At just nineteen-years of age, Captain Neil Weir found himself a captain and company commander in the 10th Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders fighting in some of the most fearsome battles of the First World War. During his service at Loos, Ypres, Vimy Ridge, Ploegsteert and the Somme, Neil Weir wrote letters home and maintained what he called his War Dairy.
The letters are inevitably brief, but Neil Weir’s War Dairy is far more detailed. Predictably the conditions the men had to endure are a feature of the writing when in Flanders.
“We have had about three days continuous rain,” a fellow soldier wrote just before Weir’s battalion arrived at Ploegsteert, “and the result is the trenches are flooded and the country round is a sea of mud ankle-deep, and in some places today I have been over my knees in it. I took 150 men to do drainage work under the R.E.s on the communication trenches on the left of where we were before we came out. It was an endless, hopeless task. The walls had caved in in places, and as soon as the muck was cleared out it caved in again, and it all had to be done again.”
Interestingly, during his time at “Plug Street” Weir made the following observation: “Our telephone system was none too good. In fact the Boche seemed to hear all our conversations on the phone and incidentally we could hear his.”
In 1916 his battalion began training for “the big push” which, though as Weir acknowledges he had no specific idea what this would be, meant practising in open warfare. This involved training first at company level, then battalion and finally brigade level. Included in their training was a trip in June for certain officers to Bray by bus to be shown some unusual trenches, no doubt replicating what they might expect when they entered the enemy lines. They also saw “masses” of French guns being assembled. It was obvious that the offensive for which they had been practising was imminent.
On 1 July 1916, the Battle of the Somme began. Weir’s division was one of the “follow up” formations and his brigade was the reserve of the division. Weir wrote in detail about the battle, which for his battalion began in earnest on 14 July when it had to assault Longueval. In this account he recalls an incident which took place the following night. Unknown to Weir, the battalion’s bombers had gone out to attack the enemy and upon their return they approached the strongpoint held by Weir’s company.
Believing that the approaching infantry were Germans they opened fire. Though Weir could not be certain that his men had actually engaged the bombers (the approaching infantry might have been Germans), the fact is that none of the bombers were seen again.
The 18th of July, Weir wrote, was a day he would never forget. A heavy bombardment destroyed his strongpoint and his company found itself isolated and out of contact with battalion HQ. “The Boche were on us like a knife as soon as their bombardment ceased,” Weir wrote in his War Diary. “Masses of grey figures were to be seen coming across the then no-man’s land. We had left our trench and formed up … What a collection of men there were there and it was found to be exceedingly difficult to obtain any hold on them. Some had been so knocked about that they wanted to get right back to Billon Wood. That was fatal. Luckily better counsel was forthcoming and we held our strong line … and mowed down plenty of grey figures.”
Neil Weir survived the war and his diary and letters give us a fine account of life for a junior officer during the First World War. We are fortunate that they have been preserved.
Review courtesy of Britain At War Magazine.
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