Category Archives: World War 1

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 2nd April 1916

Our Battalion moves back, closer to the fighting at the lines

Sunday Post 2nd April 1916

We seem to have settled down again after the upheaval of merging. The 4th/5th now has four companies and I am in A company under Captain Cunningham – the luckiest officer in the battalion. I have been made up to full corporal. I am now paid 1s 8d per day – though it all goes home, unless I ask for some specifically. The officers have a kitty and will allow you so much, particularly if we are behind the lines. In the front trenches we get nothing. We have no need for it and the officers do not want us to lose it to the enemy. We are now part of the 118th Territorial Brigade, which is part of the newly arrived 39th Division. Our CO is General Bromielaw and we have english battalions from Cheshire, Hertfordshire and Cambridge as comrades. We have moved to Caudescure, a few miles north of Bethune in preparation to return back to the front line as a full strength battalion. I feel we are destined to defend the land around Neuve Chapelle and Festubert indefinitely.

I wrote to my father to tell him of my promotion. I know he will be proud to learn that both his sons are full NCOs. Capt Cunningham has already told me that my photography skills will be called upon at the front and I am eager to find out what is intended for me.

Sunday post german map 1916We are very close to some serious fighting. Just a few miles away at St Eloi, our lads repulsed three major bombing attacks and some mines exploded near out lines. At home our families are being bombed from Zeppelins flying over British soil killing our women and children! There is nothing the Kaiser will not do. I have seen in the Post a map of his intended conquests “when he defeats the British”.  All of Europe shall be under his worked control and most of Africa. He seems to want the whole British Empire! The revelation only makes us more determined to defeat the scoundrel. We, our comrades from the colonies and our gallant French allies will never let this monstrous bully succeed.

 

 

 

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 9th January 1916

We welcome General Haig and then get ready to travel

sunday post 9th january 1916

We have been in the trenches again and find that our headquarters – not so grand as it sounds, merely a hole deeper, built off the main trench – had been shelled Our two days was spent quietly digging and building a new on and defending our patch. It was very quiet. I don’t think either side really has the stomach for it. the shelling continues, but very little else. Then back for two days rest. we have been moved a small distance `north to Allouagne, not very far, but we are now attached to the 44th Brigade. Danny says we shall be off soon. I have been reading about our new Commander in Chief , General Haig, in the Sunday Post. We were all sorry to see General French replaced. He really cared about his soldiers.

sunday post douglas HaigBut General Haig seems to be made of the right stuff. He is a Scotsman from Fife and his family have fought with for Scotland for generations. The Post says that his ancestors fought with Wallace and at Flodden.  The general himself fought with distinction in Sudan and Africa. The whole battalion seems to have renewed enthusiasm and energy. There is a feeling that we shall soon be out of these muddy trenches and on the road to Berlin at last.

New year was celebrated in the reserve trench, the hour struck out on an old can. No Music, no celebration. Just quiet good wishes to our friends and brothers.

Two days later we received the order to prepare to move. not back to the trenches, but way back to undergo more training. I must say this is a very good thing. Although we are now up to full strength, many of our new comrades are completely raw and I for one am heartily sick of seeing them killed and wounded because they are so inexperienced. So, unlike our usual repositioning, this time we have packed up everything the 4th Battalion can lay claim to – tents, chests, the cooking utensils, most of the medical statin and tons of stores – ammunition, food and equipment. A few days later were boarded trains at Lillers, just north of Bethune and headed west. The train consisted of cattle trucks with canvas over the top to protect us from the weather. Whilst it was dry, it was terribly cold as we rattled through the countryside. There was a genuine sense of excitement, especially when we realised that we were heading away from the front. After a long train journey and a night march, we arrived at a town called Rainneville which is just north of Amiens.

General Harper

General Harper

 

 

 

We were allowed the morning to recover and rest and then, whilst on parade, we were told that we now attached t the 51st Highland Division under the command of General Harper. Our Brigade consists of the 4th and 5th Battalions Black Watch, the 4th Seaforths and the 4th Camerons. So we are one big happy family!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whilst we are happy to be away from the fighting for little while and living in countryside that shows no sign of the ravages of war, It is very cold and not infrequently wet. of curse we are completely used to this weather and withstand it. However I cannot help but be envious of the 2nd Battalion who recently arrived in Mesopotamia and are now positioned in Basra. I studied a map which appeared in the Sunday Post and can only try to imagine what it must be like to work and fight in such heat. Father always said it was unbearable, but as I stood sentry duty with the cold wind whipping about my legs, I decided I could withstand the hot sun and the dust. After our withdrawal from Turkey, I thought that we would focus our efforts in France – hence General Haig’s appointment – but perhaps our general has another purpose in mind for us.

Sunday Post Mesopotamia 1916

Weekending 26th December 1915

Christmas in the trenches. A Postage Fiasco – I am nearly shot.

French Street, the Germans occupied the far end

French Street prior to British Shelling

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas in the trenches. I was sent to the front line with a message for Capt Cunningham. On the way I was able to take some more pictures of a village which had been pretty heavily shelled by both sides. As I waited for the reply, I chatted to the lads.  They said that it had been pretty quiet for the four days they had been there – just a few snipers. We are all looking forward to Christmas and hoping for a good rest.

Christmas in the trenches

 

The last time I was in Bethune I bought some postcards to send home. One for Mother and one for Lily. They have all the allied flags embroidered on them and “Christmas Greetings”. I do hope they will like it. it makes me laugh to think that the war was supposed to be over a whole year ago and that I was so anxious to get to France before the fighting had stopped. Capt Cunningham asked to take a knapsack back for him with my reply and to deliver it safely to the officer’s quarters. It contained the valuables of the seven men who had been killed during those few days – watches, wedding rings and bibles. To be returned to their families…

It may sound strange, but there was a jolly atmosphere to Christmas week. We were out of the front line for a few days and everything was quiet – though we had been told that there would be NO REPEAT of anything that took place last year. No truce, no suspension of aggression. Not that the Black Watch had anything to do with the strange happenings last year. The weather wasn’t so bad and we were well back from the fighting. There was some concern when our post stopped for a couple of days. We are used to receiving four deliveries a day, so two days without any post was very unusual. We ere worried that parcels sent from our families would not arrive ( as we hoped to share out an excellent Christmas feast for ourselves), and also that our cards and good wishes would not teach them in time. However, the morning before Christmas two large lorries arrived, full of packages and parcels for the 4th. What  a delight! I received a lovely card from Lily – a picture of a soldier being kissed by a beautiful young girl (though not as beautiful as Lily) – and a wonderful parcel from Mother.

However, the journey had not been kind. Those parcels must have had a rough crossing. Mother’s cake had been battered to a shapeless mass of crumbs, and a jar of beetroot had broken and spilled into the three pairs of good socks she had sent. Fortunately the jar of jam had survived intact, the bar of chocolate was whole and the cigarettes, once dried out were still useable. This did not just happen to me, all the parcels had suffered. The afternoon was spent trying to redress the damage – wash socks, clean vests and dry sodden food. We largely succeeded, but I was not he only soldier smoking pink cigarettes and with beetroot coloured feet.

On Christmas day itself, we attended a church service at which we were informed by Colonel Sceales that the battalion was now back u to full strength and the fourth company was being formed that very day. He received a rousing good cheer. At last we can prove our mettle again on the field! Later we received a Queen Mary Tin each, containing a Christmas card from the Royal family, chocolate, tobacco and marmite. The tin is very useful, as the lid shuts very tightly. I shall keep my pocket bible in it.

The weather was cold but dry and so after our makeshift additions do our usual bully beef lunch – and an early rum ration, we enjoyed ourselves playing football, smoking, singing and generally making merry. I took Tom and Danny over to show them my camera and the photographs, which I had had developed in Bethune. We were so engrossed , that we did not notice Capt Cunningham and Lt Smith approach. Capt Cunningham demanded to know who had taken the pictures and then told me that I could be shot as a spy. Unauthorised photography is a serious offence. He demanded that I hand over the photographs, camera and films. I only had one film left. He asked me to show him how the camera worked and so, nervously, I loaded the film into the camera. Then he insisted on Me taking a photograph of the two of them  “Just to see that I knew how to do it”. And told me to get it printed the next day. He was very pleased with the result and told me that I would be allowed to take pictures, but only under orders. he would keep the camera when it was not in use. He told me that I was now the official unofficial battalion photographer!

christmas in the trenches. captain Cunningham and Lt Smith

Captain Cunningham and Lieutenant Smith.

Weekending 12th December 2015

 A new colonel, the Battalion back to full strength

sunday post front

I am now spending more time with the officers, fetching and carrying for them. It keeps me out of the trenches and the digging. in one way I am quite pleased, there hasn’t been much action in the last few weeks,  and so there hasn’t been more than the usual trickle of casualties  – three or four dead and a dozen wounded every day. Obviously it is the new boys who tend to forget where they are. some of them can’t resist taking a quick look over the top, or standing straight, just to stretch their backs. They don’t remember that the Hun are just waiting for this to happen, even though many of them have been out at night flushing their snipers out of the local shell holes. I spend a lot of time moving up and down the trenches, taking notes to and fro, and then sometime taking the rum rations to the sergeants to disperse to the platoons.

I was in the front trench the other evening, when I came across an orderly helping two soldiers to the medical station. One was a German hobbling on a makeshift crutch, his left foot a bloody mess. The other, with one arm bound to his chest, but still holding his rifle was a lad from the 5th battalion. The orderly told me that they had shot each other at exactly the same time just beyond the wire and the German was here because ‘Johnny’ had had his friends with him. Only minutes afterwards here they were now best of friends, helping each other back to the reserve trench.

As the days go, I am going further afield. I do hope that I shall get to the 1st battalion soon and  see George.

So the news this week is that we have a new colonel. His name is  Colonel Sceales and he has come over from the Argylls. Of course, he replaces Colonel Walker, who was killed during the Loos offensive. Nobody knows anything about him, not even Danny, who usually acts as our oracle for all things. I must say that the news has raised morale in the battalion. I think we were a little worried that the 4th’s days may be numbered and we would be reduced to fetching and carrying for the others. A new colonel means that we shall be an independent fighting unit again. We now have three companies fit for service, and more soldiers are expected soon to rebuild the fourth.

From a Loophole in a Black Watch trench

When I was searching through my kit the other day, behind the lines, I found my camera and after a moment’s hesitation, thought I would take it with me and see if I could take some photographs when i am on my travels through the trenches. I know that it is frowned upon by the officers, though I know that some of them have taken pictures in the past. My first task afterwards was to take a message up the line to the officer in charge of some sepoys. Whilst he was deliberating with a couple of lieutenants, I slipped out along the trench and shared the firing step with the sepoy on guard duty. I had already loaded the film and set the aperture and the shutter speed, to my best estimate. I then pointed it out and pressed the shutter.  Just in time, I had closed the camera and placed it in my tunic pocket before the captain came out with his reply. I am rather pleased with the result. I shall try to take more as I go. Perhaps I shall find a job with the Courier after the war!

I saw this picture in the paper and i made me think of Chrissy. She was so excited to be working in the munitions factory, but now she has tired of it. She told me in her last letter that it bores her and she feels she is not doing enough for the war. She is wondering if she can become a nurse. She spend her Saturday afternoons in Dundee station, giving blankets and soup to soldiers who have returned from the front and is determined to aid the sick and wounded. Whilst i am very proud of her, I do not want her to come out here. Worrying about George is enough for me.

sunday post nurses

Weekending 31st October 1915

On work detail, helping the miners dig their tunnels

The Sunday Post, 30th October, 1915

Well, we are running these lads into proper soldiers pretty sharpish. It is none stop. Some of them don’t know what has hit them. Most of them have applied themselves and improved greatly but, of course there will always be some shirkers. So, as part of my new responsibilities, I am assisting Sergeant Mackay with his  work detail. It is not quite a punishment detail, but these sixty of so lads are really the poorest of the soldiers who have arrived over the last fortnight. And so, every day I take them to the front lines trench – not to fight, but to labour for the miners.

What a rag-tag bunch these miners are. They are supposed to be Royal Engineers, but  they are barely soldiers at all. They shuffle nonchalantly along the trenches, taking no notice of any of the other troops, not even their officers. The regulars treat them in the same way, as if both were in completely different worlds. They look a disgrace to their uniforms, making no attempt to keep clean and tidy. They have rifles, but I am told they don’t even know how to fire them. They are here to dig and that is what they do.

 miners digging a tunnel in ww1

The entrance to the mine is built into the wall of the trench – a doorway about 4 feet high and2 feet wide. Behind it a stair case takes you down about 30 feet which opens up into a room about 8 feet square,in the middle of which there is a four feet square shaft with a wooden windlass and rope. The shaft goes down about 20 feet and at the bottom there is a doorway facing the German lines. These lads a are proper miners, brought from the coal fields in Yorkshire, Lancashire or Northumberland. But instead of shovel and pick, their main tool is a bayonet. Down there, they want to be as quiet as possible. Fortunately, the ground here is mainly clay, and they say cutting the mine is like cutting cheese. The tunnel is only that same four feet wide, with wooden supports and panels, so the work must be done on their backs, usually in 3 or 4 inches of cold water. They cut the clay and load it into sand bags which are passed  along the tunnel, then lifted up th shaft. Then a chain of our lads pass the bags along up the stairs and carry it along the trench until the bags can be used in the bulwarks somewhere. It is really important to get the earth away from the entrance, because the German planes fly quite low and photograph the lines regularly. There can’t be anything that will draw attention to the mine.

a ww1 tunneller listen for the enemy with  a stethoscope

 

Two or three times a day we all stop work and scuttle out of the tunnel, leaving a man down there with a stethoscope. His job is to listen to the walls, to see if he could hear any activity from the Huns. It is not as you might imagine. They want to hear them digging. It is the silence they fear, for that means they are about to blow their tunnel. One day I was one of the first to return down there and the chap with the stethoscope let me have a try. It was amazing.  I could actually hear some Germans  talking!

Knowing that the Huns are so close and could burst in upon that at any moment, these miners work away, drenched and with only the light of a few candles to see by. It is hot and fetid as there is only an old blacksmith’s bellows to circulate the air. Some of our lads – the very worst – are put onto the pumps, which need to work constantly to remove the water. with the weather so wet at the moment, their efforts make little difference. Yet these men, armed with only bayonets, work in near darkness and dig their way to within a few feet of the enemy before they pack the tunnel with explosives and blow the trench to kingdom 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.