"My Memories of the First World War"
by Mr. Robert S. Robertson (June, 1967)
Machine Gun Corps
In September, 1914 there were formed in Glasgow three of Kitchener's battalions known as the 1st Highland Light Infantry formed from tramway men, the 2nd H.L.I formed from ex-members of the Boys Brigade and the 3rd H.L.I formed from business men and the white collared classes generally which to some extent was a special mob in as much as the standard for acceptance was higher. Every man had to be at least 5'10" tall and indeed the War Office wished it to be turned into an officers cadet battalion.
Every man was an enthusiastic volunteer so, on a Sunday afternoon prior to a church service where I was a member of the choir, with some pals and unknown to my parents I went to enlist at the Glasgow Technical College in the 3rd H.L.I.
The fear of every man was that he would not pass the medical tests and whilst waiting in a long corridor I spotted a sight testing board with large and small letters which I memorized only to find with horror that when tested the lettering was entirely different but I passed and so became a soldier.
During the next week we were issued with glengarry caps and blue suits many of which did not fit including my own which was several inches too large and was altered by my sister.
Battalions commence training
The three battalions commenced training at Barassie in Ayrshire under canvas but after three weeks mine was installed in private billets at nearby Troon and because of this preferential treatment nick names were improvised and we became known as Boozy First, the Holy Second and the Feather Bed Third.
From there we went to Preesheath camp in Shropshire and on our first morning there heard loud shouts of Pypers, Pypers, but on rushing out to find what our bagpipe band was doing discovered that it was merely the voice of a man selling papers, but with a different dialect to our own.
Later we had spells at Totley near Sheffield for firing practice, Wensley Dale in Yorkshire then Salisbury Plain where we were joined by other two Brigades and now formed the 32nd Division.
It should be mentioned that the names of the three Glasgow battalions had been altered to the 15th, 16th and 17th Highland Light Infantry and after intensive training we sailed from Southampton at dead of night, in a crowded ship, each man equipped with a lifebelt and after a voyage of about nine hours arrived at Le Havre in France.
First days in France
From there we proceeded North East on the long, tiresome railway journey in cattle trucks, sometimes stopping in open country for half an hour for no apparent reason, at other times moving at about 10 m.p.h. until eventually we arrived at the railhead some miles from Amiens, the sound of artillery fire gradually becoming louder.
From here we had to march along the straight roads lined with tall trees jammed with heavy traffic of transport of every description and every man had to carry everything that he possessed, including rifle, ammunition, blankets, spare boots, socks, holdall, canteen, waterproof sheet, bayonet, cutlery, etc., which was a terrific weight.
Every hour we halted for five minutes and lay down at the roadside wearing our full equipment, but prior to resuming the march we had to help each other to stand up owing to the weight we were carrying.
We covered probably 30 Kilometres per day and came to a village some ten miles behind the front line, the name of which I have forgotten, where we remained a week, during which time I became friendly with a corporal in the Army Ordinance Corps which was stationed there.
From there we moved to the small village of BOUZINCOURT, a few miles behind the trenches, and from here we could clearly see the cathedral at Albert with its high spire from which, in some miraculous manner, hung the statue of the Virgin Mary in a horizontal position.
A few nights later our company went up to the front line for a space of 24 hours to join a company of the Black Watch in the famed 51st Division for instruction in trench duties and when going there passed through the ruined village of AVELUY, entering the leading up trenches at Crucifix Corner, all of which had British names such as Euston Road, Piccadilly, etc.
As before, we carried full equipment but to add to the weight we had been issued with thigh gum boots.
At this time I was a Private and when it came to my spell of duty on the fire step I was informed that we, the new men must not have their rifles loaded, but as I thought this to be stupid put a loaded clip of bullets in my rifle with the safety catch on, and when I came off duty went down to the crowded dugout where there were possibly 30 - 40 men, and placed my rifle, still with the safety catch on, against the muddy wall.
Shortly afterwards someone must have inadvertently lifted my rifle and taken off the safety catch, there was a shot and a bullet went through the shoulder of a Black Watch Corporal, but it was amazing that nobody was killed.
There was an enquiry where I was completely cleared and later the corporal expressed his thanks to me for assisting him to get a "BLIGHTY".
To the Front Line
A few days later my battalion went into our alloted sector of the Front Line, not knowing what we were in for, but we soon got used to the Whizz Bangs, Minnerwerfers, Snipers and Verey Lights.
In those days there were few duck boards and the thick, slimy, sticky mud was appalling, often 3 feet deep and once when on the firestep waiting to be relieved I saw a hefty highlander, the tears running down his face, cursing and swearing in anger because he was stuck only nine feet from my post.
The comradeship was wonderful however, and we had many comic happenings. As an instance of this, on one occasion I was sent with another man to support trenches to bring back breakfast for our Section and were given a large oval shaped billy can filled with tea, the cover of which was placed on it upside down in which was fried bacon. The can had a large circular handle with one man in front and one behind holding a stick which went under the handle and the method of carrying was to carry the 4 feet stick on our shoulders.
As we were returning to the line, my pal who was in front slipped and the bacon fell into the tea. Gingerly we finished it out and replaced it in the cover, then on we went but shortly after I slipped, and the cover and bacon fell on to a part where the mud was not so bad. This was a tragedy, but I said "our section must have their breakfast" and since the bacon had already been in the tea we washed it in the tea and arrived back safely where the drink and food were distributed to the men. I shall never forget the language of our Section as they cursed the cooks for the greasy tea - and of course my pal and I agreed with them.
Several months later when being led out of the trenches by a new and very unpopular officer he stepped on what appeared to be a solid duck board, but, unfortunately for him, it had been floating on the top of water covering a shell hole in the trench and he sank up to the waist in water, what a laugh we had - but quietly, of course.
Then there was the time when I was alone on the firestep at night some yards away from the Germans, with a hacking cough which could have been heard miles away, and the visiting Company Sergeant Major on a visiting round instructed me that when I came off duty I should report to his dugout and his runner would give me some rum.
I did, but just as he was about to pour it out our Captain called but departed on hearing that the C.S.M. was not there. The runner who was a friend of mine (he later became a Staff Captain and was killed) poured out a full mug of rum, told me to drink it quickly and get out.
I did so in three gulps and cleared off but as I had only been used to a small ½" tot at "Stand To" in the mornings one can imagine the result as I wended my way some 150 yards to my dugout. At one moment I seemed to walk straight up into the air, then sideways and down but I reached my target eventually, clambered over the sleeping forms of 18 men lying on waterproof sheets on the muddy floor on our shallow dugout till I came to a vacant place where I collapsed and slept for nearly 24 hour, but when I did wake up my bad cold had completely gone - so the cure was good.
I can now look back with humour to one incident which happened in the dark early hours of the mornings when I was sentry at a sap head where the trench was about 3 feet deep with 6" of mud at the bottom. It was very peaceful for once with the German line about 80 yards away when suddenly a huge rat appeared only two feet away and I could do nothing about it - at least quickly - for my feet were stuck fast in the mud and my rifle butt was slightly stuck, so that I could not poke at the rat. I could only say shush - shush and the beast vanished, but I often wonder which was the most scared - the rat or me.
The trenches and billets behind were littered with rats which were huge and often nearly as big as small cats and once when sleeping in a disused bakehouse with other fire men when the lights were put out the rats came out in shoals and we could feel them walking over us. If a man felt a rat on his legs he would give a quick kick and we would hear a thud as it struck the ceiling and came flying down to run away.
More of a menace than the rats however were the lice from which few if any men were immune for they nested in every corner of our underwear, and it was only after a considerable time that Delousing Centres were formed where men were issued with clean shirts.
There were the usual night patrols in No Mans Land and often raiding parties, and our battalion was moved to various parts of the line such as the Brickfields, Beaumont Hamel, to the right of Thiepval, Bapaume also in front of Albert where one part, known as La Boiselle, the lines were only a few yards apart and there was constant bombing by patrols for it was impossible to have fixed posts there.
Battle of the Somme
Then towards the end of June 1916 we were taken out of the line to a village ten miles behind where we underwent intensive training for the forthcoming "Battle of the Somme", whilst for a whole week our guns thundered and roared.
It seemed impossible that any part of the German lines could be missed.
Barrage balloons in galore were to be seen behind enemy lines and our own, many of which were shot down in flames.
On the evening of 30th June we proceeded up the front line trenches, but before doing so I handed to my friend the A.O.C. corporal a small parcel of personal possessions to be sent to my mother in case I didn't return.
During our march we passed guns of every calibre standing almost wheel to wheel, and here it should be mentioned that I had been a member of a Lewis Machine Gun team for several months.
We were going into the "unknown" and what the thoughts of our men were I didn't know, but mine were of my parents, sister and relations, my childhood days and of towns visited in France, such as Amiens, Abbeville, St. Quentin, St. Pol, etc.
Having taken up our positions in the front line, we stood shoulder to shoulder and the hours of darkness passed on so slowly, but we now knew that we were expected to capture the deserted MOQUET FARM about a mile beyond the German lines in one hour. Actually it took several weeks to do so.
Exactly at 7.30 a.m. on 1st July, 1916, the order to advance was given and by means of short ladders provided we climbed over the parapet of the trenches into "NO MANS LAND" across which we strolled, for there was to be no running, (this would have been impossible in any case owing to the numerous shell craters) and to our far right could be seen the men of a Scottish Division kicking a football whilst on our flanks were the 15th and 16th H.L.I.
Then "Hell" broke out as we were plastered by shells and machine gun fire for the Germans must have been well informed that an attack was imminent and in the bright morning sunshine as we advanced there were many casualties.
Soon we captured the first two German lines close to the Hindenberg Line where we were held up by the extensive fire, where, what had been deep trenches was then a shambles of a line about 2 feet deep with our men taking cover as best they could.
I don't think that any of our men had any fear - just a feeling of "what has to be has to be" but the noise and the scene was frightful. The man on my right was hit in the face by an explosive bullet and I can still see part of his jaw swinging as he lay against the meagre protection, whilst the bodies of many men carrying bombs could be seen burning and men falling all around, killed or wounded by machine gun, rifle or shell fire.
As the day advanced, a hot sun blazed down on us and this, together with the heat of the battle, seemed to make the place a "Hell on Earth".
We were more fortunate then the 15th H.L.I. on our left, for despite all our heavy shelling the German barb wire had not been properly out and few, if any, of them reached the enemy front line, whilst the 16th H.L.I. on our right met with tremendous fire and only a few of them reached the second line.
German reinforcements came up and the bombing, firing and shelling was terrific by day and night.
After some 36 hours we were relieved by a Manchester battalion and returned
to our own lines via an underground tunnel which had been dug by the Royal Engineers in preparation for our attack to within a few yards of German trenches, and when we had captured their front line an entrance was made
from there to the tunnel by explosives and was used by stretcher bearers, etc. thus saving many lives.
We had gone into battle 1,000 strong and only about 130 returned excluding
After the battle
On the night after we returned to the support trenches the fourth battalion of our brigade, all of whose officers had been casualties, were ordered to send a raiding party up to new front line but the men refused to go as they had suffered so badly and my battalion had to send some of our reserves in their place.
A week later when in a village behind our lines our brigade was drawn up in the form of a square and a brigadier general publicly admonished the rebellious battalion which was one of the saddest experiences I have ever had, as these were brave men who had found the ordeal just too much for them.
After a period of rest, during which I was promoted to Corporal of our Lewis Gun team, we got our first small draft of about 20 men who were said to have come from a prison in Scotland, and we took up positions for a week in the front line which, owing to our small numbers, was scantily held, then after another week in the support trenches we returned to BOUZINCOURT where letters and parcels from home were handed to us.
Being one of our original battalion and no doubt trusted by my officer I was given the unusual privilege of taking rum round to the men of our company. Leaving my parcels on my bunk I went round to carry out this task, but on my return my parcels had disappeared and were never found.
We now got a large draft of men from the Highland Cycling Battalion who had been patrolling roads in Scotland, who received instruction in trench warfare, but this apparently had little effect on them for when next we went up the line they talked loudly, smoked, even showed flash lights, the result being that within half an hour we were shelled and suffered many casualties.
After 14 months .... leave, training, promotion
After 14 months service in France I became due for leave but a few days before the Great Day I was sent to a casualty clearing station suffering from trench fever where it was the custom of the Doctor each morning to visit the patients, ask them how they were feeling and if the answer was "Not so Bad" the immediate prescription was Medicine and Duty so back they were sent to their units.
I was feeling very ill but on the day prior to my leave on being asked the question by the Doctor I said I was fine and was at once sent to rejoin my unit. But leave was my principal thought and I got it, arriving in London feeling very poorly with complete loss of voice.
Whilst waiting for the train at Euston Station a New Zealand soldier came and asked me where the buffet was, and as it happened that he too had lost his voice, though not so badly as me, it was rather difficult to understand him but when he got a reply in a whisper and wheeze he thought I was mimicking him and there was nearly a fight.
Several days after my arrival at home on looking out of the window I saw something which seemed familiar hanging on a clothes line so I went out to see what it was and, to my horror, found that it was my hooded gas mask which my mother had discovered and thinking it was a dirty old thing had boiled and washed it.
Shortly after my return from leave I was interviewed by our Brigadier General and sent back to England for training at the Machine Gun Corps Officers Cadet training camp at Bisley, where the discipline was most strict. Amongst the many subjects taught was horse riding and mule riding and I well remember the first time when I mounted a horse that when it shook its head I fell off.
Whilst there, one of the cadets whose christian and surname was the same as my own but had B- for his middle name, whereas mine was S-, caused some confusion. At a tooth inspection a note was made out for him to have a faulty tooth removed but in error this was handed to me, and thinking that I would enjoy a nice afternoon of freedom I walked some miles to Pirbright camp where to my great shock the Corporal Dentist pulled out a perfectly good tooth and I was ill for days after.
Then there came the final examination shortly after which I was sent for by our Captain - a real regular Indian Army Officer - who ticked me off badly for making such a mess of the maths paper and indicated that he could not possibly pass me as an officer in the M.G.C.
Now it so happened that I was fairly good at maths and knew that this had been one of my best papers so I expressed my surprise. His answer was to fling a paper on the table and say "look at that then", I did and at once saw that it had not been written by me but by B- so duly I became a 2nd Lieutenant.
With about a 100 new officers I was sent to Clapstone camp near Mansfield for training and one of our parades was for physical jerks at 6 a.m. each morning. I noticed that the numbers attending gradually reduced since there was no roll call and our instructors were staff sergeants and after a short time the attendance was down to 50%.
It was a Monday morning and after a hectic weekend I felt so tired that I didn't feel like getting up at such an early hour so I thought, well, if other officers can miss the parade, why shouldn't I and stopped in bed. Unfortunately the C.O. chose that particular morning to inspect us and as other officers must have had the same idea as myself there were only 7 on parade.
The names of the absentees were posted up to appear at the Medical officer's office and they duly reported with many reasons for their absence such as rheumatism, bad colds, strained muscles, throat troubles, pains in the stomach, etc., and mine was heart failure. The examination didn't take long for each officer was given the same prescription - half a cupful of castor oil. There was chaos in the camp that day and needless to say, on the Tuesday morning there was 100% attendance.
Back to France
I returned to France where I was posted to the Machine Gun Corps company attached to the 16th Irish Division where we had spells in and out of the trenches and at one period the snow was so heavy and the cold so intense that our Vickers gunners had to keep the gun locks in their pockets to prevent them from being frozen.
During a rest period I went for a ride on my horse "Black Bess" well behind the support lines but in front of a line of trenches before which were thick barbed wire entanglements.
The ground had been heavily shelled at one time so that care had to be taken to miss the large craters, but suddenly the horse took flight, bolted towards the barbed wire and when trying to miss one of the craters stumbled into another and I was flung face downwards on to the wire. I was taken back to our billets where I was excused all duty owing to my face and eye injuries but this probably saved my life, for only a few nights later our company went up to the front line whilst I remained behind and on the morning of 31st March, 1918, in thick mist, the Germans attacked with the results that most of our company were killed, wounded or missing.
I took command of two reserve teams which were forced gradually to retreat until at one time we arrived at a newly dug trench about 3 feet deep stocked with provisions and manned by cooks, clerks, batmen, etc., for we were terribly short of men.
As we retreated we were in constant touch with the enemy and indeed, at one point where our artillery had been unable to get away in time, they were firing point blank at the advancing Germans.
My men were cold, tired and hungry, but we had to keep on retreating, passing through deserted villages at one of which, Villers Bretlanaux I think, I was followed by a little calf mooing for its mother.
Eventually we came to Peronne and crossing the bridge I posted one team on the river bank but finding that the other team was missing I borrowed a horse from a Quarter Sergeant and was about to re-cross the bridge into Peronne to look for it when I was warned by a Canadian major there I had only five minutes in which to return as he intended to blow up the bridge then.
I galloped through the deserted streets where all was quiet, but nobody could be seen, so I quickly returned to my No.1 team where we all lay down close to the bridge without any shelter whatever. I believe I was the last man to cross the bridge for suddenly with loud detonations it was blown up and large pieces of metal, etc., came hurtling down all around us, but fortunately no one was hurt.
We remained at our post all night and could hear the Germans making merry in the British canteen across the river, but to my pleasure we were rejoined by No.2 team which had been lost in the general mix up.
Next day the retreat was again carried out under orders, for many miles, until we arrived at a line decided upon for the final stand, where we found that many reinforcements had arrived and here the German advance was stopped.
I understand that the 16th Irish Division had to be disbanded owing to the heavy losses (though I cannot vouch for this) so with other officers I was sent south to a regrouping camp.
I was then sent up the line and joined the M.G.C. company of the 50th Division and after several spells in the trenches we were sent to a new sector which had always been held by the French and we were the only British Division there.
I was sent in advance to arrange for stables and billets where I met the Town Mayor who couldn't speak a word of English but as I spoke a little French I managed to make all necessary arrangements. I felt rather embarrassed here as the Mayor became so friendly that he picked snails from the ditches and insisted on filling my pockets. Needless to say, when he got out of sight I tipped them out.
This part of the line was very quiet and we heard that the French had been fraternising with the Germans - indeed we could see well worn footpaths between the lines - but peace did not reign for long, for in a few days our artillery opened up with resultant retaliation.
After several spells in the line we were sent out one night to take up position on the high ground of the Chemin des Dames not many miles from the city of Rheims, overlooking a large valley probably 500 feet below, from which, at night, we could hear the croaking of thousands of frogs and here the German line must have been at least a thousand yards away.
Surrounded in battle
In the early hours of 27th May, 1918, the Germans commenced a massive attack on the far flanks of the French Divisions - not ours - and though we did not know it we were soon completely surrounded, thousands of French soldiers were captured six miles behind us and it was several hours later before the Germans pounced on us from all sides when we had no chance whatever of resisting. The whole of our company were captured and it was whilst here that I was slightly gassed.
The officers including our own O.C. were segregated and marched to a barbed wire enclosure. After a few days all officers, most of whom were French and appeared to be about 1,000 in number, were paraded in ranks of four and the long march northwards was commenced in sunny, very hot, weather. It was exhausting and as we passed through villages which were occupied by the Germans, many French women came running out to us with jugs of water but they were flung aside or threatened with bayonets by our German guards.
We stopped at various prison camps by night eventually arriving at KARLSERVE where we were separated from the French officers and from here we were taken by train, passing through Berlin, until we ultimately arrived at STRALSUND on the Baltic Sea from which we were taken by ferry boat to the island of DANHOLM.
During our long trek our food had been meagre consisting of soup made from cabbage leaves and small pieces of brown German bread, but my principal memory of the rail journey in the wooden seated compartment was when the other two British Officers and myself had to watch in silence whilst our two big German guards gorged themselves on fat German sausage and bread.
On the day after our arrival on the island we were lectured by the Prussian Camp Commandant who was a pig, but life was made more bearable for us by his deputy who was a Bavarian Count and had lost an eye in the fighting.
I will not go into details of our prison life except to mention that it was six weeks before my parents were informed that I was alive and we lived on starvation diet for about nine weeks before the first batch of Red Cross parcels reached us.
Later, all of us got food parcels regularly from home and towards the end of the war we were able to send some of this to the mainland where the old people and children were suffering from malnutrition.
We were informed when the Armistice was signed and until that time our guards had been elderly men of the Landsturm but these were then replaced by youths of 16 or 17 years of age who were blood thirsty with the result that several of our officers were shot at nightfall.
Two events which now seem humorous were when we dug an escape tunnel from our hut to beyond the barbed wire but almost when it was completed a sentry on patrol fell through and into it, so we had a hurried visit from the German high command. Then one of our colleagues with help got a barrel down to the beach one night and by means of a short oar set out to escape. He passed all night paddling but, unfortunately for him, the tide turned and when daylight came he was only fifty yards from the shore.
We were released on the 17th December when we sailed to Copenhagen and spent nine pleasant days in Denmark where the people were most kind to us.
After that we embarked for England and I arrived in Scotland on the 31st December, 1918 - just in time to begin "a Guid New Year".
Robert S. Robertson
Notes & Links
From the information in the above "Memories" and in the first letter written home from the POW Camp (to his father David) it is thought that the battle at which Robert was captured was the Third Battle of the Aisne. For more information see:
Interesing website about the repatriation of former British POWs via Denmark
after the armistice:-
Prisoners of War (POWs) held in Germany were returned to Britain via Denmark
and the Baltic ports. The operation became known as the 'Danish Scheme'.
Battles and places mentioned in the above "Memories":-
World War One:-
Project Gutenberg Book of The 17th Highland Light Infantry - reproduced in part and available to download.
A timeline of the First World War including incidents from the life and times of Robert Spiers Robertson.
Photos used throughout the WW1 section plus various other documents & images from this WWI period.