Rifleman, Highland regiment officer and RFC pilot—one man’s incredible war
This book’s original title, ‘A Soldier’s Diary of the Great War’, did nothing—despite being an excellent account—to give potential readers any indication that it is a very unusual diary of the First World War by a British Officer.
The author put more literary effort into writing this diary than is normally the case, this makes this both an informative and enjoyable read for those interested in the period. However, what makes this diary especially interesting is that the author first enlisted as a rifleman in the ranks of the London Rifle Brigade and served in France. He then became an officer in a Scottish infantry regiment, the Cameron Highlanders. After further service in the trenches in 1916 he volunteered for the Royal Flying Corps and was accepted for pilot training. The final section of his diary, concerning the war in the air in 1917, is a record of his flying experiences. This is a valuable diary of varied Great War recollections and is recommended. This Leonaur edition contains photographs not present in the original publication.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
. . . . . an utter failure. We were opposite a few mounds of rubble still known as the village of Hulluch, close to the famous Hohenzollern Redoubt.
There were two sand-bag barricades at the end of my trench. There were about 20 yards of No-Man’s Land between the two barricades, and the trench beyond the second one was occupied by the enemy. D Company’s job was to break down our barricade, rush with bombs the German one, scale it with ladders, and drive the enemy along, while the other companies attacked over the top.
Our artillery was well-ranged and fire was continuous for hours, but little real damage was done, as the enemy was in deep dug-outs, such as those captured a fortnight before. Still, there was an exciting whirlwind of shells, noise, and smoke, shells skimming over our heads with a scream and a whistle, crashing blackly on to the chalk parapets over the way. Just before zero hour our fellows put some gas over, but the wind shifted and I think the gas only added to the confusion. All this gas and bombardment gave the enemy the plainest possible idea of what to expect, and, in my opinion, our only chance would have been a surprise raid, preferably at night.
I was definitely ordered by the C.O. to remain at company headquarters (a little scoop out of the side of the trench) to receive reports, so I had to put one of my subalterns, MacD., in charge of the bombing party. Though outwardly cheerful I felt sick when I told him. He looked grave, and stared far away over my head. Then he said ‘All right’ quietly and resolutely, and went back to his men. I felt I loved him.
At last zero hour came, the bombardment lifted, and I knew that MacD. must have gone over the ruins of our barricade. I stayed back at my ‘headquarters’ tortured with anxiety. The arrangement was he would send along a message as soon as he was in the German trench.
But nothing seemed to be happening and no word came. I guessed things had miscarried, and I pushed my way along the trench. Presently I met the bayonet men who were supposed to follow the bombers, edging back. They were mostly recruits, and were leaderless and much shaken. They cried out that the officer was killed by the barricade. Waving my revolver, I scrambled past them, cursing them vigorously, but I could no more have hurt the dear lads than I could have shot my mother.
I reached the spot where our barricade had been, caught one terrible glimpse of a heap of bodies, and, I remember, someone’s hand cut neatly off at the wrist and grasping a bomb like a cricket ball, when a bomb shaped like a hairbrush came over the German barricade, and fell hissing at my feet. I swung round on my heel, and it exploded behind me, blowing me off my feet.
The shock was so severe that I really thought I was done for, and lay still for a few moments, but very soon I realised the spot was so unhealthy from falling bombs that I had better get out of it. I found I could crawl, and managed to get back to where our barricade had been, or rather a few yards behind that spot. There I thought I would try and stand up. I succeeded in doing so, and began to feel I wasn’t so badly hurt after all. There was a group of grey-faced men some distance down the trench staring at me. I exhorted and implored them to come forward and rebuild the barricade, as it was obvious some defence had to be made. Our little show had failed, and for all I knew there might be a bombing counter-attack any minute.
No one moved for a little while, they were all too shaken, but presently one of the survivors of the bombing party shouted, ‘I’m wi’ ye, lad,’ and ran to me. We started to haul sand-bags into position, and then others trickled forward and they set to with a will. This stout fellow had no rifle, so I gave him my revolver. (Which he kept for me for a year, until he was killed.) I was feeling faint by this time, with my kilt in ribbons and my backside in a bloody mess, and a dull sick pain inside, so leaving him in charge temporarily, I went to find the other subaltern.
I found him sick and shaken by his first action, and sitting as though paralysed, but I roused him, and left him in charge of the job (where I hear he did well) while I sought the M.O. to get the wound dressed. The Germans were shelling us now, and spurts of bullets broke and cracked all along the parapets. I saw one rip through the water-jacket of our Vickers gun as I limped along.
The M.O. seemed to think I could not be patched up in the trench, so he sent me down to the Casualty Clearing Station, in charge of two stretcher-bearers. The trenches were too narrow for a stretcher so I had to walk somehow.
There was a lot of shelling, and the stretcher-bearers were risking their lives, and when we came to the open, I told them to go back and leave me. They refused, but eventually, as it seemed impossible to reach Lone Tree where the C.C.S. was, they assisted me down the steps of a deep dugout and laid me down with the other wounded. They were fine fellows and did not care a damn for the shells; their only thought was for me. I would not let them come any farther, and had no desire whatever to go on myself!
I must have lost consciousness for many hours, for when I came-to the dug-out was dark and deserted. All the other wounded had gone, and possibly I had been left for dead. Anyway, I tried to call out, and at length attracted the attention of some men outside, who came down, helped me up, and over the open in the dark to the C.C.S, at Lone Tree. I vaguely remember the doctor recognising me as an old schoolfellow, being put in a train, and into an ambulance car, in which the jolting was agonising.