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Looking Back: Humours of the Front

From June 1923


Humours of the Front

By the Rev Douglas W. Bruce, St Stephen’s, Broughty Ferry, ex -Lieut. Gordon Highlanders


It was not all fun. For Death slept beside you in the day, and took your arm round the line at night, and you never knew when He was going to speak….. But those at home, who now, through wistful sacrifice, own little bits of Scotland across the Channel, may find some comfort of sweet memory in recalling that the boys spent many and many a frolicsome hour together, and that, despite the ever-present but unexpressed thought – “Will I see the old home again?” – the fun loomed larger than the fight. The tear, it is true, was ever lurking behind the laugh.

Oh I want to cheer, and I want to cry
As Kitchener’s boys go marching by…

But the bigger thing was the cheer.

After godliness, cleanliness. Another modification of one’s standard of judgment was necessary. Sometimes our little friend of the big jump was too numerous for any known remedy. Nothing for it then but to get off the kilt and shirt and start the hunt…. Sounds of a heated quarrel rose from the dug-out one quiet night, and the writer proceeded down to investigate. Some dozen Aberdonians were squatting round a candle. Two serious questions were at issue: 1) Who had caught the most? 2) Who had caught the biggest one? On the second point, no agreement could be reached, and the intruding officer was appointed judge. He solemnly gave his verdict and it was not appealed. The Company being all of Granite City origin, the reader may possibly imagine that somebody stood to win something. Somebody did.

But the wee flea was once a good friend to a certain Highland soldier. Out in the open one day, he felt a wily customer on his knee beneath his hose top. As he bent down for its dispatch, some bullets whizzed over his back, just where his head would have been. He crawled into a shell-hole and continued the search – at last with success. Holding up the wee chap gently, he delivered himself thus: “Ye’ve saved my life. I canna promote ye; I canna decorate ye; but I’m gaun to reinstate ye. Doon there (pushing him down his neck) and hae a guid feed!”

Immortal. Burn’s didn’t do better.

The beefy Bosch loved music. At quiet points where the opposing lines were not very far apart, they treated us occasionally to some love songs on their wonderful mouth organs. But in music, if not then in shells, we could give as good as we got. And in reply to their “Mill-Wheel” one peaceful autumn evening, “Way down in Tennessee” was turned on in our lines. There must have been a Kamerad over the way, perhaps one of our ex-waiter friends from an Aberdeen hotel. For there was no mistaking the twang in the request that was later bawled across the land of no man, “Gie’s Auld Lang Syne.”

The reader may forgive the telling (necessarily personal) of the writer’s last laugh in France. The story’s sting is in its tail.

I had been wounded in the early hours of 23rd March 1918, and was lucky enough to be operated on that same night near Albert. The hospital tents were full, so about 100 wounded (and operated) men made the best of it in the open with the stars for blankets. We were laid in a field on our stretchers, side by side for warmth! The men on either side of me were cheery lads, and one of them, it chanced, knew me, and had been in my church. Both were hungry and longing for a smoke. The first need I happened to be able to meet with a tin of sardines; the second more amply with some of the inevitable gaspers.

Said one to the other, when they thought I was asleep: “He’s a decent bloke, to be a minister.”

But oh, the spirit of it all defies cold print, and the real good stories are too good – even for Life and Work.

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