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Captain Gordon Ramsay

Letter from Captain Gordon Ramsay, Cameron Highlanders, former instructor at Sandhurst, to his father.
Captain Gordon Ramsay

3 February 1915

I 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;

Since I wrote you last I have been living mostly in trains, trains which jolted, banged and shunted until I arrived at ‘railhead’ at 4 o’clock this morning. I was the senior officer on the train, but there were not excitements with reference to Germans.

I spent a whole day in Rouen, had a hot bath, changed my socks, had two good meals, attended church, and altogether put in a good day.

There 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.

At dinner at the Hotel de l’Opera I met many officers I know, including Captain Grieve of the Camerons, on his way to join the 1st Battalion.

Travelling 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 great repute.

The Prince of Wales passed us in his car close to the Inn.

A 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.

I 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.

While 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.

I will close now as I want to take a full value out of that bed.

Belgium 7 February 1915.

My last letter was written to you from a convent in which I spent an unexpectedly comfortable night.

The 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.

I 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 don’t 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.

Captain 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 over.

I 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.

These 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.

8 February 1915

I 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.

9 February 1915

I 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.

We 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 definite.

The 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.

Barb 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 with.

Since 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.

The 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.

It 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 from India.

The 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 anyone else.

During 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.

As 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 writing.

They have also spotted the corpse just in front; they say they don’t 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.

Just before coming out on this tour of duty the mail arrived and I read my letters about 4 o’clock 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.

If 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 don’t 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.

The 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.

12 February 1915

I Left this letter unfinished on purpose so that I could report my exit from the trenches for a short spell.

During 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 company’s 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 conditions.

Next 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 target.

We 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.

I was glad to find that I had none. The four of us then made for the company’s 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.

I 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 o’clock and are resting before the next tour.

The 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.

The subalterns of both companies come in for meals and two of them sleep in the loft in preference to going to their proper billet.

Outside 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.

A 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.

I 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.

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