Tag Archives: George

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 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 5th September 1915

 

 A visit home, Beer, Ice-cream, sadness and remorse.

Sunday Post 5th September 1915I can not tell you how excited I was to get a four day pass and head for home. The train from Liverpool simply couldn’t go fast enough and the change at Glasgow, even though it was only an hour to wait, seemed to draw endlessly. I finally got home in the early evening, before everyone was home, and found my gran in a chair by the range, her head to one side, asleep. My entry hadn’t disturbed her and so I stepped back outside and knocked loudly on the door, entering when she shouted that the door was open. Well, I knew that!

Chrissy working in a munitions factory in Dundee. On the home frontOf course she was delighted to see me as were the others when they arrives, first Janet, then Chrissy, Mother and finally Father. Mother is working in one of the jute mills making sandbags and Chrissy is working somewhere top secret – she later told me a small munitions factory in Mains Road, in Dundee. She started a few weeks ago and she proudly told me that they have just sent their first few deliveries of 2.75 inch shells. Chrissy says that they have been told that they might turn yellow because of the chemicals they use! She seems so different, more confident – even a little forward. She was so much quieter only a few months ago. but now she earns her own money – good money too, I am told, and after housekeeping has some to spend in town. She often goes with her friends to the pictures and when I ask her if that is appropriate, she says that there is no point waiting for a man to ask her, as there aren’t any. I could see mother tutting and shaking her head as she heard this, but I suppose Chrissy is right.

After dinner, father and I went down to the pub. We took a circuitous route and father took the opportunity to ask me how I was and to tell me how dreadfully worried Mother and the girls had been when they had received the telegram from the War Office, and how relieved they had all been when they received my first letter reassuring them that I was safe. He said that George had arrived a few days later, tired and drained. He had stayed for three days and father said they had some long conversations about how it is out there. He said that George could barely look at his corporal’s stripes and felt no satisfaction from his promotion. Father said that he had suddenly realised how horrid it must be out there, seeing every day what he himself had only witnessed a few times in battle. He put his arm around me and told me that he and Mother are very proud of us and what we are doing. Well, I was ready for a drink after all that!  A few of father’s friends were already there and he made a great show of buying me my first drink. My hand was shaken several times and I was asked what regiment I was in now that I was wearing a strange field jacket and trousers! I had to tell that that I had been sent home from gas and was working in England, but felt I was now fit enough to get back to the front. I don’t think I bought a drink that night, but I had a headache in the morning!

I rose early, but Chrissy and mother had already left for the train to Dundee and Father was just just going. I had some bread and tea (that actually tasted like tea!) and decided to sort out a new uniform. After all, I was hoping to see Lily later and I wanted to be properly dressed. I headed over to the barracks, to present myself to the Supply Officer. When I arrived I hardly knew the place! What had once been quietly busy and organised, was now a roaring bustle and seemingly quite chaotic. What is more, there seemed to be soldiers from all different battalions, not just the BW. I found the Supply Officer’s office, but he refused to give me anything as, he said, he didn’t know me from Adam and I obviously had a uniform already. Finally I managed to track down Sgt Maj McNab. He didn’t recognise me at first, but after I had started to explain my plight, He gave me a broad smile and clapped his arm around my shoulder and promised to sort it out for me. But even he could only do so much. I was grudgingly presented with Glengarry and jacket, but the S.O. swore that he had not a kilt in the world, and in the end, Sgt Maj McNab had to admit defeat. I was mortified!

Then much worse news. He asked me if I knew Arthur Watson. Well Of course! He is in my platoon and we trained here together only months ago. Well, said Sgt Maj McNab,he had just received notice that he had been killed. The family had been informed the day before. He had been shot by a sniper, though the family hadn’t been told that. I was deeply shocked. My legs turned to jelly. Arthur was such a gentle man – not really fitted to the violence of war. For him to die in the trenches was a real tragedy. Suddenly, the trenches came back to me – the noise, the smell. the fear….McNab took me into his office and forced an nip of whisky on me – the last thing a wanted after the night before – but it steadied me. I asked for the family’s address, so that I might offer my condolences. He said that I should think it over as I may not be welcome, but I insisted, saying that in the trenches, he was part of my family and the lads would expect it of me, as I had the opportunity. Reluctantly, he wrote it down, but suggested that I leave it until the following day.

Black watch in training

This is how they think trenches look, when training! Ha!

Half dressed, with my other jacket in a jute bag, I returned to Abernethy and paid a visit to Mr McLaren. The farm was very quiet. The harvest of oats had been taken in and there seemed very little else to do. Mr McLaren was down to two small horses – Kitchener’s ponies he called them – horses shorter than 15 hands, which were deemed to small for the army. Well, they weren’t much use on a farm either, but the local farmers all got together and shared the resources they had, and some local women came to help as best they could. Mr McLaren said they were alright for leading the horses to the fields, but couldn’t handle the heavy machinery. It was all the local farmers could do to take in the harvest between them on each other’s land. Now they were waiting for guidance from the ministry before deciding what to plant for next year . Alan was pleased to see me. He looked well and his sleeve had been specially shortened and stitched together so that his arm was hidden. He is surprisingly dexterous with just his right hand.

Lily Galbraith 1914 at homeFinally, I reached Lily’s house. As I placed my hand on the gate, I almost trembled with the sudden thought of how much had happened since we had seen each other. Our letters had been warm, even affectionate, but How would she react when she saw me? I needn’t have worried. I had barely knocked when Lily burst passed the poor housekeeper who was opening the door and took my hands. I have never seen her smile so brightly! My mood lightened instantly as she led me into the front parlour. I had barely sat down when Mrs Galbraith came rushing in and embraced me! she insisted I stay for tea and the housekeeper brought in a tray and some shortbread. It was all such a jolly affair, with Mr Galbraith joining us a little later after ha had returned from work. I found their enthusiasm and delight in seeing me so refreshing. It is as if the war does not affect them at all, save my absence, and with me home, they do not even consider it. I found that I could speak to them about all the things that I found interesting or important before I joined up.  Mrs Galbraith ensured that there were no lapses into pensive silence, with a ready comment about fashions or some local gossip. I stepped out with Lily for a walk in the garden most refreshed, without a thought for the war. I had even forgotten about Arthur. Together, we seemed to enjoy the touch of our hands and the quiet of the countryside. We strolled down to the bench so distance from the house. Our eyes met frequently followed by easy smiles. I told her how I had missed her and how I looked forward to her letters. And how so very pretty she is. She blushed and laughed, teasing me about my trousers and odd uniform. When we returned to the house, I was invited for dinner the following day. I kissed her hand and bade my fair wells.

Kidds soldier supplies, DundeeWhen I got home, Chrissy and Mother were making some dinner – sausages and potatoes – and father was sitting in his chair with a pipe. When he saw my trousers, he asked me what on earth was happening. I explained that the barracks had no kilts at all and that I might have to return to Liverpool – and possibly France- wearing trousers. he was up in flash and came out of the bedroom with the brown paper parcel that was his old kilt. He would hear no argument, but insisted that i take it. ” You will not go to war in breeks!” he cried and the girls burst out laughing. I didn’t know what to say. I remembered I had taken the kilt to the barrack on the day I had joined up – how long ago that all seemed – and was told it was not required. Well, now it was needed. My mother took hold of it and examined it closely, declaring that it was in good condition and saying that she would need to take of the NCO ribbons for the morning ” Aye,” said Father, ” it might seem presumptuous to arrive back in a sergeant’s kilt. You will need a practical sporan too.’ Father tore an advert out of the paper and handed it to me, saying I should try to get one here before I left.

 

The next morning I found the kilt waiting for me on the chair by the range. It was pure delight to put it on and a relief too, because I was due to head to Perth to see Arthur’s family. I had been thinking about him through the night, trying to recall the happy times we had together, and the good things about his character. I remembered that he had a younger sister, Ethel and that his father was a school teacher. I bought the train to Perth and set out for Craigie Hill the weather was quite pleasant and I began to enjoy my walk through the fields. I fell in with some lads who had some days free in Perth before heading south to join their regiments. What Seaforths and Cameronians were doing in Perth, they could not say, but whilst they were awaiting their orders, they had decided to take a walk. I remembered fighting with the Seaforths at Aubers Ridge and, strangely became the hero, as they asked me for details of the action. I told them what I remembered, which was that we didn’t achieve a great deal and lost a lot of men, but they we impressed all the same. When I told them I had been wounded twice and gassed they gasped and when I confirmed to a short cameronian that I had killed Germans in their own trenches, they stood in awe. It was quite uncomfortable. A bicycle bell broke the spell and an ice-cream seller came down the road. They insisted on buying me an ice and the seller, Mr janetta, when he heard I had been wounded twice, gave it to me free!

Jannettas Ice cream parlour, St Andrews. supplied picture june 2015

Signor Janetta giving out the Ice-creams. I am just behind him, third from left

So I was in a strangely bouyant mood when I approached Arthur Watson’s house. I steadied myself and knocked on the door. A pretty girl answered. She wore a black mourning dress and her hair was tied with a black ribbon. She has bright blue eyes. She confirmed that this was the Watson residence and when I told her who I was, she turned to lead me into the parlour and asked me to wait. A Lady came in, dressed also in black and introduced herself as Arthur’s mother. She asked Arthur’s sister, Ethel,  to arrange for some tea and invited me to sit. I began to offer my condolences, telling how we had joined at the same time, built a friendship through our training and were in the same platoon in France. Ethel returned with tea and short bread and i proceeded to tell them the things I had remembered about Arthur the previous night. At first Mrs watson had appeared somewhat distant, but as I talked, she became more upset. Not knowing what to do, I raked my mind for more things to say about Arthur. Suddenly, she asked why I was home in Scotland. i replied that I had been gassed and was convalescing, working with horses in Liverpool. She stood up, holding the handkerchief to her face, and said that she wished Arthur had been gassed and was safe at home. She rushed out of the parlour and I heard her sobbing up the stairs, followed by a worried housekeeper. Ethel just looked at me with her bright blue eyes. ” They had high hopes for Arthur.” she said. “He was at University, you know.” I was quite shaken, and said that he had mentioned it. ” Tell me,” she said “what does your mother think about you being in the army?” I said that she thought we should all fight for the King and country and she was proud that she had two sons fighting in France, even though she did worry about not knowing where or how we are. ” Well,” she replied ” At least those worries are now behind us.” She said it as a matter of fact and continued to drink her tea. I made my excuses and left. As she led me to the door, she thanked me for coming and said she hoped my mother wouldn’t suffer the way Arthur’s had. As the door closed, I could still hear the sound of sobbing coming from upstairs. Rattled, I had just closed the garden gate when I was accosted by a man walking up the street, who I assume must have been Mr Watson. He shouted loudly, asking what I thought I was doing and hadn’t I caused enough misery? I tried to explain myself, but he just shooed me away and told me never to return.

I walked back into Perth in a daze and found myself in a pub. After a couple of drinks I felt a little better and I managed to to the Watsons from my mind. I took the train to Dundee and went to buy a purse from Kidds and then came home. Only Gran was there, sitting by the range. we made some tea and sat a while together. Suddenly she started talking to me about Archie, my dog, and how much he had missed me when I joined up. She told me he would hide in my cupboard and sleep on my clothes. After all I have seen recently, looking to my cupboard across the room and thinking of my dog pining for my company very nearly brought a tear to my eye. I suddenly missed being home and my old life very much.

Later I went to see the Galbraith’s for dinner. But I was not good company. Their gay conversation was at odds with my mood and I found their light heartedness very wearing. Lily was most disappointed at my remoteness, but I couldn’t tell her why I felt so morose because I didn’t really know myself. I could hardly have told them about my experiences that morning. In fact, I realised, I could hardly tell them about my experiences from the last few months. Their world was so different to mine. And I didn’t want to sully Lily’s life with the horrors of my life at the front. I suddenly felt like a fish out of water.  Our stroll around the garden was brief. I tried to apologise, to explain that my mind was elsewhere, but the words seemed laboured and false. She showed a brave face and told me that she understood. But how could she?

When I returned home, my father took me down to the pub, for a send off drink. Again there was much clapping on the back and forced jollity. They all wished me well and hoped that I would soon have my chance to kill the Hun. Old soldiers! How they must have have enjoyed their wars. How little they understand of this one.

I awoke early the next morning and said goodbye to everyone before they left for work. There was sadness and a few tears from my mother., But as I carried my bag down towards the railway station, my over-riding emotion was relief.

 

 

 

Weekending 28th March 1915

Trench work, Supply work, and rest in paradise!

Well we are properly into the swing of things here in Paradise. The 4th are rotating between supplying the lines and holding the trenches. It is busy, but compared to the actual fighting, it is fairly relaxed.The lads from the 2nd say that things often quieten down after an action – both sides need to recuperate. I received the Sunday Post from home, which had our action on the front page! I must say that, whilst there aren’t many details, the report is fairly accurate.

Sunday Post 28th march 1915 smll

 

I passed it around the lads, and everyone was very pleased to read of themselves. Even better, there was a picture of the 4th! Sadly it was taken when B company were supplying the lines – and I was still in the clearing station, but at least it shows the 4th at the front, fighting the enemy.

Dundees own at the front

The caption reads: A group of the 4th Black Watch in France. They are Dundee’s Own and are now in the trenches prepared to keep up the traditions of the name they bear. The ‘Kilties” are of the proper fighting stock, and will give the Germans a hot time when they come to grips.

We were also pleased to see a photograph of German prisoners who had been captured at Neuve Chapelle.

captured at Neuve chapelle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The work is not too hard, though we are always being told to be careful. Apparently sometimes soldiers just forget where they are and then poke their heads out straight in to danger. It is particularly dangerous to smoke at night. The light can be seen from hundreds of yards away.

Weekending 14th March 1915

My first action – Neuve Chapelle 10th-14th March

pka_blwm_tn324_large

We spent the end of last week and the beginning of this week helping to supply the front line. It was a lot of shifting and carrying, but it kept us occupied and allowed us to familiarise ourselves with the reserve trenches and, sometimes, visit the front line which we were told was fairly quiet. It didn’t mean there was no shelling or firing but the locals, as we called them, told us that it was often much worse that this. Each trench has its own name, sometimes there are signs ” Piccadilly” or “Princes Street”, but there are other signs which are far more important. These are usually at junctions or places where a trench gets shallower. They read “KEEP YOUR HEAD DOWN” or “SNIPERS” . These have been put in because soldiers have been killed when they haven’t been attentive, or they have been forgetful.

On the afternoon of the 9th we had some time to rest and Cpl Quinn said that we should write a ‘proper’ letter to our families, which he would collect. Jamie said that meant a letter that they will include in our belongings if we get killed. He said that means we shall be in action soon. This left everyone deep in their own thoughts. How hard it was to put into words how I felt at that moment. We were all sitting around, almost afraid to start writing. I decided to write one letter to my whole family and then short notes to each of them. Then another letter to George. I told my family that I loved them and hoped they were proud of me. I thanked my mother and father for bringing me up properly.  I told Chrissy to be strong for Mother and Father and to work hard. I told Janet to work hard at school.

Lily Galbraith 1914

My darling Lily Galbraith

 

I tried to write to Lily, but I didn’t know what to say. I knew how I felt for her, but I didn’t want her to feel guilty if I died. Yet I felt that must write something. I wrote that I have cherished her friendship and hoped that she will go on to find happiness. Horribly formal. But if I wrote how I truly felt it would have been unbearable. Even writing those simple words left me in a very maudlin mood with a heavy heart. Afterwards I placed her picture in my breast pocket with my bible. Cpl Quinn came to collect the letters. He also took our money, any notebooks and personal items that might be useful to the enemy. He said we should try to get some sleep. But there was little hope of that! The whole platoon was restless. Nervous.

 

 

 

In the middle of that night we were awoken by Cpl Quinn. He told us to be silent and get ready to move.  He told us not to forget anything – remember our webbing, rifle and kit. We were cold, bleary eyed and bewildered, but we did as ordered. The weather was foul – cold and wet. our boots squelched in the mud as we made our way to the reserve trenches. Even in the dark I could tell that everyone was in a sombre, determined mood. This moment was what we had all signed up for. To strike a blow of freedom against those beasts who had raped Belguim and were rampaging through France. Quietly we formed up. I could see the shadows of hundreds of soldiers all going the same way. The whole battalion was on the move. I saw our Indian friends ahead of us. Small and silent. At least they knew what to expect. We rested near a breastwork called Windy Corner. Cpl Quinn told us to settle down and rest. Sergeant Milne came round with some brandy, to keep us warm he said.  we had acquired an enormous amount of brandy from local sources. It made a pleasant change from the usual rum. He was generous and we all felt better. He watched us as we shared it around. He said that this would be a messy affair, but to stay with the officers and obey orders. He said he was proud of every one of us. Just for a second, he reminded me of my father….

Black Watch and Dogras wait at Neuve Chapelle

Black Watch and Dogras wait at Neuve Chapelle

 

 

We waited there until the action started. The Brandy began to wear off after an hour or so. It was very cold and we were very stiff and cramped. As jamie said, there was barely room to shiver! Arthur dropped his rifle-and the clattering noise seemed to echo up the trench. Daybreak was cold and wet. We found ourselves next to some Dogs (Dogras), who were further up the trench. Suddenly Cpl Quinn was there, and Sergeant Milne. They were patting our shoulders, waking us, telling us to be ready..

 

 

 

At 7am. Our guns began their bombardment and I have never heard anything like it in my life! Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I felt it – with every fibre of my being. My hands were over my ears but it made no difference. The noise was incredible. It was a thunderous, constant rumble that bounce from your toes up to your head. I cautiously looked back and the whole western sky was alight with fire, like an angry sunset.  I don’t know how many guns were firing, but it seemed like hundreds – thousands maybe.  The shells screeched and whistled overhead. They must have fallen upon the Germans like dogs from Hell. I could not imagine anyone surviving such a constant and overwhelming attack. My whole body was trembling from the noise. I could barely hold my water bottle to my lips. We were bumping into each other as if we couldn’t control ourselves. It was freezing cold, yet I was sweating. I was not the only one who was overwhelmed by the barrage. I could see fear, amazement, shock, in my comrades faces. Cpl Quinn walked among us. Watching. After forty minutes or so the bombardment stopped and the ground beneath our feet stopped shaking. Though I didn’t. My nerves were on edge. I didn’t know what to expect next. It wasn’t fear. No, I was not afraid. More numbed by the complete silence. My senses were dulled. I could see people walking and moving near me but I couldn’t hear them. My fingers gripped my rifle, yet I didn’t feel its weight or the hardness of the wood and metal.

I could see movement ahead of us. The soldiers ahead were moving forward slowly, winding their way through the trenches. I couldn’t see much but , gradually, I started to hear the spit of machine gun fire.

Occasionally bullets dropped around us. They seemed almost spent and squelched into the mud in the earthworks on the top of the trench. Cpl Quinn said that the German machine gunners were obviously getting rattled by our lads, and that if he saw any of us shooting so badly he would give us what for. After an hour or so we were near the front line. The gunfire was more intense and we were told to keep our heads down. We filled the trenches, but still managed to make way for some stretcher bearers who were taking some wounded back. They slid and slipped everywhere and the poor wounded just had to hold onto the stretchers as best they could. The wounds were bright red, mainly in the legs and stomach. They had bandaged the men on the field but the blood seeped through. The wounded men were silent. And so were we.

I don’t think I was alone in not knowing what was happening. I vaguely understood, but did not now what I would be expected to do. I decided to  stay close to Cpl Quinn or Sergeant Milne. If I was close to them, I would be in the right place. And so we are huddled together in the trench, waiting for our turn. It was bitterly cold and still raining. Ken Collins called out for some more brandy, but nobody laughed. I suddenly decided to take a grip of myself. To take control of my feelings and govern them. I was determined not to show fear and to do my duty. I thought about my father and George. They had endured this moment. The minutes before. The anticipation and realisation that death may be close. Yet they had not failed. I was determined that neither would I. I would not fail..

Map Neuve Chapelle 1915At about 11am, Cpl Quinn started moving along the line, telling us to get ready and make sure we had everything. We moved towards the front trench and, just before we stepped up on to a makeshift ladder that would take us above the trenches, we fixed bayonets. then we were on the land, and what a desolate, barren place it was. There were acres of mud ahead and miles of trenches left and right. Small tree stumps broke up the landscape, suggesting that it was once farmland with orchards and hedging, but other that that, no sign of what beauty might have been here before. The Cpl was at the top of the ladder and he pointed out  the trench ahead of us. “We need to hold that trench” he said. ” The Seaforths have taken it, we just need to hold onto it. The Hun don’t like giving an inch, so be sure they will throw everything they have at us!” Jack asked him where we were and he replied “Those ruins over there are a village called Neuve Chapelle. And God help any German who hasn’t run away from it. Don’t be distracted, don’t slow down for anything. Get to that trench!” And with that he led us through the mud, over the planks that crossed our front line trenches and into no man’s land.

We set off, I concentrated on the heels of those in front of me, but I couldn’t ignore  the scores of bodies of British soldiers, mainly Seaforths, but also some Gurkhas. They lay twisted on the ground. I imagine they had been shot, but because they were mainly lying on their fronts, I could not see their wounds. A few were still alive, a couple crawling forlornly towards our trench, one crawling on towards the german trench, refusing any help or assistance. One man held out his hand towards me, begging for water. there was a large hole in his side which was a livid red with fresh blood. I slowed and reached for my bottle, but Cpl Quinn was instantly cajoling me forward shouting at me not to stop or slow down, but to keep on going. I had to leave him. Later Cpl Quinn assured me that the stretcher bearers would have found him and helped him, but I wonder if that was true.  However, the man caused me to look around for the first time and I was amazed to see the battalion all stepping forward in platoons, being led by Col Walker himself. The gunfire intensified, both machine guns and rifle fire, with bullets clipping the ground around us.

Robbie, my friend

Robbie, my friend

A man went down to my left, just spinning round and falling and then another sank to his knees in front of me, clutching his stomach. His rifle had fallen to the earth and his head fell forward. It didn’t register with me at the time, but later I realised it was Robbie. The handsome postie from Carnoustie. The friend who had shared so much with me. The man I joined up with. Suddenly lots of us were falling to the ground, but not hit, just hiding from the gunfire. I dived down into a small hollow. Bullets were thudding into the ground around us. men cried out as they were hit,mainly in the arms and shoulders, which were facing the enemy. Of course, if they were hit in the head. they just fell silent. Peering forward very carefully, I could see an arm waving us ahead. It seemed impossible in all this gunfire, but gradually we worked our way towards the trench, crawling inch by inch, stopping and lying completely flat when we felt the gunfire getting close. After a while, the firing seemed to slow and miraculously, I saw the arm again, waving us forward. We started to move more quickly and ahead of us I could see the trench. There were dead Seaforths everywhere, in higher numbers than before. Suddenly my comrades were up and running to the trench and I was running with them. The gunfire got louder and an occasional shell laded close enough to spatter mud high into the air so that it fell upon us like thick black rain. I got to the wire posts, which stood forlorn, the wire having been cut or blown asunder earlier. I leapt for my life and half fell, half rolled into the German trench, surrounded by my comrades. Looking around, I could see many dead Germans, splayed out with arms wide open and legs twisted, positions fixed in death. Their faces revealed angst and terror. none of them carried a rifle or other weapon and I supposed that they have been killed by our artillery bombardment.

neuve chapelle 1915I found my friends, Jack Gray and Danny Robertson and then, Cpl Quinn who was further down the trench. He signalled to us to follow him and he slowly moved along the trench, looking for traps. As we moved along, we passed more dead Germans. But these must have been killed in trench fighting, as they had bullet wounds, and bayonet wounds. Some of them were still bleeding. Their bright scarlet blood was everywhere. On their tunics, limbs and faces. Jack found them mesmerising and we had to jolly him along. Danny stabbed a dead Hun with his bayonet as we passed. We met a Seaforth Highlander who directed us towards a reserve trench. We picked up speed, feeling a little safer until we came to the German reserve trench, which was full of Gurkhas. We were told to make ready for a counter-attack. We picked up some of the dead Germans and heaved them over the top of the trench to make a kind of barrier facing the new German line. Of course the original earthwork faced our lines. Eventually we couldn’t lift them over their dead comrades and we had to be satisfied filling sandbags. but they weren’t much easier. The mud was almost liquid beneath our feet and seaped out of the bags as we threw them forward over the German bodies. After a while we were allowed to rest from the physical labour and those who weren’t on watch duty were encouraged to eat something and rest. I don’t think any of us were hungry, but a shared my tin of bully beef and some biscuit with Jack and Danny. Then I wandered up the trench – to the north- to see how others were making good their trench.

Sergeant Milne was there with about 30 other 4th. He told us to move further left, and led us up the trench. He said that we needed to hold Port Arthur. I had no idea what he meant, but he had a map in his hand, so we followed him. We made our way up the trench, passing  many more dead Germans and some dead Seaforths. I could no longer look at them, but just kept my eyes on the back of the man in front of me.

The trench came to an end. Ahead there was some low lying land, then about 100 yards away, more trench. Beyond that, there was the outskirts of a bombed out village – Neuve Chapelle. Milne looked at his map again and pointed ‘This is where we need to be lads’, he said. Carefully he climbed out of the end of the trench and moved forward, running low across the gap between the trenches. There was  some gunfire, but it didn’t seem to  be aimed at him. We followed on our bellies so that the enemy didn’t see us. Once we were in the trench and satisfied that it was clear, Milne sent some men back for ammunition. The remnants of a machine gun crew set up at one end of the trench. These men were superb. Usually a machine gun has a crew of a dozen. George had said that they could work with just six men, but here were three men. And they had lost their officer. Yet they worked tirelessly at their gun and saved the trench a number of times. The trench itself was very shallow. Milne ordered us to dig it deeper, where we could, and throw the sodden earth before us.

After a short period, a lieutenant came up and told Milne that we needed to move forward. More 4th followed him. We all grouped together. Suddenly our little trench was full! The lieutenant ordered us all to advance and stepped up and out of the trench. We followed climbing over the trench on to an open field. We were able to walk steadily. It was wet, but the grass still covered the land and there were no bodies or evidence of recent fighting. How that would soon change!  We made about forty yards before the firing began. Now we needed no telling – we started to run forwards towards the gunfire. For a moment I felt complete exhileration. I had my rifle and bayonet, bullets were flying past me, but my friends were all around me and this was our first opportunity to get to the Hun on our own terms. Then, quite suddenly, we seemed to hit a wall of bullets and fell and dived for cover. The lieutenant and several others bought it. I found myself in a ditch with two others. We dared not poke our heads out! The noise was different to the earlier loud rolling thunder. This time there were loud cracks of rifle fire and a constant rattle of machine guns. Another 4th, from C company, I think,  fell into our ditch and told us to move back.

I remember actually laughing. ‘I don’t know how we are to do that! ” I said.

“Well we can’t stay here!” he replied.

He moved to the back of the ditch and jumped a little over the edge and rolled flat, heading back to the trench. Then he crawled low and slowly. I followed. Gradually we worked our way back, keeping our heads down. We tended to work to a rhythm – move hands and feet once, stop, count 10, hands and feet stop….. From ditch to ditch. All the time, bullets raged above our heads. As I approached our trench, I passed the soldier who had told us to retreat. He was dead. I didn’t even know his name, yet if it wasn’t for him, I would probably have been dead too. Milne arrived back into the trench and told us to lie low and be alert. Shortly afterwards darkness fell. My first day of action!

Milne told us to get digging again. He counted us all and set a couple on watch duty. A few times we were ordered to stop and pause whilst Milne and his pal Shorty MacKay peered over the lip of the trench, listening intently. There was less gunfire during the night, which meant that we were at more risk of a trench raid. The machine gunners kept vigilant, taking turns to watch, the others sleeping next to their gun. I took my turn watching. It was very different to guarding the Tay Bridge! Milne advised us to keep very still and keep our eyes peeled. Except for occasional gunfire, the only thing I heard were the moans of the dying. It was heart breaking to hear people in such pain so close to us, but Milne wouldn’t let us leave our trench to help them. He said there were too few men left to defend it already. And so we lay, cold, extremely hungry and tired, in a muddy ditch that passed as a trench. Waiting and watching

I did my turn on watch and  was relieved after a couple of hours. I tried to rest. I was so tired, I fell asleep in the most uncomfortable position, Then suddenly I was wide awake. I looked around and everyone was awake, listening intently. The tension was unbearable and eventually, the machine gunner let go a few rounds in panic. Instantly more gunfire was heard from the trench on our right, which encouraged us all to stick our heads over the trench and take a pop at anything that seemed to be moving. Then a Very Flare was fired and the whole field was bathed in light, followed by even more firing, which took some time to subside. Of course there was nothing out there. It had all been a nasty case of nerves. Milne crawled up to the gunners and gave them such a grilling. I remember thinking that his whisper was as ferocious as a full dressing down from Cpl Quinn.

After a short time I fell asleep again and woke just before dawn, when there was an attack on the trench to our right. The enemy’s left flank advanced to the gap between trenches and our machine gunners redeemed themselves by covering the area and seemingly working with a gun from the other trench to make it a killing zone. I don’t know how many fell to them, but there must have been scores. Milne was behind us, moving along the trench, telling us to get ready. ” But don’t shoot until your are certain, he says. make every shot count.”

Shorty was up the other end of the trench, watching the ground between us and the village. They would help if they could, but it was up to us the defend this gap. The sheer numbers of enemy soldiers were defying the machine guns, and we saw the germans picking their way towards us with their long bayonets. Mile was positioned near the right end of the trench between two he had selected as his snipers. They were getting closer, but Milne had ordered us not to shoot until he gave the signal. Our machine gun was still taking a terrible toll, but there were far too many for a single gun. They were close enough for me to see their faces, their buttons. Then our snipers fired. two officers sank. That was our signal and we let them have it. They were so close I barely needed to look down my sight, but my Barry Buddon training made me follow my instructions to the letter. I looked down my sight, squeezed the trigger, felt the recoil, flicked the bolt to release the case and aimed again – all as cooly as if I had been at a Sunday fair.

It stopped them in their tracks. both machine guns pinned them down and we were able to shoot at anything we saw moving, until Milne came up to us and roared at us to “stop bloody firing!”. He was worried about ammunition and didn’t want us to waste any. I realised that I was down to just 6 clips. Gradually they seemed to work their way back. Their machine guns started – to cover their retreat – and so we kept our heads down. But from that attack, we lost one dead and one hit in the shoulder. The injured soldier, Donald, was in severe pain at first, but that seemed to subside and he became more calm. We did what we could and strapped him up. By this time we were all out of water and were terribly thirsty.

A little while later, when it all seemed to be quiet again, Milne sought volunteers to go to the main trench to get more ammunition. We all volunteered – the prospect of water and perhaps some food was so enticing. He chose Billy MacDonald and Robbie Maclean. and they left cautiously, crawling with their heads down. There was still occasional firing at Shorty’s end. There was a hollow in front of his part of the trench and some Germans were pinned down there. Milne demanded to know how much ammunition we all had. I had just  three clips and the others were similarly short. Suddenly, there was a roar to the left. The Huns were coming out of the hollow up the small incline towards Shorty and his men. Milne rushed across to help Shorty and we followed. The machine gun couldn’t swing around that far,  and we found ourselves firing at them at point blank. There were two explosions – grenades – and some of the Germans jumped into the trench. I caught one in his side with my bayonet. I remember pushing hard and twisting, just as we had been trained. There was a lot of  yelling from both sides. I fired at one German. He was so close his shoulder seemed to explode into a mass of blood. I swung my rifle butt round to his face as he fell. It was soon over. The remainder were sent scuttling back to their trench. I got 4 of them as they crawled back. They got more confident as they approached their own trenches and their heads got higher. I decided to remember that – so that I wouldn’t make the same mistake. Six dead huns in the trench. Four dead 4th. Two more wounded. They lay where they fell asking for water. We didn’t have any. I was down to my last clip. We heaved the dead germans over the top of the trench. The German machine gunners took shots at them, thinking they were British.

What seemed like only a few minutes later, Billy MacDonald dropped into the trench with more ammunition for us all. Robbie MacLean was dead: hit returning from the trench.

Wounded in a trench at Neuve Chapelle

Behind the main trench, things were a lot quieter….

The next day, I accompanied Billy to the main trench. He led and we worked our way behind the earthwork at the back of the trench and then slowly into the open. We weren’t armed – there was no point. We passed Robbie McLean about half way there. He had been shot in the head. It was a horrible wound, but Billy said that he hadn’t suffered. “Never knew what had hit him”, he said. Eventually we dropped into the main trench and we were met by Cpl Quinn and Tom Lewis.  Lt Stevenson was also there. He wanted to know how we were doing and said that we should be relieved soon, but there seemed to be a few problems further back.

Fortunately they had plenty of ammunition and plenty of  water!  But not much food. Lt Stevenson told us to tell  Milne to hold out. Just before we began our return,  Captain Boase dropped into the trench. He had been out and found two wounded men, one Indian and one German. He had tended their wounds and was looking for volunteers to help bring them in. Nearly all the men move forward, eager to help. It seemed odd – one of them probably shot the German not three hours before and yet now they were risking their lives to help him. Cpl Quinn gave us both a large swig of brandy and furnished us with two extra water bottles each and a bottle of brandy. We gulped down a few more mouthfuls of water, Tom gave me some chocolate he had kept, and we began our return to our trench. We had 150 clips and 2,000 rounds for the machine gun. Billy led the way.

And on the way back, I got shot! Of course it was a huge shock, and very painful, but now I am more embarrassed than anything else. As we approached our trench, having passed Robbie again, We must have lifted our heads a little higher because some bullets started whizzing in our direction. One clipped my thigh as I rolled into the trench. There was a fair amount of blood, but Milne poured some of the brandy onto my kilt and told me to hold it against the wound. He said that was my ration and If I hadn’t been so stupid i could have been drinking it. I couldn’t disagree!

Milne said I should make a full recovery, but I would’t be playing footie for a while. That took me back to the dressing down we all got from Sgt Maj Charles. It seemed unbelievable that it was only a few days before, yet so much had changed forever. For the rest of the day, we almost fell into a routine. we stood watch, well crouched, and rested as we could. The weather was a little drier and at one point, just before evening, as the sun was starting to sink, our little trench became a sun trap and we basked in its warmth. We had no food, little water, were being shot at a thousand miles from home, and yet for those few short minutes we could almost forget it all…..

The following morning, just after I had been relieved from watch and just before dawn (Sergeant Milne always changed watch just before dawn, because he wanted the sentry to be awake, he said), there was the most terrific noise. Suddenly we were being shelled all along the line. The noise and feeling from a few days ago, when wee shelled the Germans was nothing compared to this. We tucked ourselves up against the wall of the trench as best we could, but it was little protection. We were covered with mud and there was metal flying everywhere. We couldn’t think, just felt the ground shake as if the devil himself was rising from Hell. With our hands over our ears, our mouths were filled with dust and soil and we dared not open our eyes. It seemed to go on for ever and we were bounced in all directions.

Then It stopped. Unbelievably, some of us were still alive – unharmed even. Looking back, I don’t think we had a direct hit, but some of them were very close. Milne roused us and shook the two remaining machine gunners out of their stupor. My hand found my rifle and I fixed my bayonet. I checked my pockets for my clips and took a few out, placing them in a little hole I had dug into the trench wall for that purpose. Then I saw them, picking their way in the pale light. I remember thinking that they must have been fresh troops, not the ones from the day before because they seemed to advance quite carelessly without caution. Milne crouched beside me. His two previous snipers were dead. He identified the officers. and told me to count to twenty and then shoot them. Then he went to the machine gunners. They were old hands at this now.

I took two officers before the machine gun started. The soldiers next to them didn’t even seem to notice, just kept moving forward, picking their way between yesterdays dead. When the machine gun started, they seemed to wake up from their day dreams, starting to run towards us at first, then when it became obvious that we had their mark, dropping and diving for cover. The machine guns from both trenches worked constantly, a wide arc of deadly fire. It didn’t take long before they started to move back. Again I caught some poking their heads up as they were nearly home. Soon after that  it started to rain and we wrapped ourselves in our overcoats.

A few hours later, when we were convinced that it was all quiet, Milne sent back for more ammunition. I couldn’t go because of my leg, so Billy took John MacInnes. My leg wasn’t too bad, but I wasn’t sure I could put my full weight on it. As the trench was so shallow, I couldn’t really test it. I felt quite disappointed – I would have liked to have seen Tom again and taken another swig of brandy from Cpl Quinn.

They came back soon enough with the message from Lt Stevenson that we should expect to be relieved the following day.  They gave us a dozen clips each and more rounds for the machine gunners. How impressive they were, Angus Smith and Georgie Macbeth. They held their ground and did their duty magnificently. We also got a nip of brandy and some more chocolate. And water. How thirsty we all were…. Billy also brought back a periscope, with Lt Stevenson’s compliments, he said. It was wrapped in some old rags of canvas, in an effort to camouflage it. At least it meant we didn’t have to stick our heads up, though it did attract attention if we moved it too quickly.

I had been spending some time at Shorty’s end of the trench. He explained that the village  we were next to was called Neuve Chapelle and the building closest to us – if that was the right word – used to be the village brewery. I could see some of our lads behind the walls. One waved. their rifles poked through loopholes.

A man called Robertson had been hit in the jaw. It was a terrible mess yet he seemed remarkably chirpy. He was desperate for a smoke. MacInnes took his pipe out for him and lit it, but the poor man couldn’t hold it in his teeth, as his jaw had been largely shot away. The only way MacInnes could comfort him was by smoking it and blowing the smoke into his nose for him. He was very grateful.

Later, Milne pulled those of us who were fit together. He was very unsure of the hollow  in front of the left side of the trench and he had decided to clear it. I volunteered as fit and so six of us, led by Shorty, made our way out of our trench. Shorty had two hand grenades to drop down first. The rest of us took just our rifles and bayonets. We crawled out in complete silence –  Milne said if he heard us, he would shoot us himself. Shorty got to the lip of the hollow, head right down, listening. then he dropped the  grenades over the side. Immediately after the bang we all leapt into the hollow ready for anything. We found two dead Germans, both killed long before Shorty’s grenades had landed on them. However, the explosion had woken up the enemy and we found ourselves quite exposed to them. There was a mad scramble as we climbed up and crawled away from the hollow as fast as we could. I kept my head well down as bullets spattered the mud around us. Inexplicably I found myself laughing uncontrollably. We all got back into our trench safely.

Gurkhas at Neuve Chapelle

Gurkhas at Neuve Chapelle

 

 

The following morning, after an uneventful night, we were relieved by the Gurkhas. At a given time, the artillery threw a few dozen shells over and we used that cover to move troops all along the lines. There had been 28 of us. We left 10 dead and another 10, including me, were wounded. We had to leave our dead, and 4 of the wounded.  Angus and Georgie didn’t want to leave their gun, but the gurkhas Lt gave them a direct order to go without it. We collected Robbie on the way back, dragging him as we had the ammunition before.

 

 

British and Indian wounded at Neuve Chapelle

Some of my wounded comrades at the clearing station at Neuve Chapelle

Cpl Quinn and Tom were there to welcome us. Tom was ordered to lead us back down the trench towards the communication trench to go back behind the lines. We got caught in a line of German prisoners being taken back. Tom told us that Capt Gilroy of the 2nd had captured some Germans who had surrendered. Then they had grabbed their guns when the Captain was occupied and shot him and one other soldier. They Germans were all mown down immediately.  “Don’t trust them” Tom said.  Then he told me about Robbie. Shortly afterwards, I was sitting in a casualty clearing station waiting to be seen. There were hundreds of people there. Some of the wounds were horrific. Tom said Arthur Watson was there somewhere. He had received a head wound, but should be alright. Tom said he looked like a Seek, with his head bandaged! I was soon tucking into some bread and a cup of stew as I waited for the surgeon –  who threw a bandage on my wound and told me to go back to my platoon.

I returned to the trench where Tom and the others were only a few hours before we were all relieved and marched back to a village – called Paradis! And so here I am in Paradise. I have written to Mother and Father telling them about my wound, but that I am quite well. I know how Mother will worry. And I have also written to Lily. A shorter letter, but less formal than the one I wrote before the attack. It seems so silly now not to say how I feel. Had I been killed, I would never have had the opportunity. We  have been inspected by General Willcocks, the Corps Commander, who said we had all done a fine job.

Weekending 7th March 1915

France, and on to Camp and to join the Bareilly Brigade

We arrived in France – Havre – without incident, though the Rossetti was full and there were many there who are not natural sailors. Fortunately I seem to have natural sea legs, but Jack and Tom Lewis, certainly don’t have sea legs!

We disembarked and fell in without delay and marched, with skirling pipes and swaying kilts, up a steep hill to a rest camp on the outskirts of town. As B Company marched past a small school the schoolmaster told the children to get to their feet. Suddenly the bairns broke into “God Save The King”. It was such a sweet sound it fairly put a spring in our step. A fine welcome to the war!

After a resting for a day in the camp at Havre we were marched to another train. The Battalion made its way to Lillers, a small village 12 miles from the Armentieres-La Bassee sector of the front. I have never seen so many people! There is much hustle and bustle everywhere. Soldiers are everywhere. There is the feeling we are preparing for the fight. I spoke to a French man who spoke good English. He is a farmer and said he is very happy that we are here. He doesn’t like the Germans. Nor do We!

We then marched to Calonne on the Lys Canal. It’s just as well Sgt Majs Charles and McNab had us on endless route marches in Dundee. The weather is cold, but dry. apart from the weight of my pack, it was almost pleasant. We are now camped just 10 miles behind the firing line. The sound of war is close by. A dull roar, like distant thunder…..It will be us soon, in the thick of it.

Lugs MacLeod found a football from somewhere and we had a kickabout. He’s a whizz with a ball. I couldn’t get close. Robertson tackled Brodie a little too vigorously and Brodie twisted his ankle. Sgt Maj Charles gave us a right dressing down. He says we need every man fit to fight, and not invalided out due to silly injuries on the football field. We were chastened for a time, but this is all so exciting we can’t be subdued for long. We are here. Ready!

The next day we moved again. This time to Richebourg-St. Vaast. We joined up with the Bareilly Brigade. It is part of the 7th Meerut Division of the Indian Army Corps. We had such a pleasant surprise! It turns out 2nd Battalion Black Watch is part of the Bareilly Brigade. Handshakes and hellos to old pals. I only wished it had been 1st Battalion so I could have seen my big brother George again. I don’t know where he is.

a1 footballlargeThere are three Indian Battalions in the Brigade – 2/8th Gurkhas, 41st Dogras and 58th Rifles. It is very interesting to meet these men. They look quite strange. The Gurkhas are small men with ready smiles. They are quick and agile. The 58th are taller and many have elaborate hats of cloth on their heads which a man in 2nd battalion said are called torbans. He said they are Seeks and they are very proud with a fearsome record in war. They certainly look very smart and able. The Dogras, or ‘Dogs” as we called them (not through lack of respect), are more like the Gurkhas. We met up with them the most. They’ve really been through it, the Bareilly boys. Much heavy fighting. Many killed and wounded. There is a look in their eyes. A weariness, but a pride in having achieved so much. They invited us for a game of football. But none of us dared after last time. They found it very funny!

The fighting has begun in earnest. 5 and 7 Platoons of B Company have moved up to the line. 6 and 8 Platoons held in readiness. My platoon is on supply and carrying duties with the rest of B Company and A and C Companies.

There was a very sad moment on 4th March. The 4th took its first casualty at 2pm. Poor Corporal Ralph Dick had gone up to the line and was being instructed in trench duties by 2nd Battalion. He had one to an advanced post in No Man’s Land where a German bullet killed him. We are all very sad. He was laid to rest near the entrance to the Crescent and Port Arthur trenches. A wooden cross was raised above his grave. RIP.

More carrying duties today. These indians are very hard workers! The smells from their cooking is strange and alien to us. But it is enticing too. It make my mouth water. The Dogs are friendly too. We were exhausted yesterday and slumped around, hungry and one of them offered us some dates. We didn’t know what to make of them at first, but Tom Lewis tried one and said they were like the currants you have is a clootie pudding. After that we all had some. They are delicious! Then they Indians brought us some cakes to eat. they were good too! The smells coming from their cooks are amazing – our meat and potatoes seem quite dull next to what they seem to be eating.. Its amazing how easy it is to talk to them, even though they don’t speak english and we don’t speak their language. Gestures and hand signals seem to work for both of us.

I am glad we are fighting with them. It shows that the whole British Empire is prepared to fight the Hun. It is because we are right.

Weekending 31st january 1915

 When will the 4th Battalion Black Watch get to France?

sunday post 31st january front small

black watch at the front january 31st 1915

 

When will this boredom end? We have been drilling and guarding all week again and frankly, we are all heartily sick of it. It does not help that the reports from the front in France and other places show that we are needed to fight the Kaiser. We have everything we need, we are trained and willing!  I saw a picture of the 5th battalion, Black Watch this week. They are already there!

 

 

world war one cutting

 

 

I read the other day that the Germans are being offered prize money to attack us. Do they need such persuasion? We would be over there like a shot if we had the means. Perhaps they are afraid of us. Well they should be!

 

 

 

My only consolation is that I am able to see Lily on Sundays and spend time with my family. I know that George misses home terribly and, of course, mother and father miss him. We all do. But a job needs to be done and the sooner we get out there and give the kaiser a bloody nose, the sooner we can all come home.

The mood in the barracks has changed recently to despondency. There isn’t even the frustration that led to harsh words and scuffles. Father says that we are having too much time to think and that we don’t have enough to do. We are kept busy, but we are not fighting! That is why we joined the Black Watch, not to clean our belt buckles for the hundredth time!

Weekending 24th January 1915

 I spend time with my family and Tom falls out with Jamie

sunday post 24th january 1915 front small

I returned home for the weekend  to see my family. We had a very nice evening playing games and father took me out for an ale at the Tavern. I enjoy my time with my father. I feel that, since I have joined the Black Watch, he treats me like a man – almost like a friend. When we go to the tavern, he is very different – more lively and boisterous. it is not the beer, I think he tries to be more reserved at home in front of the girls and mother. When we are on our own amongst other men, he becomes more like some of the people I see in the barracks – he doesn’t swear our insult people, but I can see that he would have been an very good soldier and excellent comrade. He has started to tell me tales about his time in the Black Watch in Sudan. He talks about the heat and fighting the sudanese with their antiquated muskets and long swords. How different it is now. George is stuck in a trench in bitter rain in a freezing landscape with a rifle and bayonet against the machine guns of the Hun.

Sunday Post 24th January 1915 pictures

Janet was very clingy with me. She seemed to follow me everywhere and sat with me all evening and held my arm. I think she is worried about me going to war. I now realise that it will be worse for my sisters than it will be for me. I will know what is happening, I will be living with my comrades and fighting with them. They will be at home wondering and worrying.

why men should fightOne Sunday I met Tom and Jamie. It was good to see the lads again. It will be Tom’s birthday soon and he has decided to join the Royal Scots, like his father. Jamie is still saying that he will not join up. He says that the the war should not go on any longer. That annoyed Tom and they started to argue. Tom reached into his pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. Jamie read it and just walked away. I read it to. I’m as patriotic as Tom, but I think he should leave Jamie alone. I spoke to mother later and she told me that Tom had just heard that his father is missing.

That afternoon I went to Lily’s home for tea. Mrs Galbraith cooked a lovely meal.  Lily looked as beautiful as ever. It is all quite formal but I was just happy to be in her company.

I returned to Dundee on the Monday morning.  It was a very tiring day as I was starting to feel under the weather again. I spent two hours cleaning and polishing kit before I could turn in. I felt dreadful, but woke up feeling much better.

One breakfast time, Orton showed me a story in the paper about an incredible close shave. A Perth lad was leading a bomb-throwing team into a German trench. They surprised a sleeping sentry, bayoneted him. What happened next beggars belief. It’s amazing he and the others survived at all.

Sunday Post 24th january 1915 mapAfter drill on Friday, Sgt Maj Charles told that us we are doing him proud and we have become fine soldiers. He said he looks forward to taking the fight to the Germans. Orton asked when we will be posted abroad. He said he did not know, but is sure it will be sooner rather than later. Pictures in the paper of the lucky blighters in 5th Battalion, who have been getting a chance to fight already. “The Gallant 5th”! Jings! When will the 4th get a good nickname like that?

 

Weekending 17th January 1915

 George writes from the front and we are nearly blown away!

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As you can imagine, my eye was drawn to the casualty lists in the paper this week. Thankfully George wasn’t mentioned and that, along with a letter which arrived on Wednesday, has calmed our worries to a degree. But Mother is regularly distraught, not least because some of her friends have lost sons or had them return injured terribly. Father remains stoical and dependable – I imagine his experience of war stands him on good stead. “Hope for the best and prepare for the worst” I heard him say once to the grocer when they were discussing the British Expeditionary Force arriving in France (I can’t believe that was only a few months ago), and i think that is how he approaches  news from the front.

We’ve been out at Barry Budden all week. Enjoying (!) rifle drill from dawn till dusk. I feel I could do it in my sleep. I would far rather be doing bayonet practice and even trench digging. At least that seems to have some relevance. I wonder if our officers are at a loss as what to have us do. WE ARE READY!

sunday post January 17th 1915 pictures

It has been very cold under canvas. It has been snowing and we have woken to voices and activities dulled by the snow that rests on our canvas. On Tuesday the wind raged so violently that tent No2 was blown down. MacKenzie was hurt as the tent pole crashed about. there was an hour of frantic activity as we all tried to save the canvas and the goods that had been inside. The lads from No2 were redistributed amongst the other tents (after the guide ropes have beed thoroughly checked), but none of us slept much after that. We were up early mending the tents (others were damaged), and then onto the shooting range – as the wind still raged down the Tay! Our instructor, Sgt Doyle said that shooting in poor conditions is good for us. He says the sun will not always be shining on the front.

George’s letter brought comfort the the family. The weather in France is dreadful he says. There have been high winds and heavy rain. many of the trenches are completely flooded, yet they must still be defended , even when they are collapsing. I read this as we had just returned from Barry Budden – a nine mile march in sleet. I had enormous sympathy for them, especially as our kilts were steaming in the heat of the barracks. How would they be drying their I wondered? something I should ask George when he comes home next, George said that the Black Watch saw in new year to “the Garb of old Gaul” played by L/Cpl McLeod. Apparently the line has been relatively quiet – just shell fire and occasional sniping. I cut out this from the Sporting Post. George will be interested to know the players in Dundee side. Perhaps they have a chance this year!

the sporting post 1915

 

 

Weekending January 3rd 1915

At last I am back with my Black Watch comrades, but I spend Hogmanay guarding a bridge!

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Dr Kay came on his visit first thing on Monday morning and after taking my temperature passed me fit to rejoin my section.  At last! I got washed and dressed in a jiffy. It felt good to be in my Black Watch uniform and ready for action again. I returned to the drill hall just as the lads were finishing breakfast. I got a cheer and a round of applause from 2 Section. Even Sgt Maj Charles said it was good to have me back, but I’ll need to get a lot more food down me to get my strength up. He said: “You look the colour of porridge laddie! A few good route marches will put some colour in your cheeks though.” Fortunately he was joking – at least on Monday. I reckon a 12-miler would put paid to me better than any Bosch could.

I was put on light duties for a few days, until I get back to full fitness. ‘Moaner’ Mann grumbled that I lucky to have had flu. Robbie and Harry came up and clapped me on the back. I almost fell over!

bayonetsWe had lectures for the next couple of days so there was not too much physical stuff. I started to feel my old self again quite quickly. One lunchtime Robbie read out a story from the paper which was very dramatic. A taste of the rough stuff at the front. A captain revealed how every night they rush the enemy trenches opposite and see off as many as they can with bayonets. He said that one night the Hun rushed them before they got out of the trench and it took much “manual labour with bayonets” to out them. He said  he pulled out his revolver but it got stuck and a German came at him. He had to rugby tackle him round the knees and then got him by the throat and returned some of the “unparliamentary” language the Bosch had used until he was bayonetted. There was much “Ahh-ing” and cheering as Robbie read out the account. I think we were all imagining doing this ourselves. Our basic training is almost at an end and soon we will be able to call ourselves trained soldiers. What then, I wonder – and where?

Worst luck. We were posted on guard duty at the Tay Bridge again. I suppose someone has to do it. So much for Hogmanay! I felt really upset, especially as I had been ill over Christmas. But then I thought about all the chaps out in France – so far away from their loved ones and in danger all the time. It may be me this time next year. That made me grateful that I could still see my family regularly, if not always when I would like. It also made me realise how much I shall miss Lily when we go to France. It can’t be long now, surely…

foil spies

 

Tension has been quite high after the German Navy bombarded Scarborough and the like. Could Dundee be next? we are determined to be extra vigilant. whilst the Black Watch may not be able to fend off battleships, we should be alert to spies and saboteurs. I found this cutting in the paper. It is quite dark at the bridge when we face out to sea, but there are lots of lights on in Dundee. I think people should be told to switch them off. If a spy is signalling to a ship, we would have no chance of seeing the message.

 

 

fortune teller

 

 

I also saw this. Might it be true? The gentleman seems to have been right before. Will I get in time to fight? I do hope so, I would be devastated if we trained to be fighting fit, only to miss out. Mind you, they said the war would be over by this Christmas!

 

 

And so I saw the new year in on guard duty at the bridge. What a dull start to 1915! I imagined my family celebrating, my father first footing, with a piece of coal and a shilling, which he would place over the front door for good fortune and all the good wishes and merriment that accompanies welcoming in the new year. Then I thought of George. Perhaps he too is standing still, on guard duty searching into the darkness for a sign of the enemy, perhaps he too is imagining his family celebrating at their fireside. I suddenly felt quite proud that my brother and I were doing our bit for king and country. I know that George – and many others in the Black Watch – have done much more than I, but in a few months , or maybe weeks, I too shall be in France fighting the Bosch. Shoulder to shoulder with George or with my brothers in arms from my section and battalion. Then we shall show them something! Roll on end of training and start of fighting.

kirkcaldy soldier

 

We examined a map of the front, that was in the paper. “Violent battle”! “German attacks repulsed”! That will be us soon. i think I shall start to examine these maps more closely. there is one in the Post nearly every week. It would be good to have an idea where we are going, when we cross the channel.