For many people the enduring image of the British soldier in the Great War is going over the top wearing his instantly recognisable tin helmet, from the safety of a very deep, well constructed trench.
Earlier in the war though the trench systems were nowhere near as elaborate or deep, in many places they were just shallow dips in the ground, often flooded and far from safe. Also the tin helmet was not introduced until 1916 as a result of the large number of head injuries caused by flying objects.
Before that the men wore a wide variety of soft hats, the most common being the Glengarry or a Tam O’Shanter. And there lies the problem, whilst they provide comfort from the elements, they provided no protection whatsoever from the enemy.
In the winter of 1914 -15 the 8th Royal Scots were based near the little French village of Sailly. During these months no major attacks took place, the weather and underfoot conditions were too bad for this.
However this didn’t mean that no fighting took place, shelling was daily and usually fairly predictable by both sides, but if you kept your head down, you would probably be okay.
One of the biggest dangers to a man in the front line though was the sniper, lying hidden, they would wait with great patience watching for the careless or reckless man who exposed even the smallest part of himself above the parapet.
And that sadly is what happened to three local lads, Pte George Proudfoot* from Lasswade, Pte Tommy Douglas (19) from Newtongrange and Pte James Kitching (21) from Penicuik.
George Proudfoot was a young lad who stayed with his parents William and Agnes in Lasswade. In November 1914 he went into the trenches for the first time, being green and inexperienced, he made the fatal mistake of poking his head up for a look towards the German lines, despite warnings from his mates.
Despite being visible for just a few seconds, he was spotted and shot through the head. By a miracle he did not die immediately, but was transferred to the base hospital at Boulogne, where it was decided he was too ill to be moved any further.
*The death of George Proudfoot was a double tragedy, as Pte Poudfoot’s mother was informed of her son being badly wounded, she took a severe epileptic fit and died shortly thereafter.
News of his grave condition was sent home to his mother, on hearing the bad news she had a severe epileptic fit from which sadly she died. George lived for another two weeks during which time he was visited by the King and the Prince of Wales. He died on St Andrew’s Day 1914
One cold and clear February morning young Tommy Douglas, a bright and popular lad, was up first and to cheer his mates up, was singing a popular musical hall song. Unfortunately in doing so he stood up and a German sniper saw him, took aim, and shot him. Despite the best efforts of the stretcher bearers and the medical officer he died a few hours later from his wounds.
The painful duty of writing home to Tommy’s adoptive parents in The Square, Newtongrange fell to his officer Lt J S Pringle
Your son Thomas, was shot on Tuesday evening about 5pm, and died in hospital this morning at 7.45am. He was hit in the head by a bullet while he was at his post in the trenches. He suffered no pain, and he was unconscious from the moment he was hit until he died, the bullet having entered the brain.
Poor fellow, I feel, and all the company feel, his loss very much, he was always so ready to do his duty and always so cheerful over it. At the moment he was struck he was singing a song.
It was men such as he that makes us feel the price those at home have to pay for it. I feel very much for you, and you have my deepest sympathy in your loss. From what I know of the boy as a soldier, I feel he must have been a very dear son to you. He is to be buried at Sailly by a Protestant clergyman, and two of his chums have been granted leave to attend the funeral”
James Kitching, from Penicuik, had been friendly with the late Sgt Dick Peacock from Newtongrange, when Sgt Peacock was shot dead by a sniper in late 1914, James fell heir to his watch, which he treasured, but some men thought this was unlucky. One morning in March, 1915 James was on sentry duty, peering through a loophole, a small opening a few inches wide in the parapet of the trench. As he did so, a sniper saw the sun glinting on his cap badge and shot him.
He left behind a widow and one child.
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