Letters from the trenches
There are two letters from the trenches written by two of the Scott brothers.
The first is a letter written by Walter Park Scott (1892-1949). At the time of writing this he was a private in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. In the letter he refers to his impending return home for his commission. The Roll of Officers has the following entry:
Walter Park Scott. Private, 9th A.& S.H.(T.F.) Second-Lieutenant, 11th September, 1915. (2/9th A & S.H.). Acting Captain without pay or allowances of this rank, while employed as a Brigade Bombing Officer, 17th February, 1917. Brigade Bombing Officer, 17th February, 1917. Lieutenant, 1st July, 1917. Relinquishes the acting rank of Captain on ceasing to be employed as Brigade Bombing Officer, 2nd May, 1919. To Territorial Force Reserve, Captain, 11th March, 1921, under the provisions of A.O.166/21 as amended by A.O.332/21, and retains the rank of Captain.
His letter describes, in some detail, the hardships and difficulties he and his fellow squaddies faced while engaged in the fighting around Festubert. The conditions sound to be physically horrible and equally horrible mentally.
He is writing to his brother Robert Park Scott (1884-1933). His brother was a cotton broker and may have been in India during the war.
My dear Bob, 14th July, 1915.
I have just received your letter of 23rd June today and of course was very pleased to get it and hear that you and Mary are both well. I’m surprised to hear you have not heard from me that I had received your letters not to mention parcels which I am now receiving through your usual generosity because I have always acknowledged them in my letters home and have also written you occasionally, but I’m afraid the letters have never reached you. There wasn’t much in them as I sent them in these green envelopes we get issued and it is only family affairs we are allowed to mention.
In this one however I will give you more news as I’m getting it home through a man who is going on leave. There is some kind of very unsatisfactory leave started. The officers of course have all been home and are now started for their second time. This is what riles me it seems to me especially in this war where the rank and file are very often physically, mentally and morally superior to half the officers out here, a living disgrace that the War Office can let them home for a second time when some of the men have been out here a year and not home yet, feel it badly enough after nearly 9 months of it.
Our leave which is started is as follows. The N.C.Os first~ the men balloted for places and I with my usual luck am second, last in our platoon, however I might have been last!!! If I had been first I would have had hopes, but as it is I don’t expect to ever get it unless in the winter and by that time I expect to be home for my commission.
I always try to write home cheerfully although I know at times it does not sound so, but seeing it’s you I’ll tell the truth. If hell is any worse than this I wish to God I had never had a sin.
The actual trench work and fighting is simply beyond words and then after all that when we are out of them for a day or so we are treated more like pigs than men.
For example, on 9th May we left Bethune at 1 a.m. marched about 5 miles into reserve trenches where we remained all that day and saw all the poor Black Watch wounded pass down. We were about the 4th line of reserve as it was expected there would be an advance. The B.W. after what in the papers is called a hail of shells from our artillery made the attack on the first line of German trenches. Poor fellows they were mown down by the dozen and never got the length of the trench, then the Camerons tried and met the same fate. A few of them along with some of the B.W. that were game to try again got across but had to retire owing to lack of bombs, ammunition, etc. This attacking went on day after day more or less for the next 5 days, during which time we got marched here, there and everywhere as the mobile brigade to repulse any counter attack or to follow up an advance I think we would do an average of about 15 miles every 24 hours and by jove the heat was awful during the day and ice cold at night. We slept mostly in the ditches at the side of the road or if lucky a barn during that time. We then settled for a night and a day in Richebourg L’Avoue and were instructed – how we were going to take the front German trench (where the Black Watch and several other battalions had all been cut up) and then on to the Ferme du Bois, 1000 yds in all. All these days of course we were under a fair amount of shell fire and had lost about 30 men. Well on the 15th at about 8 p.m. we set out with full equipment and 200 rounds of ammunition. We worked our way up to the 2nd line and were to remain there until the 2nd Worcesters attacked, then we were to go forward to the German line and pass the Worcesters on to the 2nd. and 3rd. German trenches. The battalions who were attacking with us of course are in our brigade. (2nd. Worcesters, 2nd. H.L.I., Royal Inniskillings Fusillers.) For some reason or other the Worcesters who were with us got out of our trench but no further. They funked it. When our first line arrived they found this and as the wind was up of course, that is the Germans already had the 2nd. H.L.I. and Skins in on them on the right they naturally expected someone to come from our bit as it should have been. Well through this blunder our poor boys to make the best of it started off to make up for the Worcesters failure. The first 40 left our trench and went forward like men but Bob I was behind the breast work and I said I go next so good-bye to mother earth, the hail of lead that was battering that trench well I can’t explain it, it was impossible to live and over and above this of course the shrapnel and high explosives were coming over in dozens. Of our first two 40s that went out 4 men came back unhit. The attack was stopped in time to save Jack and I, we were due next. We then (that is Jack and I) were put in a newly dug trench about lft deep, 20yds behind the fire trench and were left there for 16hrs and during that time were shelled continuously. At 2 p.m. on the 16th (the same day) we were told to be ready to attack again. Beside me there were 7 men, 4 wounded, 2 killed and myself and Geo. Main, that was all I could see and we were about to attack, you can perhaps imagine how I felt. I was absolutely shaken and felt there was some dirty traitor leading us into it, because we simply were not fit to do a rush as it was now 36hrs since we had any sleep and had had such a shaking and no grub, and wet to the skin. However all the length we got was our own fire trench and then it was I got a bit in. We didn’t attack but we got pot shots at the Germans who were then being bombed out from the right by the Skins and 2nd. H.L.I. and at the same time we saw great hordes of the Germans leaving their trenches further to the right at Festubert. At first we thought it was a counter attack but then heard they were surrendering. They were too far away for us to fire on them but we saw them drop in 100s (no exaggeration) and then at the finish there was 200 prisoners and I’m sure there was about 2000 left the trench.
Well to continue I was in the front trench until about 8 p.m and reckon I hit about, Oh I can’t say as almost everyone of them that tried to bolt got 50 of us firing at once. It was a great days sport. At 8 we went back to C trench about 200yds back and slept about 4 hrs then commenced the sad part of it removing the wounded and dead who were still left. The shelling of course and rapid fire was continuous all the time, and the Germans I reckon sent over 5 shells for everyone of ours and to show the accuracy of our artillery they sent over 2 high explosives not 50 yds from me and killed 7 of our own boys. A great pal of mine Hugh McPherson was one. I heard afterwards that it had been the same all along the line and that 3 men in the artillery were shot over it, one a Major.
The next day we were transferred to the right to assist the 2nd H.L.I. who were now in the 3rd. line of German trenches. When we were going forward to the first German trench the word came back to retire as there were large German reinforcements; at least to stay where we were.
Well at that time we were all out for blood and revenge and would have taken on all the German army but we were not allowed as I’m perfectly sure it was another spy, because afterwards we found out no such message had been sent back and the result was the 2nd. had to retire into the 1st. German trench for lack of support. However when we got back we were able to pop lots of them over as they came at the 2nd. To get to that 1st German trench the men had to wade through a burn up to the waste in water and many of the poor fellows were drowned. We got relieved at 2 a.m. on the 18th by the 1st H.L.I., and they arrived with 350 rounds each and 2 stink bombs. We had not left 10 minutes until they had once more cleaned the Germans out and relieved the poor 2nd men. This was the first we had seen of small hand bombs and by jove they are the business. When we left we got hot tea and soup at Richebourg L’Avone and I never in all my life enjoyed food like I did that. We then set out and did about a 15 mile march, well it wasn’t a march it was a stagger. We arrived at a small place near Lillers called Hurionville. It was a lonely place and we were there for a week. They call that a rest. Well our usual programme during that rest is: Reveille at 6, Breakfast 7, Fall in at 8, full marching order that is with packs, march from 2 to 4 miles, make an attack, rest a bit, make another attack, rest again and march back. Dinner at 1.30 (uneatable stew) Fall in again at 3 for an hours bayonet fighting then free until 7 when we must go to bed or at least be in billets. Our rations all the time are a loaf between 3 (about 2 slices each), a pot of jam between 5 and of course biscuits galore. We get tea at breakfast and a piece of fat ham 2″ square. At dinner we get stew and although I’ve been here 8 months I can’t yet get used to it unless I’m starving. We get tea again for tea.
After that week we had a tremendous march to Vermeiles where we took over from the French. It was a quiet part of the line but then we now only had about 300 men and had to take the place of a full battalion so of course we got it very heavy. Our total casualties at Richebourg were 310. We were at Vermeiles for 14 days and it was rotten. We got very little sleep as at night we were making a trench about 50 yds. in front (the Germans were 300 yds away) and of course during the day there was lots to do such as going down for grub etc. The communication trench down was about 3¼ miles and we had to carry everything up. While in this position we lost about 10 through shrapnel. One day we had the excitement of seeing a German aeroplane being brought down, it was a great sight. Unfortunately he dropped just outside the German trench so we didn’t see as much as we would have liked. After this we went back to Vaudricourt for 3 days and then back again to the right of Vermeiles and this time had a nice time in the trenches. The French trenches are very much more elaborate than ours, they have dug-outs you can stand in which is quite unheard of in our lines. This position was also quiet, we captured 3 Germans who were out on patrol and lost themselves. Our officials very heroically took them prisoner, I know what I would have done with them. They had with them bombs, a revolver each and a rifle and bayonet. The heat during the day at this time was awful and the flies the limit.
We left that position at the end of the month and had one night in Bethune then went up to Givenchy where we have been for the last 13 days. This position which is right behind La Bassee is hell on earth. The first night up I was bunged right into a bombing post 25 yds from the Germans (I’m now a bomb thrower~ a job I wasn’t too keen on, but was selected so I suppose it was a compliment as the best are taken for it) and supplied with bombs Well for some reason or other the other man and I were told not to fire from it but if they tried to rush us to use our bombs. Well about midnight I saw a party of Germans coming towards us. I passed the word and got a bomb ready but they were just out sorting their barbed wire. I was told not to fire remember, but this was too much for the other chap and I so we gave them 5 rounds each and hit about 4 the remainder hopped off. We got jip for firing from the sergeant but when the officer heard he was delighted. I thought if he had any sense he would be. We waited patiently for a chance again and sure enough they came creeping out again. This time we let them settle for a bit and then gave them 2 bombs. They left about 7 behind them, we saw them in the morning so it wasn’t a bad nights work. We expected to get a return for this and we did, they shelled the trench from end to end with a heavy gun away on the right. It was enfilade fire they couldn’t have done it otherwise as we are too near them and would have hit their own trench. But by marvellous luck not a man was hit, after this they gave us trench mortars and they are the worst of all. They fire shells about 60 lbs in weight and they make a hole 16 ft broad and about 18 ft deep but thank heaven they all dropped just over our trench and once more I was thankful to be alive. We were 2 days in and then did 2 days down the road about half a mile in ruined buildings and never had a minutes peace there for shells. The next day that is the 3rd. day in that position the poor fellows in another company who took over that bombing position from us were knocked to bits. Needless to say I expected the same when I went back but we were still lucky and although they tried all they knew they missed every time and we scored again because we managed to finish off three of them with a bomb, I got out safely again but the next day when occupying another trench to the right a little they shelled us very fiercely and with 2 of them laid out 7 of our boys. I was round the next traverse and with the explosion I thought every bone in my body was broken but I was alright. Oh it was a devil of a job afterwards digging what was left of these poor fellows out. They were in bits all over the place and the flies were in millions. We found one chaps body without legs or arms about 30 yds behind the trench. It almost drove me mad this job and it took us about 4 hrs hard work to do it. I vowed as I have done several times before that I at least would never take a German prisoner and I think that was and is how all the old hands feel and just that night three prisoners were led past my nose. They were taken by the battalion on our right, by God I could have bashed them to bits, the men guarding them had more trouble keeping us back than looking after the Germans. We had other 2 days after this in the bombing post and were very lucky again. These trench mortars are awful and we have nothing to reply with, our trench shell is like a pea to theirs, it weighs 7 lbs and not only that but while the Germans shell and shell us sending high explosives over at the rate of 3 a minute perhaps for an hour at a time then rest a bit and start again, our artillery send them over one every 3 minutes.
People talk and talk until I’m sick of them all at home (I seldom read a paper now they talk such rot) about the Germans being beaten. They will be beaten but at the present rate never. We have the men and the men (bless them) are willing to do it but no support in the way of munitions makes it impossible. And even yet the whole firing line is rotten with spies and there are no proper steps being taken to stop it. They seem to wait and see all the time. It is a case of everybody being boss and nobody at the same time. The latest instance we have had of the spy system was as follows:-
We at least the parson had 13 of our poor chaps to bury. There is a nice wee grave yard well behind the firing line and protected from view by the ruined houses. He got the bodies all down from the trenches by about 5 p.m. and just arranged to bury them at 8.30 in the dusk. There was of course a large number of our boys also officers including the Colonel at the service. Well just as the parson was saying Ashes to ashes etc. the Germans opened fire with shrapnel and landed two right in among the funeral party. They then put other two about 50 yds left just exactly where the whole lot should have run for cover but they were Scotchmen and they didn’t run so thereby saved themselves but the swine had scored all the same they killed 4 and wounded 13 including the parson who was hit on the leg. Now what do you think of that for smart work. They had only 3 hrs to get the information through and without a doubt they did, as it is a part no shells are ever fired because there is nothing to fire at and again the smart move of planting two in both places.
A few weeks ago we discovered wires below the water in the canal which runs through both lines theirs and ours. If, and that is just the point our heads of affairs would drop all their damned red tape and platoon drill and left, right and saluting which to them as far as I can see is all that counts and instead of that it is just their discipline as they call it that feeds us up. I believe by this time next year we might be able to fight the Germans on a level footing. Talking about willing soldiers. When we left that position on the 13th (Givenchy) we were relieved by the Royal Berks, we weren’t out 3 hrs before the Germans had cleaned them out of the 1st two trenches. However, they managed to retake them but not before the Germans had gained their object namely destroy 2 mines we had well on the way. This attacking the English has happened three times with us. There is no doubt the Germans are absolutely frightened for the Scotch. I myself dont think the Englishmen are worth the uniform they wear. After this spell we marched back to Bethune for another so called rest, our billet here made me boil. They led us into a stable which hadn’t been cleaned out, we were all out at 12 a.m. and had to set to and clean our billet after it was cleaned the floor was still wet and rotten. This is the billet we get to have a rest in and there are hundreds of other good enough billets in the town. We can’t get much enjoyment here as everything is so dear and the French don’t half put it on to us. All the decent grub shops are reserved for officers, we are allowed into places a degree worse than Lockharts.
The cafes are open for us from 4 to 7 and we are allowed French beer which has a taste very similar to quinine. At 7 we have to return to our stable. While in this town I feel little better than a convict not as the people at home write about us as being the cream of British manhood. This account sounds very downhearted but it is just an account of what actually happens and we are all heartily fed up, but still we are still hopeful and wonderfully cheery at times. It is such a relief to get away from the shells that all these minor handicaps don’t worry us as they might. It is just when we think and worry about them that we are annoyed. The bright side is the hope for the end and our cheering letters and parcels from home. Yes, I have met a good many of the blacks but don’t know where they come from exactly. The Ghurkas and Sikhs have both been next to us in the firing line. They get into a terrible state during the shelling but otherwise they are very good. They did very good work at Richebourg.
I always feel thankful that we haven’t been under gas although several times very near it. The respirators we have would only do for a short spell and after that ……
Yesterday I was talking to an artillery man who was with the guns at Givenchy and Armguin those trained on La Bassee and district. He says that his battery 6 inch guns have been moved six times in the last month and every time the Germans fire on it right away. Quite impossible if there weren’t spies. However the worst part of his story is, I asked him why their reply was so feeble to the Germans heavy shelling. He said we have no shells we only have 20 reserve ones for each gun and we must keep them in case of attack. I should have expected them to have about 2000 rounds reserve to each gun by this time. Where are the shells our great people at home are making ? Are they being made and if so where are they here. I hear from men who have come from the base that they can’t get moving for shells now thats another example of our fine management and perhaps more spy scheming. I’m afraid our heads are not all straight and hope some day to hear of a great upheaval and someone being found out.
17th July, 1915. Another very strong grievance we have here is the treatment of the sick. No matter how bad one is almost you are sent on parade as usual but thank goodness I have never once been on sick parade I’ve been at the dressing station once or twice but thats all. My pal Geo. Main at present has a hole in the front of his knee and it is suppurating badly and he simply can’t walk with it at least he can’t bend it, yet they turned him out on parade yesterday to do left, right etc., of course he was in pain and had to fall out. I fail to see the sense of this kind of treatment it only disheartens the lot of US.
That wonderful leave we all expected so much from hasn’t started yet and it was to start last Tuesday, so I’m afraid its all a bogey.
I’m sorry to hear the monsoon hasn’t proved as good but I hope it turned out later on all right. I hope Mary is still enjoying the life in India alright. Please give my kindest regards to Geddis and Langley I often think of them and you and wonder what I would have been doing at present but for this rotten old war. However I still hope to see you all someday when the Allemands are all finis.
This is Glasgow Fair Saturday. What price all the crush etc. struggling to get into a train for Carnoustie.
Have you any idea why cotton is not contraband ? It seems to me very strange. Is it a case of somebody in the know losing by it if it were ?
I’m glad to hear McKee is still A.1. How did you get on in the billiard handicap ? Many thanks for all the Times I have received.
These d— flies are a worry especially on our bare knees.
Love to both Mary and self. Your aff. bro.
The second is from Walter’s brother, John Innes Scott (“Jack”) (1886-1965). In his letter he mentions family members: Annie, Polly and Etta are his sisters and he mentions Martin who is his brother, my grandfather, who was not in the military. He also refers to his brother Walter who “got a knock on the leg”. Jack was a Private in the 9th H.L.I. and was commissioned as a Lieutenant into the 2nd H.L.I. I understand he may have been involved in the Battle of Aubers Ridge.
France Wed, 19/5/15.
My Dear Father,
I think I have two letters of yours to acknowledge, but I think more from Annie. Please apologise to her for not writing at this time, but this time I think I should write home as no doubt there will have been something in the papers about our doings within the last day or two.
We were in trenches for 2 days and 3 nights and during that time we were under a continual shell fire, and one is thankful to be alive as we have lost so many – about 250 killed and wounded. We were to make a charge along with other battalions in our Brigade, but the shell fire was so tremendous that we got word from Brigade Headquarters not to. That was after the Worcesters had tried it and failed, and it was now our turn. One of our Captains was very keen on it, but in my estimation it would have been pure murder. The Germans’ Rifle fire was tremendous and we could never all have got over our Breast Work. However, One of the battalions in our Brigade (2nd H.L.I.) paved the way for the position which, I believe, has now been taken. I don’t think there is one in our battalion that was not struck in some way. Mine was on the finger and face but no mark except a slight one on face. Walter, I think, got a knock on the leg. I sent you a F.S.P.G. for Walter along with my own as I got an opportunity I didn’t think he was getting. It was on our way down from the trenches when we were stopped and given soup and tea which was very much appreciated. When the Worcesters went out to make their attack one of our hardy cos gave a digging party, I believe of about 30, and I believe only about 5 of our chaps came back. The Captain (Martin) and Lieutenant (McNaughton) are both gone. Lieutenant Murray got wounded in the arm, and I am not sure yet who are all left. I think we had about 3 officers killed, and 7 or 8 injured. The other dead officer is Lieutenant Spens. We are now, I am thankful to say, miles away from the Firing Line, and, I believe, going further, our Army Corps within the last few days having got badly cut up. They have, however, made good progress. Lindsay H. is alright – so is J. McDowell and Howard McKellar, but I am not sure about Colin Campbell – some say he went off his head. I believe quite a number did that. We had a terrible time walking here, nearly all our feet are blistered but I suppose they would have to rush us far away to make room for other troops. Please thank Annie for her parcel, also for letters, Etta, Polly, Martin, A. Park, John Campbell and Mr Boyd; also self for papers. Our platoon four days ago was 40, now it is only 24 – 2 dead, I think,- rest injured. I believe a Corporal was just waiting word to go home and take up a commission in the Bantams but I am sorry to say he was one of the killed (Corp. McCoy).
Hope you are getting on with the commissions. Hope mother’s foot is better, also good news from Bombay and that all the rest of the connection continue in good health. Our battalion is only about 400 strong now, and we, who are left, are very thankful.
Love to all
Your aff. son,