Great War Portraits: Keeping Warm on the Western Front
The winter months on the Western Front, even for a tough generation like that of the Great War, could be a trying time. Temperatures on the Somme in 1916/17 dropped to below -20 and living in exposed muddy ditches in weather like this often caused more casualties than from enemy fire.
Private William Kelly Saunders is pictured here in France during the winter of 1915/16 wearing a lightweight rubberised waterproof cape to offer some protection against wet weather and some home-made ‘trench gloves’ fashioned from goat or sheep fleece to keep the cold off while working in the front line. Underneath he is wearing the standard uniform of his regiment, the London Scottish. While the fleece gloves may have been warm soldiers soon found they became breeding grounds for lice and often ended up throwing them away.
William Kelly Saunders was from Jarvis Brook in Sussex and was killed at Gommecourt on 1st July 1916 when his battalion took part in the First Day of the Somme.
London Scottish: France August 1915
We saw the other day some men of the London Scottish on the steps of their regimental headquarters in Westminster. They were about to depart for Flanders and by the Spring of the following year a high percentage of the London Scottish ‘originals’ had either been killed or wounded at Ypres, or had been commissioned as officers. Back in England first a second battalion and then a third had been formed and gradually they began to send out replacements. By now the London Scottish were attached to a regular division – 1st Division – and had moved to positions around the La Bassee canal in Northern France.
When this photograph of a platoon of the London Scottish was taken in August 1915 the battalion was now getting ready to take over positions on what would become the Loos battlefield and a few weeks after these men were filmed in the summer sunshine of a back area near Bethune, they would go Over The Top in the Battle of Loos, suffering heavy casualties around The Lone Tree. The men are all wearing their Tam O’Shanters and equipped with the Short Magazine Lee Enfield; the previous year many men in this unit had experienced problems with the older ‘Long’ Lee Enfield at Messines when rounds had jammed in the breach. They look a tough bunch and nearly a year after their famous action at Messines were a well known and respected regiment.
London Scottish: 59 Buckingham Gate 1914
The 14th Battalion London Regiment (London Scottish) were an unusual battalion of the British Army before the Great War. Formed from the Volunteers in 1908 as part of the Territorial Force, to join the unit a soldier had to be either Scottish, or of Scottish descent. He also had to pay a joining fee; the money being used for regimental funds. Before 1914 this fee was ten pounds, an enormous sum; it was done to ensure that the men who joined the rank and file of the regiment were from Middle Class families and not the back streets of London. It was a popular regiment and on the outbreak of war was almost a full establishment; unusual for Territorial battalions which were normally under-strength. It was also one of the best equipped; the regimental funds ensured that the London Jocks were the only battalion in the army with the latest Vickers Machine Guns for example. It marched to war in September 1914 and fought at Messines on Halloween 1914; becoming the first Territorial infantry battalion to see action in the Great War.
These photographs are from a small album belonging to a pre-war member of the regiment and were taken on the eve of war at the regimental headquarters, 59 Buckingham Gate in Westminster. This building had been used to house the Titanic Enquiry in 1912.
These are informal photographs taken with a Kodak pocket camera and show the soldier whose album it was – later commissioned as many originals of the unit were – and some of his mates before they fought under the ‘Burning Mill of Messines‘ in October 1914.