One soldier's story: A missive from the Western Front

The diary of Private James Beatson offers a fascinating insight into life in the trenches during the First World War. It will be sold next month. Cahal Milmo peruses the pages of history
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The Independent Online

From his pain at the death of an unknown Prussian officer whom he saw as a friend, to his vivid description of the mundane and bestial details of the Great War, Pte James Beatson strove to create a private record of his ordeal on the Western Front for his "sweetheart".

After lying for 90 years in the home of his niece, this diary of a young Scottish soldier, caught in some of the worst days of the First World War, has resurfaced to provide a remarkable account of the hardship suffered by lower ranks.

The 149-page document, handwritten in a cardboard-backed notebook, will be auctioned at Sotheby's next month after it was found by an elderly relative. Written in 1915 while the eloquent private, in B Company of the 9th Royal Scots regiment, was in the trenches at Ypres in Belgium, it recounts the terrors of battle; from crawling through the skeleton of a French soldier to combating "slow, fat, waddling" rats that had gorged on corpses.

The diary of the Edinburgh-born soldier, who was promoted to corporal before dying in 1916 at the Somme, is all the more singular as it contains a "conversation" with a captured German officer, named only as Heinrich, whose diary was published in a British Army magazine for propaganda purposes. The diary is expected to fetch as little as £3,000 when it is auctioned in London on 7 December.

Wednesday, 25 January 1915

Left Edinburgh two nights ago. The less I say of how I felt the better. I propose keeping a rough record of future days so that when I return (May God grant it), I may the more faithfully recount them.

Tuesday, 1 March

We were bundled into wagons, 26 in each and after emergency rations were served out, we started off. We came across in a cattle boat, we were fed on cattle biscuits, and now we're driven in a cattle wagon. Some 25 hours of this, crushed and cramped, dozing on straw for a few minutes, coming back to consciousness frozen.

Wednesday, 15 March

We can rough it hard when needed but in the present circumstances a little more grub would leave us less hungry and these damned Belgians fleece us at every opportunity.

Thursday, 16 March

On the road a couple of shells burst about 50 yards away with a white flash and a deafening report. Then, after being detailed off in squads, we started to creep to the trenches, through hedges, floundering through ditches and shell holes, flares lighting up the dark and showing us up to a hellish hail of bullets. But, by the mercy of God, although the lead rang on the rifles and kicked the earth at our heads, we ran the gauntlet to trench number eight, 130 yards or so from the German lines. When under direct fire, all your control is needed to lie dead quiet. For myself, I confess I breathed a verse about "Stammering Sam" although I felt an impulse to rise from the mud and run for a deep, deep hole.

Thursday, 23 March

Last night, while a few of us were carrying rations to D Company in the reserve trenches, young Bennet fell, hit in the forehead, two paces in front of me. Just a flutter and another gone west. I'm in easy times with death but it's damnable to be hit in the dark by a sniping cur. God pity us.

Friday, 2 April

Good Friday! Has mankind any heart or brain? Are we too utterly dense and blind to the greatest good? Then well may God give us up to a brutish death at our brothers' hands. But no. As we are made in the image of God, I believe we're doing His will in crushing this big-bellied military force. But again, the Kaiser claims the alliance of God, sincerely or insincerely. Or is this God dispassionately feeding this earth with men?

Thursday, 8 April

Oh, for a 10 minutes in front the fire at home with a wash-up in warm water and able to stand without bringing down an avalanche of dirt all over you and your kit. Tea and dirt taste rotten.

Saturday, 10 April

In this wood was fought the famous [1st] Battle of Ypres [1914]. Our progress can be traced by the dug-outs and shallow trenches every five yards or so. Every foot has been contested, the equipments, caps, jackets and ammunition lying about among the brushwood tell of lives lost.

Tuesday, 13 April

In a communication trench, I crept through the skeleton of a Frenchman lying beneath the water, the white bones sticking out his tunic, poor chap. Scots, French, Germans, Austrians, Russians and the rest return to Mother Earth, groaning and cursing.

Thursday, 29 April

Alternating rushes and rests, shrapnel and stink bombs, bursting and sickening us with poisonous fumes and inflaming our eyes. I only wish the fellows who grumble at home over a few coppers or hours overtime were sent out here, they would understand things a bit better from our point of view.

Tuesday, 15 June

Still in the trenches. The day opens at "stand to" at 1.45am with the Germans shouting across "Good morning Scotsmen"; "Cuckoo", and encoring our bursts of rapid fire. The rest of the day is spent dozing or reading in the sunshine, or listening to the piano.

Monday, 2 August

A furious rapid fire, the machine guns rattling away in two-step time, ta-ra-rum-tum-tum. The artillery started wildly and we slackened our fire, stopping completely at 7.15 when our guns blazed forth a continual stream of shells. The large contact shells crashed through barbed wire entanglements and parapets, sending up columns of smoke and earth like volcanic eruptions... Anything left alive was smothered by the shrapnel vomiting fire and bullets all along the line.

Tuesday, 10 August

The power of the latest 24-inch Austrian mortar. By an effort no greater than the picking up of a pin, [a man] uprooted a tower 11 miles off with his first shot. The cataclysm evoked by a gunman transcends his own muscles, perceptions or emotions. To dare serve a Krupp or Armstrong gun, one should be as tall as an Alp, as good as an angel, as wise as a God. A man lives up to the extreme height of his moral and physical nature when he dares to loose an arrow from the bowstring. It is true that men who loose titanic forces, like a joke, coolly, are themselves broken down by an inferno similar to that of their own cold creation. What wonder if in such a hellish hurly-burly the higher nerve centres are disintegrated... and the stoutest soldiers break down in madness, paralysis, convulsions, asphyxia and delirium. When I started this diary I intended addressing my remarks to the shade of my sweetheart, but I was led from the base narrative of events. Love and war are not fit to be mentioned together. Love makes friends with the world, war isolates us.

Saturday, 21 August

It's a miserable morning, drenching downpour. I was on duty with the guard till the early morning and passed the time reading the diary of a Prussian officer, published in a magazine. Here I found a man I could love. In a note at the beginning we are told there is no clue as to the officer's real name or regiment, only the name Heinrich in the corner of the first page. So Heinrich let it be. Though you fight for a hellish system and your revolver might have finished me, I respect you.

Extraordinary to think that 30 years ago a lot of this great army were not in the world, and all the rest were blowing their trumpets and beating toy drums. Funny to think all this great hubbub once had a mother who smacked it and wiped its nose. That it cried in the dark for fear of bugaboos and ran to its mother's knee for safety.

Of course, there are moments when the individual enemy absorbs you. Astonishing moments in battle when a man suddenly appears before you, a man you have never seen before, yet who, in a flash, suddenly becomes everything to you. He is the man who is coming to kill you, yet you do not hate him in the least. Yet you take in every detail of his face, remember the face of a boy of 18 or so, white, with teeth exposed and haggard eyes, like the runner in the last stage of an exhausting race, his eyes were on you, yet they seemed unseeing. Though, like a furious mechanical figure, he was about to pitch-fork you aside with his bayonet when your revolver did for him.

Observe that Heinrich's sole idea is to get beyond. Hate, pity, love, money have absolutely no place in the stress of battle. He is imbued with the idea, "smash through to victory regardless of life". That idea survives the sight of the wounded.

Sunday, 22 August

A hot summer morning, the weather that brings out butterflies and thoughts. Heinrich would have loved such a morning as this - before the war. After, his soul was in agony of shame. All you possess is your diary, which you have because the French soldiers were gentlemen and took your word that it was private: "England hates no one, she loves only herself. She was very friendly to us, very friendly. I know for I have spent much time there. She has a deep, profound and solid contempt for everyone but herself - that is her great fault, but she is not ungenerous. She is the most curious paradise, very like a tradesman who is honourable in business but in his own house is unjust to his children. But to hate her is absurd and [a] waste of good energy. She did not fall on us as an assassin, she was dragged in by the asses who held our political cards."

A man nearby had the toothache terribly bad all yesterday, you lanced his gum with a borrowed knife, but it did not stop the pain. His head was blown off this morning. The men too, quite simple fellows, think the war has been too long prepared for. You know men who have been long, long preparing to be great and who die fameless.

A remark that the food is a lot better lately. And the diary ends. Are you dead Heinrich? I know you would die bravely and quietly. Fate has labelled you Prussian and me British, but I would do a long pilgrimage to lay flowers on the grave that holds your body.

Sunday, 12 October

The ground is full of dead bodies and rats. Little solitary graves with a wooden cross to Un brave soldat allemand. A Frenchman and a German lie alone, face to face in a little hollow. In one grave lie 77 French soldiers, beside it, 78 Germans in a grave about half the size. The place around is strewn with torn knapsacks, pouches, and scraps of blue and grey cloth.

Tuesday, 7 December [last entry]

The situation here is a bit peculiar, the line is broken by the river Somme and its marshes - the space between the broken ends of the two lines. [Beatson was killed in the subsequent Battle of the Somme, on 23 July 1916.]

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