Effects of War

I only began to understand my father when I found his diaries from the First World War. There were 52 pages of his diary, written in tiny script, with real ink.  Men were not encouraged to record any information about the war and diaries had to be kept secret; that’s why it was so small.

Jack had been a member of the Territorials with the Royal Scots before the war, but as they weren’t being sent to France quickly enough for him, he joined the Warwicks.  He was then transferred to the Worcestershires.

Battalion Headquarters 9/8 Worcestershire Regiment N Epitaphs

Here lies Major Mungle, a braw, canny Scot,

Whose zeal for a scrap was remarkably hot.

For him, Scots and Warwicks were not good enough

But he found in the Worcesters the right kind of stuff.

In France, for some seasons, much service he saw

And he sat at the feet of the Teachers of War.

Strange to say, though a Scot, he’d no use for whisky,

Though an F.G.C.M. made him joyous and frisky.

In finance and footer his style was quite classy

But he candidly owned himself scared of a lassie.

And though angels may frown and request him to tarry,

On his journey to heaven, he’ll wear a glengarry.


There was no doubt that the ‘teachers of war’ as he referred to them, did a good job then, as they do now.  Killing and self preservation were all that mattered to the troops and, if they didn’t pay attention, they became history.  He was appointed to do F.G.C.Ms, which were Field General Court Martials, after the armistice, where he condemned men to death for very human weaknesses. It is hard to believe they made him ‘frisky’, which may only have been used to rhyme with whisky, but he must have built an armour around himself in order to deal with them, and he never discarded it.

This made it difficult  to settle into the ‘real’ world again. He took one look at the bank in West Calder, where he’d been born in 1891, literally, as his father was agent for the Commercial Bank there, and decided he wanted no part of war-weary Scotland.   His colonel had suggested Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was then known, or Canada.  Jack chose the former.   He led the memorial parade in 1921 and then departed, leaving his parents, who found it hard to forgive him, armed with his medals and enough money to buy Makoni Kop tobacco farm in the Rusape district. He then sent for his fiancée, Brenda Sawyer from North Berwick, disproving the theory about ‘a lassie,’ and they were married in St Bartholomew’s church,  in 1924.

Although they began well enough, living in the house that Jack built with handmade bricks and planting tobacco, which was still a pc product in those days, disaster struck in 1929 with the great depression.

They had lost one daughter with diphtheria by then, and Brenda was paralysed with shock and grief.  Jack packed everything up in a model T ford and trekked south.  Here, after a stint of overseeing labour digging up the roads and cutting down gum trees on the Bluff in Durban, Natal, South Africa, he borrowed money from Brenda’s father and bought a small sugar farm.  This was very successful and he became a wealthy man but was never able to get close to people. He found a taste for whisky eventually, but he still never spoke about the war.  His only weakness was a tendency to sing sentimental Scottish songs during a party, but whenever I offered an opinion on anything, or tried to discuss the world in general, he told me to ‘get on with my knitting’.  He wasn’t much better with his son, who couldn’t find a way to communicate with his father either, although he inherited and ran the farm.

But when the farmhouse was sold, I found the diaries, fortunately before they were thrown away.  I was amazed that he’d kept them and wished I’d persevered in my efforts to make him drop his guard.


On 7th Aug. the Bosch blew a mine under the 2/5th, we went up to relieve them on the 9th.  Came back to billets on the 19th – to be informed by the colonel that I had to do a raid on the Bosch on the night of the 24th.

20th – 24th very busy practising the stunt.  Raid fairly successful, nearly done in by a Bosch patrol, piece of bomb got me behind the ear, nothing much. (5 killed – 8 wounded) all brought in.  Got the MC. (sic)

And that was only reference there was to the medal.  I never knew he’d won it and only discovered it in a box of stuff that ‘wasn’t wanted’; luckily for me.

18th – D Coys raid, bad luck.  Relieved on 19th Oct. the last tour was one of the worst I ever had here, 37 ‘minnies’ and aerial torpedoes over on my Coy front alone, the day before relief.  Result trenches knocked about badly.

I was eleven years at boarding school, during which time he never came to see me, not on sports day or prizegiving or even a Sunday out. He was protected by my mother from what went on around him and devoted his full efforts and energies into his businesses. ‘Your father mustn’t be disturbed,’ she’d say. She took me and my brother John, whose name was the only similarity there was between him and his father, away on holidays, but Jack never came with us. Did Brenda know what went on in that taciturn mind?  I doubt it; probably it was easier living on the surface.

Next thing, our supply of bombs began to run out so the General sent me off to meet a party of 50 men at Beaucaomp, guide them to a bomb store in Villiers Plouich and carry bombs up the line. This was the worst time of the whole tour as far as I was concerned.  Four times I lay flat while shells burst close to me.  However I got through all right and carried up the bombs.

Is it any wonder he learned to shut the world out, after all that?

We dug ourselves in again and waited.  The evening, by this time had brought up many guns and we were shelled badly all day.  In the afternoon our front line gave and they fell back about 200ft.  An immediate counter attack by fresh French troops restored the line.  We had many casualties, including 8 officers.  A piece of shrapnel cut my tunic and another passed through my coat and stuck in my leather jerkin.  This was beaten by the Adjutant who had three bullets through his clothes and was untouched!

This was one of the later entries, just before armistice was declared and he was appointed to the F.G.C.M. and then sent to Palestine as army of occupation. Anything was better than West Calder?

I’d love to know what my father would have said about post war trauma, which, quite rightly, is being discussed and dealt with today. There may be some who, in true stiff upper lip action, won’t acknowledge there is anything wrong with them. I know he wouldn’t. ‘Don’t be so soft,’ was one of his favourite sayings and one which helped build the armour around him, that protected him against feeling too much. It’s what war does and it cost me my relationship with my father.


3 thoughts on “Effects of War”

  1. This is very special – thank you. I believe I started to be more interested in the First WW when I saw a photo of my grandfather as a young man – he seemed to be giving me a wry smile or a wink.
    Like Marianne Wheelaghan, I think you could write something more about your father’s life and yours.
    Thank you in any case for offering these memories.

  2. I found this extremely interesting. Thanks for taking the time to write it. In the past the emotional effects of war often went unacknowledged with devastating consequences. My mum was brought up during 1930s and 1940s in Germany, coming to Scotland in the late 1940s. I never thought much about her early life, which she never mentioned, until I found some letters and diary extracts after her death. Reading them helped me better understand my mother, who was a very private person. i wrote a book inspired by her life (The Blue Suitcase). Have you ever thought about writing a novel about your father’s life?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *