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Poetry, protest and 'pukka': World War One in Scotland

The Scottish experience of the First World War and its aftermath was different, in many ways, from that of the rest of Britain. Among other things, it was in Scotland that Britain probably came closest to having its own version of the Russian Revolution.

Red Clydeside

Billy Kenefick is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Dundee. As he points out, ‘Scotland in many ways was highly patriotic in the First World War: some 63% of eligible men in Dundee were in uniform, for example – that’s a very high proportion. And the “tank campaign” to raise money for the war effort in 1917/18, which involved battle-scarred tanks touring towns and cities to drum up sales of War Bonds and Savings Certificates, saw several Scottish cities vying to outdo each other. Dundee raised £4.5 million in one week.’

Scotland in many ways was highly patriotic

Yet several Scottish cities were also leading centres of the anti-war movement, with many of them having anti-conscription fellowships. Scottish cities also saw significant industrial and civil unrest, during and immediately after the war. The Independent Labour Party in Scotland grew from 3,000 members to 10,000 by war’s end – a rate of growth that wasn’t replicated elsewhere in Britain. And ironically perhaps it was Glasgow, seen by many as the second city of the British Empire, which became the focus of political radicalism, and effectively found itself under martial law during what became known as the Red Clydeside era.

Glasgow and the surrounding area was home to a significant amount of heavy industry, but many factory and shipyard workers lived in conditions of extreme poverty. During the war, the government introduced a number of laws that were met with hostility by the trade unions, while at the same time, living and working conditions became worse. This led to a campaign for a 40-hour week, and other improvements in working conditions.

Then on 31 January 1919, a huge rally was held in George Square in the centre of Glasgow, organised by the trade unions. The gathering turned into a riot, and the Red Flag was raised by the crowd. Barely a year after the Russian Revolution, the government in Westminster panicked: fearing a Bolshevik-style insurrection on the streets of Britain, they sent troops and tanks into the city to quell the unrest, making sure that the troops weren’t Glaswegian (the local regiment was locked inside its barracks), and that few of them were veterans of the war, lest they prove too sympathetic to the aims of the protestors.

Poetry and rare finds

Another Scottish location that is famously associated with the First World War is the Craiglockhart Military Hospital in Edinburgh, where officers suffering from shell shock were treated with ‘talking cures’ and other newly developed therapies (enlisted men were subjected to altogether less enlightened regimes, in other locations), and where the poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon first met, inspiring each other to write some of the poetry that continues to shape the view of the war that so many of us have.

Staff and patients at Craiglockhart War Hospital (courtesy of Edinburgh Napier University)

Alistair McCleery is Professor of Literature and Culture at Edinburgh Napier University, which now includes the old Craiglockhart buildings, as well as housing the specialist archive of materials relating to Owen, Sassoon and others – the War Poets’ Collection. The Craiglockhart site is still home to a rare form of moss, found in Northern France, which presumably arrived on soldiers’ boots.

‘With the War Poets being an important part of the school curriculum,’ says Alistair McCleery, ‘we get a lot of school groups making visits to the campus. World War One at Home has led to the creation of learning resource packs that we can give to them: it’s a lasting legacy of the project.’

And according to Alistair McCleery, the summer roadshows that have been organised as part of the World War One at Home project, including one in Dundee, have been ‘like the TV programmes Cash in the Attic, or the Antiques Roadshow.’ Among the original material that has come to light, as members of the public have brought it in, has been a concert programme from Craiglockhart during the war: the evening’s festivities described in the programme, and put on by the patients, began with the national anthems of the Allies, including Russia’s old Tsarist anthem. Another person at the roadshow came forward with rare copies of The Hydra, the magazine produced by patients at Craiglockhart, which Wilfred Owen edited, and which features the first appearance of his poetry in print.

The World War One at Home roadshows have been like ‘Cash in the Attic’

The real Miss Jean Brodies

According to Alistair McCleery, the World War One at Home project has helped draw attention to some Scottish writers who should be better-known, including the Dundee poet Joseph Lee, and Christine Orr, whose novel, The Glorious Thing, describes ‘ordinary lives during an extraordinary time.’ But then, ‘this was an experience that engulfed everyone. The First World War wasn’t a remote conflict, like the Boer War – no-one could escape its effects.’

The Morningside area of Edinburgh, for example, used to be famous for its spinsters – real-life Miss Jean Brodies. ‘But behind the type is a sad reality – so many women were forced to turn to the teaching profession after their fiancés were killed. You need an empathetic imagination, to picture what life must have been like for them, in the Twenties. The life that was mapped out for them, all gone.’

The life that was mapped out for them, all gone

A diaspora in reverse

Other distinctive elements of the Scottish experience of the First World War include the sense of martial tradition. ‘The kilted soldier really was the poster boy of Empire,’ says Derek Patrick, Lecturer in History at the University of Dundee. The exploits of Scottish regiments in conflicts like the Peninsular, Crimea and Boer Wars, had cemented the place of the Scottish soldier in Britain’s consciousness. ‘National, religious and military traditions all came together. It says something about Scotland as a nation. Military achievements helped Scots identify with the imperial project – the Scots saw themselves as Empire-builders, and as defenders of the Empire in adversity.’

"The kilted soldier was the poster-boy of Empire"

There was also what amounted to a ‘diaspora in reverse’ during the First World War, with first or second-generation Scots returning from Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, to fight in Europe, either with Scottish divisions, or in kilted South African or Canadian regiments.

And this story of the movement of Scottish soldiers around the world led to some interesting cases of cultural cross-over. The famous Scottish regiment the Black Watch, for example, had a long association with the Indian subcontinent, and its second and fourth battalions served with Indian divisions during the War. Several Indian regiments incorporated pipe bands and tartans, while long periods stationed in India rubbed off on Scottish soldiers, affecting their language (military slang of the period is full of words of Indian origin, including ‘pukka,’ ‘cushy’ and ‘doolally’, which blended with the Franglais slang popularised by men of the New Army) and their taste in food – curry was offered by army cooks from influence of the Indian army, and introduced more widely as a result of the War. The newspapers in Dundee, a city whose jute trade was closely linked with India, used to delight in showing photos of Scottish soldiers rubbing shoulders with troops of many different nationalities, knowing that their readers would find them interesting.

Initial grave of the dead son(courtesy of Edinburgh Napier University)

Commemoration in Scotland

The Great War Dundee Commemorative Project aims to co-ordinate a city-wide approach to the centenary commemoration of the First World War, bringing the local community together with Dundee’s museums, archives, libraries, universities, schools and businesses, through a programme of activities that encourage the broadest possible public participation and collective reminiscence. These activities include the opening of a hundred-year-old time capsule, located in Royal Mail’s Dundee East Delivery Office, which is thought to contain a large number of letters from soldiers on various First World War battle fronts, and photographs of Dundee men and women, as well as stamps and coins from the time. The aim is for events in Dundee to serve as a focus for a specifically Scottish commemoration of the war.

Scotland has a particular culture of remembrance, too. According to Billy Kenefick, that can be seen in the cathedral-like Scottish National War Memorial in Edinburgh: ‘there was a sense that the Cenotaph in Whitehall wasn’t good enough – there was a national desire to commemorate Scottish soldiers in their own way, to see them as fighting the war for Scotland as well as for Britain. But then, Robert the Bruce had been used on recruiting posters, while others used to say “we cannot allow the sons of the rose, the leek and the shamrock to get ahead of the sons of the thistle”.’