Records of a Bygone Age

This article first appeared in The Stronsay Limpet

By Ian Cooper

William Spence headWith Remembrance Day and all it signifies fast approaching, I thought it would be appropriate to record here some of the memories of a Stronsay man who fought in the trenches in the Great War. This is part of a transcript made by William Spence of Airy and Lower Millfield in the early 1970s and passed on to me by Ingram Shearer.

The first of these memories is in relation to the Artillery Volunteers, a Corps of which had originally been formed in Stronsay in 1865. Born at Waterside on 8th July 1897, I don’t think William Spence would have been directly involved with the Volunteers but, like so many young men of that generation, he was destined to join the army and go to war.

On 4th December 1915, at the age of 18, he enlisted with the Machine Gun Corps of the Seaforth Highlanders.

This is his story:

William Spence“At this time the country was very edgy; they were calling for volunteers to come forward, those volunteers responding in very large numbers and being drilled in Drill Halls, like the one that is here, hence the name Drill Hall. With an army sergeant doing the drilling very expertly they had to do rifle firing at targets and compete with one another.  You can still see the target area between Schoolbrae and Sandybank.

I don’t know if they got any pay but I do know that they were sometimes taken down to Budden on the East Coast (Angus) and from there they were allowed a visit to Edinburgh which was for them the highlight of their time in the South. In many cases it would be the only time this would happen.

Each company had a Captain in charge with a lieutenant under him to take part in competition in Kirkwall with other companies. The Captain here in Stronsay at that time was Captain Chalmers of Sandybank and his lieutenant was James Peace of the shop.

They had one especially big night which was called the Volunteers’ Ball. They were specially dressed for the occasion – white gloves a must! It was also a special night for their lady friends. Firstly, the Grand March was an absolute must with the Master of Ceremonies conducting it properly. There were some very good fiddlers here at that time, two of whom I will mention were James Miller, Millbank and John Cock at Linkshouse.

As to the ladies present, quite a number felt very important at this special occasion. Now all the men taking part were from all parts of the island, so it came about that the ladies too came from all parts of the island with their partners.

After a time this stopped as the country got into a more settled state with the signs of war receding throughout the world. Volunteers were called up, sent out from islands to other islands or to the mainland of Orkney. Then volunteers from different parts of Orkney came to Stronsay resulting in Stronsay ladies meeting and marrying men from all over Orkney. Fresh blood brought to the island!

At this time in Stronsay most families were of six or seven children. The Coopers of Holland and the Moodies with large families made a lively place. With all the numbers in the south end, it did fill up the South School. After having training in the South Miss Elizabeth Fotheringhame of Hescombe taught classes of up to 14 in different age groups and I am proud to say I was one of them. We did up to a certain standard before going on to the Central School with a teacher named Mr McCallum and his daughter Miss McCallum. I got on very well with her, not so well with the others. She could make you sit up and take notice. They left here and went to the West Coast but later Bella and I met Miss McCallum in Edinburgh.

Now leading up to the start of the First World War: All young men at the age of 18 were called up to serve in the Navy, Army or Airforce. It was the Seaforth Highlanders laid out for the Orkney men, the Seaforth Highlanders being part of the famous 51st Division which took part in some of the fiercest battles with heavy losses of men killed and wounded.

I was attached to the 15th Scottish Division which took part in fierce battles too. I remember being in the trenches at the town of Ypres which was razed to the ground by German batteries. But France, being a chalky country, there were lots of underground places which were quite safe from battery fire.

While in the trenches I was ordered to fetch water up from the town. There was a certain point which you had to go through called “Hellfire Corner”. I thought to myself I would wait till the next round of firing was over and make a dash for it. I tried this but it didn’t work for I arrived at this position just as they opened fire. I threw myself to the ground without getting hurt. I carried on my way with the two cans, as I thought, arriving back at my place in the trenches. As I felt thirsty and instead of taking a drink from a mug, I lifted the can to my mouth and, what do you think, it was petrol! What a dreadful taste and the burning feeling was awful. That happened in the evening and I thought I should see a doctor but by morning everything felt normal again.

I remember on one occasion going up to the front line, the German batteries opened fire, the officer in charge shouted “Take cover!” We scrambled into shell holes for safety. After the shelling stopped a shout went up “two men buried”. The men were in a shell hole and a German shot landed right alongside then burying them completely. Immediately at the scene we started scraping away the earth with our bare hands. First we came on a steel helmet. Fortunately we got them out alive but one suffered from shell shock and was sent back to base. The other man came forward with us to the front line.

Both sides had first class snipers. They took advantage of anyone showing themselves out of the trenches. We lost one of our men, shot through the head. He came from Newcastle. I just should mention that two of our volunteers went back at night to give him a decent burial. That just shows the respect men have for life doesn’t it?

At certain times it was decided to get over and beat the Germans in their trenches. This could be a deadly affair. Getting out onto the open ground between the two where we had no cover or protection. I remember we were told we were going “over the top” as it was called, the time to be 4 o’ clock in the morning – when it was reckoned to be the most promising time to do it. At 4 o’ clock we got a tot of rum – it was strong stuff! Over we went after a terrific bombardment by our guns. I remember meeting a German with his hands above his head in surrender. I can still hear one of our men saying “shoot him” but he was pulled up sharply by our corporal to do no such thing as the German was being escorted back to base as a prisoner of war.

The casualties during this war were terrific on both sides, the land here being very flat and, after a period of rain and with the shell holes, it became a sea of mud. If wounded you stood a poor chance of survival. 2 or 3 days was all you were able to stand in the front line. You were pulled back and others took your place.

Back at base we got a bath and supplied with clean clothes. They were desperately needed as we were crawling with lice. One of the places was a small farm. We slept in the farm buildings. They kept hens and it was very tempting so we made up our minds to get a hold of one of the hens and cook it. We managed it too although the plucking and cooking was a problem but it was achieved. I wonder if the French folks missed it? I expect they would but I never heard any more about it. One of the things I was most impressed with was a threshing mill, the horse walking up an incline, the weight of the horse driving this mill.

The French people suffered heavily, parts of their land were overrun. They had to get out to other parts of the country. That is one thing in this country which hasn’t happened partly because of the seas around us and our determination to defend our country to the bitter end.

After about a year in France I developed a bad throat. I reported to a doctor and after having a swab taken he suspected diphtheria. At that time this was a deadly disease and they didn’t have the medicines to control it like they do nowadays. I was sent across the water to Bradford, England. My papers didn’t follow me saying what was wrong but a nurse suspected also, after taking a swab, that I was seriously ill. One day one of the nurses asked me for my home address. I replied by saying “is it as bad as that?” I told myself there and then “I am getting better” and shortly I did. One doctor told me afterwards that I had made a remarkable recovery but it did take time and the effects told on my heart.

William Spence demobilisation papersIt was nearing the end of the war when I was marked down ‘C’ and given a pension of 7 shillings a week which was to last for 5 years but I was able to do some work and also I took part in football, etc.

Being marked down ‘C’ as recounted by William Spence was categorised as being “Free from serious organic diseases, able to stand service in garrisons at home.” On his demobilisation papers in 1919 he is shown as being transferred to the army reserve as a Category B3 – “Only suitable for sedentary work.” Despite that categorisation, William led a very active life until his death in 1991at the age of 93!

If anyone has any other information or Stronsay related stories, I would be delighted to hear of it.

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