The Skirl of the Pipes #Somme100

My great uncle, James (Jim) Spranger Harrison (my Granny’s brother), was a writer, artist and keen fisherman and was one of the lucky soldiers to survive World War One. He joined the war in 1914, signing up, under-age under his mother’s maiden name of Beaumont. When he left Northern France to travel east to fight with the Dunsterforce in Mesopotamia he started writing a diary. It is easy to imagine that the conditions of long distance travel were more conducive to keeping a journal than the trenches. It is a fascinating artefact, a perceptive and honest account of what he experienced. The pages reveal a lively and enthusiastic young man, but are spiked with his horror of what war really meant.  Constantly resistant to his detrimental surroundings his love of order and cleanliness rings clear (as does his love of fresh fruit and the good salmon fishing in the clear waters of the River Hodder in Lancashire!). All his experience of the earlier years of the war in France is spoken of in retrospect, and is often versed as acknowledged but unwelcome memories that he has to expunge.  A most poetic and Roman Catholic soul he often quotes pertinent lines and keeps a sense of the year by remembering Holy days.


This photograph taken at the Bordon training camp in Hampshire on 29th July 1916. Uncle Jim’s regiment arrived at the Somme on 2nd July 1916 and fought famously at the battle of Delville Wood from 14th July 1916, where they made heavy losses and where a special memorial and museum have been erected in remembrance. The date of the photograph suggests that he arrived at the Somme later on. (Or perhaps it is a communication of survival for his mother at home). He has signed it in the name of “Beaumont” the name he used to join up with. He went on to fight at Passchendaele and at Ypres and was selected for the Dunsterforce, where he travelled to the East to protect the Armenians from the Turks.

This quote relates how he was haunted by his memories of Northern France when he was stationed at Ruz Camp in Mesopotamia in 1918.

Just across the road is a big Indian encampment. Our dark warriors possess an excellent band of pipers; and occasionally of an evening they play outside our officers’ mess. I used to love to hear the pipes, but when I heard them a couple of nights ago, for the first time since leaving France, they only served to recall to me a great, grey land of shell holes, and mud, and slush, and splintered trunks, and skeleton ruins, and everlasting smoke, and nerve-wracking noise, and stench indescribable; where old men and women sit dazed among the wreckage of their homes in the pulverised villages, and gaze unseeing at the stark, dishonoured bodies of their murdered daughters, while children cling to their knees, crying, crying … where men live and toil like half-drowned rats, grey as the the grey mud they labour in, yet facing with a cheerfulness at which the world marvels, creatures that also once were men, but descending to the very depths where the ghouls live emerged fiends in human form … and where everywhere lay dead with curses in their sightless eyes – or laughter. I wonder will the skirl of pipes always recall to me only horrors that I would forget!

At another date in the journal when Uncle Jim recounts the horrors of Ypres, he begins the section with this quote from Omar Khayyam which seems so fitting as we remember the devastating Battle of the Somme:

“And look – a thousand Blossoms with the Day

Woke – and a thousand scatter’d into clay.

Lo! Some we loved…

Have drunk their Cup a Round or two before,

And one by one crept silently to Rest.”


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