How do we honor our war dead?
We remember them.
How do we remember them?
Most years I have a good cry, sometimes in the presence of a Cenotaph, sometimes not. This year I wanted something more precise. I wanted to see sacrifice through the eyes of a soldier.
Finding someone’s story in the days of metal cabinets and cardboard boxes would have taken weeks. But now we are as ghosts. No archive is closed to us. Suddenly, we drop into a diary, and, through the diary, into the trenches of France in World War I:
Round the line at night. Some of the Huns’ dead still unburied (killed in October!). We had not had time to look after them. (1917.01.05)
Into line again. Ground heavy with snow. Atmosphere thick with haze. Strange quietness all around. It was odd to walk for mile after mile along a staked path or on duckboards in the snow. Shell holes all covered up, so we often went in up to the knees. Held up fairly often. Shelled outside Bn. H.Q. and had four or five beside me wounded, not very seriously. (1917.01.18)
Little doing in the morning. After tea Beattie, Farquharson and I went out for a short stroll. After a bit we found ourselves at the cross roads at Feuchy Chapel on the Cambrai Road. Suddenly a shell dropped less than 20 yards from us and covered us all over with mud. I stepped into a deep puddle of mud in addition. We got pelted the whole road back, as the Boche began to fire at some of our guns coming up the road behind us. This was quite a nice walk. Lovely evening. Only we would have been safer on the other side of Arras. We had even forgotten our gas helmets and tin hats! (1917.04.19)
Our attack was a failure. The barrage was too fast and of the wrong nature and our men were mown down by guns and by M.G. fire. All the officers except Tobermory, A.G.Cameron and G.H.Mitchell were either killed or wounded. A.G. got 500 yards forward and into a gun pit with a few men, where I found him next morning. The Boche counter barrage was down as soon as ours. They had even been practising during the night and had given us a lot of trouble. (1917.04.23)
A second attack took place at 8 a.m., but it was useless. Our form of barrage was to make up for the irregularities of our line. It proved impracticable. Our lot suffered tremendous casualties from M.G. fire in the outhouses of Guémappe. Camerons and Seaforths were in the same position. Royal Scots did well but suffered severely. They were in a more favourable position. Many soldiers lost direction too. Beattie, Farquharson and Willie Wilson killed. Southey and Padre Miller both mortally wounded. Padre Healy wounded, also Ferguson and MacIntyre, all officers. Tyson, our mess waiter, was also killed, poor kid. (1917.04.23)
Waited for the dawn, and then roamed around, looking for A.G. and Mitchell. Found them with Bateman, well forward, the latter seriously wounded. (1917.04.24)
Battlefield in a terrible mess. Boche used sulphurous and incendiary shells which made things indescribably bad. 46th. Brigade got Blue Line. Our Bn. and Brigade sent back to Brown Line. Trudged back with A.G. Cameron and Mitchell. Very hungry and tired. Sorley, J.G.Mitchell, and Capt. Leitch came up as reinforcements. Expect Battalion casualties to be about 300 all told. The Royal Scots hadn’t an officer left. Took things easy, trying to sleep in an old Boche dugout. Pretty cold. No word of relief. Felt rather dirty. 3rd. Division said to be coming up. (1917.04.24)
These entries are from the diary of Robert Lindsay Mackay (1896-1981), OBE, MC, MB, CHB, MD, DPH, of the 11th Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
Mackay, Robert Lindsay. Memoirs and Diaries. here.
Note to American readers: Some of you will be thinking, “I think he’s mixed up Veteran’s Day with Memorial Day.” Actually, I think of November 11 as Remembrance Day, after the Canadian and British convention. This is the day Canadians mourn the war dead.