Letter from the Trenches, 1915

David Reddiex shared this transcript of a letter from WW1. He told me, “I thought your readers may be interested in this type written letter from the trenches, in 1915. It depicts some of the brave tales of Auchentibber/Blantyre soldiers. My mother, Katherine , was a Strang and my father, James, was a Reddiex…both sadly deceased.”

This letter was sent by Captain Brown (a Blantyre man) back to Mrs Bannatyne of Milheugh House during May 1915. The relationship there was one of letting the volunteers back home know about what was happening at the front. What made this letter all the more remarkable was the fact that a month later, Captain James Brown was killed in action, making this letter a poignant, important record.

James Brown was the third headmaster at Auchinraith Primary School at the start of the 20thCentury succeeding Mr. John Welsh. In 1909 as a Lieutenant, James was President of the Boy Scouts in Blantyre. His time as a teacher though was short lived for he was called to active service during the First World War.

He enlisted in the army in 1914 and served there as a captain, leading the Blantyre Territorials of the 6th Scottish Rifles. James was killed in action on 16thJune 1915 while leading his men at Festubert. Another letter to Captain Brown’s family from one of the wounded men informs them, “Our Captain died a hero’s death.’ Wounded in the shoulder, he got back to his feet and encouraged his men forward shouting, “Stick it Blantyre!” He was then shot in the head but still went forward until he was killed at the edge of the enemy trench.

Exactly one month before his death, Captain Brown sent this incredible letter back to Blantyre. The letter was subsequently copied and distributed many times throughout Blantyre following James’ death, for it told of the horrific conditions in the trenches, and the stories of Blantyre men fighting there.

It reads, “From Capt. Brown to Mrs Bannatyne, Milheugh, Blantyre, Date: Sunday, 16th, May 1915. Dear Mrs Bannatyne, Please excuse me for writing you again, but I want to say how sorry I am at the delay, which took place in connection with the respirators. I wrote the letter on the 5th May, which I think was the day of their receipt. Since then we have experienced a lot, and as I feel you are interested in our Company and can get in touch with the parties about who’s sons I am going to write, I thought it but right that the folks of Blantyre ought to know what their lads are doing. This Sunday finds our regiment in the trenches. Last Sunday found us in trenches, but of a different sort, viz: the assembly trenches preparatory to our going in to the firing line, half a mile distant in the battle which was fought last Sunday and Monday. We moved into these trenches by night on Saturday and lay in them all night. At 5.00a.m.(Sunday) the artillery commenced a terrific bombardment of the enemy’s lines. This continued without cessation nearly all day. Our Brigade was in reserve more or less, but about 9 a.m. the battalion lying on our right get orders to move to support a regiment, which had gone forward. We were to move next, but the order to do so did not come, so we lay still in the broiling sun. We lay there all day practically unmolested, till about 6.30, when a German aeroplane flew over our lines. That settled our fate. He had scarcely time to get to his own lines when it started. Shell after shell burst over us, and beyond us to our right and left, but thanks be to Providence, few landed amongst us.

About 8.30 p.m. a tremendous rifle fire was concentrated on us by the Germans, which was their method of preventing us from making a night attack, and a most efficient one it was, for we could not have moved forward in the face of it. Our men lay still under it all. Darkness came down and added to the eeriness of the scene. Added to the noise of the shells bursting was the glare they cast upon the sky. About midnight a shell burst right amongst the rear company, and a voice rang out, “I’m killed, I’m killed”. I could not help laughing and saying to myself that it was a healthy corpse that could shout so lustily. Several burst amongst us and took toll in wounded, but again we tender our thanks to Providence that no one was killed.

On Monday we got orders to retire as they decided not to push the attack any further. We did so by Companies down a communication trench, having split the company into four platoons with an interval of 100 yards between each platoon, so that should a shell burst, it would not get the whole Company. Just as well we did so, for as we crossed along a road the enemy shelled us and I am sorry to say killed Lance Cpl. Potter of Broompark Road, High Blantyre. We waited behind to take him with us, and as we knelt to take him up another burst right over us, but we escaped. We carried him to the Dressing Station of the R.A., but he was dead before we got that length. In brief that is the story of Sunday and Monday as it applies to B. Coy. But I must ask you to go back a bit with me to the pont where the regiment on the right left us to go forward to the attack. Shortly after it had gone on, a message was received that our bombing party was wanted, and it is with particular reference to the bombing party I wish to deal. We had blown up a mine, and to prevent the crater being held by the Germans we rushed it with the bayonet and seized it. The garrisoning of the crater fell to the bombing party. In B.Coy, the men’s names were Cpl. Thomson, Ptes. James Potter, J. Reddiex, R. Blane, J. Graham and W. Strang. Graham, Strang and Blane were successful in getting into the crater and establishing themselves.

One of the Sixth Scottish Rifles fired 900 rounds in defense of the place, doing up three rifles in doing so. But Potter and Reddiex did not get into the crater, and could have retired without the slightest disgrace to our trenches in the rear. They were having no retiral, but went straight on into the German trenches, being first to get there and with potter throwing the bombs and Reddiex feeding them, those brave fellows bombed their way unaided and alone along the German trenches, clearing out the two traverses as they went, and I daresay gloating with a certain amount of satisfaction on the result of their handiwork, for as James said, they did not throw bombs for nothing. But they had to stop, as they could go no further.

The people on their left in the crater kept the Germans from closing in on their rear, and a machine gun on their front kept them from getting on. They were stuck. What did they do? Lose their heads? No! Reddiex went into a German dugout and slept, whilst Potter stood guard with his bombs. Then Potter went to sleep and Reddiex guarded. It reads like fiction, but it is true. They were physically exhausted, and nature asserted herself, and they sought rest. Just think about it Mrs Bannatyne, they are Blantyre men. It makes one proud to be associated with such brave fellows. When speaking to Potter about it I asked him if he was quite pleased with his day’s work. Yes, he said, with his good-natured smile, but a Sergeant kept me from making short shrift of a fat German they had collared. It was coming on for night and they had to make up their minds what to do. The crater folks sent word they were going to retire, and as the Germans were closing on them, the pair of them made up their minds to run for it. To get up to one’s full height meant death, so crawling on their stomachs one time, and up to the waists in water at another in the old trenches, they go to our parapet, which they climbed over, and were safe.

We were all glad to see them back, and I am glad to say that all the bombers get back safely except W. Strang whom we have to report missing. Their action may not have made any effect on the battle that is not for me to say, but it was a splendid bit of work, and I am sure their friends would like to hear of their lad’s bravery. Would you think it a great trouble, after perusing this letter to send it to Miss Clark, Infant Mistress, Auchinraith School, as I would like her to read it to the children, just to let them know what their friends are doing in the field of battle. The conduct of every man under shellfire was magnificent. Yours very Sincerely, JAMES BROWN.”

Attached is an incredible colourised photo of WW1, digitally remastered as it would have looked in the trenches.

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