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by Randall Nicol

The framework for Randall Nicol’s masterpiece is the succession of events, all the great battles, participated in by the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Scots Guards during the First World War up to and including their march after the Armistice to Cologne.  What he has achieved in an unvarnished, no nonsense and unsentimental way is to tell the stories of both battalions of this great and famous Regiment largely through the words of those who served.  He has devoted twelve years to travelling the country in his exhaustive quest for the detail to be found in Regimental and private family archives.  He traced that detail in the personal accounts of officers, non-commissioned officers and private soldiers, told un-self-consciously and often movingly in their own words; and he has drawn the many separate personal accounts together to bring to life the events experienced by these two battalions from August 1914 to March 1919. Till the Trumpet Sounds Again is a tale of heroic proportions which must be at once cautionary, sobering and enlightening to all those at any time responsible for sending the country’s Armed Forces to fight.

He has done more than tell the story of human interaction in time of war, whether in billets, fighting with desperate ferocity in the trenches of the line, or experiencing extraordinary events such as the spontaneous Christmas truce of 1914.  Randall Nicol has done great honour and an enormous service to the more than two and a half thousand Scots Guardsmen who lost their lives because of the Great War, to all those who were disabled in mind or body or both, and to all those who survived.  He has named them, he has said where they came from, to whom they were married, what children they had and how they were employed before (re)enlistment.  In doing so he has set them in context for all their descendants to read about and be proud of; and he has set them in context for all serving and future Scots Guardsmen to know that they are the successors of brave and heroic men, tough and decent men, ordinary and yet extraordinary British men.  He has rehabilitated them from being a statistic or a name on a roll or war memorial to being people once again who loved, laughed, lived, fought and died.  In doing so he has also provided an invaluable contemporary social and sociological record of those who served in the Scots Guards in that period.

He details the appalling logistical obstacles faced by the BEF.  On the one hand when Sir John French requested more ammunition for the guns in October 1914, the reply from Lord Kitchener was to see ‘that economy was practised’; this was at a time when the BEF only had 150 rounds per gun still in reserve and the rate of resupply from England was no more than seven rounds per gun per day.  On the other, he describes how the Highland regiments were expected to fight in the trenches in kilts and brogues which would get sucked off and lost in mud (during the first year of the War the 1st Black Watch and 1st Camerons were in the same brigade as the 1st Battalion; and the 2nd and 1/6th Gordons as the 2nd Battalion).  He describes in considerable detail the conditions, not normally written about, suffered by those who were captured by the Germans.  He has taken great pains to put the major engagements into geographical context with clearly drawn and easily comprehensible maps.  He has illustrated the two volumes with graphic photographs never before published.  His research has been exceptionally comprehensive, and the result is a highly readable work of scholarship.

He has described in a quietly insistent way the inexorable awfulness of, for the British, their bloodiest of wars (“relating everything to the map after pulverisation was not simple before trying to work out where the enemy trenches were”); he has recounted the frequent struggles against the odds, the inevitability of casualties, but with it the dogged determination and courage of those in the Scots Guards doing the fighting.  He describes the strength of bonds that link men in a fighting unit, their mutual support one for another; the magnificent Cameron Highlander who stayed with his wounded officer for three days until found, despite being wounded himself; and the heroic doctor, Captain Bayly, who was shot through the knee during the attack from Ginchy in September 1916 during the Battle of the Somme but calmly sent a note to the Commanding Officer “apologising for my delay in joining him and ... hoped soon to return to Battalion HQ when I could attend to wounded if brought to me ...”

Randall Nicol has told the story of them all without sentiment, and with compassion and occasional humour.  He does not say so but it is clear that he feels the pain of their loss, the pride, satisfaction and relief of their successes.  His readable style flows like a river with small anecdotal side streams and back eddies before re-joining the main stream once again.  His compelling work must be required reading for all who have served or are serving in the Scots Guards.  More widely, it is relevant to all who have taken up the profession of arms, to all those who study it and to all those at any time responsible for sending the country’s Armed Forces to fight as a true contemporary account of the confusion of war, the conditions suffered by all, the quiet sense of loyal purpose, teamwork and unshakeable spirit.   Till the Trumpet Sounds Again is a towering work devoid of hyperbole, modest in style but phenomenal in scope and depth.  Randall Nicol’s encyclopaedic monument to the magnificent officers, warrant officers, non-commissioned officers and men of the Scots Guards in the Great War cannot be too highly recommended.

Hamon Massey

Till The Trumpet Sounds Again. The Scots Guards 1914-1919 In Their Own Words. Volume 1: ‘Great Shadows’, August 1914-July 1916; Volume 2: ‘Vast Tragedy’ August 1916-March 1919. Foreword by Professor Sir Hew Strachan. Published by Helion & Co.  www.helion.co.uk

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