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Tanscription of the diary of James Beatson - part 1.

Shaun Springer

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It is truly an honour to both be the temporary guardian of this work and to bring it to the attention of the public.

Do please remind me to post the rest of the diary. Should be able to do it in 4 or 5 parts. The notes I've added will be in the last posting.


A critique of this diary would be both inappropriate and beyond the acumen of this ‘translator’. Nor is it requisite to appreciating the unsettling mixture of beautifully composed prose stirred throughout with the horrific experiences of a good, honest, and devoutly Christian and erudite man.

However the reader should be aware of certain issues that would not be apparent without access to the diary itself. The entries have been written as they were found. The very minor alterations I have made are changing Beatson’s proclivity for commas into full stops or semi-colons. Where I have added a word, I have done so in (brackets). This aside the words of Beatson appear exactly as they do in the diary.

What is also so remarkable, aside from the contents of every page, is that there are hardly any spelling errors, crossings out or deletions. Given that on occasions Beatson was writing from the front line during a bombardment, how he managed to do so without a misspelling or even an unruled line going askew is a testament to the care and attention he bestowed on this work. In nearly 150 pages of writing, never a line was crooked; the neat handwriting in ink corrected no more than on four or five occasions. There are some colloquialisms for which I have been unable to find the modern day meaning and for this I apologise as Beatson deserved a better researcher than I.

What will be evident to the reader of this all too short masterpiece is the consistent eloquence throughout. His descriptive abilities are the equal of Graves or a young Sassoon. His humour shines through as does his benevolent tenderness to fellow man. Clearly he was a well-educated individual aware of the advances of modern science and widely read from Zola to Balzac and Henry James to Kerome. His observations of French ‘provincialism’ are acute and as true today in many instances as the day Beatson noted them. His religious belief never appears to have wavered and his continued devotion to the Church can be witnessed in his regular attendance and visits to whatever chapel existed in the various villages and towns the 9th Royal Scots found itself.

Finally, the diary is approximately 8”x 4” with 164 pages of which 157 [page 13 being blank] are annotated in Beatson’s neat hand and always in blue ink. All the pages are unruled and bound in a standard issue cloth-board sketch book of the time.

Shaun Springer 2007

The Diary of Corporal James N. Beatson No 2024. B Company 9th (Highlanders – ‘The Dandy Ninth’) Royal Scots. February – December 1915. 81st Brigade 27th Division (d. July 23rd 1916 Battle of the Somme - 51st Div).

In the event of my death, William Swan No 2288 or Cecil Valentine No 2355 or failing those, I can trust the good fellowship of any of my comrades to do me and those who love me, the favour of sending this record to my father John Beatson, 22 Downfield Place, Edinburgh.

Thursday 25th Feb 1915.

Left Edin. Two nights ago, the less I say of how I feel the better. I propose keeping a rough record of the future days so that when I return (may God grant it), I may the more faithfully recount them to you. We have been on the water since four o’clock yesterday afternoon and are only some half-mile off shore. The train journey was very comfortable but since coming on board the Kaiser has something to answer for. Lack of space and the cold make sleeping impossible. While the continual clattering of hob-nailed boots on the iron-plating was an impregnable barrier to those who got over the first. Two Lascars [indian Sailors] wandered about late and early, selling vile tea at 2’ a cup, in fact hawking is their main occupation, tea, oranges, biscuits at the highest prices obtainable. They are in general small and weak looking with a slight knowledge of English and hail from Calcutta. The boat was used before the outbreak of war as a cotton transport from Liverpool to Calcutta and the cattle have left a few keepsakes – worse luck! Today the sun is bright but cold sill. Dredgers, mine-sweepers (This line means that I got a blow from a block which some fool upset which about finished this diary and me) and small craft churn up and down. Hospital ships are anchored here and there. Last night as we sailed past them a low cheer were raised on both sides. Low because strict orders were given for silence. A seaplane has whirred overhead once or twice searching like a hawk for submarine rats.

Friday 26th Feb.

A brilliant on Havre pier. The sun warming the morning air and glittering the waters. We sailed last night on a sea as calm as a mill-pond relying on our strong guards for a safe journey. All were ordered below and a night much better than the previous one was spent in ship. We got a hurried breakfast, Bill and I no tea, and I for one landed in France with a big hunger and some French and a few coppers to ease it. An old lady with a paralysed hand in charge of the ‘Ligue Nationale Antealcoulegue ’ , sold buttered rolls at a penny a time “Chocolat”, “Petite beurre ” etc were on sale but strange enough, no wine (although its harmlessness is famous) was to be had. A few Indians with donkey carts and Frenchmen were moving about the sheds as if to enforce the terms of discipline on the minds of new arrivals, squads of prisoners toiled and sweated under a bullying sergeant. I was told the principles offences were drunkenness and disobedience to officers. One carries the VC another is in for five years for shooting his own forefinger off.

Monday 1st March.

Arrived at Boeschepe last night over the French frontier into Belgium. But to begin where I left off. We left Havre Pier on Friday afternoon to march some four miles to a rest camp. No attempt was made to raise a marching song. We were all eyes for anything new. The streets are lined with the kind of building that is met throughout France, flashy and toy like. You expect to see “made in Germany” stamped on the back. You can see them in “Pathe Frére Comédies” in the New Picture House any night. “Appartements” with little balconies outside, door windows, “Cafes” with seats in front under awnings and plants around. “Maisons” set in rock gardens, haughty and “insouciant” as a Boilian female and the Counsellors have the same straining after-realism as Zola and Balzac for they take no trouble to scrub the urinals, or the fact that the ladies have as much right to animal comfort to animal comfort as the men. The only thing that these Mademoiselles have to learn our girls is hairdressing. We have been early on (the) move often but never failed to find the girls clean-faced and elaborately coiffed. They know that nothing disturbs love like a slatternly appearance. They live to love or to inspire love and lust. There is no difference to most French women. After we climbed an abominable hill we reached camp, got settled in tents and I went to this Y.M.C.A. where I wrote (to) you to the accompaniment of some amateur singing. The place was packed and stories from the front were to be heard in all sides. Reveille at 5.30 next morning, Saturday, after a pretty fair night’s sleep and off at 7.15 to this “Foie de Marchandaise”. We had furries [usually sheep coats] served out here but were bundled into wagons, 26 in each and after emergency rations and rations for the journey were served out we started off. We came across in a cattle boat, were fed on cattle biscuits, wore cattle coats and now we’re driven in a cattle wagon. Some 25 hours of this, crushed and cramped, dozing on straw for a few minutes, coming back to consciousness frozen. We had a vile undrinkable mixture when we halted in a riding for a few minutes, made of rum and coffee, unsweetened and cold. Still we recovered our spirits in the morning and landed in Cassel about 9 O’c in the morning. We passed Rouen and Calais en route. The country as a whole, flat, the farm houses surrounded by a grassy rampart surmounted by tall trees pruned to the trunk. A plan learned, I think, in warfare as every farm there is defensible. The roads are lined with the same tall trees filing along two deep. The orchards are plentiful, trees dressed by the left. A very pretty countryside to spend a holiday on a bicycle. We had a hurried meal at Cassel. Bob G, Dan, McK and I had a glass of coffee and bread with butter in a café, very good (and) all for 2d a time, daintily served in a pretty room heated by a huge stove. Then we fell in, coats on, on our back our pack blanket, jerry and mess-tin. You’d think they’d collected all the hills in France and planted them round Cassel. We trudged along, Colonel and interpreter at the head on horses. We had a rest every three or four miles for a minute or two, then over the rough causeway and mud through Steenvorde and St. Abule and Boeschepe to Poperinghe. We are quartered in farm buildings round about as dusk was falling. It was dark when we got a share of hot water to make oxo. The star shells could be seen dropping over the trenches about four miles off, then to a blessed sleep in the straw till next morning. Only wakened once with cold which was soon remedied. We – Bill and I- had most of our clothes off. What Ho!

Tuesday 2nd March.

Brilliant morning after a sound rest. Settling down to write after a refreshing wash up. While I remember, the roads are causewayed only in the centre, about a cart’s breadth, the margins being knee-deep in mud in soft weather. Every half-mile or so a shrine is met, sometimes only a thing like a dove-cot hung on a tree, usually a wood hut with an alter inside on which stands a crucifix (and) a favourite saint or two. The Madonna and Child and the candles. Occasionally a wooden crucifix about life-size is met carved very expertly. Almost all the women when dressed on Sunday were draped in black; a little cemetery at Boeschepe, crowded with wreaths tells why. We are allowed into the village in parties for a short time but all must carry a rifle and five rounds in case a sniper is met.

Wednesday 3rd March.

Rising after a light sleep. Jimmy, Bill S., Bill J. and I had an hour or so in the village yesterday afternoon. We sat in a café, drank coffee and beer, parlez-voused with the women who were serving and became interested in the host’s little girl, a sober, sweet-faced maid of fourteen. I carried on a conversation partly in French aided by the little English she understood. She said Garrie was “Jolie” but didn’t think the photograph like me at all. The Germans came to the village one night, two men were shot (and) provisions were demanded at the point of a revolver. The little girl fled with the others, returning only when the Hun had fled before the allied soldiers.

February 8th March

Wednesday and Thursday evenings for a few hours from 6.30 onwards were spent rehearsing the relieving of trenches. Flopping down flat in the gluey mud every time a signal went signifying the bursting of a star shell. The real thing was seen on the horizon, the shells lighting up the night to a white glow and the guns booming duly. Bryce and I were detailed to act as guides last night. It was a Godsend to have temporary alleviation from being a human machine and use a little initiative. The notorious tot of rum is served each night but I used it only on Wednesday and then only watered down.

Monday 15th March

Left our billets near Poperinghe last Friday and marched through Boeschepe and Reninghelst to a little clump of trees near Dichebusch. Among the trees are set some 60 little tents like Indian wigwams. In these we’ve since been settled with additional companies coming at intervals. Every night since we came, till last night, we’ve been under fire while digging reserve trenches and only had two wounded. Last night B and D companies were booked for the fire trenches but the German artillery was playing hell making it impossible to relieve C Company who were in along with the 1st Royal Scots. Stood by for a while and after more rations (we) were sent to C Company. We lay down ready at a moments notice to take the road. Our artillery belched replies all night and musketry backing. We, the British, lost four trenches and recaptured three. This is the net result meantime of Hindenburg’s effort to reach Calais by the 15th March. Their artillery was like themselves, any amount of bark but no great bite. Our lads didn’t worry at the prospect of bloody butchery last night. We can rough it when its needed but in the present circumstances a little grub would leave us less hungry and these damned Belgians fleece us at every opportunity. I’m certain that Dichebusch is full of pro-Germans and that they give away information as the price of their safety. The friction would be eased if the authorities had the horse sense to open the regimental canteen. A temporary affair on wheels run by an honest contractor would pay both him and us. Had a pleasant debate last night starting with Germany and ending with trade unionism versus socialism. The debate ended with the candle.

Monday evening 15th

Getting ready to go into the trenches; the “Princess Pat” [Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry] are a game lot. (They) went into battle last night with cigs between their teeth. It’s at times like this that a little bucks you up though.

Monday 22nd March

Events follow each other so quickly and each wild experience is swallowed up by a later one still more exciting than what happened only last week is as distant as last year. Well, last Monday, as far as I can remember, all B Company paraded with water bottles filled and twenty-four hours’ haversack rations with waterproof sheets and teddy bear coats tied on our backs and marched off. On the road a couple of shells burst about 50 yards away with a white flash and a deafening report. Then after being detailed off in squads we started to creep to the trenches through hedges, floundering through ditches and shell holes, flares lighting up the dark and showing us up to a hellish hail of bullets but, by the mercy of God, although the lead rang on the rifles and kicked the earth at our head, we ran the gauntlet to trench No 8, 130 yards or so from the German lines, held, I believe, by the Bavarians. When under direct fire all your control is needed to lie dead quiet. For myself, I confess, I breathed a verse about “Stammering Sam” [from a popular war song of the same name]. I felt an impulse to rise from the mud and run for a deep, deep hole.

Sunday 23rd March

To continue - During the night one of every three men takes a turn for an hour peeping over the sandbag breastwork, shooting and ducking when a flare looks like silhouetting him as a target. Owing to ours being an advanced trench, there was a danger of enfilade fire, so smoking and noise was forbidden. The position roughly was this. Night quickly gave place to dawn and the scene was dismal. A few dead horses lying about, the cunning trenches opposite a silent menace only separated by a rickle of barbed wire and a sprint. Behind our trench were a few graves and crosses among them to my surprise and pain was Sergeant Crichton, the first to go west of our battalion. [sergeant Thomas Crichton was killed on 14th March 1915 and is commemorated on the Menin Gate Panel 11]. Though small, the “traversed” breast-work was very comfortable and the day would have been monotonous but for the Germans shelling of our reserve trenches, our guns ploughing up the mound at St.Eloi away to our left and a sniper rasping away the top of the parapet and throwing the dirt over my book and down my neck. Night fell and we were relieved and returned to the wood and slept. Since then I, along with varying numbers, have been either digging trenches, building sandbag parapets or putting up barbed wire entanglements. Bryce and I have acted as guides. Sergeant Thompson was good enough to compliment me on my work on Friday last. We have been having it pretty hot at times. Jameson hit on the hip and Dryburgh on the forehead in our little party. When we get to point blank range, 400 yards or under, it is best to keep crouching though (and) not run as the bullet, fired from the shoulder, finds it in the head or bust. Last night while a few of us were carrying rations to D Company in the reserve trenches, young Bennet fell hit in the forehead two paces in front of me. Just a flutter and another lad gone west. On getting back to billets I heard that Macdonald was hit in the breast today. His sergeant tells me he died soon after. I’m on easy terms with death but it’s damnable to be hit in the dark by a sniper cur. My heart is sure for the lads and their folks. God pity us. Today we’re moving somewhere else. In the lull of preparations I’ve at last got the narrative up to date.

Wednesday 24th March

Next scene, a hayloft standing back from a very second-class road. Time; after breakfast, weather bright with light showers. Marched here from the wood where it’s “Verboten Ingang”, back (down) the roads we travelled on Friday the 12th, through Reninghelst and skirting Westoutre some ten miles or so. It would have been delightful to sit at the foot of one of the tall straight trees that line the avenue, the white crescent of the moon shining through light clouds, the flat country melting in the huge shadows of the trees dimly seen, sit and dream of an island washed by the Southern Pacific, the haze of its waters surrounding all and “[undecipherable]” coming gliding down the avenue or the sailor reeling along with the “Bottle Impi” in one hand and the brandy in the other. [beatson has left page 13 of his diary blank. Superstition was rife at the front- a common thread amongst soldiers through the ages]. The same would have pleased Stevenson and thousands more, a poem by nature; it made one forget the gnawing of my shoulder straps. Should God spare me, this country will see me again. I want to hear wooden sabots clattering over its cobbles and see the avenues with the homeward bound workers in the evening and its estaminets brilliantly lit and peopled with a noisy debating group such as only villages produce. Children and mothers at the doors or in the gardens. See it at day-break, noon, evening and moonlight and you’ll feel the peace of the country. May the day soon come when its ruins will be restored and its people return to it.

Monday 29th March

My tongue isn’t the friend of a ready writer so justice will not be done to the record of impressions received in this little room of the ‘Abbey Royale des Benedictine Irelandaise. Ypres’. Since arriving here last Thursday there has been a lot of hunts for souvenirs.(N.b.1) The place was littered with rubbish, old letters, accounts dated 1790, religious tracts and (an) endless variety of odds and ends. Occupied by Germans for a few days then by the French troops, then British cavalry and now by us. After, we made it habitable with water and disinfectant following the traditional habit of British soldiers. Pictures on all sides show ghastly hearts dripping with blood and flaming, encircled with a wreath of roses. The endless variation on that theme is depressing and the thought of girls spending the bloom of their youth contemplating such is repulsive to my mind. But I found here a letter written by a girl in Coventry to the Right Hon. Lady Abbess which breathed with religion the sincerity of which was touching and would have been a masterpiece for a Hall Caine novel [Hall Caine was the highest paid novelist of his day.] but with those perpetual reminders of death and the cry of Pax on the walls (when there is no peace) a laugh must seem criminal. Many a time the floor I stand on must have been wet with tears of remorse and sorrow and the heart-brokenness of girls who should be laughing and brightening this grey world. The town itself has suffered terribly from shell-fire especially but cafés still trade and stalls line the pavements. French soldiers are resting and very interesting to talk to although laborious. Good-hearted fellows. One’s an advocate in the 68th Regiment (and) gave an interesting half-hour in a café today speaking pretty good English. He said “You English at St. Eloi lose 7 trenches. Joffre say to your General French ‘I give you a new division’ French says ‘No, we lose trenches we take them again, so English take 7 trenches and once more we say Good’”, quite alright. In his opinion the war may finish any day now as the Germans are greatly outnumbered and their only power lies in their machine-guns. He gave the news that Holland had declared war. I’ve got an enhanced view of the French after what he told me. Since arriving here we’ve only been up to the reserve trenches once on Saturday night, quite safe too, bullets flying around about 2,000 yards behind the fire trenches. Very cold at nights sleeping in woolen gloves.

Tuesday 30th March

I ought to have mentioned the good time spent with the French soldiers in a café on Sunday night. A Sergeant Allois Julien (N.b.2) of the 1ier Cie [first company] 68th Regiment d’Infantrie, Section Postal 66, gave me his rosary as a keepsake. Jolly fine company, ten in all, treated Watson and I to white wine galore. I met a few of the same lot last night and only lack of time made us part. We always tinkle our glasses to ‘La Belle Alliance’ and leave each other with a handshake and a salaam. Only one drawback to their character is their inbred viciousness. Disease is rampant in Ypres; some half dozen cafes have been put out of bounds to us. I suppose lack of doctors prevents proper supervision. Last night we marched to the same line of trenches we worked on Saturday night their formation is novel like this. The advantages are protection from the backward effects of shrapnel fire with easy evacuation and re-entrance into the fire trench should the shells be landed accurately. The excavation behind breastwork ‘A’ being about 3 ft. deep also enables relieving to be done safer.

Wednesday March 31st.

Just came of guard at 3pm today. A good feed and a wash set me on my legs again. The feed nothing very elaborate, in a house-café cost for two 3fr.20cm [3 Francs 20 Centimes or about a shilling]. Looks as if the close approaching new generation were being prepared for. The vendors, one bright specimen sporting a souvenir in hiding, are at the same game again, everything double its value; still, it’s excusable all things considered. One picture I’ve neglected to mention are the windmills set on every hill. Picturesque (but) one outside the town has been demolished by shell fire. Verb.sap. [Verbum sapienti; A word to the wise is enough]

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What a lively mind Corporal Beatson has - Zola and Balzac and Socialsm and dreams of the Pacific. And a very nice dry sense of humour while recording his myriad impressions.


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What a lucky father John was !!

It is truly an honour to both be the temporary guardian of this work and to bring it to the attention of the public.

And I'd like to also say it's an honour for me to read it ! :)

Don't forget the rest Shaun !

Annie :)

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PART 2 of the diary of Corporal James Beatson

Thursday 1st April

A brilliant day spending it lying on the gravy slopes of the ramparts and mustering the energy and words to answer Garvis’ letter. I am in clover today (as) I’ve received three letters and 1 P.P.C. [picture post card] and (the) parcels aren’t in yet! Internal mechanism doctored up with castor oil and laudanum; a fiendish mixture. Popping away as usual at aeros, one passing overhead is pure white and almost invisible against the blue sky.

Later same day

We’ve had a rest from digging tonight which has given me the opportunity of writing Carrie and her father, my father and Bella. A parcel from Bella arrived about 6.30 so Watson and I had oxo for supper. Tres bon!

Friday 2nd April

Good Friday! Has mankind any heart or brain? Are we too utterly dense and blind to the greatest good? Then well may God give us up to a brutish death at our brother’s hands. But no! As we are made in the image of God I believe we’re doing His will in crushing this big-bellied military force. But again, the Kaiser claims the alliance of God sincerely or insincerely. Or is this God dispassionately feeding his earth with men?

Saturday 3rd April

Received another letter from Bella with the tidings that Easter eggs will be mine on Sunday. Received it yesterday alone in its splendid isolation. Went out digging 8 o’c last night, black as pitch returning shortly after 12 0’c this morning.

Tuesday 6th April

Eleven o’c at night sitting in a dug-out my back to a fire and a candle with rapid fire rattling about 50 yards away and shots whining anxiously past overhead with shells occasionally soaring over the treetops and bursting a little away, here sit I – but I’ll start my tale of war from the beginning. On Saturday night I was detailed by Caldwell (CURSE HIM) to form one of the carrying party going some 6 miles out to a dumping station with barbed wire, fascines [pipes used to lay over barbed wire so enabling crossing- theoretically] etc, etc. We paraded at 4.20pm, landing back at about 2am next morning – drenched to the shin and plastered in mud. In the interval the damned inevitable muddle kept us waiting at a roadside in a trench moving six yards in as many minutes, without guides which left us 5 hours to get giddy with cold, cowering for shelter and trying to draw heat from each other. All we could do we did, curse the incompetency of pot-house lawyers. In revenge praised the French for drawing their officers from the ranks. We regained our spirits a little going home and managed to raise a song. As I tumbled into bed I promised myself a long sleep into the afternoon. Lord pity me! That morning after breakfast Captain Bell popped his head round the door and with a condoling grin said that guides were to parade at 11 o’c for A and B Companies under Captain Ferguson and Blair. Full marching order, so it was Au Revoir to the convent.

Wednesday 7th April

To continue. We set out with 7 guides, 3 N.C.O.s, 2 Captains and a mounted interpreter. Steady slogging to a Dumping Station to the end of the road at Dead Man’s Bottom Wood, then taking notes for guiding. We passed through what had once been a beautiful estate with a large pond, wooded and shrubbery round a ruined chateau close to Hooge. Then a little further to the Sanctuary Wood where our dug-outs were located. From the Dumping Station to our dug-outs was honey-combed with dug-outs occupied by Frenchmen. Their huts are comfortable or cramped for height according to the inmate, some are only 3ft high, others 6ft with fireplaces, ledges cut out and ornamented. All are concealed in the wood with brushwood on the roof. We spent the day gaming and gourmanding with the Frenchies and at night we went to the Dumping Station for the Companies brought them here and just as just as we were entering the wood, a shell tore towards but burst high about 100 yards away. Our dug-out, that is Watson and I, was only about 3ft high with a fireplace but we deepened it yesterday to 5ft and improved drainage etc, etc. The place was filthy with refuse left by the Froggies. The dugouts vary in size, some hold 17 down to 2, the general is about 5.

On Thursday night

Again guides were called out to go to the Dumping Station just as I was settling down to sleep. The usual party got lost and wandered about in the dark till we got them, or rather they wandered to us. Returned about three hours later after hiding the cargo which couldn’t be carried. On Friday I was informed that Guides were declared off all duties and fatigues which sort of balanced matters as I was called out again last night to guide a stretcher party to the Dumping Station. Bryce shot in the foot with his own rifle, L/Cpl Chisholm shot in the left hand. Three others were shot in the Company Party last night I hear and a working party were up at the fire-trenches but I know not how they fared. This part of the line is a devil for sapping and mining from what I hear from the R.I.F. [Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers] who are holding it; will find out for ourselves shortly. Today I’ve spent cleaning myself; just had a shave and a wash up, cleaned my rifle and bayonet and now Watson is trying to improve the fireplace and dry the floor with ashes and sand. We dug rather deeply yesterday and the water was squelching on the floor under the sheets this morning. It’s a nuisance lifting the tail of your kilt when you go in. The guns are going ahead all round this quarter and Hooge shows the effects of the German replies. Houses wrecked to a quick. I forgot to mention I had a letter and two papers from Bella and a letter from Carrie yesterday morning. Oh that they were longer but they were welcome alright.

Thursday 8th April

Out with a carrying party last night ankle deep in mud to dug-outs occupied by (the) 9th A&S Hs [Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders] lying in support of 2 of these companies in the firing line. Dug-outs in a wood swept by bullets and shells. Came back to a miserable night’s rest, floors flooded, wakened every little while frozen to the heart and cramp in both legs. Crawled out and had a heat at the S.M.’s [sergeant Major] fire while sorting letters for him. This morning the weather is unsettled, fair and hail about and chilly especially when there’s no wood to raise a flame in our mud hut. Oh for ten minutes in front of the fire at home with a wash up in warm water and able to stand up without bringing down an avalanche of dirt all over you and your kit. Yea and dirt tastes rotten. Damn the Kaiser and curse his breed forever. Amen.

Thursday 8th April (later)

I should note the burst of rapid fire on our front yesterday. It was prolonged and brought the order ‘Stand To’ Full Marching Order, still to learn the result. Our dug-outs being so verminous, the blankets haven’t been given us so we retire thusly [sic] – socks on, kilt loosened, jacket buttoned only at the waist, greatcoat turned upside down and legs slid into the sleeves. This leaves you to curl up and chew the mud off the end of the coat.

Friday 9th April

Yesterday afternoon we had a very cosy fire in our dug-outs; envelopes for private correspondence had been served out - 4 per man per month, so I settled down and broke records in writing. A letter to Carrie and a note to her Dad ran me into 9 pages which relieved my mind a great deal. About 8 o’c we paraded Full Marching order, guides in front and traveled to the dug-outs in a wood which lies in support to trenches Nos 67 to 73; No 73 being the trench allotted to No. 8 platoon. The Coy. Guides for A & B Coys met guides for the 1st A&S.H. and when C&D Coys arrived from Ypres about 10pm we led them to their respective trenches. The line we occupy is easy for entrance and exit and strongly supported by machine-guns, but more of that when our turn comes. We got back in the morning and lay down through force of habit and because it’s customary to do it at night-time, but we wakened frozen meat when the effect of the rum faded away, it’s always the feet that trouble you. Anyhow, it made up for the lot when I got a letter from Carrie, one from Nan, a p.c. from Jessie and papers from Bella – all this morning.

Saturday 10th April

Spent yesterday wandering about the wood here, looking for curios. In this wood called Glencorse Wood was fought the famous battle of Ypres (N.b.3). Our progress can be traced by the dug-outs and shallow trenches every 5 yards or so, every foot has been contested. The equipment, caps, jackets and ammunition lying about among the brushwood tell of lives lost. Lieut. Stewart took Watson and I up to Fitzclarence Farm near our artillery observation post from where we could see our trenches but no Huns. It appears that we are holding part of the Territorial sector and that at present the Germans are not in great force on our front. (N.b.4). Yesterday a Lieut, a Corporal and 8 men of C Company were wounded by shrapnel in their trenches and a Private of A Company killed whilst working behinds trenches last night. Watson and I led Lieut. Smith-Grant (N.b.5) up to trench 73 last night and back again while the rest of the section replaced the casualties in C Coy. While running for water this forenoon, McKay, Hepburn and I were sniped at, close shaves but “A miss is as good as a mile”. The weather today is promising well for our spell of the trenches, we go in tonight.

Tuesday 13th April

While waiting for tea I’ll finish my story. We went to Trench 72 at dusk on Saturday night heavily loaded. Very chilly. Sunday warm night, as usual prolonged bursts of rapid fire on our left kept us on the ‘qui vive’. Monday morning while having breakfast about 6 o’c Scott and Lyon were hit in the head by a sniper. Jock was also hit in hand, both pretty bad. Watson and I crawled to camp to try and get relief for them but that not being procurable, we waited till dusk and guided stretchers parties. We guides were kept busy at times and we have to be slick to slip the Huns, rather go up to my knees in water than show my headpiece. In a communication trench I crept through the skeleton of a Frenchman (who) was lying beneath the water, the white bones sticking out of his tunic, poor chap. “Our Father which art in Heaven”. Scots, French, Germans, Austrians, Russians and the rest, return to ‘our’ Mother Earth, groaning and cursing. We were relieved last night, dragged ourselves for eight miles to the little wooden hut at Valmertinghe (and) slept from 5 this morning until 2 in the afternoon, the first for three days or more, and we had our clothes of and a blanket each so our sleep was sound. Wakened to receive a parcel from Carrie, her mother has blessings showered on her.

Wednesday 14th April

The narrative stopped short last night as tea arrived and lights were ordered out before we had finished. In future all lights have to be out at 9pm. This is in consequence of an airship dropping bombs on Monday night about 100 yards from the huts, 6 in all though only two were anything near. They made the huts sway I hear. Everybody was scared at the report and the holes they dug show they ain’t just crackers. Last night I went for a chat into the village, had coffee and wine and jawed with the fellows. One of ‘Princess Pats’ got my shoulder till a ‘Cheshire’ spoke well for other ‘French Foreign Legion’, 75% of which are wanted by police, all nations under the sun are in it. Came back to tea, had biscuits and cake with it. ‘Tres bon mes beaux enfants’. A word or two about the Germans who oppose us. Their fire trenches are believed to be on our half right and half left with a communication trench between. They held a wood on our half right and ruins in front. Between us they had dummy trenches, a hedge at an angle and their proper trench was decorated with dummy loop-holes (N.b.6) They weren’t in great force but they were ‘Bisleys’ (N.b.7) and our procedure and trenches were childish in comparison. We had a wood at our back, a few ruins, we had marksmen and though we outnumbered them, they easily had the superiority of fire because we hadn’t the horse sense to use our advantages. We were so silly as to have all our loop-holes stuffed and in a trench with breast work about 6ft high we had no head cover but had to fire over the parapet. We British are game to the last but damned stupid at times and this was one (such time) last week-end.

Thursday 15th April

What a time we had yesterday with our long looked for parcels, 2 from Bella and a letter from Carrie. Everybody was pressing cake on each other but I bet none was like the one Carrie’s Ma made. It gives me “that tired feeling” (N.b.8) to think of trenches and bully-beef and biscuits. But I’m carrying some of the treasure trove back although I’ve to crawl with it. Met a Portobello chum last night in an éstaminet. Today is a glorious example of what a summer day should be. Aeros are flitting about like butterflies. It was against the grain to do 2 ¼ hours drill but our Al fresco dinner made up for it. Melton Mowbray pie, pineapple, cake, dates and chocolate sitting on a blanket in the sun. Had word this morning of desperate attacks by the Schwein-Huns at St. Eloi repulsed heavily. Our Artillery went ding-dong from midnight. Heard from L/Cpl in D Coy who got through the shelling at Ypres that the three shells landed from different directions. A fellow in French officer’s uniform was taking note of the damage shortly after and on being accosted by another French officer merely nodded. Investigation succeeded suspicion and he proved to be a German in disguise; another 7 were rooted out in the same fashion. Its only too true that we’re fighting at present with kid’s gloves on. While the Huns are going at it tooth and nail. We need pluck and patience and a pair of glasses for the snipers and the cunning of the Devil himself for them all, all the time.

Friday 16th April

As I was writing Bella last night the word flew round to pack immediately. Underclothing etc had to go to make room for the parcels and even then some were left. As we lay on the parade ground Lieut. Stewart called for Watson and I and the three of us went ahead to Ypres to look for billets for the battalion which followed 15 minutes later. It seemed we were to follow up in “close support” as a big attack by us was anticipated. So all night we lay with everything ready. The billets we got were quite close to the Benedictine Convent and had just been vacated by the 18th Royal Irish. We rose this morning about 8 o’c after a comfortable night on the straw and Watson and I went out to a café and had a tuck in to coffee and buttered rolls. On coming out I stood at a stall to buy a few P.P.C.s when again the word was passed that we were shifting. Luckily only a short distance this time to other billets where we are staying for the day. The sun is bright and warm so I’m doing the daily dang on the grassy green.

Sunday 18th April

On Friday night we tripped along the railway back to the dug outs arriving early on Saturday morning. Sellars being detailed as the new guide long with myself. Watson being an N.C.O. returns to his section. C & D Coys with a few of our coy continued to the trenches. On Saturday there was some liveliness in our artillery on our right, we ‘Stood to Arms’ but no movement was made in our sector. On Saturday night at 9pm I reported myself to the ‘Orderly Room’ but not until 11 o’c was I needed to guide a party of the Adjutant, Brigade Major, Engineer Captain and Sergeant on a tour of inspection round trenches 69 to 73. The Major’s criticism was sharp and unsparing, gave as much information in 5 minutes as would take 5 months and a life to find out. The Adjutant and your humble returned to the dug outs at 3.15 this morning in time for the ‘Stand To’ at dawn. I mustn’t omit the fact that I’ve sent away 13 postcards in two days, 3 yesterday. 10 today and received word from Bella, Mr. Sponder and Jim Sanderson.

Wednesday 21st April

Back in Valmertinghe, bright day with a sharp wind blowing. We landed about 4o’c this morning and since then I’ve been sleeping and eating, it’s best to do both when one has the chance, whether you’re sleepy or hungry or whether you’re not for one never knows when you’re getting the next sleep or meal. We went into the trenches last Sunday night and were relieved last night, Tuesday, having a quiet time in the interval; no casualties in our Company. These last two days Ypres has been heavily shelled and it continues; batteries are shelling all fire entrances and indiscriminately in the town itself. Last night we got through quite safely but saw the ghastly evidences on the streets. The motive for shelling at this particular time may be the knowledge that only British troops are now occupying the town, their partiality for us over our allies is well known or else the set-back they received last Saturday and Sunday when we took Hill 60 from them. (N.b.9). This hill lies to the right of our sector, North-East of Ypres. Various little incidents have been occurring which would have been worth mentioning one time but familiarity breeds contempt. What is more important is an engine puffing on the railway nearby four beautiful if dirty calves grazing beside me; it’s a real mental tonic to see them.

Thursday 22nd April [Day of German gas attack]

Received parcels from Bella and Miss Alston yesterday. Bella’s of Café au lait and Miss Alston’s half a dozen hankies being especially welcome. This morning is much warmer and brighter than yesterday and am setting to write after the rifle inspection lying in a hamlet in a blanket on the grass. I read an illuminating article by one who knows in this week’s ‘Weekly Dispatch’. He dealt with 2 ½ millions of Germans holding our front in the West, the length of the front, about 600 miles (which) allows a thin firing line of 1,000,000, the same number in reserve and about 500,000 details which augurs well for a successful offensive shortly.

Thursday later

O you who sit secure in England complacent in your armchairs and jar at Germany, would lose some of your gawky cockiness if you saw the wringing of hands and the terror-stricken looks of the Belgians here when the alarm came an hour ago of a French retiral beyond Ypres. The hubbub started as I sat writing in a café. A crowd was outside watching our artillery making excellent practice on a German aeroplane, it was making along our left when I got out, dropping fuses as it went. Then French artillery from the firing-line, weary and tattered, hurried through the village.

Thursday 29th April

As I was saying last week – if some of the men in the homeland would see and feel, their heads would come off their chests and their hands off their bellies. The French, black and white [the Algerian Zouaves] both alike grimy, the mules straining at the guns clattered back, we stood to and moved off at night. That night we spent in a field but we were early on the move again as ignorant of why and wherefore as the ‘Men’ in a game of draughts. We spent part of the forenoon squatting in Pottige [Potijze] Wood with Canadian batteries barking all about us and the German shells wrecking the farmhouses and laying out the gunners. The whole air was electrified with expectation of blood flowing. Again on the move along the road parallel to the German line. The shrapnel started coming over, 20 of our men were hit at Whichy [Wieltje – on the St.Jean Ridge]. Houses and cafes deserted all along the road. Bottles and glasses, wine and beer, left in the flight. We rushed up in small parties along the road, across fields under shellfire all the way to St. Julien. Closer than we knew to the Germans but being unsupported we, only 2 platoons of us at one point, gathered and went back safely this time to Whichy. There the 2 companies, after getting bandoliers standing in the lie of the end house, rushed across a field by sections. The succeeding events were alternating rushes and rests, shrapnel and stink bombs, bursting and sickening us with poisonous fumes and inflaming our eyes. Our artillery seemed miserably inadequate. I only wish the fellows who grumble at home over a few coppers of overtime were sent out here; they would understand things a bit better from our point of view. (N.b.10). These stink bombs have only a local explosive effect. Our Lieut Stewart being only bowled over by one bursting 6 feet away; but the fumes are horrible and hang in the air for a long time. The last part of the journey up we came under hot fire, the ground spurting up all round but C&D Companies on our left were harder hit than we were. When at last we stopped behind a hedge we hurriedly dug ourselves in to get head cover at least. That night when on a manage back [slang term for ‘acting as guide’] to the Colonel, I saw the wounded on all sides. I did what little I could but it is heart-rending to hear the fellows asking for help and see the dead lying so very still. The following day we had no rations sent us. Our ‘emergencies’ were done, Sellars and I got water at Pottige Chateau for the platoon. On the road, the German shells were making brick-dust out of the houses. I found some sugar and cold chocolate in a café which had just been deserted; that disappeared. One pathetic incident was a goat that saw the Lieut. Sellars and I as we made our way through the ruins of a farm. It came running towards us like a frightened child and followed us till dusk when we got rid of it at the farm on our road back. Cows wandered about our trenches heavy with milk and bewildered. I managed to creep out and get a pint or so of milk but, being spotted, put an end to the game. Digging and trekking from dawn to dusk with little to eat and drink till we were withdrawn to the dug-outs we (had) made in Pottige Wood where we spent a night and a day. We left on the second night in the wood, the Lieut. and myself and 3 others in advance, leaving behind us freshly made and cooked stew that had been dispatched (by) us from our own woks! You have to feel hungry for a few days to appreciate this disaster. Our Lieut. Stewart made us sweat till we got to the 81st Brigade Headquarters where we received directions from General Croker for the distribution of the Battalion. One company was sent to the ‘Tank’ one to Polygon Wood and A & B companies to Sanctuary Wood here a little to the N.W. of our previous dug outs. After arriving yesterday morning we slept long and deeply till afternoon, rose, got a cat’s wash and basked in the sun. Today is splendid and so hot that a few of us went to a shallow and muddy brook and bathed. Butterflies are flitting about, an aeroplane dropping sinister fuses only suggests to our drowsy minds a droning bee. The Cuckoo is calling and altogether the wood is delightful, so much so that that Bill Swan, Percy Telford and I lay under a pine tree and recalled bygone days of happiness spent in the country. It strikes a sweet note to recall the heather hills and good times at Achae [scotland]. The sun is now sinking slowly and a cool breeze is stirring the trees. What horrible mockery that the peace of nature should be broken by the blast of cannon and (the) whizzing of stray bullets and the thought of men having to die for the liberty to govern themselves. Never mind, God’s in his Heaven, keep looking up.

Friday 30th April

Shifted again last night back to our old dug-outs in the Sanctuary Wood. A party of us went digging trenches today in the grounds of Hooge Chateau. What a paradise lost – the apple and pear blossomed trees, the delicate pink and white Japanese maple, the fresh greenery and cool shade and (the) long avenue. What a contrast with the shattered walls of a once splendid chateau, the tumble-down statuary and fountains. Sun was claying warm, ideal for a summer picnic. I could almost imagine I was digging in the garden on my summer holidays. The line of the trenches, if occupied, would blunt the too acute angle of our firing line at this point. Although it would mean losing ground, it would make the position safer to my mind. The position is roughly this. The dotted position is this line under construction at this point. [As no diagram is drawn in the diary it would seem a loose leaf was inserted and subsequently lost]. From all accounts our work last Friday had a greater moral effect on the situation that we imagined; our appearance as reinforcements stayed the attacks of the Germans though we didn’t have a shot at them. (N.b.11) It is almost 8 o’c and getting too dark to write. It is a beautiful calm evening and I intend spending the night under the tree.

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Loved the image of him with his legs in the sleeves of his upside down greatcoat, chewing the mud off the hem. he is droll sometimes.


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Yes, and creeping out of the trench to milk a stray cow!

I'm a bit late on parade here, but have caught up, and I loved the bit in the convent about the floors being "wet with tears of remorse and sorrow, and the heartbrokenness of young girls". :ph34r:

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Marina .... you didn't tell me and made me tardy !! :)

Oh boy ! I'm not a father .... but if I'd have received this after my son died ........... I don't know !!

What a wonderful treasure to have .... to be able to laugh and cry with him at the same time !

Wonderful stuff Shaun !

Can I ask if James was relative of yours ?

Annie :)

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No he wasn't a relative. I bought his diary in a recent auction. I'm a private collector with a long-held interest in the First World War and hand-written diaries (log books and field order books) are about as close as one can get to those who were there. But I feel that the contents of such items should not remain in the private domain. James Beatson's diary however is an extraordinarily beautiful work of literature not least because it was not intended to be anything other than that which he stated it would be. But his erudition and intellect are a rarity in the trenches and we are all privileged to be allowed entry to his most private thoughts. I have just purchased another diary of one Walter Hutchinson. You may have read about him (or his diary) in the papers today. He won the M.M. but he records the events surrounding July 1st in vivid detail and I shall be posting that at a later date. I'm so delighted by everyone's reaction to 'James'. I'm no spring chicken and work in the financial markets in the City. I mention this only to illustrate that cynicism is nigh on my middle name. But I have become very attached to, even emotionally involved with James' words. I've a sizeable WW1 library and read the greats of literature and verse but I've never felt so enticed into another's world as James has allowed me into his. Anyway....I'm babbbling. Will post part 3 tomorrow if poss.

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Hi Shaun !

Isn't it funny the way we are charmed by something ..... and then all of a sudden it's one of the most important things in our lives ? ( apart from spouse and family of course !! )

How lucky we are - that other people like us - are able to appreciate the same things !!

Quite a kick isn't it ?

I look forward to the next installment !!

Annie :)

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You're not babbling, Shaun. I know exactly how you feel. Have you read the Vernede, Buxton, and the two Shrewsbury schoolmasters papers (posted by Stiletto), and the diary of Lt. Pitt, posted by Pompey Rodney. Marvellous stuff, all of them. And now we have Corporal Beatson!

I read a couple of extracts of Walter Hutchinson's diary in the newspapers today - looks good! I was regretting that I couldn't read the entire thing - and it turns out you have it! I shall look forward to that being posted too!


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I'm quite new here and haven't found the schoolteachers yet, or Lt Pitt .... so treats in store for me?

Shaun, I am loving Cpl Beatson's writing, and I want to thank you for letting us read this.

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Sunday 2nd May

Yesterday was May Day. I woke wet with May dew though it was a glorious day. (The) road in front was shelled in the evening and we were almost suffocated with sulphurous fumes. Wrote Carrie, Jim Sanderson, John Alston and another. Today is duller with a hint of rain.

Tuesday 4th May

We stumbled on a hot spot near St.Jean, wounded were trailing by, dragging one leg after the other, horses were lying at the roadside dead and dying and everything was at a fever point. A cottage I called at still inhabited by the peasants helped us none but in the end, tired and shoulders aching, we got to Sanctuary Wood. Yesterday, Monday, while Tuley and I were making stew for the lads who were digging, we got this order again to trek. After almost falling asleep in the trenches we fell in, marched along the Zonnebeke road, and then toddled home again to the wood itself this time. As the dugouts are abandoned, pending the retiral. After a fair night's sleep, Bill San and I had a feed of 'Maconachie' and a drink of tea. I found the 'Maconachie' yesterday in a bag labeled 'Anti-Aircraft'- it was fired all night. This morning is mild after raining all night; we're working on a new dug-out for tonight as the shells are coming over in style.

Thursday 6th May

On Tuesday night we, A & B companies relieved the 1st Argylls. The trenches have been hastily constructed about 40 yards behind the previous line and have only been occupied about a couple of days. The parapet is yielding, is very low and the water is knee-deep in parts owing to the ground being boggy and the weather showery. The trench is on the outskirts of a wood, the Germans are following up about 500 yards away in the open, just on a ridge, Hill 60 is just on our right. I was on the Listening Post with L/Cpl Watson and Sellars on Tuesday night, but the Lieutenant was more enterprising than the L/Cpl, he took Watson and I last night to 100 yards or so from the German lines. We crawled through the bushes cautiously, hiding from star shells till we got into the open where we lay dead quiet listening for some time. We heard them signaling on a kind of wheezer which was repeated down their line and their picks were rattling, evidently the ground was nice and rocky for them. We move about the wood at the rear of the trench freely, digging and running for water any old time we please. Shells have been coming over but the spell has been pretty comfortable on the whole though a lot of work has been expected off very little grub. We are getting relieved tonight but I am looking forward to a little excitement at the Listening Post before we go, there is always the chance of meeting each other when we'd rather not.

Saturday 10th May

We were relieved on Thursday night and have spent the time since then in the wood behind the trenches bordering on an open heathery patch. We each have a dug-out to ourselves as a precaution in the event of shelling and I made mine fragrant with pine flooring and roofing, the bushy shoots make a cushy bed. The weather has been brilliant. A fine artillery duel has been raging all day [The British had just lost Frezenberg Ridge under terrific shelling]. We had our innings in the morning but the Germans poured the shells into the clump on our left searching for the guns. We had splinters flying about us but no one was seriously hurt. Jiny had a shake up with a splinter but is all right again. A Lieutenant and two men are lying in heather in front here, killed this morning in the trenches.

Monday 10th May

More shelling yesterday and a 'Stand To' in support to the 'Glosters'. Sellars and I had to wait in a dug-out on orders and we had a pleasant chat and a glorious tuck-in with Lieut. Robb who had just returned from hospital and brought delicious ginger-bread cake with him. We made oxo and tea on a little 'Pocket Primer' he carries. He told us of a renegade Englishman caught spying and of a mysterious German gun within our lines which shells Poperinghe nightly. Lieut Stewart told us of a splendid advance made near Arras on our left. The effect of such news on our fellows dead beat and hungry makes them giants again for endurance. Our little lot were relieved in the early morning but the shelling has hardly abated. I'm writing these notes while we're 'Standing To' again. The Germans are kicking up an unholy row - the whole ground about us is shuddering. L/Cpl Hamilton and Sergt Thompson have just been hit by bullets, not mortally I think. Sometime I'll open these pages for the last time perhaps. One never knows. I pray the Lord who died of His love for us to pity our foolishness, my foolishness and in the last, to give us the certainty of meeting our loved ones when the day breaks on a new world. Today is boiling hot, Sellars and I accompanied Lieut. Stewart to locate a trench line in our rear. He told us that we were to hold this line and cover the retiral of our Brigade should this be deemed necessary. This is no small compliment to our Battalion. I received letters this morning from Carrie and Alec Mitchell.

Wednesday 12th May

In the trenches again. Came in on Monday night. Occupying the same traverse as on Tuesday to Thursday last only more exciting, constantly on the 'qui vive' [Literally 'who lives' being the French equivalent of 'who goes there?' and meaning, in this instance, constantly on the alert for attack]. Poor Jimmy Smith killed yesterday in neighbouring traverse, on the eve of his discharge, the circumstances are particularly sad. Wrote Carrie yesterday. Just started shelling our trenches so story will be continued later. (N.b.12).

Friday 14th May

Poured all yesterday and today. I guess we're [Germans and British] both pretty miserable, they've been pretty quiet over their way. Nothing doing on the 'Listening Post' last night. Received a letter from Carrie this morning. Had beautiful dreams of hot bannocks buttered [a Scottish delicacy being a type of chewy oatmeal cookie] and eggs; could about smell them for hours after. Write and ask what the book says about this.

Thursday 17th May

Relieved from the fire trench on Saturday night and occupied the support trench 100 yards in the rear. I roofed a part over and it's more comfortable. Sunday was bright and quiet on the whole. All last night when some hot work was doing on the Menin Road. Today is raining (and we’re) reduced to a state of cheerful resignation to anything that may happen. The air is heavy with good rumours, big advances, long rests and a possible trip home (N.b.13).

Thursday 20th May

Still lying in the wood waiting for the relief that is always coming 'tomorrow'. We're buoyed up with the prospect of furlough as in truth we needed buoying up with the drenching rains these last few days. Today is the first dry day and it has been splendid. Things have been quiet as far as big fighting goes but there is a steady dribble of casualties. Received a parcel this morning from Bella. Temperature went up to fever point and just heard another official wire that Italy has sailed in. Sounds probable this time in view of Thursday's news in the 'Daily Chronicle' is right, well - the Huns, God pity them!

Saturday 22nd May

Yesterday was quiet, weather very fine. Today is still bright but a shadow is over our spirits as poor as poor Bill Whittle has just been carried away dead, shot through the head. We’re preparing to leave the trenches tonight, 'redding-up' [slang for tidying up, a joyous event]. Received a 'Round Robin' from Mr. Sponder this morning. I appreciate very much the kind remembrances of the old school. 'Tis a pity our ways must always be separate but will accept each others' good wishes and be happy. Our ways may meet the other side of the valley when we see the Promised Land spread before us.

Sunday 23rd May

Three months since we left Edinburgh; (it) was a tropical day, our chief concern was to defend ourselves from the hot glare of the sun. After strategising by plunging about in a cold bath, I retired to the shelter of the bivouac - but I've forgotten! Our parcels! What a deluge of cake, chocolate and the hundred other things that go to make parcels. I had my share from Bella, Carrie and Jessie Mathieson. Later a few of us adjourned to an estaminet nearby where we had coffee and a sing-song. It was a welcome night to see the kiddies, especially one little laughing curly-haired elf. I don't know whether it was a boy or a girl but it bubbled over with fun when we played peek-a-boo. That night we slept soundly; the air was warm and heavy but at 5.30 in the morning following the steady booming of cannon overnight bought its sequel - a 'Stand To'. Our hearts beat slower at this - our 'rest' over before it was begun. It is 8.30, the moon is sailing in a pale blue sky, let's lay down till tomorrow.

Tuesday 25th May

To pick up the broken thread and continue spinning the take, here goes. On Saturday night we left our trenches to the care of the King's Own Yorkshire L.I. [Light Infantry] and moved off through the wood by platoons, the rendezvous being the level crossing near Vlamertinghe [Lying on the Ypres -Poperinghe road]. Before we left the wood a burst of rapid fire ripped through the trees and accounted for a few, our corporal was hit in the groin. Beyond the range of rifles, passing along Zillebeke, along the Menin road into Ypres we saw the hideous ruins, the result of the last bombardment. Words haven't been wired to describe the desolation. The brimstone rained on Sodom and Gomorrah could hardly have caused more havoc. We reached the crossing, the road a living line of troops trekking backwards. Motor buses which not long ago picked up gents and Mesdames in the Strand, here picked up the fellows who were very exhausted while the rest of us made for a field nearby where our field kitchens supplied us with hot tea, bread and butter after our packs had been loaded on limbers. With easy backs, well packed innards and light hearts, we started off again. The beauty of the country ride got through the sweat over our eyes but we were utterly done, blistered feet chiefly, before we’d covered 10 miles or more being on the road from 10pm on Saturday night to 5am Sunday morning. The camp was in a grass field between Reninghelst and Poperinghe, a bivouac being made with cabers and blankets.

Wednesday 26th May

We waited all Monday in a state of tension. We could smell the gas and the wind was blowing strongly against us but not until 5.30pm did we move off. On the road back, about 200 dropped out from foot-soreness principally though the heat was terribly oppressive on us with our greatcoats and heavy packs. We lay in a field all night near some batteries not far from the rendezvous of Saturday night. We heard that massed attacks helped by gas were made near Menin Road, that the trenches we occupied had been lost and recaptured and that the Germans were concentrating strongly. We however, it seemed, had re-established all lost ground with some additional trenches. (N.b.14) After lying in reserve with the rest of the Brigade until 10am Tuesday morning we got sudden orders to move off again but this time to huts behind Vlamertinghe where we had tea and found shelter from the heat. The crisis appeared to be over and at 3pm a column of buses drew up and we had a welcome drive back. I should note that some half-dozen of our officers are on leave in England for some days so we are without Colonel or Adjutant and if a show had come off for us, our battalion would have been in the charge of our Company C.O. We are camping in a clump of trees and grass north of the last bivouac near Poperinghe. The nearest village is called Bosselboom or something [busseboom]. The heat is terrific and we move about dressed like classical dancers. Last night we got the week's mails that were lost during the St. Julien shoot-up. I got one from Bella, Carrie, Father and a packet of choc and a letter from Jessie Mathieson. Today General Snow [Major General T D'O Snow Commander of the 27th Division] visited us. The heat has been scorching but a delicious breeze is now striving through the trees. We have just returned from an incident of the first importance- our bath - a clean skin has never been more appreciated. The bath-tubs are in a gendarme school in Poperinghe, the water had seen previous service but it was hot and soapy. The town has a deserted appearance owing to the shells that the Germans managed to throw into it, but quite a number of firm-lipped women were gleaning in the fields and training the hops. The town is a mixture of rambling houses and handsome buildings, quite a nice place to spend a day in, but, c'est impossible.

Sunday 30th May

The past few days we've led a tinker's life. We bade adieu to Bosselboom on Friday morning at 4.30am marching to Dranoutre swinging along to 'Hold Your Hand Out', 'Persian Rose' and 'Row, Row, Row' in fact all the popular favourites on the brass bands of the 'Sherwood Forresters' and the 'Lincolns'. On Saturday morning we marched to Steenwerck. This afternoon we started off after dinner reaching Armentieres about 8pm.

Monday 31st May

Another splendid day. Little groups are strolling about the square in the sunshine. I was too tired last night to mention all the details which kept up the interest on the march. On Friday afternoon L/Cpl Watson and I got a pass into the village of Dranoutre. The barber was English speaker and carried on the éstaminet and shoemaker's business along with his tonsorial activities. In the evening we had a regular band performance in the 1st Royals' billets.

Tuesday 1st June

All the old Prince's Street Gardens selections, just like being at home, lying on the grass and joining the chorus. We bivouacked in the open that night. On Saturday I got into the village of Steenwerck which is the local transport centre. I had a tuck-in in an éstaminet where we met Budlock the quondam [Latin meaning 'former'] runner now a motor transport driver, one of the army aristocrats, here also I got off Carrie's parcel in the 9th Divisional Post Office. On Sunday we had a Service in the field after which the Colonel read to us congratulatory messages from Generals Joffre and French and divisional generals for the part we played in the rumpus of 22nd April and (the) following days. Owing to the Colonel commanding the Composite Brigade being killed, the work of the different units was unknown. After dinner we marched off through Steenwerck and other villages to Armentieres. Here Kitchener's Army (N.b.15) is in force, all Scottish units, the kilt everywhere, Gordon tartan, Cameron and Seaforths. The 19th Division drove the Germans beyond the town at the point of the bayonet last September and the line has been stationary ever since. In the interval both sides have fortified the positions and neither side attempt an offensive, so here we come for a rest. Occasionally a few shells are dropped in the town. Our billet is the Civil Hospice, a clean, roomy building on three sides of the square. The place has been bathed in the sunshine since we came and the square is ideal for a parade ground. Yesterday, Monday, I ferreted out the 8th Gordons' billets and Alick Mitchell, he looks bronzed and brawny. Today, Tuesday, we've finished a stiff morning's drill and bayonet work on the square in the sweltering heat as the reports put it -I must put on record- the splendid time we've been having lately, the life is as perfect as one could hope for 'here below'. Nobody could be anything else than happy - the destruction of the Huns would complete it.

Monday 7th June


Wednesday 9th June (N.b.16) [N.b.16; whilst impossible to prove, it would seem that Beatson wrote this entry one over the nine. The handwriting is certainly less disciplined in its appearance and the abandoned gaiety of this passage indicates a state of mind not hitherto seen in this diary. His inclusion of his meeting with Claude (probably ‘Claudette’) seems to have been less than platonic. What strikes one most is his revelling in being alive. An endearing though somewhat disjointed section that nevertheless affords the reader an instance where the emotions of a soldier of the First World War pierces the ages through to the present day. ed.]

I've been so busy doing nothing up till now that I'll require to paint the wasted days with the 'Irwin Cobb' touch, leaving out the 'revolting details' (N.b.17). Well then - Tuesday - Alick Mitchell - that is the 1st inst. Then the bath at the laundry, huge tubs of warm soapy suds, waist high, a cold plunge and a change. Route march in the sweltering heat. Met an old Gorgi tough [one who hails from 'a lively area' of Edinburgh], a lance jack in the K of Ks crush [This may be 'R of Ks' but either way, it is difficult to discern any clear meaning] , something Royal Scots. Saturday, perhaps Estaminet de la Lique, Rue de Flanders then 'Claude', dark and handsome, jovish beauty. Refugee d'Ypres if you like to believe her. Leicester Square accent surer than her Flemish. Very 'droll' in the French sense. Monday and Tuesday -wimming in the Lys, great sport. [hereon the writing reverts to its usual disciplined appearance]Last night part of the Battalion relieved the 1st A&S.H. Part of No 8 Platoon in reserve trench. Walked in and hung up our equipments as casually as we would hang up our coats in the lobby at home. Today, fine as usual, monotonous and dragging. Not a shot, one or two shells sent across to give the Germans something to do tonight in the way of rebuilding. Trenches the last word in comfort, surroundings almost the last word in beauty, the high road, the railway, the ruined farmhouse. 'The American' by Henry James.

Monday 14th June

Still in the trenches, the day opens with 'Stand To' at 1.45am with the Germans shouting across -"Good morning Scotsmen", "Cuckoo" and encoring our bursts of rapid fire; the rest of the day is spent dozing and reading in the sunshine or listening to (the) piano. One K.R. Rifleman [King's Royal Rifle Corps - KRRC] gave a bright recital yesterday entertaining us and the Huns across the way, to all the Pantomime favourites. Had a fine spread with L/Cpl Watson from the officer’s servants at HQ yesterday. The Colonel's cook produced a second course, stewed rhubarb and milk - tres bon. Rumours circulating aboout guides having the preference in the granting of a week's furlough to Edinburgh - I'll wait and see. Things look rosier already at the prospect.

Thursday 17th June

Relieved from the reserve trenches on Monday night, we came back about a half a mile to lie in support. We are bivouacked in the garden of what has once been a pretty suburban establishment, stables, shuttle alley, tennis court and orchard full of cherry, apple and pear trees and berry bushes. Our heads at night lie against the grave of "A German Soldier", a pencil note on the back of the wooden cross says "Died of wounds May 1915". German sniper more likely, it's easy to guess how he got his wounds. On Tuesday night a patrol of 'C' Company, a Lieutenant and 2 men, were scouting the front of the German entanglements, they were caught between a German W.P. [Working Party] and their own patrol -one fellow got back, the others believed to be prisoners. Spend the days pleasantly in a jumped up éstaminet -a private house really - the staff, Marie, 2 married sisters, Helene and Blanche, favoured us with a French love song last night (after we came back from a F.P. [forward patrol] to the trenches). Except for this little place, La Chapelle D'Armentieres is pretty dull, and dully pretty.

Monday 21st June

Since I last wrote I've discovered another Zowff [worker] in the farmhouse of a M. Lepan, he has one son and three daughters on the farm, Auguste, Clemence, Sophie and Marguerite aged 10 ½. Sophie and Marguerite are particularly good looking -an easy good humour is over the whole place and I've spent a good few pleasant hours in it. Helen's establishment is brighter just now; Blanche's brother has been invalided home from the war, wounded at Rheims and fever followed, pantry aprons and transparent blouses are worn in his honour.

Sunday 27th June

In the firing line from Tuesday afternoon until Friday afternoon then back to La Chapelle D'Armentieres. Promotion to Lance Corporal in orders of 24th inst. Whiff of Ypres on Saturday morning, a few shells peppering the houses in the vicinity of Chez Helene Lemaine which took their mind of the cooking for a wee while. Tonight we go back to our billets in Armentieres. A propos to a paragraph in yesterday's 'Le Matin' [A national French daily] which I saw today in Sophie Lepan's - we heard the Huns shouting and singing opposite us on Thursday evening over the fall of Lemberg [in Galicia where the Austrians and Russian fought a series of bloody battles; Lemberg was exchanged on several occasions this time falling to the Austrians]. Sophie's cousin Henri has a deal of information about Lille and the Germans - this will remind me to put it on paper when I have a little more time.

Monday 28th June

Back in Armentieres, billeted in the classrooms of a commandeered school. I must own to some regret at leaving La Chapelle; there was a warm friendship between us and the folks of the village that is impossible in town. It is no small thing to enjoy the friendship of the home circle of Chez Lepan for even these three weeks. They reveal a much more wholesome side of the French character than is usually presented. Returning to the items of interest that Henri, Sophie's cousin, told me yesterday, (regarding) extracts from a letter from his parents which they got through by some means which weren't divulged and I didn't ask. They are still on the farm near Lille and after detailing the number of houses, cows, hens etc which have been 'bought' with paper money, they say the farm is now almost deserted of its livestock and their fortune is gone. The German artillery is ploughing and sowing the land with grain seed. Last season's harvest has been lifted by the Germans converting the best bread to their own use and leaving the courser grain bread and maize flour to the owners and the people. Lille itself is strongly fortified with light artillery and mitrailleuses and 12 lines of trenches between the town and the present German fire trench. All the valuables and pictures from the four museums in the town have been removed to Germany. Their trenches are well and cunningly constructed for their purpose, their loopholes are about half way up the parapet and the men have to kneel to fire. The trenches are thinly held, no doubt they reckon on their undoubtedly strong mechanical arm to balance this deficiency should a surprise attack be made. Lastly the German soldiers are heartily tired but the officers hold their heads high and freely brandish their revolvers at the slightest evidence of irritation at the cast-iron discipline. This is the sort of thing that is going to help us when we've knocked the feet from the Prussian bully-caste.

Wednesday 30th June

Still resting, weather showery but none the worse for that. Just returned from the baths, we're never so near how and as when we get into a hot bath. Plenty of soap and a change into clean shirts. Civilization with its daily bath at hand and fresh underclothes for the asking knows nothing of our animal ecstasies.

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What a mixture of impressions - longing for some excitement at the Listening Post, playing peekaboo with children, making friends with the French family, frolicking with handsome Claudette, hinting dark things about the dead German soldeir - when you remember where he is and what situation he is in, it's a wonder he could manage to write anything at all, much less anything so lively and interesting!


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My thoughts too Marina !

Being surrounded by mud and dead bodies and being terrified inside - and yet ......... able to take himself far away in his thoughts ............ and structure his sentences in such a creative way ...... amazing !

Shaun ! ..... thank you again !

Annie :)

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Wednesday 6th July

Relieved C & D Companies on Saturday night, myself and 5 men being allotted to traverse L.17. This part of the line is a little in advance of the line on the left. The salient enables an enfilade fire being gained along the trenches on our left. This corner comes in for some attention from the artillery. A number of shells of small calibre were landed yesterday but no casualties. The enemy trenches opposite are over 500 yards away separated by a field of poppies, this has given the name of ‘Poppy View’ to some of the bays. Another bay is the ‘Debating Club’ the subject for tonight being ‘What Is Love?’ and ‘The Care of the Young’. Then we have ‘Ousel’s Nest’ [A Thrush] with its hair parted in the middle and ‘Rest and Be Thankful’, ‘Bow Bridge’, anything in fact you fancy. The trenches are equal to the best; they have to be kept clean to abate the fly nuisance which has come to the front these intensely hot days. Time is dragging, the routine is as monotonous as a city office, the only diversions are an occasional ‘flutter’ or a ‘nark’ [an annoying diversion such as shell landing close by], reading is a bad third unless it’s something light.

Saturday 10th July

Returned from the trenches again last night and billeted in the same school. The trenches were deadly monotonous on the whole, except when on Thursday, the Germans sent over a few light shells. One crashed into the roof of my dug-out but the corrugated iron saved me and the woodwork was soon repaired. Today I received a long letter from C and the sun is strong already, the speckled blue sky promises well for the week’s rest.

Monday 12th July

Had Church Service yesterday. The Rev Mr. Beveridge is one of the old school and spoke sincerely and earnestly. He appealed for recruits for a body, similar to King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, swearing ourselves to white chivalry and all the rest. These splendid addresses I fear act on us spiritually like the passing brilliance of a star shell. Today I am on guard duty with 3 men in the billets here but we are getting relieved for a little to go with the Company to the baths. God be praised.

Tuesday 12th July

We were at the baths yesterday again. After ‘lights out’ last night, being on guard, Lowe and I were free to have a walk through the streets. Not a light is visible except what filters through chinks in the doors and shutters. We came back to the school and opened the door of the concierge’s apartment to find him and one of the Cameron’s struggling and cursing. We sat down after pouring oil on the troubled waters. The Cameron left and the Concierge went upstairs with a candle saying “Bon soir” to ourselves and jerking out a threat at a woman and her husband who were sitting looking on dispassionately. The husband immediately stretched himself out on a sheet against the wall, half under the table and fell asleep and the woman told her story. We left at midnight. Guard was dismissed this morning. I intend writing off some arrears while the Coy is out on a route march.

Saturday 17th July

Tuesday afternoon about 70 shells landed in the town, mostly of a small calibre and only of local effect. (The) Town Hall, a very old and historic building, was damaged (with) a few casualties. Our company was lodged in the cellars of a linen warehouse for an hour or so. Thursday night back in the trenches, weather very unsettled, deadly monotonous and artillery sniping occasionally on both sides. Tonight we take over a trench on our right.

Tuesday 27th July

Nothing of interest happened lately. Billeted in houses in Rue de Faubourg de Lille since we came out last Wednesday. Helene, Blanche and the others passed yesterday morning on their way to the train for St. Omer. La Chapelle is emptied of its citizens and there is a steady stream of vehicles leaving the town here. Yesterday too, was my first birthday spent on active service. I guess it won’t be the last if I’ve any more to come. [Alas, Beatson was to die on the 16th July the following year].

Monday 2nd August

We came up to the trenches here, opposite Rue du Bois village last Tuesday night. The trenches dart to and from each other, sometimes 400 yards or more, sometimes less than 70, at one part of the line a few hundred yards along to our right, the trenches are about 65 yards apart; closer contact is gained by sapping from each trench to within 30 yards distance which provides opportunities for bombing. Opposite us and a little half-right, the German trench runs along the near gable of a house in the cellar of which the soldiers lived during the day with only a look-out. On Saturday night we made a feint to draw the Germans off the trench at the same time punishing them heavily. At 6.15pm three regiments, the Glosters, 9th Royal Scot and 1st Royal Scots opened a furious rapid fire, the machine gun rattling away in two-step time, ta-ra-rum-tum-tum, the artillery started mildly and we slackened our fire stopping completely at 7.15 when our guns blazed forth a continual stream of shells. The large contact shells crashed through barbed wire entanglements and parapets sending up columns of smoke and earth like volcanic eruptions. The house referred to was gouged out to its foundations and anything left alive was smothered by the shrapnel vomiting fire and bullets along the line. This thundering row went on for an hour or so then stopped. The ‘second house’ started at 10 o’c by which time we reckoned they would have got back their breath and started repairing the damage; more rapid firing, machine guns and shells, a fine row, splashes of fire all over them. I guess they got a jolly drenching before they found shelter. On Sunday morning everything was quiet again, the sun shining brightly over the romantic countryside where the grey and khaki men contest their skill in brain and brawn; the khaki sons had the whip hand on Saturday night and showed it. Tonight, Monday, we are being relieved by the P.P.C.L.I. [Princess Pat’s etc] and go back for a spell of hard labour, perhaps necessary, but it cuts to have it called ‘Rest’. The trenches are preferable by far in this weather.

Tuesday 10th August

Wednesday 11th August

We came back on Monday night of the 2nd inst, a fine moonlight night, star-spangled sky, but the eternal freshness of nature couldn’t prevent us feeling dead-beat when we reached our bivouacs. We can see troops cantering by at all times along the path beside the canal. Yesterday a General rode past with a mounted escort carrying lances and pennons fluttering. Occasionally a barge with sails big-bellied with God’s own breezes glides slowly by. The river [Lys] is almost, if not quite, stagnant and looks more like a canal. Away across the flats the chimneys of Steenwerck are smoking. Just over the river by a pretty bridge is Erquinghem, hardly a country town like Armentieres but it has a few shops, éstaminets and an ‘Hospice Civil’. At present it is the Red Cross Headquarters for this part of the line. To come to more personal affairs, our huts are a bit overcrowded and it is too cold to sleep out without additional covering. The nights are frequently very sharp and heavy dews fall, but the day is usually hot. The work has been very heavy here for some days, up at 6.30, physical exercises at 7.30 to 8.30, breakfast at 8.30 to 9, Company drill at 9.30 to 12.30, inspection on route march at 2.30. This time-table played havoc with our internal organs so for some days a band soothed our weary hearts at 3pm. There is now a complete change of programme. Squads are working night and day on a blockhouse at Bois Grenier about four miles from here. The night before last, when our squad was up, a battery nearby fired intermittently and we could see the shells shooting across the black background of sky and trees like white meteors. For all the time I’ve been out, this is the first time I’ve seen a shell en route. I read an article this morning by Israel Fanquill on ‘Arms and the Man’, it is brilliant and sincere, the product of an earnest penetrating mind. The force of the latest 24” inch Austrian mortar, by an effort no greater than the picking up of a pin, uprooted a town eleven miles off with the first shot. The cataclysm evoked by a gunner utterly transcends his own muscle, perceptions or emotions. To dare serve a Krupp or Armstrong gun, one should be as tall as an Alp, as good as an angel, as wise as God. A man lives up to the extreme height of his moral and physical nature when he dares to loose an arrow from the bowstring. It is true that men who loose Titanic forces, like a joke, coolly, are themselves broken down by an inferno similar to that of their own cold creation [N.b.18]. What wonder if, in such a hurly-burly, the higher nerve centres disintegrated and men revert to primitive somnambulistic, sub-conscious, deaf, dumb and blind. The stoutest soldiers break in madness, paralysis, convulsions, Aphasia and delirium. I haven’t seen much of that but he’s on it when he says “If we must needs quarrel among ourselves, return to fisticuffs”.

Thursday 12th August

Yesterday afternoon we held battalion sports, good running and interesting boxing. One Farriermond, a sturdy little lad won the mile and half mile races in fine style, he runs in much the same style as Kolehmainen (N.b.19). Anderson of ‘D’ Company won the sprint. The boxing was laughable while Jake was in the ring, Smith was in a class by himself but Tommy Docherty fought clever and gentlemanly bouts. I was sorry that aching muscles kept me out of the sport, it was a great success and I hope it won’t be long before we have the same again. After tea we went up to Bois Grenier again, I stepped into a village, it was silent as the grave though most of the houses are still standing. Only one or two Red Cross men were loafing around, it has been a sort of residential suburb to Armentieres. I think the houses were handsome, pretty lanes and gardens and superior to the usual villages. We returned early this morning, a mouth organ lightened the road. Speaking about music, Lieut Wardrop has had a musical box sent out and we have all the catchy airs and waltzes to charm the summer day. In a letter from Carrie today, she sent the words of a song, I’ll need to try and find the tune; it’s just the thing for an exile. Everything is quiet around here, there is a lull all along the western front practically, the calm before the storm lets hope and when it breaks, may it uproot and annihilate everything German outside of Germany. The papers and politicians are full of hints of something starting, that’s what is needed to galvanise the creeping paralysis out of the people; there is a danger of them resigning themselves to something less than the utter and complete defeat of the enemy (N.b.20). The soldiers anyhow, are out for no compromise, it’s an insult to the chums who have fallen already if we fail to finish their work by our own sacrifice. “Thy will be done”.

Friday 13th August

On the blockhouse today again at Bois Grenier. In the daylight I had a better chance of getting an idea of the elaborate scheme and details, the whole area however could be swept of everything living by a salvo of artillery, but it is impregnable to infantry attacks; a regiment could hold an army corps. On the way up the Germans were searching for one of our batteries and almost found us. Splendid weather.

Monday 16th August

Today has been thunderous and sunshine periodically, every little while we’re sent helter-skelter for shelter by a sudden plump. This morning the battalion was drawn up on the flats beside the river and inspected by General Pulteney. He didn’t address us but asked the Colonel to convey his compliments to us on our good behaviour, no Court Martials etc. (He) sort of patted our baby curls and called us good boys; of course if we stray from the straight path there’s a big stick in the corner. The General has not the figure of the pattern soldier but is rather smallish, I should say about 5’.6” or 5’.7” with the student’s stoop and round shoulders. I cannot tell what nature is hidden by a pair of kindly beaming eyes and good humoured features (N.b.21). Our rest finished at 3 o’c (as) part of the battalion goes into the trenches tonight and our Company is lying in reserve. We are billeted in huts in a little field full of pear trees, part of a farm on the roadside, (a) ripe old farm buildings, mossy bricked walls and thatched and tiled roofs.

Saturday 21st August

It’s a miserable morning, drenching downpour; it’s some consolation to think of it like the grey drizzle drenching the long heather and the cattle grazing stupidly through the mist at the white cottage. Oh humanity enveloped in a red mist - will it never struggle through? When I started this diary I intended addressing my remarks to the shade of my sweetheart, but I was led from the base narrative of events: love and war are not fit to be married together; love makes us friends with the world (whilst) war violates us. Only God understands us – but all this is diversion. I forbade myself any self-revelation or wearing my heart on my sleeve, this confession even is out of place. We still lie in reserve here, beside the old farm. Last night for a little, I listened to the boys raising the roof with their songs. Three girls sang something about “You Have Alsace But Not Our Hearts”. I was on duty with the guard till the early morning and passed the time reading the diary of a Prussian officer published in a magazine. Here I found a man I could love. The editor called it an “Inhuman Document”. In a note at the beginning we are told there is no clue to the officer’s real name or regiment, only the name “Heinrich” in the top left hand corner of the first page. So Heinrich, let it be. Though you fight for a hellish system and your revolver might have finished me, I respect you. On the 21st of July the Colonel had a heart to heart talk with all and that night the whole army entrained for Berlin. You gloried in being a German and jest at the lists. “Berlin, August 1st. This is a great day. All is now settled with Russia. I was burning all last night lest the whole of this might turn out an illusion, but the dream has come true. France first, then Russia. Berlin is singing. France has not one thing prepared. No boots for the men, no fortress ammunition, no guns – nothing. One pities her but it has to be”. You heard too that England was going to fight alongside you, but you doubted it. You are no cripple to need help and we wouldn’t have been of much use anyhow. In the train on August 5th you were worried about an unpaid bill for 30 marks payable to Kauffman the tobacconist for cigars, you can’t write much in this place or you would telegraph Abel, but you can curse “England”. That is the last date in your diary. Some days later you are treading on each others’ heels waiting for you don’t know what, rumours of the Belgians giving trouble – but that is absurd. You hear the first guns you have heard in warfare; you say you would shoot yourself if by some chance an order were to come to you to right-about-face and go back to garrison duty without approaching and feeling and smelling this giant of whom you are afraid – war. It is clear who “England” is for but it doesn’t matter. The war leaves room for mention of the little inn with the garden full of flowers, of two white butterflies chasing each other in front of a regiment, of a bird’s dust bath and even of flies. It seems to you that we move in the muddle of a great deaf blind world that does not care a “knutzer” for us and our affairs. “War brings out the character like drink, but much more perfectly if less violently. Von M, the man with the truth is irritable over trifles. Heinrich is moody and nervous when he has time to think. The war is bringing out the rash of some disease of the soul. The army is really one of grave professions, we ought all to dress in black, never smile, never dance and carry Bibles. We have to do with death much more than the church. You think Heinrich, that there is a chilly respect from your comrades because you don’t play cards. You never mixed very well with the others, her ghost is your only companion. Later, the Belgians, of all people in the world making all that noise – it is inconceivably irritating. You believe in Luck and remind her of the little pig. Napoleon believed in Luck. Then, there is nothing so like God on earth as the great General Staff who dispose of everything and who weave us all into one pattern for one supreme purpose. Extraordinary to think that thirty years ago a lot of this great army were not on the world and the rest were blowing trumpets and beating toy drums. Funny to think that all this great hubbub once had a mother who smacked it and wiped its nose. That it cried in the dark for fear of bugaboos and ran to its mother once for safety. Assuredly women’s work in this world is not small, when it can produce results like these and foster them. Then religion, you keep an open mind, “God will give us victory” the catch word of the army, no doubt of the French too, and the Russians. Depression, another day fever and heat, depressed about the whole business. A nation is indistinguishable, or part of it, conquered territory is a curse, look at Poland; it was cut into three pieces years ago and the three pieces are still alive and wriggling and anxious to join together again. Then thousands of Germans will be ruined but Hausen (N.b.22) says the war will make Germany the richest country in the world, that not only France but England will be crushed and made into little states and that there will be one country only, powerful on earth, Germany. The sight of the first war wounded went through you, bruised your susceptibilities. O wonderful and intricate world and universe in which if an atom of matter were destroyed the whole would tumble to pieces – who knows but that the great German Army has been held in delay by the damned Belgians so that Captain Von H. may be given an opportunity of studying his own soul? Which is the greater? The army which is but an ephemeral grouping of forms called together for a purpose whose actions and reactions however wide, must still be ephemeral as the earth itself? Or the soul of Captain Von H which may be immortal. Then you reach Brussels, losing only two junior officers and some two hundred men, but there has been a frightful delay. And the sights. You have no hatred for the men you are fighting; in fact they are not there. You are fighting to drive back a veil hung before you by fate, to escape through a nightmare to the clear world beyond. Of course there are moments when the individual enemy absorbs you. Astonishing moments in battle when a man suddenly appears before you. A man you have never seen before, yet in a flash becomes everything to you. He is the man coming to kill you yet you hate him not in the least. Yet you take in every detail of his face; remember the face of a boy of eighteen or so, white, teeth exposed and haggard eyes, like a runner in the last stage of an exhausting race; his eyes wore on you yet they seemed unseeing. Though like a furious mechanical figure, he was about to pitch-fork you aside with his bayonet when your revolver did for him. Then the great laughing face of a heavy man of the inn-keeper type, jovial, yet seeming petrified, laughing yet a thousand leagues from laughter and when I (N.b.23) trod over it to get beyond, laughing no doubt still. Observe how Heinrich’s sole idea is to get beyond. Hate, pity, love, money have absolutely no place in the stress of battle. He is imbued with the idea of the blow “Smash through to victory regardless of life”. That idea survives the sight of the wounded. Then you go on to explain how the Belgian joggle [A word no longer in currency meaning to shake a little] struck back through the whole army even to the General Staff. The unexpected knock disorganised the machinery, so exquisite and perfectly balanced and so intricate. The super efficiency in fact produced an inefficiency that held you. The whole thing might be likened to a bottle of milk which would have poured out easily but for a Belgian joggle that made butter of the milk and so blocked the neck. You clotted. Everywhere mechanism and the advantages of mechanism and its terrible faults. The feeding alone of this host must be a work for the gods. You have to feed men, horses and guns. And they can’t wait for their food. When God ordained that man must eat at least twice a day, He had perhaps wars like this in view. He wished to stop war from growing beyond a certain size. Vegetables and flowers cannot grow beyond a certain size, on account of the fact that their nutriment has to reach then from a single stem. An army of course may have many stems for its nutriment but if it is condemned to feed through too few it suffers in consequence. Then you decide that the soldier has no right to be philosopher when in the field. His philosophy ought to be left behind like any other encumbrance. His brains should be used to the utmost on the military work before him. Then you say goodbye to Brussels and we meet in the early morning, hot lazy morning, beside new made graves but you are getting up to the enemy. The men are very fit, well and eager and the English are in front. Two days later and your regiment has been nearly decimated. Hausen is dead and Von M. also three other officers, others wounded, the men nearly annihilated. War. Who grumbles at war? This is not war; it is the boldest and most brutal form of pig-headed butchery devised by fools for the destruction of men. Then you curse the fools and yourself but resign yourself to Fate, which is the Army and Discipline. Were it not that you drive yourself with them you would kill yourself for your crime. This is the greatest crime in history. They know it is impossible to advance in the old method under modern conditions and they make you. Result – Death. The enemy is behind you Heinrich. Later, close on Paris, dead from marching and starving, the taste of fever in your mouth. The enemy, always in front of you like a cloud you cannot seize, a cloud that spits fire at you. Well are they dead your reckon, those others. A day’s rest brings out all your weaknesses. The Belgian Joggle still follows you. You are shaky from want of food and you have lost the little gold pig. You are heart-broken. You know it means you will never see her again. There are things that matter more in this life than death. Ah! The good Rhineland in hot summer there and the men gone. They have been killed by a wrong military system. That is bad but forgivable. What is terrible and unforgivable is the fact that they have been killed by a wrong moral system, by men who say in their hearts of German men “They do not matter” of widows and fatherless children “They do not matter. Crush them; kill them all so that we get our purpose!” You cry out against the arrogant peace-men. You have hell in your heart beside starvation in your belly. Your spiritual agony makes you write things you would have been shot for if they were read. You would have been shot by the real enemy and so died a soldier’s death. I have spent a happy day with you Heinrich. Tomorrow will come none too soon. Good night.

Sunday 22nd August

A hot summer morning, the weather that brings out butterflies and thoughts. It is good to remember such a morning as this in a past age, making for the open country with the little figure in cornflower blue. How happy then! How happy in a different way, reading and loving the soul of a dead Prussian officer. Heinrich would have loved such a morning as this – before the war. After – his soul was in an agony of shame, sucking the reason and righteousness to clothe it. The next entry in your diary. You are all moving back. Yourself in the uniform of a dead Frenchman and in a trench. All you possess is your diary which you have because the French soldiers were gentlemen and took your word that it was private. The trenches were prepared years ago in case of a defeat in the attack on Paris; not cut actually but prepared for. Everything was prepared for except the Belgian joggle and that torments you still. Germany is lost, she aimed not to be a nation but a mechanism and succeeded in her aim. All is a great darkness in which you see no light and yet you have come to know your own soul that had been lying dead in your mind or dreaming all these years. You see tremendous things, just as years ago when your imagination was lit with drink. The Kings and Captains and peoples of the past applaud, and now your version is clear as though the mind or your youth had returned. The summer is over and the harvest is gathered and the winter is on you; an endless winter until you break into the human land of spring. Germany will not live again till the flowers are growing upon her grave. Then you reckon a trench is a prison and think six days a long time. The deadlock grates on you, the filthy bread, the vermin, the wounded. If they scream too much they are stamped on. You are black with dirt, you stink and you laugh. “Never” you say, “was there such a madhouse, such a hell, such a channel, such an abattoir all.” A night attack on us failed, you lost a number of men and got a bullet clean through your left arm. Raining incessantly, nearly deaf with the continuous noise of guns and bursting shells and suffering from a skin irritation; not to scratch is torture. And so the battle goes on between will and inclination which the guns boom away announcing the lesser battle between flesh and iron. Then you feel the loneliness, no books, no music, no letters for you, though the post comes all right – a month old about. And picture postcards showing the “English” (N.b.24) running away. You know the “English” do not run away. Men get chocolate, cigarettes and so forth, you get nothing. And people write to people but you write to no one. Abel has written you suppose but it has gone astray. She has not written. It would not have been safe enough. She need not have signed her name, you guess she said to herself. “In the confusion of war it is better not to write. My letter may fall into hands belonging to tongues that might talk”. O! You do hate the cautious woman whose one thought is Reputation, just as you hate the miser whose one thought is gold. You wrote her every day in your book and I wondered why you never posted your eternally long letter. You told her it was a letter that could only be posted if you fell. It will reach her secretly and in a way that will cause no trouble – or it will not reach at all. Later – still the incessant noise, not being able to change your clothes depresses you; your dreams are either terrific or delightful, the last [latter] are the worst. You woke this morning with the rain drizzling on you saying to yourself “War is a Serpent since changing his skin”. The French artillery is terrific, pins you down just as the great Gulliver was pinned down by the little people of that island. Their shells are always there. What that man in high command told you is worth noting. Though you are absolutely checkmated (you) are not gloomy only philosophic, “Every situation has its Spirit. There is no use looking at events; fix your eyes on the spirit of which events are only the clothing. Germany can not now win because she has lost. On all the circumstances, victory could only have come to us in one way, by explosion. Had we shattered France all would have been ours. We failed to explode. Russia will not conquer us, France will not conquer us. England will conquer us no more than rust conquers an imperfect shell lying in a ditch. The shell has been conquered because the fuse or charge failed. There is a good deal of lottery in war. We drew a blank. Napoleon would very well have understood this position but our upper men have not the imagination to see the spirit of the situation. Good God! Hindenburg hammers away. If he were attacking a china vase he would smash it, but he is hitting a punching ball on a stalk that swings from the Urals to the sea and our men are falling all the time. What spoilt the spirit of the situation? I will tell you – our Politicians. They should have left England alone. England only wanted to sit still and be comfortable and now everyone is shouting against England. The shout began from our politicians who wished to cover up for the horrible mess they had made. England hates no one, she only loves herself. She was very friendly to us, very friendly. I know for I have spent much time there. She has a deep, profound and solid contempt for everyone but herself – that is her great fault but she is not ungenerous. She is a mob and very little in greatness of mind; she is not straight in internal politics but she is straight in dealing with the States [other nations rather than the USA]. She is the most curious paradise, very like a tradesman who is honourable in business but in his own house is unjust to his children. But to hate her is absurd and a waste of good energy. She did not fall on us as an assassin, she was dragged in by the asses who held our political cards. O why was Bismarck not an immortal? We have no one. No one to play the game for us. Of which war is but the picking up of the stakes”. He went on. “The Kaiser is a true genius, a great great man without the essential something that makes a great statesman. I think it really is a sense of humour together with plain commonsense that makes a really nation leader. Bismarck had that sense of humour which illuminates as well as the commonsense that weighs. His short sentences were full of humour – even as a war-maker; compare him with that ass Berhardi (N.b.25).” Your wound though slight gives you a good deal of pain. A man near by had the toothache bad all yesterday. You lanced his gum with a borrowed knife but it did not stop the pain. His head was blown off this morning. The men too, quite simple fellows, think the war has been too long prepared for. You know men who have been long, long preparing to be great and who die fameless. There is, you think, a spirit of these things that dies from being restrained. Military life (if) long continued in peace time kills the real military spirit. Self-assurance, arrogance, stiffness and brutal obedience to the cut and dried, kills the fighting spirit of a nation. Should the English make big armies of citizens they will be a terrible foe, and that is what you foresee. The Russians too have many terrible untrained men and the French. One night you have a singularly vivid dream of your mother, dead many years, your youngest brother was in the dream too. You have never dreamt of her, perhaps because she is always in your waking mind. Then the end. You see an aeroplane shot down over our lines, fell like a bird shot suddenly dead. A remark that the food is a lot better lately, the Commissariat is working better than it has for a long time. And the diary ends – are you dead Heinrich? I know you would die bravely and quietly. Fate labeled you Prussian and I British but I would do a long pilgrimage to lay flowers on the grave that holds your body. It is a perfect Sunday afternoon. The blue sky is dappled with white puffs of shrapnel smoke (and) with that exception there is nothing of war. The suspense in Purgatory is a real terror if it resembles in any measure this eternal waiting, waiting.

Wednesday 25th August

Sitting between the two walls of a trench the hot day infuses informal activity into the insect life that pesters us, wasps, flies, beetles of all sizes and colours preying on us and each other. Lately we have been discussing Spiritualism (N.b.26) among ourselves. Some are mystified and chary of the subject and claim to have seen manifestations of levitation and table rapping. I am open-minded on the subject; I have no timidity of it either. I pressed Boyd to try it with me which he did – without result; perhaps some special manner of approach or state of mind is necessary, it cannot be that there is any lack of spirit, German or British. Our Company came in last night; the Germans are about 400 yards in front of us. They no doubt feed their patriotism with the news of the Russian retreat while we feed ours on the splendid naval victory in the Baltic [Jutland] and the brilliant generalship at the Dardanelles [Gallipoli] (N.b.27). There is at this moment absolutely no sound of conflict, indeed the artillery only keeps the play going. This morning the German guns peppered a trench on our left held by the 1st Royal Scots to which our guns replied.

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I have never seen anything quite like the Heinrich sections - such total identification! 'You', 'he' and 'I' all interchangeable, as if the two men's minds had merged.

Truly remarkable, and I suspect, unique.


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Shaun, it's stunning. A most extraordinary piece of writing. What a privilege to read it. Heinrich must also have been someone special. That's all I can find to say just now, I want to read this again.

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The final part of his diary and my notes. I would, as ever, be grateful for any information, advice or corrections. Most of my notes have been plagiarised from internet sites and accurate to my knowledge save for where I have taken a guess.

Tuesday 14th Sept.

Still lying [sic] in this calm back-water of the greatest war the world has known, but the rapids are not far ahead I guess - from the signs. There is a rough journey and they are lucky (those) who reach the broad sea with their bare life beating inside a bruised body. The Germans opposite us are to be respected as fighters, their snipers are busy and as the haze lifted the other morning we spotted a party working on their trench in full view of our lines. Our own sniper was wounded through his own foolishness through taking them too cheaply. Farquharson was shot dead the other night. My own opinion is that the fault lies with the officers who superintended the building of these trenches without carefully and abundantly loop-holing them and with the officers since then who have not troubled to correct the error. It was intended that we should be relieved on Monday night but our part of the brigade in the trenches stay on until tomorrow. Wednesday night; what follows after this is conjectured but all are excited over rumours of a train journey. Bangalore and St.Omer are popular, Ypres, La Basse or Arras have too ugly a look about them – mention them and you are a rank pessimist. But why all this sparring and nothing up our sleeves – that promises well for a grand slam. A Division, the 23rd, of Kitchener’s Army takes over our part of the line. Weather continues fine.

Friday 17th Sept 1915

Spent yesterday at the camp near Enguinghem, loafing generally. Reveille this morning at 3.15 a.m. After cursing and scrambling in the dark for breakfast, the battalion marched off about 4.30 just as light was breaking. We reached Vieux Berquin about 9.30 some 17 kilometres distant; the men are fit and well within themselves. The village is apparently used as a motor transport dept. It is a clean unpretentious place in pretty surroundings.

Saturday 18th Sept 1915

We were inspected – well hardly that – drawn up with the other units of our brigade this morning to receive the adieus of General Pulteney. The 1st Royals and Argylls were right of the line, 9th Royals and Argylls in the centre and the Glosters on the left. The ceremonies were admirably carried out, even to the regulation “three times three”, all going like a machine. The General thanked us for our services while in his corps and wished us “good luck and good fortune” at the part of the line we take over from the French. So that’s the end of the rumours. Later our Colonel complimented us on the march discipline yesterday and encouraged us to brace ourselves for much hard work shortly. The sun is hot and bright today, so nobody worries about the future.

Sunday 19th Sept

The village was bright this morning, under a clear blue sky. Inside, the chapel was filled with pretty girls, chicly dressed and widows, young and old, draped in black with a sprinkling of boys and elderly men and soldiers, French, Belgian and British. The chapel is dead white inside, the altar of gold and white and pink, the confession boxes of carved woodwork with little pinnacles. A shell hole in the front is the only relic of the tide that receded last October. The service was half in Flemish, half in Dutch conducted by a vivacious young fellow whilst an old woman hobbled among the congregation seeking charity for the Belgian refugees of the village. Madeleine Bagaest of Maubege is an exceptional specimen of the refugee species in this village. We have finished tea and are packing up – move of tomorrow at 1 a.m.

Monday 27th Sept

A seven mile march in the dark, the twinkling lights in the distance, the screaming of the train whistles over the level-crossings into the grimy little town of Hazebrouck [Approximately halfway between Armentieres and St. Omer], a hurried meal and into the trenches as the light was breaking. Traveled all day, now fast, now slow, pounding through Amiens and drawing up in the late afternoon of Monday the 20th at Guillacourt [30km due East of Villers-Bretonneaux]. From there we marched with pipes through Bayonvillers to Lamotte [LamotteWarfusee], in Santerre, six miles or so distant. French soldiers who had been already relieved crowded out from farm buildings and barns. I expect this is the first time British troops have been in the district since the retreat at the beginning of the war (N.b.27). We bivouacked in the gardens for a day or two before we moved in the farm buildings; the weather has been showery lately. The countryside is broad and flat, sparsely wooded, straight, easy roads with clusters of houses dotted over the plains (and) the spire of a chapel shooting up from each – the provincial France. The ‘types’ of the villagers are the men, gaunt, grey-haired with straggling moustache(s), dirty shirt sleeves, slack pants and (a) red waistband, a sort of broken down brigand. The women, heavy, clumsy, agricultural, and nearly all in the way of increasing the family. We have to try and forget their dirt and live down their suspicions for the sake of the Entente Cordiale. This Lamotte is a hungry village, it is a year now since the Huns were here and it hasn’t got its breath back yet. I have only seen one handsome woman in it, a well-proportioned creature, a flower on a midden [refuse heap]. Battalions of French infantry passed us on their way back yesterday. The men were of a standard higher than the usual for the French but the march discipline was atrocious. Even with the trumpets blaring and bands playing, they shuffled along any old way. A feature of the countryside is the wayside shrines; an iron filigreed cross high on a stone base with a suspended figure of the Christ, sheltered from sun and storm by an arbour of trees. Spies are said to be moving about, we had a “suspect” the other night. There are some oddities no doubt; a Russian artist, long-haired and fat, a Keystone mob [the local gendarmerie?] with breeches, open-necked shirts and broad felt hats reminiscent of a haymakers’ chorus in a comic play. Everybody is to be treated with cold distrust for the sake of the Entente Cordiale. I remember how Zola in the ‘Sin of Abbé Mouret’ (N.b.29) despised this breed of humanity peculiar to agricultural France. Heinrich in his Prussian arrogance no doubt would reckon them better dead. Only the soil they are wed to is responsive to their efforts and they live long and happy.

Tuesday 5th Oct 1915

There is no doubt that France in the sunshine is a pleasure for the senses; there is passion in the bunch of rosy roofs that snuggle against the green slopes; in the sombre shadows that sweep across hills and hollows and are lost in the deluge of sunlight on the horizon. We marched from Lamotte, en Santerre, yesterday to Chuignes [25km due East of Peronne and about 100m or so from the front line], ten miles or so winding through the valleys behind a rampart of low hills. The straight roads over the hills are forbidden as they show against the skyline to the Bosches. The River Somme is seen here and there gliding over the plain, wheeling among the long grass or creeping through melancholy shadows; beyond it the country lay smiling to the sun. Oxen pull the ploughs and shrines abound where the mortal, who has been reduced by nature, may plead. I suppose sinning is easy - the Church had to save them by some system not too troublesome. In a country where opportunities are less frequent, they can afford to put on the screw a bit tighter. Chuignes has been in the arena twice. In the little graveyard in a common grave lies “One brave Frenchman and seven brave Germans”, in another, seventy-four French soldiers; here and there are the little mounds covering the bones of the fellows who fought amongst the houses. The chapel is always open, in fact a look-out is kept at the belfry. The processional banners still hang from the walls, two broken winded harmoniums, the box pews, the altar, the plaques of the ‘stations’ all complete; the bell used to call the faithful who now sleep. Now clangs the aeroplane alarm. Our company (is) lodged in an old ‘écurie’ where the Frenchmen before us have erected hammocks with branches and wire netting.

Sunday 10th October

I’ll fill in the time scribbling before going on a working patrol up to the trenches tonight. To the east of the village there is a huddle of (a) few hills and ridges with close woods and steep roads. The enemy have been driven from the first ramparts and are now hanging on to the crest of a hill beyond. We are a trifle higher than the Huns who are at some parts five yards off, at others 30, 50 up to 200 yards. The hill is of a limestone formation, honeycombed with mines (and) explosions are frequent; a ‘windy’ part of the line. Last night the Germans were caught taking down their barbed-wire entanglements.

Tuesday 12th Oct.

The alarm spread through the whole brigade and there was a hurried ‘Stand To Arms’ after an hour or two the coast was still clear and we peeled off our war gear and got down to it again. On the outskirts of Chuignes the ground is full of dead bodies and rats. Little solitary graves with a wooden cross to “Un brave soldat Allemande”. A Frenchman and a German lie alone vis-a-vis face to face. In a little hollow in one grave lie 77 French soldiers (and) beside it, 78 German in a grave about half the size. The place around is strewn with torn knapsacks, pouches and scraps of blue and grey cloth. A kepé on a French grave and tattered helmets lying about. The field mice have made a nest in a German mess-tin crawling in and out through the rents a bullet has made. The fellows had some furious fun at night baiting the rats, there is a plague of the repulsive vermin in the village; slow, fat waddling monsters. A party of us were up helping the French sappers the other night; the terrain was a sort of sandy loam, easy to work yet the three genii loafed and slept. The sap will be ready to charge when we are charging round about the Unter Der Linden! That is if they don’t get some encouragement in the way of something hard. The timbering was simple and strong. The sap I was on last night had no so elaborate a gallery owing to the enemy trench being so close, a low gallery for a few yards, a shaft down then a winding tunnel to beneath the German trench. This sap was almost ready for laying the charges. While I was turning the wheel that works the fan a German shouted cross, “How do you like your job tonight Jock”? Unfortunately we have had orders to cut them dead when they become familiar (N.b. 30). We shifted yesterday and are lying in reserve in a group of buildings on the top of a hill. They are all loop-holed and have got ill-used in the struggle for possession.


This is the place for the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Rats, rats, rats, ten per man at least and if you don’t kill them you’ve got to feed them. They go into our haversacks and eat the biscuits, make free with our rations if we leave them exposed and scamper all over us when we try to sleep. They breed in the straw beneath us, around us and above us. Oh Stevenson, you would have been happy to live again in a dairy, what of a rat? My God, to think these putriescent vermin were once laughing moustached Frenchmen. Alick, dear, dear Alick, staunch and true, generous, open as the day. I loved you as a brother and would gladly have given myself in your place. Never will I meet your like again; never will I forget you, never will I mourn you as I ought. May God count me worthy to meet you again, dear, dear Alick. (N.b.31)

Sunday 17th Oct

Nothing doing.

Wednesday 20th Oct

Still at the ‘House on the Hill’ doing fatigues, working the air fans at the sap heads and dumping bags of earth. Not very heroic is it? Still it is the part allotted to us. There are occasionally bouts of bombing but still very quiet and still the same ugly look about the situation. News is always coming along the line of success and progress in the Loos, Ypres and Champagne regions. Those fellows who fought on the Continent under the Iron Duke or Sir John Moore [iberian Peninsula 1803-1812] had the pull over us, they won habitable villages and substantial towns; they saw the symbols of what they fought for. Now we advance a quarter of a mile and capture a ditch or three miles and gain a heap of ruins. Seems all action and no motive n’est-ce pas? La vie est vraie, un peu d’amour, un pere du peine et puis “bon jour” [True to life, a little love, a father to sorrow and then ‘Good day’].

Thursday 28th Oct

Since Sunday last we’ve been drenched and dried and padded the hoof for forty miles through a chain of villages with euphonious names – Saint Fuscien, Fluy, Floxicourt, Bougainville – as good as the New World’s stars, Savannah or Silverado, second only to Caroline! We were relieved at Fontaine–le-Cappy on Sunday afternoon by French regiments from Le Souchez and Arras, matured warriors. It was dark and a drenching downpour by the time we reached Lamotte. We had two good nights’ rest in the barn, paid a visit to Mme Valentine on Monday where we had chips and coffee and a tumbler of steaming red wine before we set off again on Tuesday morning. A raw bitter morning it was too, till we were well on the road to Amiens. Passing through Villers –Brettoneux and Boves, both fair sized villages we reached the camp on the broad breast of rising ground above Boves. Sheets of tents housing the entire brigade, some five thousand men. This camp was about five and a half mile north of Amiens, twelve miles from Lamotte. The country around Amiens is a vast orchard, a garment of green with pearls of villages and streamers of lanes. We were denied entrance into the fair city itself so on Wednesday morning we set off along the lanes to the left of the city, through Saint Fuscien and Fluy. After some thirteen miles we halted at mid-day on the outskirts of Fluy for dinner then another five miles through Pessy and Flexicourt to Bougainville; a pretty district - paradoxical almost - (with) thick pine woods, mint scented fields and heavy laden apple trees skirting the road. The village with the pond and shimmering reflection of the guardian chapel – but not a young man to be seen. Only a few fell out on the march, it is no mean task to do eighteen miles with a heavy pack and a straight back and grin and bear it. Though I guess we could (march) a bit more without worrying about it.

Wednesday 3rd Nov

Still lying at Bougainville. The village is dull, a huddle of houses round the chapel and the grassy square or ‘Place’ as they call it. There are only two cafés, ‘de la Jeuneuse’ and ‘de la Place’, worth the name (and) crowded every night for an hour. There is another, ‘des Maries’, dimly lit with an upstairs. The folk clearly regard us as a horde of thieves –with some justification from the scum of a sister battalion. Hitherto we have been able to correct the impression and make the Hunting Stewart tartan respected but our latest drafts have little pride of honesty. The sale of cognac or rum is forbidden to all troops. The A. &S.H. indeed, are forbidden entrance to a café for the time being but the lighter wines are on sale from 11 to 1 and 6 to 8. Our daily programme is rather lenient just now, route march or bomb instruction from 9.30 to 12.30 and free for the rest of the day practically, ‘in billet’ for 7, lights out (at) 9. The billet for No.8 platoon is the loft of a farm building swept free of rates or mice and very comfortable. The weather is becoming more unsettled, driving rains and cold but as long as we are here we can laugh at it. All the boys are enjoying themselves. On our route marches we have given the natives their first sight of the ‘Kilties’. Mollins, Vidame, St.Abbin-Montenoy and the other villages, all more or less deserted and destroyed, everywhere the meagre male section is either in the bud or without.

Friday 5th Nov.

The case of the ‘ninth’ [Royal Scots] is becoming mysterious; it is impossible to deduce our fate from the mass of contradictory signs. On one side – all smoke helmets have been handed in, we’ve a cosy crib and no talk of the trenches. On the other – tonight we had cardigans issued, waterproof capes are coming and emergency rations are carefully inspected. On top of these facts is an army load of rumours. We’re completely in the dark, Serbia would be an interesting change, that’s as much as we can expect. The war seems endless, we’ve come to regard it as a normal state of affairs. The mills of God grind so slowly and life is so short, loveless and colourless. The cheerfulness of the lads is amazing, they are never depressed for any length of time. Yet, only should we be? This is comparative luxury, some of our comrades, thirty kilos [kilometers] are shivering and counting the hours till dawn. When we have tasted the bitter we can appreciate the sweet, you bet.

Saturday 6th Nov.

From a German prisoner, after a Champagne drive, “It was not a surprise attack?” asked the interviewer, “No, we even learned the exact hour it was to take place”. I remember Heinrich said, “There is nothing so like God on earth as the Great General Staff”. From “Vorwarts” [A German trench magazine] a Cologne incident, a bed and wardrobe were offered as a gift in a local paper. The applications were overwhelming. “I am a poor soldier’s wife with two children and have no bed – sleep upon the ground, my dwelling is open to inspection at any time”. Another, terribly pathetic – “Have no wardrobe and as I am far gone in consumption, I need a bed to sleep alone. We have five children and four are dead”. Their “God” is bleeding at the heart. Thursday 11th Nov.

Yesterday the battalion was paraded and addressed by Brig. Gen. Croker. The brigade, except ourselves, goes east to Serbia while we, by all accounts, are to be attached to the 5th Division and remain in France. So rumours again have been put to death. He spoke very flatteringly of our services to the brigade and the 27th Division, whilst we honestly regret being left behind by our sister battalions, the Glosters, 1st Royals and Argylls. The rainy season has set in I guess, showers night and day.

Tuesday 16th Nov.

Yesterday we saw our first snow this season and today the countryside is all grey and white. The monster winter has come smiling, everybody was bright on the march this morning. Some might not know why but I guess it was the snow, gently falling and the broad sweep of white earth till it met the grey veil of sky. We passed the Argylls this morning as they marched away. It seems quite matter of fact to see them with their bundle of necessaries setting off to travel half the world over land and sea and carry on with the business. Our stay will not last much longer I guess since the brigade is moving.

Sunday 21st Nov.

I’ve just read the last words of Paul Kelver [by Jerome K. Jerome published in 1902] and turned back to read the criticisms of the press. How feeble. I almost suspect them of prejudice. I number it among the books that will surely live. It has the germ of life in it, a plain man’s Bible. I must see this man before the curtain falls, this Jerome K. Jerome. The interpreter of dreams of youth with his feet among the clay and his head in the clouds. The weather is becoming chillier.

Tuesday 7th Dec.

Leaving tonight on a week’s leave, so the narrative must be brought up to date at the gallop. We left Bougainville some days after the date of the last entry, marching by day and resting by night at the wayside villages of Ferrieres, Port Noyelle, Sailly, Laurette and Suzanne. The second day’s march took us through Amiens and gave us a glimpse of the Cathedral. That night we rested at Port Noyelle looking up to the hills where a bloody skirmish was fought in the 70 war [Franco-Prussian war of 1870]. At Suzanne, the advanced base for the line around here, we were impressed by the organisation and livliness of the new division. A picture house, a band, a regimental canteen, recreation rooms, every detail perfect. We had a Church service in the picture house Sunday before last with the portraits of gay ladies and gallants gazing from the walls of the faded salle of the Chateau. Every few minutes a gun would roar, shaking the walls so that the crystals of the hanging candelabra tinkled musically. Next morning we relieved the Cheshires in the battle dug-outs behind Vaux Bois. No water and lots of mud, so I was glad to link up with the new formed scouts. The situation here is a bit peculiar; the line is broken by the River Somme and its marshes (with) the space between the broken ends of the two lines.

Here ends the diary of Corporal James Beatson. Pages 79 and 80 are absent as is 82. It seems unlikely that a man of Beatson’s exactitude and evident pride in his work would have allowed his diary to end so perfunctorily and so it is reasonable to presume that more entries were recorded and later torn from the diary.

Notes on the diary records.

N.b.1; this moment is also described “by a private anonymous soldier” in Lyn Macdonald’s work ‘1915 The Death of Innocence’ pp188-9

N.b.2; a rudimentary search of French war records indicates that Sergeant Julien survived the war without his talisman.

N.b. 3; at the time of writing this entry, neither the second nor third Battles of Ypres had yet to take place though the former was less than a fortnight off.

N.b. 4; as indeed was the case. The Germans had decided to focus their attentions on the Eastern Front. The forthcoming gas attack was meant as nothing more than a test on the effectiveness of this new weapon but little was expected by the German high command. That they nearly broke through illustrates both the shock value of gas when it was initially used and the chaos wrought by its effect. That the Germans did not break through is a testament to the fortitude of the mainly Canadian troops, the sense of the commanders on the ground and the slowness of the Germans to seize the opportunity.

N.b. 5; John Gordon Smith-Grant later transferred to the RFC/RAF (70th Squadron) and was killed on the 30th May 1918.

N.b. 6; a hole made through the parapet through which to fire without having to raise one’s head above the parapet.

N.b. 7; slang for ‘the real thing’ from a contemporary advert.

N.b. 8; thought to be a line from a contemporary tune.

N.b. 9: the Germans were in reality ranging their guns whilst awaiting a change in the wind direction. The gain of Hill 60 by the British was ironically reported in the German press as the first use of gas and was subsequently used by the Germans as their justification for using it a week later. Later, in again attempting to justify this infringement of the rules of war, the German War Ministry and High Command in 1917 charged the French Army with having used a rifle grenade filled with bromic acid, and a hand grenade filled with ethyl bromo-acetate liquid. The German Official History brands the French use of gas shells and gas hand grenades from the end of February 1915 as “the first breach of international agreement in the sphere of gas warfare”. These charges were that the Hague agreements barred the use of such projectiles only when their sole object was the diffusion of asphyxiating gases. “The Battles of Ypres which began on April 22nd” states the Reicharchiv “Had their origin on the German side solely in the desire to trial a new weapon, gas, thoroughly at the front”.

N.b 10; setting aside the trauma so evocatively articulated surrounding these events, this passage in Beatson’s log underlines three 'side' aspects of the war as prosecuted in 1915. Beatson amply illustrates the gulf between those at the front and those at ‘home’. The divide was wide enough already if only because of the unique experiences of the frontline soldier that formed a perverse initiation rite of passage and the soldiers’ subsequent inability to equate their lives to those who had not been so initiated. The experience was, per se, so remarkable that no one who had not experienced it could ever share it or understand it. However two further issues exacerbated the abyss. The supply of shells to the artillery was indeed “miserably inadequate”, certainly in comparison to the mountainous stock of all types of shells held by the Germans and felt by the allies. The consequent demands on British industry to increase the supply resulted in workers striking for more pay. Beatson, in this short passage, precisely paints the anger felt at the front at this seeming affront to their bravery.

N.b.11; a mixed force of a few half battalions and the odd company had been cobbled together by General Geddes and thrown into the line. Had the Germans continued their movement they would have found this embryonic defence easily brushed aside with no reserve line to hinder them thereafter. In the event, the Germans had been so surprised by their advance that they halted whilst awaiting the arrival of their heavy artillery.

N.b.12; as if the diary were not extraordinary enough, this and a few of the preceding and subsequent entries, is no less than ‘live’ journalism. Where this diary was and when these words were penned travel - with an immortal timelessness through to the present - allows the reader an entry into the Scottish corporal’s war. How many other literary works concerning warfare have been written not only during the battle but whilst in it?

N.b.13; Beatson is unlikely to be referring to the French and Belgians advance near Het Sas and Steenstraate and is more probably remarking on the Battle of Festubert that was launched by the British which commenced in the 15th and was successful with the British taking Festubert and consolidating it on the 17th.

N.b.14: Beatson is probably referring to the German attack on Festubert on the 23rd and again East of Ypres on the 24th both of which were repulsed with heavy casualties to both sides.

N.b.15; Beatson naturally was unable to know that Kitchener’s Army later referred to the volunteer army assembled during 1914 and 1915 that, aside from the Territorials, did not see action until 1916. Kitchener being the Secretary of State for War was, George V aside, the head of the army and hence Beatson calling it “Kitchener’s Army”.

N.b.16; whilst impossible to prove, it would seem that Beatson wrote this entry one over the nine. The handwriting is certainly less disciplined in its appearance and the abandoned gaiety of this passage indicates a state of mind not hitherto seen in this diary. His inclusion of his meeting with Claude (probably ‘Claudette’) seems to have been less than platonic. What strikes one most is his revelling in being alive. An endearing though somewhat disjointed section that nevertheless affords the reader an instance where the emotions of a soldier of the First World War pierces the ages through to the present day.

N.b.17; Irwin Cobb was an American reporter most noted for his reports from the front during 1914 and 1915 behind the German lines. Heavily censored, his reports were viewed by Allied soldiers as unrealistically sanitised; an unjust accusation but understandable from the perspective of one in the trenches.

N.b.18; Beatson is clearly paraphrasing ‘Sergius’ from Shaw’s most memorable play. The setting of ‘Arms and the Man’ is in war-torn Bulgaria, and focuses not only on the romance between the young people of the play, but the atrocities that go on during war times and the ability of people not so very far removed from these atrocities to ignore them completely. First produced in 1894, Shaw's play turned out to be sadly prophetic. When war was declared young men flooding the recruitment carried with them the same romantic – and wholly inaccurate – ideas of the "glories" of war that Raina and her mother Catherine carry with them at the start of the play. Over the course of the play, Raina loses this romantic ideal in favour of a far more productive and accurate version that allows her to find true love. Sergius, her betrothed at the start of the play, goes through a similar transformation, realising that there must be more to himself than the two dimensional ideal of the soldier that young ladies seem to worship.

N.b.19; Juho Pietari "Hannes" Kolehmainen (1889 – 1966) was a Finnish long-distance runner. He is considered to be the first of a generation of great Finnish long distance runners, often named the "Flying Finns". Kolehmainen was one of the stars of the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm, winning three gold medals.

N.b.20; from late July, throughout August and into September, Kitchener’s new army was arriving in France, over 120,000 strong. Loos looms 25th September. Beatson’s demand for unconditional surrender born from the conviction he so eloquently describes, is a sentiment common to the soldier throughout history. Their scepticism that the politicians might betray them is best illustrated by a post-war German soldier’s book, ‘Mein Kampf’.

N.b.21; a passage of exemplary descriptive exactitude, Pulteney was the image of a despectacled Captain Mainwairing.

N.b.22; not to be confused with General Von Hausen commander of the 3rd German Army and who was/is considered responsible for the massacre of 600 Belgian civilians in August 1914.

N.b.23; a telling slip in this passionate piece of prose. Beatson has so completely identified himself with “Captain Von H”, that he uses ‘I’ in place of ‘you’. That he makes such a slip whilst analysing H is all the more revealing. It should also be noted that this passage is the longest single entry in Beatson’s diary.

N.b.24; the “English” appear thus quoted as Beatson being Scottish is aware of the Europeans' proclivity at the time to refer to the British as English.

N.b.25; General Friedrich von Bernhardi's ideas did not correspond to the official views of the Kaiser's government or even the general staff, but they were fully in keeping with those of the extreme nationalists in the Pan-German League. War was, according to men of these views, a right and a duty, a biological imperative sanctioned by the findings of Darwin.

N.b.26; a booming business was developing back at ‘home’ with the charlatans preying on the abundance of widows.

N.b.27; clearly British propaganda was working well as the Battle of Jutland is considered a draw at best (personally I feel he should have engaged at the second crossing of Spee's 'T') and Gallipoli an unmitigated disaster.

N.b. 28; the Royal Scots were one of the first regiments to arrive in the Somme when the British extended their line in assuming part of the French front.

N.b. 29; From the Rougon-Macquart cycle, a massive 40 volume work by Zola.

N.b.30; Field Message Sir John French issued the non-fraternisation directive following the Christmas truce nearly a year earlier.

N.b.31; Sergeant Alexander Mitchell is buried in Fosse 7, Military Cemetery (Quality Street), Mazingarbe and is recorded as killed in action on September 23rd 1915. The following two lines have very slight water stains to them smudging the ink. Whether the water was a tear is complete supposition but they are the only such marks in the diary.

Appendix 1. Beatson lost his life on July 16th 1916 at High Wood. As a fellow 9th Royal Scot, Sergeant Bill Hay of the 1/9th Battalion, Royal Scots, described the attack thus:

"That was a stupid action, because we had to make a frontal attack on bristling German guns and there was no shelter at all. ... There were dead bodies all over the place where previous battalions and regiments had taken part in previous attacks. What a bashing we got. There were heaps of men everywhere — not one or two men, but heaps of men, all dead. Even before we went over, we knew this was death. We just couldn't take High Wood against machine-guns. It was ridiculous. There was no need for it. It was just absolute slaughter."

The British field guns had difficulty supporting attacks on High Wood because they had to fire over Bazentin Ridge. The low elevation of the guns meant the shells were just skimming over the British trenches and the margin for error was small with numerous casualties from friendly fire. The possibility that this gifted young man’s life being curtailed by his own side makes its ending all the more tragic. The official history reads thus.

Appendix 2.

The ‘Heinrich’ prose arose as a result of an article published in a magazine of a captured German soldier's diary, which was circulated by the British Army as anti-German propaganda. As Beatson he reads it, he changes - he identifies more and more with this German soldier. According to Dr Gabriel Heaton, Sotheby's manuscript specialist and an expert on wartime diaries, "In terms of its detail and the empathy he shows for his fellow human beings, the villagers who were having their homes destroyed and for the Germans he was fighting, it is amazing, and that's what makes it special. It is one of the most moving documents I have seen in my career. It is a powerful and emotive witness to one of the darkest episodes in European military history."

Appendix 3

The Royal Scots (‘The Royal Regiment’) is the oldest Regiment in the British Army and as such is the senior Infantry Regiment of the Line – the 1st Foot. It was raised in 1633 when Sir John Hepburn, under a Royal Warrant from King Charles I, recruited 1200 men in Scotland. The first battle honour awarded to the Regiment was Tangier 1680, since when a further 148 have been gained in a history which has involved them in almost every campaign the British Army has fought; the last being the Gulf 1991.

Appendix 4.

27th Division Order of Battle 22nd April; Commander: Major-General T D'O Snow [Grandfather of the newscaster Jon Snow]

Headquarters: Potijze Chateau

Front Line Position

The front line was held by three battalions in each of the three brigades:

 80th Brigade (Brigadier-General W E B Smith, HQ at Verlorenhoek): Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, 3rd Battalion King's Royal Rifle Corps and 4th Battalion King's Royal Rifle Corps.

 81st Brigade (Brigadier-General H L Croker, HQ north of the Menin Road at Hooge): 1st Battalion Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, 9th Battalion Royal Scots ‘The Highlanders’ and 1st Battalion Royal Scots.

 82nd Brigade (Brigadier-General J R Longley, HQ south of the Menin Road at Hooge): 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers, 1st Battalion the Cambridgeshire Regiment and 1st Battalion the Leinster Regiment.

© Shaun Springer 2007

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Shaun, I hope I may offer a small contribution. On 20 October, he quotes from a poem in French. I cannot remember where I first read it, and it's taken me a while to track down the author, but it's by the Belgian poet Leon Montenaeken. (It sounds as though he has substituted "peine" (pain) for hate/hatred.)

La vie est vaine,

Un peu d'amour,

Un peu de haine,

Et puis - bonjour!

La vie est brève,

Un peu d'espoir,

Un peu de rêve,

Et puis - bonsoir!

Life is vain,

A little love,

A little hate,

And then - good day!

Life is short,

A little hope,

A little dream,

And then - goodnight!

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This has been a remarkable read, Shaun, written by a reamrkable man who would perhaps have remained unknown if not for you. Many thanks indeed for sharing it.

I think Greyhound's Belgian poem is a fitting end to the transcript somehow.

Till your next posting!


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