Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Connections, coincidence and claret

Wood panelling, Barns Ness Hotel.

This is a repost of an earlier post in memory of my Grandfather Sam Robertson who, as a member of the 1/5th Royal Scots Fusiliers moved from V beach to the firing line near Fir Tree Wood in Gallipoli exactly 100 years ago tonight. The next four days and nights would be his brutal initiation into 3 years of life in the front line in WWI.

Hullo there ma wee blog,

I don't have a clue what to call this post as it feels like it might be a bit of a ramble due to it being a late night - currently nearly 2am - and, sitting at my usual place at the kitchen table, I have a wee Singleton of Dufftown single malt whisky by my side. Don't worry though, like me its old enough to be out on its own at this time of night.........almost.

Ah, actually I know now where this is going and why..........

On Monday past we were invited out for a quiet informal meal and get together by some friends in Dunbar. We went to a hotel called "The Barns Ness". In the hotel is a small plaque explaining that the wood on the walls of the dining room came from a ship called the 'Mauretania' which was the sister ship of the 'Luisitania', which was torpedoed at the start of WW1 with horrendous loss of life. The beautifully carved wood was recovered from the ship when it was broken up at the end of its working life.

Nice story, nice meal, nice evening out right?

Aye it was, but it was more than that too.

As I have a bit of spare time on my hands at the moment I have been doing a fair bit of reading. As usual, I don't just read one thing at a time, so currently I am reading Stephen Fry's 'Moab is my washpot', Titania Hardies 'Rose Labyrinth' and John Buchans 'History of the Royal Scots Fusiliers'.

John Buchan, who is best known for the novel 'The thirty Nine Steps' wrote this history, in memory of his brother, an officer who - like my grandfather - served in the regiment. Alastair Buchan was killed in action on the western front, April 9th 1917. This was part of the battle of Arras. 38 Scots battalions including RSF took part in the attack. In British terms, a predominately Scottish affair, with more Scots involved than at Waterloo and many times more than involved in the battle of Bannockburn.

My grandfather survived being shot on 3 separate occasions, was returned to action each time and spent the best part of three and a half years in the front line, first in Gallipoli and then in The Western Front. Family history says he finally badly twisted his ankle on duckboards in a trench and while lying alone but for a couple of others in a tin shed at a field station, suffered an artillery bombardment of several hours. My Grandmother believed it was this episode, incapacitated, cruelly exposed and incapable of finding shelter, that left him with the condition which in those days was known as 'shell shock', but is now known as PTSD or 'post traumatic stress disorder'. From the accounts I heard as a child which were heavily sanitised, he came back a changed man and although was able to function in his previous job as a local postman for a few years, had to undergo increasingly long periods of hospitalisation and ultimately, complete incapacity. All the years I knew him he was bedridden, shaking constantly. Like many others he never received any war disability pension or recognition of his condition as being war injury related.

Much loved, he died in 1967 having lived with his condition for fifty years.

I was eight  - and devastated.

Joining up in early 1915, he sailed from Liverpool on board the 'Mauretania' on 21st May and landed in Gallipoli on June 6th. His battalion of almost 900 men was part of the 52nd division which was approx 10900 strong. The 2 battalions of RSF were immediately put into the line where between July 3rd and July 13th, losses were 4800 men. Early 1916 the campaign was abandoned as a failure.

The regimental history records this episode as follows:

' The losses for the 52nd division were such that for the Scottish Lowlands it was a second Flodden. In large areas between the Tweed and Forth scarcely a household but mourned a son '


' Unless one has seen it there is no imagination that can picture a belt of land some four hundred yards wide converted into a seething hell of destruction. Rifle and machine gun bullets rip up the earth, ping past the ear, or whing off the loose stones; shrapnel bursts overhead and leaden bullets strike the ground with a vicious thud; the earth is rent into yawning chasms, while planks, sandbags, clods and great chunks of ragged steel hurtle through the air. The noise is an indescribable, nerve racking, continuous, deafening roar while clouds of smoke only allow intermittent view of the whole damnable inferno '

It cost Winston Churchill, whose idea it was, his post as first lord of Admiralty. {Ironically he was made Commander in Chief of the Royal Scots Fusiliers}

The 2 battalions split, some to Palestine and the rest, grandfather included, to the western front.

Grandpa's story as described to me as a child trying to understand was simply that he was hurt in the big war and that we didn't talk about it. Much later he was described to me as a very brave man who had "gone over the top" on several major engagements. Who knows in reality what his experience was. Not me for sure. But I did experience the impact of that experience. My father helped his Mum look after his Dad every day as we lived nearby.

So before work - like his dad he too was a postie at first - he would go and wash and treat his Dads bedsores. Before he came home he would again go in and take care of any needs that might be required. At least twice a week I too would go to see Gran'pa and while there I would be given the task of shaving him with an old Phillips three headed electric razor. We all had things we did with Gran'pa and shaving him became my role. Being very small, at least when I started, I would have to climb onto the bed beside him and reach around his face while I shaved him, taking great care not to move the wooden frame that held the heavy blankets off his legs. Although by that time Grandpa couldn't speak more than two or three words at a time, I remember well his voice as he ran his damaged hand over his face and found a wee bit I had missed. "Here,"  he would say and I would go back and do that bit again and he would sometimes chuckle, a rumble deep in his chest and his jaw waving back and forth showed me he smiled. Sometimes he got me to go over bits again and again as a bit of fun I think. Job complete, I would carefully dismantle and clean the razor with its special miniature brush and show it to Grandpa for approval before putting it back together with small hands and sliding it back into its case.

Shaving an adult is a highly serious thing for a wee boy you know.

Being so close physically to him so often I remember every crease, nook and cranny of that old man's face. I remember the look in his eye as he watched me shave him or give him his tea in an odd china cup with a spout on one side and a lid on   {In fact I have it still - just a magpie really!}  He seemed able to look right into a wee boys heart. I remember his skin, his hair and his smell; how his face felt as small hands patted after-shave on;  how he would try and hold me as I reached across him at the limit of my balance as I shaved him; how he would wince if I fed him tea that was too hot. I would sometimes lie on Grannies bed across the room from him and we would read silently together, him with a book on a darkwood frame, beautiful and specially made for him by one of my uncles, and me with my book propped on bare knees.

I remember spending a night, being very young and sleeping in Grannies bed, in the same room as Gran'pa, and hearing him moan and occasionally shriek during the night until Gran got out of bed and went across to murmur something to him for an unknown while before coming back to bed with a quiet but commanding "Now, now, you. Back to sleep. Nothing to worry you here. Just Gran'pa dreaming. Just a dream," as she got back into bed herself.

And thats why I found myself thinking of him and of years past on Monday night and silently raising a glass in that wood panelled dining room of the Barns Ness Hotel.

See you later.

Listening to;

1 comment:

Yamini MacLean said...

Hari OM
This is why we are given memory - to keep history a living thing... thank you for sharing your memory Alistair. YAM xx

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