Lochnagar Labyrinth Panels 16-20

The Unseen Scars of War…

“No man, however he may talk, has the remotest idea of what an ordinary soldier endures!”
So said a veteran, Sgt. H. Green.

Bovington Trench Experience – The Tank Museum.

Standing at Lochnagar today and looking out onto these peaceful fields, visitors try to imagine what those fighting men went through. These words would suggest it is simply beyond our imagination.

People come here now under very different circumstances, they read contemporary accounts of those men, read War Diaries, and Official Histories, in an attempt to understand what went on throughout those four terrible years of 1914 to 1918. Some may have had conversations with grandfathers or with veterans who may have gone through this maelstrom time and time again.

For many this daily trauma had profound consequences and could result in ‘Shell Shock’, or as we know it, ‘Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder’. This debilitating condition affects one’s mental and physical wellbeing, but during the Great War when psychiatry was very much in its infancy, little was understood of the effects of prolonged exposure to battle, stress and fear.

It is perhaps no wonder, that many were so emotionally scarred by the war and lived long years with intensely painful memories. These men were often unable to speak of it to their loved ones, choosing to protect them from the horrors of their experience.

Dr. Charles McMoran Wilson (later Lord Moran – Churchill’s doctor) said “Men wear out in war like clothes”.

Might some, simply have worn out more quickly than others?

Shot at Dawn

For many men of all ranks and social class the stress of war often became too much to bear.

Shot at Dawn Memorial by Andy DeComyn. National Memorial Arboretum near Alrewas, Staffordshire

Military offences such as desertion, cowardice, casting away arms, disobedience, striking a superior officer, quitting or sleeping at post, could all carry a death sentence. These were separate from those crimes such as rape and murder for which any person could pay the ultimate price in the case of a guilty verdict at trial.

Between August 1914 and October 1918 the British Army held in excess of 230,000 Courts Martials for all types of military offence. 3,080 death sentences were meted out, and 346 actually carried through to execution, 40 of these being for offences that carried the death penalty under civilian law.

Many of these men, who had often previously fought so bravely would now be understood to be suffering from ‘shell shock’, but were nevertheless executed, an ‘example to other troops’, to ‘stiffen their resolve’.

This harsh and perhaps barbaric practice was accepted at the time, not just by the British but by most of the combatant nations including Italy, France, Belgium, USA, Austria-Hungary and Germany. It is certainly the case that today’s standards are vastly different from those that were commonplace during the Great War.

Britain abolished the death penalty for military offences in 1930, and in 2007 an Act of Parliament granted posthumous pardons to the 306 servicemen executed for military offences.

The National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire UK movingly commemorates all those executed during The Great War.

The Last Letter of Pte. John Scollen

John Scollen, died 1st July 1916. © Brian Scollen.

In the days prior to 1st July many men wrote ‘last’ letters home. One such man was Pte. John Scollen of the 27th Northumberland Fusiliers. This is his letter to his wife Christina and their seven children written on 27th June 1916.

My dear Wife and children it is with regret I write these last words of farewell to you. If it is God’s Holy will that I should fall I will have done my duty to my King and country and I hope justly in the sight of God.

It is hard to part from you but keep a good heart Dear Tina and do not grieve for me for God and His Blessed Mother will watch over you and my bonny little children and I have not the least doubt but that my country will help you. For the sake of one of its soldiers that has done his duty. Well DearWife Tina… you have been a good wife and mother to look after my canny bairns and I’m sure they will be a credit to both of us.

Dearest wife Christina accept this little souvenir of France, a cross made from a French bullet which I enclose for you.

My Joe, Jack, Tina and Aggie not forgetting my bonny twins Nora and Hugh and my last flower baby whom I have only had the great pleasure of seeing once since he came into the world, God bless them.
I will try and get to do my duty whilst on this perilous undertaking and if I fall on the top of a massive bayonet then you will know that I died in God’s Holy Grace. Tell all of my friends and yours also that I bid them farewell now.

My Dear wife and children I have not anything more to say only I wish you God’s Holy Grace and Blessing so GOODBYE GOODBYE and think of me in your prayers. I know these are hard words to receive but God’s will be done.

From your faithful soldier, Husband and father John Scollen B Coy 27th S.B.N.F.

Goodbye my loved ones, DON’T CRY.

I made the cross myself.

Pte. John Scollen was killed on the 1st July. He is commemorated on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme.

Vera Brittain

Voluntary Aid Detachment Nurse and Author of the classic ‘Testament of Youth’

“There seemed to be nothing left in the world…”

Vera Brittain, VAD. Courtesy: The William Ready Division of Archives and Research Collections, McMaster University Library, Ontario.

Born into a middle-class home in late Victorian England, Vera Brittain is not the archetypal example of an influential writer, feminist and pacifist. In 1914 she went to Oxford to study English Literature. But in 1915 left to work as a nurse with the VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachment), first serving in England, then Malta and Etaples in France.

She maintained a vigorous correspondence with friends and family but tragically lost her fiancé Roland Leighton in 1915, two of her closest friends in 1917, and her beloved brother Edward, who was killed in Italy in June 1918.

“There seemed to be nothing left in the world, for I felt that Roland had taken with him all my future and Edward all my past.”

The profound loss she felt made adjusting to life in a post-war world painfully hard. She returned to Oxford to take up her studies, this time reading History. She began to explore her thoughts, feelings and experiences and put them to paper, resulting in her most famous work, ‘Testament of Youth’, which became a best-seller in 1933, with equally powerful sequels following in subsequent decades.

Her unquenchable spirit, her compassion and humanity, despite struggling with overwhelming personal sorrow, drove her to endlessly campaign for peace, equality and justice. Despite bringing deep controversy upon herself, she steadfastly maintained her principles and beliefs. Many of these are now held up as positive values throughout society.

Her daughter Dame Shirley Williams continues to campaign vigorously against injustice and inequality.

Pilgrimage: Tom Easton’s visits to his friends at Bécourt

Pte. Tom Easton, No 1000, 21st Northumberland Fusiliers (2nd Tyneside Scottish) had a special affiliation with the Lochnagar Crater. He fought hereabouts on the 1st July 1916 and after the war made many pilgrimages to France with the 34th Division Officers’ Club, and later in the 1970s with George Harwood and Richard Dunning. He made his last trip in 1980 shortly before he died.

Proud Fusilier

But for each visit to the Lochnagar Crater, another was also made to a place nearby equally poignant and close to his heart.

From his base in Albert, he would quietly walk the two miles up to Bécourt and the CWGC Military Cemetery there. On finding the neat row of headstones so special to him, he would softly speak to the graves of his best mates, all killed shortly before the battle. Each of whom, all those years before, he had buried here side by side. For he had made a vow to care for their kith and kin back home, and on every pilgrimage, he would regale them with news of their families and their towns and villages in Northumberland. With tears in his eyes but warmth and cheer in his voice, he spent many hours of his long life at that special place, in communion with his departed friends.

What Tom started is continued now by the Friends of Lochnagar. Late in the evening on each 1st July, Friends make a similar journey up to the CWGC Bécourt Military Cemetery for a short Act of Remembrance, quietly reflecting on Tommy and the events of the day.

Richard Dunning and Tom Easton, Lochnagar, 1979.