in failure. We are back on our own lines after taking three lines of enemy trenches will heavy losses and then being forced back. We had no support on our flanks and the reinforcements we needed to take advantage didn’t arrive. The wire wasn’t cut by the massive bombardment and the gas attack we launched blew back and affected us more the Hun. The germans came back at us with bombing parties and heavy shelling. There were so many of them. We just didn’t have the numbers to defend our new positions. Colonel Walker is dead, Major tosh, Lt Steven, Cpl Quinn and five of my mates who joined up with me. Heaven knows how many are missing, captured or taken prisoner. Lt Cunningham is the only officer who survived unscathed. we are back at Pont du Hem a mere 200 of us from nearly 450 who set off. There are so few of us that we have been formed into two companies and incorporated into 2nd Battalion. The whole army has suffered  a similar fate – a battalion of Scot Fusiliers, who stayed in the tobacco factory at Bethune have been reduced from 1100 to 90. We are all dazed and exhausted.

The week began so differently, with me so pleased to be back with he lads. I made a special effort to see Lieutenant Steven, to thank him for helping me when I was convalescing. It was his intervention that got me posted to Ormskirk with the Horse Remount Depot. He was pleased to see me and shook me by the hand. He said it was good to see some old faces. That was praise indeed from a man who won the Military Cross a few months ago. It is true, though, there were lots of new faces. The battalion was almost to full strength and there were lots of eager and excited young lads everywhere . Tom Lewis said they were a danger to themselves in the front line, making lots of noise and getting shot at by German snipers. He said that wo got hit last time out, just peering over the top for a look. They just couldn’t help themselves.

There was so much activity, that it seems obvious that there was something coming. The artillery were steadily building up their bombardments. There was a time they would only fire a few a shells a day just to keep the Hun on their toes, but now they were firing regularly. And the  number of trucks and soldiers I saw when I came down from St Omer, suggested to me that there was going to be a big push.

Then it was announced that we were going to have inter-regimental games. The 2nd, 4th and 5th were together and there were going to be football, running, highland dancing and a tug’o’war. Cpl Quinn told Lugs McLeod he was in the football team. Others volunteered for the running and Danny Robertson and Jack Gray both volunteered for the Tug’o’war, though only Danny got into the team.

We didn’t have a very successful sporting day, though we all thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The 2nd Battalion proved to be excellent runners and better footballers. Lugs was furious and our only successful sport was the Tug’O’War. But a good time was had by all: Much banter, laughter, food and even drink. At the end of the day Colonel Wauchope gave a short speech and presented the 2nd with a cup. The guns, which had been firing steadily all day seemed to stop for the Colonel’s speech, resuming again as he finished.  We marched back in a good mood, especially Tom Lewis, who had won £6 betting through the day.

The next day we received orders to prepare to move. Obviously the camp burst into action. By the afternoon we had achieved nearly all that was required and Cpl Quinn came round with pencils and paper for us to write home. This was quite a shock for the new lads. Suddenly they realised that they could be killed. We old hands knew what was expected of us, having written the electors before. I wrote mine out, revisiting my feelings for each of my family and, of course, Lily. We were also each given a red rag to pin to our backs for identification.

Later we were paraded for Major Tosh. The weather had been foul – lots of rain. but it gradually started to improve to pale sunshine. w eerier organised into 4 companies, a,b,c, and d. I was in C company under captain Moodie, and Lt Steven. Then Colonel Walker came to speak to us. He spoke of the great history of the Black Watch, mentioning Fontenoy, Alexandria, Waterloo, Alma and Sudan. Then he said ” Let us add to the glorious history of our Regiment, Let this victory display on our colours for all to see! Go the fighting fourth!”

And we joyfully gave him three cheers. Eric Brodie said he probably didn’t mention Cawnpore and Lucknow, because they are on our side now…

Afterwards we were ordered back to our tents and Cpl Quinn came around to check our equipment. We were then ordered to leave our backpacks behind, with our letters in. and take just our overcoats and haversacks with ammunition and rations for a day. We set off as darkness fell. Double file. told to be silent, but we were so laden down with equipment it was impossible. But with the guns firing away the Hun could not have heard us.

At about 11pm we came to a stop in a reserve trench. We couldn’t move further forward – It was  like market day in there, soldiers pushing to get backwards and forwards. At midnight the rum ration came round. the new lads drank thirstily because they feared the unknown. We drank because we know there would be a long wait. Gradually we moved closer to the front trench with D Company, under Captain Couper. There were also our bombing section and machine gun section. to our left were the Punjabis and then the 2nd battalion. To our right the Gurkhas.

At the front, shells occasionally fell close to us. The new lads shrank into the trench walls and prayed. I looked at them with some pity. I knew what they were praying for – to be brave, to overcome their fear no matter what. That is what I prayed for before Neuve Chapelle. This time I prayed not to be injured and left in No Mans Land crying for water in agony until death takes me. I prayed “If it is to be, let it be quick.”

I almost slept for a short while and woke with my head rested against a jute sandbag in the trench wall. For a few moments I was reminded of my mother – had she made these very bags? – then Chrissy, full and cheek and with money in her pocket and bonny Janet. They seemed so very far away. And then father, who says he understands, but can never really know.. I prayed that Lily would not receive that letter. I wished I had torn it up.

An hour before dawn the guns fall silent. we are shaken awake by Cpl Quinn and Lt Steven moving along the line, to see we were responsive. At 5.40 we were ordered to stand to – put on our gas masks and fix bayonets. I was on the firestep, keeping my head down. Some engineers came along the trenches  and are pulled back tarpaulins revealing those red star canisters I had seen before. I suddenly realised that these were gas cannisters. I was horrified. This might be expected of the Hun, but not us! Gas is underhand and most dishonourable! They began to release the gas along pipes that stretched out towards the Hun’s trenches. I don’t know why they hadn’t thought about this, but the wind blew back the gas in our direction. In fact our attempts with gas were little short of a disaster as some of our own troops were caught unaware and gassed and I also heard later that some of the keys for activating the canisters did not fit. Even worse some full canisters were later hit by enemy shells and we were gassed in our own trenches!

And so, at ten minutes to six, I was looking out across N Mans land, when I saw the biggest explosion I shall ever witness. We had planted a mine and , to my left, the whole line seems to rise, silently into the air. As it paused momentarily, before falling, the posts, trees and walls that marked the trenches evaporated into dust. Then there was the loudest explosion, followed by the very earth moving as if we were riding in a train carriage at 50 miles an hour.  I heavy hail of earth fell upon our heads. I pitied those poor soldiers in that trench. Then our guns started again.

A few minutes later the whistles blew and we were off.

British infantry advancing at Loos, September 1915

We could hardly see anything, with the gas  and our masks, but it seemed obvious that the gas had not reached the enemy trenches. We advanced at a steady double across No Mans land and we made about 60 yards before the Hun started to fire. I was amazed that there was anyone still alive after the week of shelling and that huge mine, but  a few men fell, including Major Tarleton. I followed Quinn, who I could see ahead of me.  Soon we were being shelled – shrapnel everywhere. we got to the wire  and found it  still intact. We had no choice but to get down on our bellies, then over on our backs to wriggle underneath the wire..

The first trench was just a few yards beyond the wire and we were on them very quickly.  We leapt into the first trench, in a blinded fury. But one push was sufficient. The Prussian Guards had no fight in them. They sat with their hands on their heads. some were crying. Most could hardly stand. Looking around I could see a kind of Hell. The trench had been pummelled by our guns until there were hardy any features left. These survivors had obviously been frequently buried in earth and rubble, starved of food and water and had no sleep for a week. they were shells of real men, living in a ditch with body parts and human debris scattered everywhere.

Captain Moodie gathered us around. I was relieved to see Tom and Danny, Cpl Quinn and Eric. The Captain told us that we must get to the Hun support trenches before they could bring reinforcements. At the signal we jumped out of the trench and ran hell for leather for the next trench. I was yelling like Billy-o, but they couldn’t have heard me through that ridiculous mask. As I approached the trench, almost blind, I took the decision to pull it up so that I could breathe. There was not a whiff of the stuff. We were in the reserve trench in a flash. The fighting here was more intense, the Hun putting up some resistance. But we were furies and could not be stopped. Bayonet and rifle butt won the day. We just kept advancing down the trench line. Big, small, armed or not, we did not care. Our blood was up. Finally there were just a few huddled together screaming kamerad, their hands up, palms towards us. Quinn was there, trying to restrain us, ordering us to stop. When I looked around, I could see that this trench was just as damaged as the first. Out guns, despite failing to destroy the wire had pulverised these lines.  I was pleased to Eric still with me. He was helping a lad to take of his tunic and shirt to apply a field dressing.  But apart from him and Cpl Quinn, there were only a few others from C company and some from D Company.

Storming The Trenches At Loos September 1915

Fortunately we were joined by some men from A company. They told us that Major Tosh was down, Hit almost as soon as he left the trench. We could also see some Punjabis to our left and the 2nd Battalion BW to their left and we joined them to attack the windmill. It was very heavily fortified. As we advanced I noticed that there weren’t many Gurkhas there on our right flank. They must have had more trouble than we did.  We rushed forward and leapt in. They must have been firing like Billy, but I didn’t notice. I just ran and leapt in bayonet first. There were dozens of us. Stabbing, slashing. The narrow confines were crammed with writhing bodies, some attacking, some running all fighting for some room. Our training and fury drove us – stab, stabbing, driven on by those behind, bouncing off the trench walls, leaping dead, firing into them, stabbing again. Then I lost my footing and was trampled over by my pals.

I don’t know how long I was out for. A few minutes I imagine. I woke coughing and spluttering and sat again the trench wall to catch my breath. I looked around to count seven dead, six German, one of the new lads. I didn’t even know his name. Apart from my rattling gulps, it was surprisingly quiet. At the end of this part of the trench, I saw a German standing stock still, facing down towards me. I was completely defenceless and for a moment very frightened. It was only after a few seconds that I realised that he was dead – probably impaled on something. But he looked straight out the trench, eyes wide open. He could have been on sentry duty.

Eventually I scrambled to my feet, found my rifle, collected some ammunition from the others and then caught up with the others who were only a few yards further down the trench. From this point our job was to  consolidate our positions. Lt Cunningham was here and he said that we were waiting for colonel Walker to arrive before advancing any further. We set to work moving the sand bags from the front to back of the trench. In the distance we could already see movement in front of us. We knew it would not be long before we faced a counter attack.

At first, their shelling was wild, but gradually they honed in on us. We took what shelter we could, knowing that this was just to soften us up. I wondered where our guns were now? why couldn’t they have helped us? or the flyers? But we bore the brunt of it with out any reply that I could see.  Lt Stewart and his machine gun section got a direct hit – 14 men down. I could see that we were terribly vulnerable. There were so few of us and our right flank had no support at all. I have no idea what happened to those Gurkhas. Consequently it wasn’t long before the Hun started working their way along the empty trenches towards us. We could hardly hold a like to the front, there being perhaps a man every 8 or 10 feet. Captain Air arrived, trying to bring up a machine gun. He said that we should get reinforcements shortly. We held as best we could, holding back the attacks down the trench, whilst all the time looking for the frontal attack that was bound to come. They didn’t seem to be in a hurry. and our reinforcements didn’t come.

At about 10.30 or so they started to move forward, bullets spitting at us as their bombing parties came up. We held them back as best we could, but we struggled to keep them a distance away from us. At the same time, they pushed harder through the trenches. Colonel Walker was there, and Captain Air, encouraging us. He had sent several men back with urgent requests for more men, but none arrived. perhaps the runners hadn’t made it – the gunfire and shelling was pretty hot. It was soon obvious that we couldn’t hold this line and orders were given to move back.

And so, a few minutes later, I found myself back in the trench with the German sentry. His mates swarmed into the trench we had just vacated and, foolishly immediately took a look to see where we were. We made them pay for that. However, we now had to move sand bags to the back wall of the trench out new defensive line. And there seemed to be thousand of the blighters. Jamie was dead by then and so was Ken Collins. I saw their bodies.

Finally Lt Cunningham told us to run for it back to our own trenches. Corporal Quinn took charge and we tried to retreat in an orderly manner – run, turn and fire. run turn and fire. It was so difficult. We were exhausted and scared. the ground was covered with our own dead – our own friends – sometimes so thick on the ground that we could not avoid trampling on them. They distracted us, made us look at them when we should have been concentrating on defending ourselves. The bodies were thickest only a hundred or so yards infant of our own trenches. What a dreadful waste.

As I ran through a clutter of bodies, a hand reached out, grasping my leg. A bloody face looked up, eyes bulging, mouth twisted, and begged for water. I instinctively reached down to my bottle. I had a little left. I stooped down, but Quinn was on me and bustling me forward “Get on, get on, no stopping!”  I shook the man off , broke free and I ran.

after Loos, the medical station at bethune

The trench was full of wounded, with the orderlies doing their best, trying to get the seriously injured – alt least those who had clawed their way back – into the reserve trenches as quickly as possible, but they struggled in the confines space and against those still active who were trying the defend the trench. Fortunately the Hun weren’t tempted to push on. If they had jam not sure we would have been able to hold. I know that Major Rogers did his best behind us, but there were just so many. That evening we were relieved. the new lads couldn’t have arrived sooner anyway. exhausted, we were marched out by the only fit officer, Lt Cunningham. the rumours about the dead had already started. I saw Colonel Walker fall, Major Tarleton and Captain Air and heard about Major Tosh, but I didn’t know about Lt Steven until we had returned to Pont du Hem.

This was the worst day of my life.

Weekending 19th September 1915

Back with the lads at last, I arrive at Bethune to join the battalion

Sunday post 1915

Well, it turns out that they did miss me after all! But what a struggle to get there. I left the remount depot first thing in the morning and set out east. The trains were full of munitions trucks and heavy artillery heading for the front and it was impossible to get near them. Eventually I got a lift in an army truck which was driving to St Omer. The roads were terribly busy too. the driver said that he had never known so many people on it and he hadn’t stopped driving this route for eight days. When I asked him what he was carrying, he said that he couldn’t tell me, but it would be better if I didn’t smoke…

The weather has been miserable  and the countryside is a complete quagmire – as bad as the front, though due to the constant passing of thousands of troops, horses and trucks, rather than to shelling. In some places the road was lost entirely to mud.  The driver said that he delivered to St Omer because the truck was not reliable enough to get his cargo through the the front. From then onwards, the army has to rely on horses. I left him as he pulled into the depot, and as I looked back, saw soldiers jumping onto the truck and pulling the tarpaulins back, revealing large metal cylinders with “red star” written in red letters on the side. I have no idea what they are, but I don’t think it is explosive, because the men rolled them around like they were barrels of ale.

Bethune 1915

Bethune Village

Then on to Bethune, on the back of a cart carrying potatoes. The weather just seemed to be getting worse. I pitied the poor horses, who received no quarter from the drivers who cajoled them forward through mud sometimes a foot deep. the wheels are much wider than usual to try to prevent them sinking, but it make little differences and the only way to avoid getting stuck is to keep moving. The poor brutes were exhausted by the time they changed at Aire-sur -la -lys, about half way. The driver told me that “Airies” as he called it had been the HQ of the entire army until a few weeks earlier, but now they had moved it to “Hinges”, which – lucky for me is only a mile or so from Bethune.  So getting a lift for the final part of the journey was so much easier, as there was a steady stream of traffic heading in that direction.

When I arrived at Bethune it was getting dark, but I was so pleased to recognise the place. I soon found our camp, just north of Vemelles and the lads were delighted to see me. They had just got back from a four quiet days at the front, and were looking forward to four days “rest”  – labouring and carrying supplies up to the support trenches. As I settled down on a makeshift bed, in a ragged tent, with the wind blowing and the rain dripping in, I couldn’t have been happier!

soldiers preparing for the front

More men getting ready for the front.

Then next morning, I made a special effort to see Lieutenant Steven to thanks him for helping me when I was convalescing. He seemed very pleased to see me, saying that with all these new faces, it was good to have some old regulars back. I suddenly felt very proud of myself. It seems that I have progressed from recruit to old hand in a very short time, but to have an officer ( one who himself has won an MC) regard me as a regular, is praise indeed. I made sure to mention that in my letter back to my father.  I also mentioned it to Lily, but I dare say, it will mean less to her.

There is definitely something brewing here. The artillery are beginning a heavy bombardment of the trenches in front of us.