Lest we forget ….
April 25, 2013 3 Comments
Like many of his peers my grandfather seemed very reluctant to speak of his years on the Western Front in World War One. All we have is a few small snippets of information about his service – though from it we can see how his years with the Scottish 9th Division changed our family history irrevocably.
Perhaps the most priceless relic we have of Duncan Grant’s war effort is a transcribed record of his war history. In his own hand he summarised his military service on the plinth of a Dewar’s whiskey Highlander statue. The artfully inscribed words let us know that he was involved in the full horrors of the war. He was present for some of the most intense and horrific battles.
One of the few times he spoke to my father about the war was when my Dad was in his teen years. Dad was shirking his chores and his Dad exploded in a fury, saying “on my 23rd birthday I had to go over the top boy”. We know this to be true.
Using his whiskey plinth, here’s what I’ve been able to glean about the battles my grandfather was engaged in – just one man among the many millions who fought.
He was in the Seaforth Highlanders, a regiment raised from Scotland who endured all the freezing deprivations of trench life in kilts. He enlisted on 6 January 1915, one of the early volunteers to the war effort. We have a photo of the regiment shortly before they were first embarked on the front – no doubt the majority didn’t return whole.
They hit the front in May 1916, just in time for the Battle of the Somme. Within that period he makes specific mention of the Battle of Delville Wood, and little wonder. The Scottish 9th advanced beyond expectation, took the wood and had the Germans in full retreat, a remarkable feat. But they advance was stalled by high command, giving the Germans time to regroup and counter-attack. Perhaps if they’d advanced they would have achieved their objectives within days. Instead the Battle raged for nearly two months until the locality became renamed “Devil’s Wood” – “the bloodiest battle hell of 1916”. Such was the carnage the wood holds the monument for South African troops to this day – they suffered 80% casualties. This South African connect
ion (the colonial African troops had been imbedded in the Scottish 9th) eventually changed the course of our family.
Next listed on the plinth is Arras. As Spring emerged in 1917 Arras was the next great engagement to try and break through the German lines. In terms of men engaged the Battle of Arras also proved to be the one which took the highest number of per capita casualties in the war, my grandfather being one of them. My grandfather did indeed “go over the top” on his 23rd birthday – 9 April 1917. Just north of him the Canadians were fighting their famous battle for Vimy Ridge. To his south the Australian’s were being bombarded at Bullecourt. The Scottish 9th advanced through the teeth of the German defences before being relieved. A few days later they were asked to advance on some heavily fortified Chemical Works near Fampoux.
His plinth tells us he was wounded on the 3 May as the Seaforth Highlanders advanced on the Chemical Works. Very close to where he would have fallen, advancing across a barren and open field, are the modern day memorials to both the Scottish 9th and the Seaforth Highlanders. Our grandfather never told us where he was wounded.
When he was re-deployed after recovering from his wounds he seems to have gone straight into the Battle of Havringcourt Wood, part of the Battle of Cambrai. It was in many respects a futile engagement, though the attack at Havrington demonstrated the success of tactics the British would use the following year to end the war. It also showed the sapping morale of the Germans.
Following Cambrai he went on to Ypres. He did once mention to my father some lions at the gates of Ypres. These now adorn the front entrance of the Australian War Memorial. Apparently he weathered the bitterly cold winter of 1917/18 between Ypres and Dunkirk (which would become famous in World War Two).
His war ended with the German March offensive in the Spring of 1918. The Scottish 9th were part of the British Fifth Army which were routed in March 1918. Grandfather was badly gassed on 24 March and repatriated to Scotland for a 12 month convalescence. By the time he was well enough to leave hospital the war was over, the soldier heroes had returned and had their parades and taken all the jobs.
He was quietly demobilized on 19 March 1919 in Perth, Scotland and returned home to his beloved Dornie.
How did his service change life for our family? Firstly he fell in love with the nurse who dutifully bought him back to health, a young lass Isabella Jessiman from Aberdeenshire. But their plans for a happy life together were thwarted by his inability to find work in Scotland in the depressed 1920s. Duncan boarded a ship to Africa.
Why? My father asked him once. He said it was because when he fought in Delville Wood he did so with men who had the patches and flags of their African colonies sewn into their tunics, and they spoke of their continent with pride and love. He moved to Africa because of their bravery and their patriotism.
Nearly a decade after they first met Isabella boarded a ship, met Duncan in Cape Town where they were married, and boarded a train bound for Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) for their honeymoon. Within three years two small boys had joined the family, my father the second born in 1931.
My grandfather was bed-ridden when his comrades returned from the war to a heroes welcome. He was never able to march and commemorate his bravery. He may have considered himself one of many million. But as I’ve researched the arenas of war in which he fought I can have nothing but admiration that he survived such unspeakable horror. That time and again he went over the top knowing it was probably futile, could cost him his life and did cost the lives of many of his mates.
I salute him. Lest we forget.