This is a human account of the Scots Guardsmen who served in Belgium and France from the start of the Great War until its end; an evolving tale as the two Battalions follow slightly different paths during the first year, and much closer ones thereafter. I have got in amongst them (as much as anyone now can) – using their own words to convey what they saw, as well as how they reacted to what happened around them.
Not only does this mean the fighting of battles and occupation of trenches, but also, just as importantly, what was going on out of the line. This was often uncomfortable, frequently arduous because of fatigues, but also filled with unexpected and sometimes touching enjoyments, such as the gardening competition in the spring of 1917. Humour appears in unexpected places; comradeship is fundamental; personal likes and dislikes having to be worked through and round; and there is the constant interrelationship between discipline, self-discipline, respect and self-respect.
Though wars generally have a great deal in common for those who have to do the fighting, the Great War continues to be a particularly enduring and horrifying source of fascination for those who were not there. To the Scots Guardsmen, the normality they lived with for more than four years was one of intermingled terror, discomfort, restricted personal horizons, resolution, boredom, lack of individual freedom, incomprehension, tragedy and uncertainty. To these were added intermittent satisfaction and pride in a job well done, pleasures and fun. There are heartening moments too, as when men of the 1st Battalion, relieved after the Battle of Pilckem Ridge on 31 July 1917, cheered the gunners as they went back past the field gun batteries.
The opportunity open to me meant that looking at the personal experiences of these men and knitting them into a coherent narrative was an achievable, worthy challenge. It was one to be attained, not just for the Scots Guardsmen, but representatively for all the infantry of the British Expeditionary Force (the BEF). It began when Ella McLeod brought me the medals and papers of her uncle Lance Corporal Alexander Cairns some 12 years ago. I researched him and the events on 29 October 1914 at Gheluvelt, during the First Battle of Ypres, when he was captured. From there, I separately started looking into that year’s Christmas Truce and that led me to realise what a huge tale was sitting waiting to be told.
The two-volume subtitles Great Shadows and Vast Tragedy come from one quotation. Wilfrid Ewart, an officer in the 2nd Battalion for much of the War, went in October 1919 with his sister to find her husband’s grave on the Somme, without success. The autumn daylight began to fail as they stood near the southeast corner of Delville Wood looking out over Guillemont and Ginchy: “Already great shadows begin to lengthen across the battlefield, blotting out the hollow places, adding infinitely to the vast tragedy of this land.”
In November 1917, he and Lance Sergeant James Fotheringham DCM were fighting in Bourlon Wood during the Battle of Cambrai when Sergeant Fotheringham was seriously wounded. Though he managed to crawl away, he died after his arm was amputated. On his headstone are the words: ‘Rest On In Peace Brave Soldier Till The Trumpet Sounds Again’.
I have been the storyteller for all these soldiers and in spirit I have put on the same uniform, laced up the same boots, tied the same puttees, checked the same equipment, set the same cap on my head, hoisted the same pack on my back, slung the same rifle over my shoulder, picked up the same shovel and gone with them every step of the way.