Pray we’ll never know the hell where youth and laugh­ter go ...

The Herald on Sunday - - VOICES - By Trevor Royle

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

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