Pray we’ll never know the hell where youth and laughter go ...
TODAY, as the country bends its collective mind to commemorate the great sacrifice of the First World War, the official focus is the national service in Glasgow Cathedral where people of all ages and backgrounds will gather in a spirit of thanksgiving and remembrance.
All over the country there will be other similar services as communities great and small come together to remember the lives of thousands of young soldiers who left small towns and quiet country places between 1914 and 1918 never to return.
Last night, there was a commemorative evening in the Old Parish Kirk in Kirriemuir and tonight there will be a similar event at Gosford House near Longniddry as the war dead of Angus and East Lothian are remembered with music and poetry. Both caught my attention and demanded my attendance because they are attempts to reclaim humanity f rom the awfulness of a conflict which cost around 8.5 million lives with many more wounded or missing. Besides, it was in both counties that I began my own journey of commemoration in 2014 and the experience helped me to understand that the individual is what we must acknowledge in any act of remembrance.
So today I’ll be thinking about three men who fought in the conflict and who came back with their minds and attitudes changed for the rest of their lives. I met them 30 years ago, in summer 1988 while visiting the Western Front, when their memories were fresh and it was still possible to see in them the young men who had gone off so hopefully to war.
Each of them had lived through experiences which not only left a lasting impression but also reinforced General William Tecumseh Sherman’s remark to cadets bound for the US Army in 1879: “There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory but, boys, it is all hell.”
As a commander during the American Civil War, Sherman knew what he was talking about. The first veteran in our group was called Johnny. A regular soldier who had made his career in the Middlesex Regiment, he regarded his role as an infantryman as both his job and his calling.
Once a year he would lock himself in a room to hide the tears that came for his comrades who fell in the Battle of Loos
Professional to his fingertips and blessed by an old soldier’s insouciance and sense of the ridiculous, he took great pride in being among the last of the “Old Contemptibles”, the name adopted by the British infantry of 1914 following a derogatory remark about the British Army supposedly made by Kaiser Wilhelm II.
He also took pride in the fact that as a young soldier he had been trained to fire his Short Magazine Lee Enfield rifle – the standard British infantry weapon of the day – at the legendary rate of “10 rounds rapid”, putting up a withering field of fire so ferocious that the attacking Germans thought it could only have come from a machine gun.
In his first encounter with the enemy during the retreat to Mons the lines of German infantry got so close to his battalion’s position that they stopped being a grey indeterminate mass and he could see that they were individual young men not so very different from those on his side of the line. In fact, he had heard them before he saw them as they were singing loudly and melodi- ously while marching arm-in-arm; some had removed their steel helmets and were wearing student caps as if to remind themselves of the civilians they had been only a few short months earlier before war commenced.
Johnny survived the war despite witnessing some dreadful incidents, but he never forgot the memory of those young German soldiers who came to lie in bloody heaps under the hot French sun of September 1914.
The second veteran had served as a part-time Territorial in the West Yorkshire Regiment before the war and could not wait to get into action. His chance came early in 1915 on the Ypres Salient and his first taste of action was almost his last. While his battalion was waiting to go over the top a shell-burst spewed shrapnel over the trench, killing the man next to him – his best friend from his home village – but leaving everyone else intact.
A sergeant roughly shoved a sack into his hands and told him to pick up the body parts. Minutes later whistles blew down the line as the West Yorkshires went into the attack creating fresh casualties, as what had happened to the eviscerated friend was quickly forgotten.
But not quite. After the war he trained as a doctor and later, in old age, he went back to visit the scenes of his youth. Above all, he was desperate to find the grave of his long-lost friend who had been killed all those years before. Thanks to the ministrations of the wonderful Commonwealth War Graves Commission whose staff lovingly tend the cemeteries on the Western Front and on other battlefronts, the retired doctor got his wish and he was able to pay his respects from his wheelchair. “Look at him, he’s still 19,” he mused as he gazed intently at the grave marker. “And look at me, I’m just a helpless old man.”
The third veteran was perhaps the saddest. He had served as a volunteer in the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, joining up quickly in the summer of 1914, keen to do his bit before the fighting was all over before Christmas, as many believed it would be. The life and soul of any party, it seemed that nothing could ever worry him or knock him out of his good humour.
Even in the face of death it seemed he would have found something amusing in the situation. In that sense he was not unlike the young lad in Siegfried Sassoon’s poem Suicide In The Trenches: “a simple soldier boy/Who grinned at life in empty joy”. And, as I discovered later, like Sassoon’s young soldier, he had also glimpsed “the hell where youth and laughter go”.
It was only after this veteran’s death a year or so later that I learned from his family that once a year on September 25 he would lock himself in a room to hide the tears that came when he remembered his fellow Cameron Highlanders who had fallen in the fighting on the opening day of the Battle of Loos.
Fought in the late summer of 1915, Loos was the first of the great killing fields of the war and the British losses were grim – over 60,000 killed, wounded or missing.
His own battalion lost 687 casualties and at roll-call that evening the survivors simply called out “over the hill” to acknowledge the name of a missing comrade.
I learned a lot during that visit to the Western Front, namely that some things are worse than death and that some wounds are more horrific than others because they exist in the mind and cannot ever be seen.
Today I will be remembering those three men and hoping that no others will have to experience what they went through 100 years ago.
‘There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory but, boys, it is all hell’– Gen Sherman to US cadets, 1879