THEY delivered a sense of the hell of war, of the stiff upper lip fortitude and the black humour of the trenches, carried over bloody field and treacherous waters, eventually making their way to home.
In days before modern push-button telecommunications, scribbled lines written on mud-splattered paper – even the briefest of messages – were worth their weight in gold.
And today, as we reflect on a century since the first British troops went marching into the maelstrom of the war to end all wars, their words – in letters, journals and diaries from the front line – are as poignant and precious as ever.
Leith lad William Begbie was just 15 when he signed up, 16 when he faced hell on earth at Gallipoli and still only 20 when war was finally declared over. He was 86 when he died in 1985, yet the diaries he wrote meant so much to him that he kept every one, carefully stashed in the bottom of his writing bureau drawer.
They are now held in the War Museum at Edinburgh Castle, a striking and compelling record of what life was like for one of the youngest Royal Scots to march to war.
His first entry – on April 4, 1914, the day he joined Leith based 1/7 Royal Scots after following a bugler to the Drill Hall in Dalmeny Street and signing up – indicates how blasé many were towards the conflict ahead. “When I arrived home, my mother said ‘take your uniform back – you are too young to be a soldier’, but my father laughed and said ‘this will do him no harm – Territorials don’t go to war’.”
He was wrong. By early August 1914, Lord Kitchener had sanctioned the dispatch of the 52nd (Lowland) Division incorporating the 1/7th Royal Scots, to prepare for action.
By chance, Begbie was on the second of two trains to set off for Liverpool in May 1915 – the first, tragically, crashed near Gretna Green, killing 226 people.
The horror was only a taste of what was to come in Gallipoli: “The enemy artillery bombarded our trenches from 9am until 11am. They scored many direct hits and we suffered many casualties before we even left our trenches. At the words ‘over you go lads’, the troops gave vent to one resounding cheer and swarmed over the parapets into the perils of the open ground.
“I kept yelling, rifle at the ready and ran like hell into the enemy trench. I have to smile when I think of that 300-yard charge by a boy of 16.”
Battered and surrounded by the dead and dying, bullets whistling around him, Begbie’s legs gave way. “I heard bullets striking the ground, so I lay still. The sand was crawling with insects of every shape and size.
“The worst thing was the craving for water – our mouths were so parched that our tongues swelled. I turned round and crawled back, passing men of our company, some dead and some with ghastly wounds, obviously dying.”
Disease fuelled by a terrible lack of sanitation and the unburied dead, the torturous hell brought by rats, lice and bugs, a lack of clean water and terrible weather were second only to the risk of being blasted to death by enemy fire.
It meant his brief return home in September 1916 must have been surreal. “Ten days’ leave. Arrived at Edinburgh at 7.30pm. Theatre Royal at night. Visited the Alhambra on Thursday, the Empire on Friday, La Scala on Saturday, the Empire again on Monday and back to the Theatre Royal on the Tuesday evening. Party in our house on the Thursday night – great fun.”
Begbie could have faced court martial for keeping a diary, but the need to write what they were witnessing may have been the only way some could cope with the enormity of what they were enduring.
Commander-in-chief of the British armies in France, Field Marshal Douglas Haig wrote in his journal on every single day of the campaign – his entries providing a different view of the war experience to those of his often malnourished troops.
One, penned as he made his way to the front in August 1916, where food was scarce for many and parcels from home provided rare culinary treats, he wrote of having enjoyed a hearty lunch of chicken, ham, bread and butter.
In contrast, Lance Corporal George Ramage, a teacher at Sciennes Primary before the war, wrote in anger of how high ranking officers tried to dupe soldiers caught in a gas attack in Ypres when they “deliberately told us a falsehood in saying that chlorine does not kill”.
“Captain Hume Gore told us that the German gas is chlorine . . . if Hume Gore was educated, surely he knew that iron burns in chlorine and that therefore human lungs could not thrive in it.”
Ramage was shot in 1915 and his arm amputated. He returned to Edinburgh and died in 1934.
Edinburgh colliery clerk Alec Paton had just heard his brother, Bernard, had been killed in action when he left for the bloody Belgian front unsure of whether he’d ever return home.
During his two years serving with the Royal Garrison Artillery (Volunteer Force) the George Heriot’s former pupil kept a diary and painted more than 30 watercolours depicting the grim Belgian landscape
The most heartwrenching entry was made on October 12, 1916, when he recalled being posted to Bapaume in northern France to sketch the German lines. There he witnessed “the Jocks” go over the top: “When zero hour came . . . there was a strange absence of excitement. Out of the ground in front rose a long wavy line of kilted figures who appeared to walk towards the enemy lines. As a shell-burst broke the line it only seemed a moment until the gap was closed once more. Though I knew they were my own countrymen, it was not until later that I learned that they were Seaforths and that in that very attack I had witnessed, my brother John was killed.”
Private Peter Jack from Blackridge in West Lothian went to war in Gallipoli and Egypt with the Lanarkshire Yeomanry also armed with his diary. That he could manage to write anything under bombardment is astonishing. His entries may be brief and fleeting, their impact profound.
His entry for October 15, 1915 is typically blunt: “We had more artillery fire from the Turks, and the KOSB lost a colonel and a lieutenant. A shell went right into the dug-out and blew them up in the air.”
And his entry two days later, succinct but poignant: “We shell the Turkish lines with our artillery – my word,” he wrote, “it is just a pure hell.”