Tag Archives: ww1

weekending 30th January 1916

The 4th Battalion are moved behind the lines

sunday post 30th january 1916

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday post war leaders january 1916

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

 

 

Weekending 10th October 1915

Warm work at Givenchy as the Hun take their revenge

After the Battle of Loos, Givenchy

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

Neuve_Chapelle_to_La_Bassee, and Givenchy_1915

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

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

Weekending 3rd October 1915

We slowly recover from the Battle of Loos

Sunday post 3rd october 1915

 

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

lads

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

Lt Sidney Steven, Killed at the battle of Loos,

Lt Sidney Steven, Killed at the battle of Loos.

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

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

 

Weekending 26th September 1915

The Battle of Loos – The worst day of my life

sunday post 26th september 1915

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

British infantry advancing at Loos, September 1915

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

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

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

Storming The Trenches At Loos September 1915

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

after Loos, the medical station at bethune

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

This was the worst day of my life.

Weekending 11th October 1914

This week I join the Black Watch

sunday post 11th october 1914At last the day arrived. I had slept fitfully and woke early, butterflies in my stomach. I knew that  Soon I would be a soldier. The whole family were around the breakfast table. Even grandad had come back from the fishing specially. Porridge, toast and jam all round. Jamie and Tom appeared. They were on their way to work but wanted to come and see me off.  Janet had tears in her eyes as she went to school. I gave her a big hug. I Shook hands with Jamie and Tom. Tom said he’ll be joining Royal Scots as soon as he can. Jamie said nothing about joining. Chrissie left for work.  She drives me mad, but I’ll miss her.

It was time to go. I said goodbye to grandma and grandad, put on my best jacket, picked up my suitcase and stepped out the door. Mother and father walked me to the station. It was busy. Most other lads  join in Perth or Cupar rather than Dundee. I think Harry and I may be the only ones. I caught the train to Dundee at 10.15am. The train arrives in clouds of smoke and steam. Mother holds me tight as if she doesn’t want to let me go away. Father shook my hand firmly, then stepped back, stood straight and saluted smartly. “I’m proud of you, son.” He said. I leant out the window as train pulled out. Mother waved, crying, hankie to her face. Father raised a hand as they vanish in cloud of steam.

courier advertOn the train, the man opposite me was reading the Courier. I noticed an advert on the front page saying that  Ex NCOs are needed to train troops. I wonder if father will join?   The hall was thronged with men and lads of all shapes and sizes. Big strapping boys like me and wee stocky terriers of men.  I looked around proudly,  we were here to do our duty. I Had to sign a lot of declarations and then in wee groups we were sent off to see the doctor for a ‘fitness medical’. Some of these fellows didn’t look fit for a short walk, never mind the army.

At 3.15 I was sworn in as a soldier of the Black Watch, handed 2/9 a day’s pay. That wasn’t so bad. I was told to go home and report to the Albert Hall in seven days, no later than 10.00 am. Och! I was expecting to go straight to training!  So I went back to the station and home. Mother was delighted. Everyone else laughed. I felt a bit of a daftie. Father said he’ll put me through my paces to get me ready for next week.

I saw a story in the paper about four brothers fighting in Black Watch. Hopefully that will be me and George soon.  Father took me through drill after work. We marched and he showed me how to present arms and about turn smartly. I told father about the advert for  ex NCOs. He stroked his moustache thoughtfully and said he will look into it.

Lt Col Grant Duff, killed in action in September 1914 at the battle of the Aisne.

Lt Col Grant Duff, killed in action in September 1914 at the battle of the Aisne.

On Thursday, I got another letter home from George! It lifts our spirits so much when we see his handwriting. Mother all aflutter. Father read it out: “To my dear family, Just a short note to say that I am fine. Fighting is fierce but I am getting through.” He continued: “Others not so lucky though. Deeply sad that our C/O Lt Col Grant Duff was killed in battle. He was leading from the front when shot. A great man who will be missed terribly. 1st Btn shattered by his death. Many other men wounded and killed, including John McVicar, my friend from Newburgh. But I soldier on.” The letter finished: “Please try not to worry about me. I will write again as soon as I can. Much love to you all, George.”

Harry came back on train just after 5 on Friday. He was strutting about like the cock o’ the north in his kilt and glengarry. Honestly! He said training had been tough, but also very, very dull at times. Not many Germans trying to invade waterworks he has been guarding.

I went to the saturday dance. Harry made straight for Chrissie, but father laid one of his big hands on his shoulder and started grilling him about 4th Battalion and what his training is like. Poor old Harry – he was sweating! Lily came in with her parents and sister Grace. She looked radiant in a yellow dress and her hair falling in curls round her bonny face. I left it a decent time before asking her to dance. We did the Dashing White Sergeant and Gay Gordons. It was bliss to touch her hands. We whirled round the room and her laughter filled my heart.  After the dance we all walked together down the hill and said goodnight.

On Saturday I was up with the lark. I had breakfast then went for an early game of bowls with father, Jamie and Walter Morisson. I was soundly beaten. Lily and I met outside Vincent Costa’s. I bought her an ice cream. It’s a bit cooler today, but never too cold for ice cream! We strolled out the Perth Road to Aberargie. I insisted on carrying her basket. She says I am a real gentleman and then bursts out laughing. We walk to he aunt Peggy’s house. Her neighbour, Mrs Tait, is lying on her doorstep, wailing like I’ve never heard before. Aunt Peggy ushers us indoors as others comfort Mrs Tait. Just found out her son Kenneth, in Gordons, was killed. Lily and I were shocked. She buried her head into my shoulder and I put my arm around her. We didn’t stay long. Aunt Peggy was very concerned about Mrs Tait and had no time for anything else. I walked Lily home in silence. We said goodbye in the shadow of the round tower. She didn’t look at me, but as she left she pecked me on the cheek. I was quite flustered. i wanted to feel elated, but the misery of Mrs Tait made me feel so guilty.

On the Sunday Janet, Chrissie and I went to pick the last of the brambles. and father bought a chicken from Mr Fordyce. Mother mades a lovely roast and we had a bramble crumble afterwards. It was a lovely meal – my last  before I properly become a soldier. My mother and sisters were very brave, but the death of Kenneth Tait had left it’s mark upon them.

week ending 4th October 1914

 My Birthday Arrives!

I spent most of the week impatiently waiting for my birthday. Then my adventures can begin!

Killing another GermanI saw this great cartoon in paper called “Killing another German”. You have to fill in the blanks to finish drawing.  I tried drawing my own version. Me and George shooting Bosch who are firing Black Maria at our lads. Tom is such a lucky so-and-so. He received a German helmet in the post this week!  It has a large dent in left side and dried blood inside. Tom put it on and marched up and down outside his house shouting in German accent until his mother told him to stop at once. A real treasure. Will wrote to George to ask for something.

Mr McLaren’s son, Alan, was injured and is in hospital in Vendresse. Would you believe that the hospital got shelled with shrapnel by cruel Huns! Alan has lost part of his left arm and will be coming home to Blighty. Mr McLaren is a tough sort, but I know that he has been very worried about Alan, so I think he’ll be relieved.

I decided to ask Lily to the picture house. On Wednesday morning I had extra porridge to give me the courage. I saw Lily coming out of Granny Ramsay’s shop, took a deep breath and called her name. She laughed when I asked if she’d like to go and watch a picture-film with me. Even though I must have sounded like a gibbering idiot,  she said yes! As long as her father lets her . . .

I was walking on air! I couldn’t wait to tell  Harry.

On the morning of my birthday, I woke up earlier than usual. I felt different. I was more alert and confident, as if this was a moment I had  been preparing for for a long time. I am now ready for action. Ready to serve my King and country.

Kodak Vest Pocket CameraAt breakfast the whole family wished me happy birthday and my sisters gave me a new harmonica. Chrissie said she couldn’t bear to hear my old one slowly die in agony. Granny and Grandad gave me two shillings to put towards my camera fund. A few more shillings should do it. I want a Kodak Vest Pocket Camera. Small enough to take to war. Mother gave me a lovely journal and a set of pencils. Bravely, she said I must write what I see and do when I go off. Then, as I opened it she burst into tears. I gave her a hug. Poor mother. Lastly Father fetched a parcel from the other room. I opened it slowly, the flash of dark tartan under brown paper. It was his Black Watch kilt. “In case you need it to get started, son,” he said. “Wear it with pride.” There was a smaller package on top of the kilt. I opened it to find a small carved wooden cross. Father explained his mother gave him it when he went off to fight. “Saw me through, son. I hope it will you.” Suddenly, the joy of my birthday and my presents seemed rather trivial.  Soon, I hope, I shall be at war.

I told Mr McLaren I am to join the Black Watch

 Blackford carters with Black WatchTerritorials 1914I Told Mr McLaren that I would be joining up on the following Monday. He shook my hand and said he was proud of me. I don’t know how long he would have kept me on anyway – some of the horses are due to be requisitioned by the Army. The local Black Watch Territorials came to look them over  last week.  I will miss my friends in the fields but my place is in the Black Watch, fighting with my brothers in arms. That night I was taken to the Tavern by my father for an ale. Harry came too. He’s still grumbling about not seeing action yet.

On Sunday morning I was besides myself with fear and excitement.  I washed my face and combed my hair neatly. My mother had pressed my best shirt and I left at 10.55am sharp to meet Lily. I am sure I wasn’t late, but when I arrived, she was standing outside the train station wearing a pale blue dress and white bonnet with a blue ribbon. She looked beautiful! Mr Galbraith was standing by her side. He gave me a stern warning about properness and looking after Lily in Perth. He works for the bank and is well respected. I assured him that I would be the perfect gentleman. He said he had heard I was joining up shook my hand. He said that I am a fine example to other young men.

Actress violet-hopsonWe caught the 11.15 train to Perth. I could barely speak. I tried several times, but my mind was blank and my throat was so dry. We walked to La Scala to see Drake’s Love Story starring Violet Hopson. We watch the film. Violet Hopson is a real beauty, but not a patch on Lily. Finally I found my tongue. We laugh and joke about our schooldays and the people we know. Lily told me she thinks women should be equal to men. She says she believes women should be allowed to vote and she wants to go to university one day. If someone like Lily is fighting for that cause I don’t doubt it will come to pass. She is no pushover.

We caught the train home and Lily said that she was worried for me joining the army and going off to fight. You only worry for someone if you like them, so my heart did a somersault when she said that. Unlike the journey there, we babbled away 19 to the dozen on the way back. She made me laugh so much. I will miss her. When we reached the station Mr Galbraith was waiting for us. I shook Lily’s hand and her green eyes glimmered as she said goodbye. My heart did that somersault again. I watched as she walked off in the afternoon sun, her blue dress rippling in the breeze. Will this be our first and last day out together?

 

Week ending 27th September 1914

My Black Watch training begins!

Sunday Morning saw Father and me heading out to a field outside just the village. We met   Tom and Jamie on the way. We were excited and nervous. Father seemed quiet and stern , but I could tell that he was looking forward to is as well.  he has started talking to ma much more about what a can expect when I join the Black Watch after my birthday.  We have some old broom handles to use as rifles. Tom kept the broom on his and thought it was funny. Father just shook his head. First of all, we started marching drill. I managed to get the hang of it quite quickly, but Tom was hopeless.  He walked into the back of me twice and then dropped his broom on my head! I don’t think the Germans have anything to fear if this is how good a soldier he will turn out. Jamie was in stitches. I think even father found it difficult to keep a straight face. After two hours father said that was enough for the day. We were getting better by the end of it. Father says he’ll teach us more next week.

Monday was awful weather – raining hard and bitterly cold.  I could hear the wind outside my window and Mother had to drag me out of bed. I returned thoroughly wet through. Thankfully Granny’s Scotch broth warmed me up – and cheered me up. On Tuesday Father got a letter from his cousin Alice. Her husband Eric is lost at sea. She hopes he’s still alive. Father just shook his head sadly. Only he really knows what war is like. He was with Lord Kitchener in Africa.

A letter from George arrived on Wednesday! He is safe and well! We were so relieved! It started:

“My dear family, It seems a year since I left Britain, yet it has only been weeks.”

He says he’s been fighting at Aisne and it has been bitter and bloody. Many officers and men killed, wounded and missing.

“We got as far as a sugar factory but were beaten back with tremendous losses. After that the battle continued, though it was little more than an artillery duel.”
German sharpshooters finding positions near the River Aisne

German sharpshooters finding positions near the River Aisne

He also said his friend, Walter Flynn, was killed in the fighting, standing next to him and took a bullet in his neck. I had to read the letter several times as it was hard to take in all the details. The fighting sounds desperate but I am keen to get in the thick of it as soon as I can.

 

 

 

George wrote:

Men removing harnesses from horses wounded at the Battle of Aisne

Men removing harnesses from horses wounded at the Battle of Aisne

“Enemy has an enormous gun a long way off which sent enormous amount of lyddite percussion shells our way. We have nicknamed it ‘Black Maria’  – from  the clouds of black smoke that is made by the shells. Some of my mates also call it ‘Sighing Susan’ from the whistling of the shells overhead. When we were forced to retreat, the people came with them in farm carts and on foot, fleeing the Germans.”

 

I wrote to George on Friday and told him to look out for Harry if he gets out before I do. I included a drawing I did of Archie. He’s George’s dog really.  I was quite pleased with it. Maybe I should be an artist. I asked George to send photographs if he can get any, though he doesn’t have a camera. I am saving for one. Very slowly. perhaps I will be able to take one with me when I join up. The Saturday Post had a message on front page: “The duty of every Scotsman is clear. Serve your country how you can.”

We did some more training with Father on Sunday. Jamie didn’t go this time but Tom was there again. Harry was away visiting his granny in Perth. I think Tom must have taken a knock to the head as a baby. He’d forgotten everything from last week! Father barked at him the third time he dropped his broom-rifle. He can be very scary at times! He was a sergeant in the Black Watch in Egypt many years ago. Still has a large scar from battle. He must have been fearsome. He said I’ll make a fine soldier and told Tom he’d make a fine soldier . . . as long as they didn’t give him a gun to drop!

 

 

Week ending 20th September 1914

Harry, Tom, Jamie and I went to play football in field outside the village on Sunday afternoon. Harry played dreadfully – I suppose he was worried about getting injured. That doesn’t bode well! Jamie said he’d only join up if he can be a stretcher bearer. He doesn’t want to shoot anyone. I can’t understand it, but he is quite adamant. Harry said he was too scared to fight. This really roused Jamie and i thought he was going to bop Harry on nose But he stopped himself and  just walked off shaking his head. Harry can be a fool sometimes. This episode turned the afternoon into a damp squib and I went home feeling quite downhearted.

Monday was a very dull day – though my ankle feeling better. Jock is in good shape too. I Hope he doesn’t get taken to war when they come for the horses. Mother feels much better and she is practicing for her dramatic society show.  She keeps trying to get me to join. I wouldn’t think twice about it, but Lily is in it. Mind you, my singing voiceis pretty poor. I didn’t inherit my Mother’s musical talent.

The front page of the paper is filled with exhortations for men to join. From Dundee to Perth and Cupar. the Empire is clearly in need of soldiers.

courier 15th september 1914 black watch

 

Chrissie has started posting letters to Harry. He was only here two days ago!  I wrote a letter to George. I don’t know what the is going through, but told him I mean to join in weeks and will be by his side as soon as I’m allowed. I enjoy writing a great deal. Perhaps I will try a Sexton Blake adventure one day. Or I could send reports from the front to a newspaper. I don’t mind being in the fields and I like horses. But I do want to better myself. Perhaps I may go to college after the war?

The Black Watch retreating from Mons in good order

The Black Watch retreating from Mons in good order

 Mrs petrie’s son injured at Mons

On Wednesday we heard some sad news.  Jamie’s Uncle Alex was killed. He was with Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. I went to see Jamie after work, but Mrs Henderson said he had taken to his bed unwell. Jamie was very close to his uncle.  Although he lived in Glasgow he would write to Jamie often and send gifts regularly. He was a tailor. It Feels like war is coming closer. We also heard that Mrs Petrie’s son, John, was badly injured at Mons. Blinded apparently. Andrew said goodbye to everybody at work. He’s catching the train to Perth tomorrow to join up. He’ll be a Black Watch man too. I am quite sad to see him go. He’s not the sharpest pencil in the pot but he’s a good lad – funny and kind. The only problem is he has awfully big ears. I hope the Germans don’t spot them and use them for target practice! I shook Andrew’s hand before we left. He was going to The Tavern for a beer that evening, but I decided to go and see Jamie.

We went for a walk up to the Nethy Burn. His eyes were red and he was very quiet. I wasn’t sure what to say really, so we just lay on bank in evening sun for a while in silence. Finally I asked him if he knew what happened to his Uncle Alex. But he said he didn’t want to talk about it. I don’t know if this will change his view on fighting. Will he want to take revenge? Or will he hate war? Perhaps this is not the time to ask.

 

Destruction in France around the battle of Aisne in 1914

Destruction in France around the battle of Aisne in 1914

On Thursday I read a report in the Dundee Courier about one of our submarines sinking German cruiser Hela. I don’t fancy the sound of being stuck in a metal tube under the waves. I’d rather have a gun in my hand on dry land! The Reports of battles at Aisne and Rheims sound fearsome. I Wonder if George is in thick of it. We haven’t heard any more from him. fathers says that no news is good news. Mother is very worried. Mr McLaren has taken on Rab Masters to replace Andrew. I don’t like him. He battered me outside school when I was 12. Later Father suggested he teach me how to march. If I am going to join up might as well have a head start. We will start our ‘training’ on Sunday.

I haven’t had a chance to ask Lily to picture house this week. It will have to be next week. When I say I haven’t had the chance what I mean is I’ve been too chickenhearted to do it! I’ll have to get a move on. At this rate I’ll be at the front before I get round to asking her to step out with me. It will be a bit late then. I told Tom and Jamie about training with Father. Tom wants to join in. Jamie said he would come to watch. Chrissie and Janet are always making fun of my harmonica.  It is old and battered, but i think it still just holds a tune. Anyway, i can’t afford a new one just yet. I want to buy a camera!