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The Personal Diary of 2044 Pte. John Burns of the 1st Black Watch in 1914

Derek Black



John Burns from Forfar, enlisted into the Black Watch on the 12th of April, 1911 aged 18. He went abroad with the 1st Btn in August, 1914 and was wounded on the 15th of September.
Whilst recovering at home in October, he was interviewed by his local newspaper, who printed a copy of his diary. He was also wed to Petrina Keith at this time. His daughter Mary was born in the December.

It's unclear when he was well enough to rejoin his battalion in France, but sadly John was killed in action, along with many of his regiment, at Aubers Ridge on the 9th of May, 1915. He has no known grave and is remembered on the Le Touret Memorial.


All place name spellings have been left as written.



16th October 1914 Forfar Herald and Kirriemuir Advertiser

Home From the War


A Soldier's Diary


Interesting Notes on the Campaign


Wounded in Six Places


With a bandage round his left knee which tells its own tale, Private John Burns of the Black Watch, a young Forfarian who took part in the first three weeks' fighting in Belgium and France, has returned home for a short holiday before returning to the scene of hostilities.


Burns enlisted in the Army for seven years and has now fulfilled three and a half years' service, so, as he himself remarked, it is “half-time” with him.


Proceeding to the continent with his Battalion on the outbreak of war, he took part in the famous retreat from Mons and the subsequent advance against the Germans, but on September 15th, on the third day of the Battle of the Aisne, which is still proceeding, he came a cropper. The Black Watch had their share of the fighting up to that time, and Private Burns was in four engagements – the first near Guise, the second in Marne valley, the third at Aisne, and the fourth at Vendresse.


When asked by a “Forfar Herald” representative to relate some of his experiences, Private Burns laughingly produced a diary which he had kept from the fateful 4th of August. The entries were jotted down in the leaves of his official book from time to time, and he has extended to the “Herald” the privilege of the contents of this interesting document.


It is a plain, straightforward story of stirring events told in words the modestly of which cannot fail to impress the reader.

Aug. 04th – General mobilisation order. War declared.


Aug. 13th – Left Aldershot for Southampton. Got a rousing send-off. Embarked on s.s. Italian Prince for Havre in France.


Aug. 14th – Landed in Havre about 12 noon. Large crowds cheered us as we marched to our camping-ground, occasionally singing their national anthem and shouting “Vive l'ecosse!”


Aug. 15th – Entrained for the frontier. Got splendid reception all along the route, especially in Rouen, Amiens, and Arras. At Arras a guard of honour presented arms as we passed. Our fellows greatly appreciated this and gave the French three rousing cheers.

Aug. 16th – Arrived at Bouie, about 60 miles from the frontier. Here our brigade was collected, the four regiments being the 1st Scots Guards, 1st Coldstreams, 2nd Munsters, and the Black Watch, also 26th Brigade R.F.A.


Aug. 18th, 19th and 20th – Occupied with route marches around Bouie district.

Aug. 21st – Left Bouie for the frontier. Halted for the night in the village of Cartignes and here received our first pay on French soil. We got the sum of 5 francs – about 4s in British money. It was a paper note, not unlike our £1 note. Had great difficulty in getting them changed in such a small place. Tried to pick up a smattering of the language.


Aug. 22nd – Marched to Grand – Reng in Belgium, a distance of about 32 miles, passing through the fortress of Maubeuge, where I succeeded in buying some tobacco, which is very difficult to obtain at the present time.


Aug. 23rd – Stayed in Grand Reng until 6 pm, being billeted in the houses of village. The Battalion took up an outpost position for the night.

Aug. 24th – Began our retirement. Passed a large number of refugees. Felt sorry for them. Billeted in Dom Pierre.

Aug. 25th – Steady trudge. Rained incessantly. Slept in an orchard.

Aug. 26th – Marched all day. Lost count of time.

Aug. 27th – While taking our dinner we heard heavy firing on our left. Thinking it was the 3rd Brigade, we took no notice of it. Little did we know that it was our friends, the Munsters, who, I believe, lost very heavily. Marching along the road at a point between the village of Jerusalem and the town of Guise, we sighted three of the enemy's scouts. Our Colonel ordered one section of C Company to fire upon them. No sooner had they opened fire than it appeared as if hell had been let loose. Shells began to drop among us, wounding a few men, otherwise doing no damage. As it got dark, we were ordered to retire, the 118th Battery of Artillery covering us. We learnt later that there were three Army Corps and not two divisions of cavalry against us. It was our baptism, and we all felt thankful when the shells ceased to scream through the air.


Aug. 28th – Retired to St Gobean, 33 miles' march, and from this date till 6th September we saw nothing of the enemy.


Sept. 06th – Sunday. No church parade, but a steady trudge, trudge, trudge. We had just left our billets about one hour when we were halted and the Cameron Highlanders joined us. We all thought this was the usual hour's halt, but the Coldstreams suddenly opened out and advanced in artillery formation. The next thing we heard was the scream of shells. Our cookers were standing up the road, and the men near enough were having a bit of dinner when a shell came along and landed plump on the cooker. It did no damage, but frightened the horses, which promptly turned and bolted, our fellows helping them along with whoops and yells. We had four wounded here, but this day marked the turning point and we drove the enemy back ten miles.

Sept. 07th – Continued our advance, driving the Germans before us.


Sept. 08th – Suddenly came upon the enemy entrenched in a very strong position in the Marne valley. We drove them out in quick time. B Company lost 8 killed and 13 wounded, which was our heaviest casualty list up to date. It was here that we lost two splendid officers in Captain Dalgleish and Lieutenant Wilson. They died like heroes, leading their men. The Germans paid dearly for it, 700 being killed and wounded and 49 taken prisoners. Learned from the prisoners that they were the Kaiser's famous Huns. They were splendidly built men, all being six feet high or over, but they were great cowards. Also learned that they had waited three days for us and had next to nothing to eat.


Sept. 09th, 10th, 11th and 12th – Followed hot foot after the Germans but never coming up with them until the 13th.


Sept. 13th – Sunday again. We were lamenting not getting our usual complement of shells about 5 pm. We got all that we wanted. Not shrapnel, but lyddite, Ugh!

Sept. 14th – Took up position on the hills around Vendresse and Bourg. Germans held stronger position here than they had on the 6th. About 1 pm, while leading us into position, our brave Colonel was shot. His last words to us were - “Stick it. lads, stick it, we are going to win.” We held our position all day. One section of 118th Battery under Major Packard, fired all day and finished with 10 men out of 55. Private McMurchie, servant to Major J.T.C. Murray, performed a brave deed. He crawled forward 30 yards, exposed to fire all the time, to give a wounded man of the Coldstreams a drink of water. He tried to bring him back, but the man was too heavy for him. McMurchie got back to the lines in safety. Started to rain early in the evening. Very uncomfortable. Haven't had a wash for a week nor a shave for a month. Must appear a very fierce-looking individual now. Very hungry. Had nothing to eat for 24 hours.


Sept. 15th – Began the day with an empty stomach. While running with a message from General Maxse to Major Murray, got shot in the left knee.


Sept. 16th – Removed to Villiers. Leg very painful. Had very narrow escape while crossing a pontoon bridge at Villiers. Germans shelling the bridge. Had some food at Villiers, the first since the afternoon of the 13th.


Sept. 17th – We travelled by motor to Bruisne, at which place we lay in a church which had been converted into hospital.


Sept. 18th – Boarded train bound for goodness knows where. People very kind at halting places, bringing us fruit, cigarettes, chocolate and other dainties.


Sept. 22nd – Landed at St Nazaire.


Sept. 23rd – Medical officer extracted shrapnel bullet from my leg. Very painful operation, as he didn't use chloroform and bullet being embedded two inches deep. Embarked on s.s. Asturias bound for Southampton.


Sept. 25th – Arrived in Southampton after a pleasant voyage. Entrained for Aberdeen. At Oxford, Birmingham, Carlisle and Perth, the people very kind, bringing in hot tea and bovril, cakes and cigarettes.


Sept. 26th – Arrived in Aberdeen 2 am. Great kindness shown to us by everybody, the nurses being kindness itself.


An Interesting Sequel


To-day there is to be an interesting sequel to the return home of Private Burns.


The day on which he landed in France with his regiment should, according to arrangements made prior to the outbreak of war, have been his marriage day, but necessarily of course, this event had to be postponed indefinitely.


His return on furlough, however, affords him the opportunity now, and the interesting event takes place to-day.

Edited by Derek Black



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