Jock’s Jocks: Voices from the Frontline

PART OF THE Scots, Whay-hay! ISSUE

‘I jined up wi ma pal Fred Duncan efter the leaflets cam oot fae Kitchener needin a hunner thoosan men. We biket wi a lot mair fae Millbrex ti Peterheed ti jine up in the 5th Gordon Highlanders.’

Now in his nineties, the North East folksinger, Jock Duncan, spent over fifty years of his life seeking out and interviewing Scottish veterans of the First World War. Transcribing their testimony, told mainly in rich and earthy Scots, on an old manual typewriter over two thousand Sunday mornings, Jock’s labour of love has gifted us a truly unique glimpse into the real-life experiences of those who left the farms of North East Scotland for the fields of Flanders and France. The stories of 59 men, representing 16 Scottish regiments including the Gordon Highlanders and the Black Watch, are told here for the first time, in their own exact words. Be prepared for laughter and tears in equal measure.


Extract taken from Jock’s Jocks
By Jock Duncan
Co-published by NMS Enterprises Ltd – Publishing & the European Ethnological Research Association


For most of Jock’s men their first encounter with military culture and authority would come when they responded to Kitchener’s pointing finger and headed voluntarily to the recruiting offices across the north east. Lord Kitchener, the first serving soldier to be appointed to cabinet since the 17th century, distrusted the Territorial Force, and opted instead to create a network of special service battalions attached to the regular full time regiments of the army right across the nation. Setting out to recruit one hundred thousand volunteers, his ‘Your Country Needs You’ poster campaign must surely be one of the most successful marketing projects in history as young men from shipyards, factories, transport depots, professional football teams and virtually every walk of life responded enthusiastically and volunteered to fight in the New Army. The farming folk of the north east were no different:


I jined up wi ma pal Fred Duncan efter the leaflets cam oot fae Kitchener needin a hunner thoosan men.  We biket wi a lot mair fae Millbrex ti Peterheed ti jine up in the 5th Gordon Highlanders.  We wis teen richt awa ti dee wir trainin an gid oot ti France fae Bedford in the Spring o 1915.  Fred wis teen wi a lot o idder volunteers to the newly formed Machine Gun Corps that eer, bit he wis killed on the Somme.

Sandy Simpson, Woodhead, 5th Gordon Highlanders


Others testify to the fact that there were around thirty farm servants who cycled the twenty- five or so miles together from Millbrex to Peterhead that day – it must have been quite a sight, this peloton of ploughmen!  Some local farmers tried to confiscate the posters and hand bills, understandably worried that they would lose their workforce, but it was an ineffective ploy. There was to be no holding them back.

The numerous stories of recruitment and volunteering collected by Jock and presented in Chapter Three generally follow the same grand narrative which applies throughout the nation. What comes through powerfully is the eagerness of these volunteers to sign up, to go, to get involved, to do their bit. There is an edge of excitement there, almost a levity, as these men, reflecting back much later in life, recall their youthful enthusiasm at the start of the great adventure. Several lads admitted to Jock they had lied about their age, Robert More, of the 4th Seaforth Highlanders being just one of an estimated 250,000 boys in the British army who fought in the Great War while underage:


I wis in the Terriers at Perth.  Wi their Black Watch battalion. I wis mustered when war started, I went to my officer and told him I wanted back to my own lot in the Black Isle.  I was granted my wish and sent back up north to join the 4th Seaforth Highlanders at that time still at Nigg.  I wis only 14 years old. We went from there tae Inverness and stayed there a while, then later entrained for Bedford Camp. We were sent tae France in October 1914 and joined the 1st Corps, 1st Division, 3rd Brigade. …  As I had went off in 1914 when I wis 14 years old my folk tried to get me home a few times.  I always refused when I wis called in front of the C.O.  I suppose I liked it though it was rough at times.


Whatever their age, when the volunteers arrived onto the fields of Belgium and France, the realities of war kicked in very quickly. The bulk of this book comprises detailed and often graphic accounts of the experiences of these men in virtually all of the main theatres of war on the Western front and in Gallipoli. In almost every case their stories are told in a rather matter of fact manner, with little attempt to add further to the drama, and often with a humour that on first reading may seem surprising. Violent death was a daily occurrence, and many of the men represented here were wounded, some several times over. And yet there is very little evidence of bitterness, and almost no politically infused questioning of the reasons why they were there in the first place. In fact, one of the few hints of protest contained in these narratives comes from Alec Robertson of the 5th Gordon Highlanders when recalling the words of his new Commanding Officer who had replaced the highly popular Lt Colonel Grant who had lost an arm to a shell explosion:

Colonel MacTaggart came after Grant.  He was a wee man who came from the Lancers.  When we came out of the Somme, he addressed us and said that it was an honour to die for our country, but I don’t think we appreciated that.

For sure, Alec would have agreed with Wilfred Owen’s rejection of that ‘old lie’, ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’.


Jock’s Jocks by Jock Duncan is co-published by NMS Enterprises Ltd – Publishing & the European Ethnological Research Association, priced £12.99

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