am writing this in a small room in a convent not many miles from
the French frontier. I have had dinner with the Headquarters
of a certain brigade, on the staff of which I have a friend,
and a bed awaits me upstairs, a bed under a roof;
I wrote you last I have been living mostly in trains, trains
which jolted, banged and shunted until I arrived at railhead at
4 oclock this morning. I was the senior officer on the
train, but there were not excitements with reference to Germans.
spent a whole day in Rouen, had a hot bath, changed my socks,
had two good meals, attended church, and altogether put in a
is much of historical interest in Rouen: my attendance at church
service was accidental: three of us who were travelling together
dropped in as sight-seers and found an impressive service taking
place: the old church was dimly lit as a chanting procession
walked round the outer aisles: a dignitary of some importance
was included, as great reverence was shown as he passed: it was
a scene to remember.
dinner at the Hotel de lOpera I met many officers I know,
including Captain Grieve of the Camerons, on his way to join
the 1st Battalion.
on the train up to railhead was an ex-student of
mine. We entrained at Havre on Sunday night: detrained to-day,
on Wednesday morning.
At railhead we
had a meal in an inn, in which the Germans took what they wanted
during their advance: the two subalterns of the A & S Highlanders
and myself were welcome. The Ecossais are held in
Prince of Wales passed us in his car close to the Inn.
Sergeant in the Motor Transport came u to me: I looked at him
for some time before I recognized him. He was my servant many
years ago, was later a porter at the Waverley Station, as you
will remember: after that he went to Australia from which he
returned on account of the War. He brought me out to this place
on a motor-lorry today, and when saying goodbye gave me a large
box of cigarettes.
am tonight accepting hospitality from the staff of a brigade
to which I do not belong: the staff captain was an instructor
at the RMS with me and so I am in luck, and am to share a bedroom
in this old-fashioned convent with the brigade-major. Tomorrow
I will probably get to where the 2nd battalion is and get orders
on arrival. During the drive out in the lorry I could see the
signs of War the artillery was engaged on our right, but
not heavily. One house showed sighs of cultur treatment:
here and there along the roadside a grave: and everywhere military
life: the wonderful British soldier, dirty, tired, callous of
his own safety, driving guns into action while others kicked
a football apparently oblivious of the war: the soldier is at
his best on active service.
walking through the crowd of soldiers billetting in this village
a car passed containing General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, who
looks fitter than in peace time.
will close now as I want to take a full value out of that bed.
7 February 1915.
last letter was written to you from a convent in which I spent
an unexpectedly comfortable night.
next day I walked to the Headquarters of the 81st Brigade to
report, and by good fortune found my C.O. there talking to the
Brigadier the brigade-major is an old friend, Captain Holland
of the Seaforths, and Merchistoun. The Battalion was going into
the trenches that night so I had only time to snatch a few odds
and ends out of my kit and walk with him to where the battalion
was lying. The walk became somewhat exciting as we were between
the two ends of an artillery duel and so had both German and
British shells overhead.
found the battalion in what had once been an inhabited village
and now is a heap of ruins. The men were hidden away in the ruins
so as to be out of sight of the aeroplanes their appearance
was at first a shock to me, dirty, bedraggled, unkempt, unshaven,.
It may be that the walk under fire made me more ready to be shocked,
but when I first saw them I felt say for them; but they dont
ask for pity, they are as cheery as out wonderful soldiers always
are. The surroundings may have accounted for it a ruined
village in a churned up land of mud and smells. I saw many friendly
faces as I walked along to where battalion headquarters was,
under a roof of sorts.
MacPherson is adjutant, Major Gaeme is Second-in-command: Lieutenant-Colonel
Campbell is C.O. We were discussing things when two shells in
succession dusted our roof so we came outside and finished the
discussion on the lee side of the house; no harm was done to
anyone, and I was glad it had happened, the first plunge was
found much fewer officers here than I expected and I am in command
of A company; I have one officer under me instead of five; I
know a good many of the men and if I can only get a look at them
in daylight I will probably find some more old friends. The Company
was hidden away in some stables and outhouses until dark when
the Battalion was to go on trench duty for two days; then word
was passed that a certain unexpected development had taken place
in another part of the line and we might be required to go elsewhere.
Such a change means a good many alterations in the Company; we stood
by in a yard for a couple of hours in the dark and eventually
word came that the original orders would hold good. We took over
trenches very late, but without any casualties. My own Company
was in reserve and so we spent the night taking up material of
various kinds to the three companies in the trenches.; it was
distinctly exciting work as the German trenches are quite close
to ours and there is a continual crackle of musketry between
them which surges up suddenly and dies down again. I got to bed
at 6 o'clock in the morning, bed being a water-proof ground-sheet
on the floor of a dug-out. The daylight was by the other half
of the Company making up material likely to be of use for the
companies in the trenches, and then at nightfall the night
party came on duty again and carried down sand-bags, fascines,
hurdles, barbed wire, planks and so on.
trips are, as I said, distinctly exciting, but no one seems to
care. I do not wish to make too much of it in this letter because
it is the ordinary course of duty, but it will interest you to
know how things are done.
had hoped to continue this letter; have been too busy am
just going to the trenches for 48 hours in the firing line. Hope
to write again in a few days.
had to finish my letter abruptly yesterday as our turn had again
come for the trenches for a spell of 48 hours. I have now been
36 hours without sleep, and have 35 hours still to go and then
have to make our way out of the trenches and march to billets.
got into our trenches without a casualty, but the people we took
over from had one man killed and one wounded in the trench. During
darkness I visited my other three trenches making a tour of about
2? hours as I received a message that the Germans were sapping
toward my right trench. I had to do a stomach crawl over
the most filthy mud in front of the trench, and discovered nothing
trenches we have taken over are in a filthy condition and we
are all caked with clay and mud. It is quite impossible to describe
what the trenches are like; now that it is daylight we can study
our surroundings and they are not pleasing to the eye. The trenches
have, I think, been German so old and new trenches are all mixed
up. The old trenches are feet deep in water and refuse which
percolates through to ours. About 150 yards away are the Germans,
and the ground in between is cut up and ragged and sodden.
wire entanglements have been put up as opportunity offered and
a dead Frenchman lies a few yards in front. We had a good deal
of firing during the night, but managed to put in a good deal
of work in trying to make the parapet bulletproof and to make
some sort of footway through the filthy slush. It is slow work
as we have to be careful and it is disheartening soil to work
daylight we have been fairly quiet except for artillery. Out
gunners have been shelling the German trenches and the margin
of 150 yards between us and the target was sufficiently small
to make it exciting. The accuracy was wonderful, shell after
shell landing just over their parapet; one shell burst short
and one of my men got a smack on the back with some stone or
something that was knocked up. I found, however, that although
he had had a real good thud the skin was not broken and he returned
to his place with the remark in a very highland accent that it
was only a bruise. The men are simply wonderful playing
the ass, chaffing, spinning yarns, inventing new names (mostly
indecent) for the gentlemen 150 yards away.
fact that the O.C. Company is as filthy and muddy as they are
creates a feeling which can never be attained in peace time;
little kindly acts done half shyly make it a great pleasure to
try to do something for them. I have been given a copy of Tit-Bits to
read, have been presented with a cup of tea, have been pulled
out of the mud when I stuck, have been asked to keep my head
lower when passing a bad bit of parapet, in fact I am among the
cheeriest and kindliest lot that you can imagine.
is a great thing to be among men that you have known for some
time instead of, as has happened in some cases, being attached
to a totally different regiment. This battalion is of course
not what it was when it came out before Christmas on its return
trenches they held at first were much worse than these and the
sickness was devastating. Since I took over the Company fives
days ago three men had gone sick; in another company a sergeant
has been killed and a man wounded; in another company a corporal,
an old friend of my own, has been killed. Last night one of our
officers had a bullet through his haversack without touching
him. But everyone is cheery, hard-working, and ready to help
our two days break from the trenches the battalion had hot baths
in the vats of a brewer to the accompaniment of shell-fire. One
vat was reserved for officers and I found myself in the curious
situation of sharing a bath with a complete stranger. The bath
the battalion had was the second since crossing from England;
they needed it.
I write now there are two Jocks' filling sand-bags beside
my feet and their conversation would be worth repeating if I
had time; they have discussed the whistling noise which the shells
make as they pass over; things have got lively since I started
have also spotted the corpse just in front; they say they dont
care whether he is Dutch, Belgian, French or German but he is
lucky because he has a pair of blue trousers on; as he is dead
their pious hope is that he is German. They have discussed many
things with that Scotch humour which one seldom finds in books.
before coming out on this tour of duty the mail arrived and I
read my letters about 4 oclock this morning they included
letters from Father, Elsie, Daisy, Will, Aunt Isobel, and a bundle
of papers from Aunt Joe which I had to leave in my valise until
I come out of the mud-hole, as one takes merely what one can
carry and it has to last for 48 hours. I am looking forward to
reading them when I get out.
everyone is thinking of sending things for the men it would be
nice for us if they could be addressed to O.C. A Company, 2nd
Battalion, Cameron Highlanders, as I would then be able to help
my own commands; if things were not required I would hand them
on to the others. Socks are in demand, warm ones; they seem to
last no time at this work. Dried fruit and sweets are always
welcome, also candles as we dont find lights in houses
which have been shelled; I could always take what I required
for myself out of the parcels; but won't include a personal letter
to me in the parcels as they might not always be opened by me.
men do not require cigarettes or tobacco at present, but I could
do with a small tin box of Egyptian cigarettes occasionally only.
Also for my own consumption I would be glad now and then of figs,
dates, raisins or anything of a similar nature.
Left this letter unfinished on purpose so that I could report
my exit from the trenches for a short spell.
the second spell of darkness a new subaltern joined the company.
He had just arrived from home and was brought down to me; it
must have been a curious experience for him. He was good about
it all and picked up every tip he could; next time he will most
likely be in charge of one of my companys trenches. An
artillery officer also turned up and a telephone wire was laid
from my trench to his battery during darkness; so there were
three officers, total strangers, spending the night under curious
day the German trenches in front of mine got some attention from
the battery; it was an education to one not in the artillery;
the battery was a mile and a half away, the target was about
150 yards (rather more) from where we were. The shells were dropped
absolutely as required, the necessary orders being given by the
officer in my trench; the people at the gun could not see the
had no great excitements during the day, but the relief was late
in arriving. The turn for another regiment had arrived and the
relief for the trench I was in arrived an hour later than I expected,
two others of my trenches were relieved at the same time, but
one was not relieved till nearly midnight. There had been a hitch
for which no one in ours was to blame. I sent the
company on and waited for the last trench; they eventually arrived
except for two men who had been sent on a special job. One sergeant
and I waited for them and eventually they turned up a 1.30 in
the morning. It is not until all your company is in that you
know you stand as to casualties.
was glad to find that I had none. The four of us then made for
the companys billet, about 4 miles away; it was raining
hard, very dark and we were all tired and kept stumbling into
shell-holes on the road. At 2.45 I reached the canvas hut, had
a cup of cocoa and went to sleep. From the time I got up on Monday
morning until 3.30 on Thursday morning I had 1? hours sleep.
had hoped now for a long sleep, but was wakened in the morning
to be told that the battalion was going to move that morning
to a place further back, instead of waiting till darkness. I
felt tired, but was all right and we arrived where we are now
about 1 oclock and are resting before the next tour.
men are in canvas huts, about 35 in a hut; the officers are in
the cottages. I share my billet with another company commander;
he is rather seedy unfortunately; the house belongs to a cobbler
and our feeding table is alongside his bench. It is a cottage
much the same as a farm servant has at home.
subalterns of both companies come in for meals and two of them
sleep in the loft in preference to going to their proper billet.
everything is mud; black liquid, aggressive mud; one wit remarked in
this country the mud grows on you;.
Yesterday soon after I arrived I went round to Major Baumgartner and had tea
with him and today I had a hot bath in his billets and changed into clean underclothes
for the first time since I left England.
mail has arrived and I have letters from Douglas, Aunt Joe, MacLean
and another instructor at the RMC; also a paper from Aunt Joe;
it is nice to get letters and papers from so many people. I suppose
the war goes on as usual; our information is concerned with about
half a mile of the line; of the rest we know nothing except for
an occasional note from the 1st Battalion.
am afraid I have written at great length and you may think the
conditions are worse than they really are; anyhow we are cheery.
The second morning in the trenches there was ice on the water;
this morning there was snow; the Germans also had ice and snow
and none of our people seemed to mind.