The Broughty Ferry Guide - Friday, February 19th, 1915
With the local Territorials in France
We landed at Le Havre on the morning of Monday, November 2nd, 1914, after an exceptionally smooth night passage in a steam boat, so that, although this was the first sea-passage for many of us, we all took our foo with out accustomed readiness, and, moreover, retained it.
It happened to be the Company's turn for Battalion fatigues: consequently, while the main body marched off through the town to one of the rest camps, we remained behind unloading the baggage, stores, and transport.
Later in the day we escorted the transport through the town, and although the inhabitants' welcome had been more or less expended on the preceding column, we received our share. I understand that we were the first kilted battalion to land at Havre: consequently we were, apart from any other considerations, the objects of much curiosity from a naturally inquisitive race, the demand for souvenirs being positively brazen. We spent two chilly days and night in camp, and received orders in the evening to entrain at one hour's notice.
It was during the march to the station by night that the disappointing discovery was made that a red lamp signified a police office, the company having been fraudulently led to believe otherwise by one who ought to have known better.
The train we had was remarkable for three things - its great length, slow speed, and lack of any comfort. Half the Battalion was literally stored in covered trucks, though we had the good luck to occupy third-class carriages, but which are inferior to the third class on any British line.
We progressed ponderously across France for 2 hours, with one break in which to stretch our legs, and arrived at night at _______. We marched out to billets at _______, where we remained about a week undergoing training in trench-digging, etc.
We were here all inoculated against enteric fever, a very necessary precaution, entailing in some cases 48 hours' discomfort, in others no discomfort at all.
Next followed a fourteen-mile march billets in a barn, and again the next day a march of the same distance ending with rather a less comfortable billet (also in a barn). This was the first day of rain, of which we were to get such an excess later. The previous days had been as warm as Carnoustie's best August day without the wind. It was here too, that we first came across evidence of the German occupation, in the shape of houses half-standing. and the remainder of them wrecked, and bullet-holes everywhere.
The church had been badly smashed, but if the French used is as an observation post (the country is dead flat and the church spires are the only tall buildings) or placed a machine gun in the belfry, as I was told, they simply "asked fir it", and there should be no hypocritical cant about sacreligious Germans in this case. The next day we moved on to what was to be our home for a month. The Battalion was quartered in a weaving factory, which seemed to have been hastily deserted. We hardly had the best use of it, as the portion alloted to us was the drying room, but we managed to make ourselves fairly comfortable, considering the circumstances and in a place specially constructed to be draughty!
We had always been in sound of the heavy artillery since we left the train, but we were now within sound of rifle fire, and just out of shell fire, as one would occasionally burst a few hundred yards short of us. We first came under fire on the night of November, 17th. Most of us were among a party of a hundred, whose task was to improve a reserve fire trench just behind our front line. we had about five miles to march, and had been under fire probably a quarter of an hour before we knew it. It is not, I think, realised how very little chance there is of being hit, given that it is dark, though you may only be three hundred yards from the main firing, and yet in the open.
A body of men - at intervals - occupy so little space, and there is always ground in front for the bullet to hit, or the air above in which it may go high, that in circumstances ike these it is really bad luck to be hit rather than good luck to be missed. In other words, the non-human area to be hit is enormous compared to the size of the living target. But this is rather a digression. To reach our task we had to pass for half a mile along a ditch knee deep in "glaur", so it may be imagined that progress was painfully slow. The whole business was extremely interesting, as we had no idea where the fire was coming from,nor how far away the trenches were. Now and again the country would be lit up by a star shell - a kind of Roman candle burning a magnesium light, and therefore intensely brilliant. We know we were under fire by now, as one could hear the screech of a mochet or the soft sigh which the true travelling bullet makes as it passes you. On reaching communication trench, which was at right angles to the muddy ditch, and which had only then been dug eighteen inches deep, we heard a wobbly kind of whistle, and before we realised what it meant a shell burst about two yards away. Of course we got down on our faces in the shallow trench, while ten of the beastly things burst all round us at the rate of about one a minute, but beyond being covered with flying mud no one was hurt. Luckily they were not shrapnel, or our cover would not have availed us at all. Then we got on with our job, with nothing but rifle fire to worry us, but we are not likely to forget November 17th, 1914.
We continued on this sort of work every other night till November 28th, when we had our first turn of trenches proper. The Company had a section of its own to occupy, in which the dug-outs were roomy and comfortable, and the Germans as much as 250 yards away. It would be interesting to describe the system by which the preceding Company is relieved, and by which watch is kept day and night, but that us not permissible, but it may be said that where the opposing trench is close to the incorrectly named periscope, which consists of two slanting mirrors fixed parallel to each other, and at right angles to line of sight, is useful for observation by day. Of course, only the top mirror appears above the trench. At night we were able to get along to a ruined house for water, and also to get potatoes from a pit. These, substituted for the more than usually excellent army rations, gave us very high feeding. The ordinary domestic fowl had run wild and become extraordinarily savage. One man having been attacked by one had to kill it in self defence.
Our second trick of trenches was not so pleasant. Here one platoon was at a spot only forty yards from the Germans, but none of us happened to be in that post. It was in this section of trenches that we lost Colour-Sergeant Glass, of Friockheim, who was hit while going with a stretcher with another over what was not then known by s to be an exposed place, to see if he cold help three men who had been wounded by a bomb in the advanced post just mentioned. He afterwards died of his wound. We had only known Glass since mobilisation, but during that time he had endeared himself to everybody, and his death, which was unexpected from the nature of his wound, was a great blow to us all. The Company lost three killed and five wounded during this time, and we were not sorry to leave this section, especially as we had by now had 'some' rain, making the trenches a quagmire. Your method of progression in a trench is very drunken, for while pulling one leg out of the muck you balance yourself by digging your elbows into the side of the trench. 'Clay cat' is the correct expression for one's appearance. It may be easily, understood that ideal as the kilt is for every other waking moment in life, it is emphatically the worst possible dress for the trenches. It was about this time that a curious dark fungus was observed sprouting from the lower part of the Company commander's face, which to the mingled consternation and merriment of the platoon developed into what he stated was a beard. Whatever it was, it had the effect of transforming a man of meek appearance into a desperate-looking ruffian.
During our next spell we had rather an easier time, but a longer period in the trenches, and the Carnoustie squad suffered its first casualty. Lance-Corporal Mathewson was on the evening of December 10th struck in the head by a splinter of a bullet which had hit the parapet just in front of him, but everyone is glad that reports say that he is running about again as fit and we as ever.
The Germans had only one cheerful habit during the daytime, and that was of firing when any smoke was issuing. The result was that earth was invariably splashed into whatever was cooking in the mess tin but, after all, the foo never seemed to taste any the worse.
About the middle of December we shifted our quarters to a farm about a mile behind the firing line, where we have been ever since, and returned to our night digging obs, varied by three days in reserve trenches, or an occasional night in trenches proper as support. It was in reserve trenches that we spent Christmas Day and overate ourselves. We had digging jobs to do here, and the carrying of rations and the munitions of was to the men in the firing line. Christmas day was observed as a truce, not a shot being fired, though in our part of the lines no one on either side emerged from the trenches. On the night of December 21st G. Soutar and A. McLauchlan were both his rather seriously, and it is good to know that they are both going on well. The scene of their misfortune was a particularly open piece of road which we always have to go along to get to our work. There are always a good few bullets coming over here, though at night none are actually aimed on it. Hogmanay was celebrated very quietly, not, I think, from desire to spend it so, but from a lack of the liquid wherewith to celebrate it. But there are many dark schemes afloat to celebrate it with accentuated vigour on our return home.
About this time we were able to get billets close by the reserve trenches, the rest of the Company in a couple of farms, and the Carnoustie platoon in a pub. But the Germans had been there before us, and had left nothing liquid except the remains of a barrel of vinegar, and we suspected that he who alloted the billets had been careful to assure himself on this point before our entry. But we met Josephine and our knowledge of French improved.
A word as to German snipers. They are of two kinds. The one, who is a very skilled marksman, who is told off by day to pick off any unwary person who shows a nose over the top of the trench; and the second, who is in civilian clothes, or even in British uniform, actually inside our line. He is supposed to operate from a straw stack or ruined house after dark, firing on ration parties and reliefs going to and from the trenches. A few cases of this type have been known to occur, but he exists largely in the imagination. For instance, when a bullet hits a house just by you with a bang, and draws fire in the dark by ts terrific impact, it is very difficult to persuade a highly-strung man that there is not actually someone in the house firing at him.
Another reason for the supposed presence of snipers is that the line of trenches is very irregular, and thus stray bullets come from all quarters; as an example, one man of the Company lying taking his rest in a dug-out almost level with the ground, with only hi forearm lolling out, was hit in the wrist by a spent bullet. And this was some six feet down in a trench not more than two feet wide.
Of course we are not so comfortable as we are at home, but really our work just now is not too arduous. We have practically the whole day in which to sleep or do nothing, and we manage to do it very well. We are, of course, in a strange land, and away from home, but we are fed particularly well, and our friends in Forfarshire have been particularly kind in sending us boy belts and all the comforts to put inside and outside our bodies, for which we are more than grateful to them.
It is particularly cheering to us to receive parcels from home, not necessarily from our own relations, as it shows us that Forfarshire is interested in our welfare, and glad that we are representing her here doing our little bit in this big war. Of course, we "grouse" and "touch up" our letter home, but it is usually those that have seen the least fighting who write the most thrilling letters. Therefore, you gentle parents who receive most blood-curdling epistles from your son, rest assured that he is quite safe.
February 6th 1915.