Tag Archives: Western Front

The Battle of Loos: a personal story

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Today is the hundredth anniversary of the start of the Battle of Loos, a battle which left deep scars on Scotland. There are commemorations taking place in various locations across the country this weekend, including Dundee and Inverness, home to some of the regiments which were so brutally affected.

Around 30,000 Scots were involved in the battle, and the losses were absolutely devastating. Loos was an attempt by the Allied forces to gain ground and create movement in attack, but as the troops launched their attack on 25 September it became clear that much of the German barbed wire was still in place, and the enemy machine guns and artillery were ready and waiting. A failure to provide reinforcements and relief to the first wave of attack contributed to the horror that unfolded. Loos was also the first time that the British army used poison gas.

My great-uncle, Alexander Morrison (Sandy), was killed at Loos on 25 September, one hundred years ago today.

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Sandy Morrison as school captain

Sandy was the third of seven brothers, born to Hebridean parents living near Oban. The family moved to Edinburgh for the sake of the education of the boys, sending them to George Watson’s College. By all accounts, Sandy was outstanding. This could simply be family legend, the natural result of grief over his death, but it seems to be borne out elsewhere.

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The Morrison family: Sandy is standing on the far right.

I spent the last three years of my schooling at the same school as the Morrison brothers. I remember towards the end of either fifth or sixth year, during that wonderful lazy time we used to have after exams (which today’s students don’t have with the much more efficient but much less enjoyable system of moving on before the summer holidays) I managed to escape some classes and spent the time instead in the library, going through old editions of the school magazine searching for references to the Morrison brothers. (Yes, I’ve been obsessed by all this stuff since back then!) There are some hugely entertaining references to these loud voiced Gaelic speakers keeping everyone else awake on camp, or to one of the brothers playing the bagpipes through Morningside at midnight, and many references to their full involvement in school life. Through it all it’s clear that Sandy was exceptional, and you can find out more about his school career here.

After school Sandy studied agriculture at Edinburgh University, then emigrated to become a farmer in Edmonton, Canada. The records suggest he was already making his way home to Scotland – probably for a visit – when war was declared. He joined up with the Cameron Highlanders, becoming a Captain.

In 2008 I was working on an oral history project, and took the opportunity to record some of my father’s wealth of family stories. This is his account of Sandy’s death at Loos, one hundred years ago today:

On the 24th of September 1914 Shakes [Sandy’s brother, William Shepherd Morrison] was stationed at Loos and he was forward in the trenches because he was spotting the fall of the shells and he met his brother Sandy. Now Sandy according to the family was the brightest of them all and the leading one of the family, and he had become a farmer in Canada but immediately that the First World War broke out he came back to Britain. He joined the Cameron Highlanders and at this stage he was a Captain in the 5th Camerons. The Colonel was Lochiel, Cameron of Lochiel, the chief of the Camerons. And there was to be a big attack on the Germans on the following day, the 25th, and the order was that the officers were not to be armed with their revolvers as was usual, but they were to carry rifles. But Sandy carried neither. He went into battle with an axe. His company was a Gaelic speaking company – this is the 20th century, but this is what happened! The night before then he met Shakes and he told Shakes that he didn’t think he would survive the following day and he didn’t – he was killed in the attack. And they found his body lying beside three dead Germans all with axe wounds on them.

One hundred years on it’s hard to be sure of the truth of this family anecdote. Despite the story, Sandy’s body was never found and buried – like 20,000 others who fell at Loos he has no known grave but is commemorated on the Loos Memorial. But of course, in the carnage and confusion of a battle which lasted for days, someone might well have seen his body and testified to the manner of his death without a burial taking place or being recorded.

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There is in fact an echo of the story of the axe in an unexpected place. In War Classics, my book about Christina Keith’s time in France at the close of the First World War, I published some letters written by her brother Barrogill to their mother from the Western Front. Just a few weeks after Loos, Barrogill was repeating a story he’d heard about the actions of someone they knew during the battle:

I heard that AS Pringle – who was north with Keith Fraser – has been badly hit. He was magnificently game. With a battleaxe and a revolver old Toosie got over the trenches. He was hit 4 or 5 times and still fighting when last seen.

So maybe Sandy did go into battle armed with only an axe, and maybe he wasn’t the only one. If so, it’s perhaps little surprise that he didn’t survive the horrors of Loos. His death was a huge loss to the family – decades later my grandfather, a doctor, still kept a photograph of his older brother in his consulting room. In Sandy Morrison we see the loss of someone with enormous potential – a tragedy which is repeated in the lives of every single one of those young men who fell.

In memoriam.

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

2014

2014. The year seems familiar already as this date has been discussed so often. And whatever happens in the independence referendum, we know that 2014 will be a year we’ll always remember in Scotland.

Strange then, that it’s also a year which will itself see a great deal of remembering, as events take place to mark one hundred years since another unforgettable year, 1914. There will be debate about the nature, tone and purpose of such events. For me, there’s an interesting synchronicity in the fact that 2014 will see the publication of my great-aunt Christina Keith’s memoir of her time in France towards the end of the First World War, lecturing to the troops.

I hadn’t particularly planned it that way, but I’m glad now that Christina’s story will join all those others, as it explores a very different aspect of life on the Western Front from that which initially comes to mind.

When the war broke out in the summer of 1914, Christina was 25 years old and about to take up her first position as a lecturer at Armstrong College in Newcastle. Life in the College, as elsewhere, would soon be thrown into turmoil by the sheer scale of this conflict. As part of my research into Christina’s story I read the diaries of her Professor in Newcastle. On August 5 1914, while on holiday, he wrote:

We wake to find ourselves a nation at war with Germany. Germany would not agree to guarantee the inviolability of Belgium to which she is pledged by treaty like Britain; and so late last night Britain announced that a state of war existed between her and Germany. Arnold and I fished for a time in heavy rain.

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Christina’s classes took place here in the Lit & Phil Society building as Armstrong College was requisitioned as a military hospital.

Christina’s memoir is not primarily a story of blood and guts and glory – but then, not everyone fought on the front line, but everyone was affected by the war. Christina’s memoirs tell a fascinating story of an extraordinary few months in her life which, while being laced with the sorrow and weariness of four years of conflict, were unexpectedly liberating.

War Classics: the remarkable memoir of Scottish scholar Christina Keith on the Western Front will be published on 3 March 2014. For me it’s another reason that this should be a memorable year!

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

Women’s education and war

It’s two years now since I first became fascinated by the memoir of Christina Keith, my great-aunt from Thurso. My father – her nephew – has owned this manuscript for many years and I knew of its existence, but had never actually read it. Now it’s to be published. SKMBT_C28413080512270

Christina was an academic who spent much of her working life as a lecturer in Classics at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. Born in 1889, she was part of the generation which pioneered higher education for women, and which would be most affected by the First World War. These two themes, women’s education and war, intertwine in Christina’s story.

Towards the end of the First World War – although it’s worth remembering that when she signed up she didn’t know it was ‘towards the end’ – Christina travelled to France to take part in the army’s education scheme. She taught soldiers of all backgrounds, immersed herself in army life, and was one of the first women to travel across the devastated battlefields once the guns had fallen silent. She has left a fascinating memoir of her time in France which offers a truly fresh perspective on life on the Western Front as the conflict drew to a close.

I spent a wonderful few months in 2012 exploring Christina’s story from her early years as the eldest child in a large Caithness family, through her choice to pursue an academic career in male-dominated subjects, and on to her time in France.  The resulting book consists of my narrative of Christina’s story, her own memoir in full with explanatory notes, and some letters written by her brother Barrogill Keith from the front line. It will be published in March 2014 by The History Press, and you can preorder from Amazon or Waterstones.

Lots more on this to follow over the next few months!

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.