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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

An Eternal Bond:WWI Jocks and Doughboys

Dear Sir:

I want to thank you for your thoughtful and moving tribute to the Doughboys. Indeed “Pershing’s army has finally retired from the field. The drum is stilled….”

I am descended from World War II and World War I veterans and I have an especial love and respect for the Doughboys.

My father and uncles served in the American forces during WWII but my Scottish grandfather served in a Highland Regiment –the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders- from August 1914 until May 1919. His name was Thomas Munro, Sr. (1886-1963) and he received the Military Medal for Valour during 2nd Ypres (1915). He was one of only three men in his company to serve the entire war without being killed or seriously wounded.

One of the happiest days of his life was when they got the news that the United States had declared war on Germany in April 1917. He was stationed at Salonika at the time and all the talk was that the Balkans could be abandoned to prepare for a last ditch defense against the Germans on the Western Front. My grandfather survived 2nd Ypres –barely, and Gallipoli and the Struma Valley but he probably would not have survived 5th Ypres. He knew then the Allies would win the war and so he had this photo taken and sent to my grandmother with the note; “Dear Mary, running to catch the post. With America in the war victory cannot be far off. Your loving husband, Thomas.” He always felt he literally owed his life to the Doughboys.

He and his Scottish pals volunteered en masse in response to the declaration of war following the violation of Belgium’s neutrality by Germany. They were encouraged by Scottish Chiefs and their sons and nephews and notable Scots like Arthur Conan Doyle whose brother-in-law, nephews and brothers all enlisted (they would all be killed or die of their wounds).. One of the most famous people to enlist in the Argylls and to encourage others to do likewise was Harry Lauder’s son Captain John Lauder who was later killed in action after having been seriously wounded twice. Later Harry Lauder wrote “Keep Right On To the End of the Road” in honor of his son, the Argylls and all the Allied soldiers who experienced the Calvary of the Western Front.

Over 200,000 men enlisted in Glasgow –a number that seems incredible today- but not all of the men were Glaswegians or even Scottish. I would estimate that at least 50,000 were overseas Scots or people of Scottish sympathies of blood. We should remember many Americans as well as Canadians were in the war from the very beginning. My grandfather grew up playing shinty in the Highlands (he never played football or soccer) but during the war he played baseball in Salonika in 1917 with the Americans and Canadians in the Allied Forces there. So there were Canadians and Americans in the Argylls as well as Italians, Irish, English, Scandinavians, Jews, Catholics and Protestants.

My grandfather’s best friend was called American Johnny Robertson by everyone because he was a naturalized US citizen. Robertson just happened to be in Glasgow at the time of the declaration of war and so got caught up in all his enthusiasm. Robertson, whose photograph can be seen in the Edison museum with Thomas Edison, was an electronics and communications expert. He was a master of improvisation and of keeping phone communications between the front and the rear. I never knew him of course he died in 1941- but my father and grandfather knew him very well and my father saw the letter of recommendation signed by Thomas Edison that “American” Johnny always carried with him. I own books that belonged to Johnny Robertson –called “Uncle Johnny” by my father which Robertson had given to my father in 1938 before he returned to Scotland after a second long sojourn in America that began in 1920. He and my grandfather were roommates and travelled all over America working on various construction projects in New York, Baltimore, Galveston , Texas and other places.

Today we sometimes think World War I was all for nothing and the men who enlisted were naïve but to those men they were defending the lifeline of their country for if Belgium and the channel ports had fallen to the Germans and their U-Boats the British Isles would have been in a precarious position as we were later to see during WWII. They knew Kaiserism was a real danger to the peace, freedom and independence of the English-speaking peoples as well as others.

Hence the dogged determination by the British and Commonwealth forces to hold on to Ypres. Over 250,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers would give their lives in the desperate defense of the Ypres Salient. My grandfather and his Scottish pals helped hold the Ypres Salient at 2nd Ypres; they arrived at the Western Front in January 1915 and the fighting started to heat up gradually in March 1915 until it exploded in a terrific battle of hellish proportions that saw the first wide-scale use of poison gas by the Germans. Some of the fiercest fighting took place from April 1915 and early May specifically from May 8 to May 13th. The Argylls spent 36 straight days in combat without any relief and much of the time individual companies were cut off and virtually surrounded without any officers or NCO’s.

Privates like Colin Campbell Mitchell, Sr., took command and organized strong points, rationing food and water and resupplying themselves at night from the bodies of dead soldiers. He was later given a battlefield commission in the Argylls to captain. The Argylls had very few machine guns but the men had four or five rifles a piece –usually the Smelly, the Lee-Enfield Mark III with the spitzer .303 high velocity ammunition. They were lucky to be armed in abundance with the best bolt action infantry rifle ever produced. A reasonably trained soldier could easily get off 15 rounds a minute but in the top British regiments most of the soldiers were trained to shoot over 20 rounds a minute even reaching 30 rounds in a crisis situation. As guns and ammunition were plentiful this gave the British and Commonwealth troops a decisive advantage especially in defense where the Germans could not utilize their heavy machine guns. There were many stories of squads holding a flank using multiple rifles against hundreds of attackers.

None of the allied troops had any gas masks to begin with and their only defense was blankets, rubberized tents and urine impregnated handkerchiefs. One of the reasons the Argyll positions were not lost is that medical students from Glasgow University were quick to indentify the gas as chlorine gas and rapidly improvised a defense. The urine impregnated handkerchiefs acted as a primitive filter and gave soldiers a few minutes of extra protection. In the first days their only tactic was to take cover in shelters that were as air tight as possible and hope that the winds or rain would blow away the gas. Individual soldiers would venture out protected only by motorcycle goggles and medical gauze impregnated with urine. Later they got supplies of chemicals to do the same thing and supplemented with captured German gas masks. The leader of the Argylls during the most desperate days was Captain Dick Donald Porteous (called “Port” by the men); he was killed in the very last stage of the battle by a German sniper on May 10, 1915. My grandfather said Captain Porteous was a great and beloved man and that he could have been as great as Churchill. So many talented and good men were lost in that terrible war.

Today 2nd Ypres is largely forgotten but the heroism and resourcefulness of the soldiers of the 81st Brigade and the 27th Division which included Indian troops (“Dins”) , the Black Watch, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and the Highland Light Infantry matched anything in the annals of human warfare including Balaklava which was the signature Thin Red Line moment of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

But all that sacrifice would have been for naught if had not been for the Doughboys like Frank Buckles, Joyce Kilmer (killed in action), Col. “Wild Bill” Donovan, (Medal of Honor), Marine Sergeant Major Dan Daly (Twice awarded the Medal of Honor).,Alvin York (Medal of Honor), Eddie Rickenbacker, Quentin Roosevelt (killed in action and now buried next to his brother another Doughboy Gen Theodore Roosevelt Jr who died after D-day –also awarded the Medal of Honor.) and Major Whittlesey of the Lost Battalion (Medal of Honor). Behind them was a force of Doughboys almost 2,000,000 strong. The fact that only about half of them reached Europe is beside the point. Their mere existence and their readiness to cross the Atlantic to go Over There completely demoralized the Germans and at the same time gave the Allies the courage they needed to hang on just a little longer until relief finally came.

Britain, the Democracies of Europe and the world owe a very great debt of gratitude to the American fighting men of the twentieth century. We should remember their fortitude and their selfless devotion to duty in the cause of liberty.

It is not an exaggeration to say the whole of Western Europe and the Free World is their monument. NE OBLIVISCARIS: do not forget. And to the Doughboys I give personal thanks and pledge to honor their memory the rest of my life. I had only one grandfather growing up (the other was killed in August 1918) but I was blessed to have at least one and get to know him, love him and hear his stories. Many other sons and grandsons were not so lucky.

Richard K. Munro


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