Unlucky watch with a link to a deadly sniper

Private Tommy Douglas examines a periscope in his trench shortly before being fatally wounded by a sniper's bullet
Private Tommy Douglas examines a periscope in his trench shortly before being fatally wounded by a sniper's bullet

For many people, the enduring image of the British soldier in the Great War is going over the top wearing his instantly recognisable tin helmet, from the safety of a very deep, well-constructed trench.

Earlier in the war though, the trench systems were nowhere near as elaborate or deep. In many places they were just shallow dips in the ground, often flooded and far from safe. Also, the tin helmet was not introduced until 1916 as a result of the large number of head injuries caused by flying objects.

Before that, the men wore a wide variety of soft hats, the most common being the Glengarry or Tam O’Shanter. And there lay the problem. Whilst they provided comfort from the elements, they gave no protection whatsoever from the enemy.

In the winter of 1914-15, the 8th Royal Scots were based near the little French village of Sailly. During these months, no major attacks took place. The weather and underfoot conditions being too bad for this.

However, this did not mean that no fighting took place. Shelling was daily and usually fairly predictable by both sides, but if you kept your head down, you would probably be okay.

One of the biggest dangers to a man in the front line, though, was the snipers. 
Lying hidden, they would wait with great patience watching for the careless or reckless man who exposed even the smallest part of himself above the parapet.

John Duncan’s full feature appears in this week’s Advertiser. On sale now.