‘We’re the Jims’

Hunter-Weston’s VIII Corps (in effect, all the British forces on the Helles front) issued its orders today, Thursday 3 June 1915. They were meticulous and ‘for the first time accompanied by a trench diagram, showing the various objectives to be reached’ (Official History). This diagram was based on good photographs taken by the Royal Naval Air Service. A company commander wrote in his diary: ‘It was the first time I had seen such elaborate orders. Every detail was provided for, and the plan seemed invincible.’ It must have been communicated to the officers of the 1st Battalion King’s Own Scottish Borderers today, because of the first sentence of George’s letter, which I shall explain in my commentary.

June 3

My dearest Mrs P,

When there’s a brickfield we’re the Jims.

I’m snug in the bottom of my dugout, in shirt sleeves, shaded by a new waterproof sheet. Last night I went on a ‘fatigue’. Left here with 100 men of the Company and went digging up by the firing line. Hasty snack of dinner at the outdoor table (the earth with a trench for legs round it) [then] marched off in blobs to a beautiful ravine: up it in the clean twilight. Sandstone cliffs, shelves with green, white sand bottom with a stream along the edge. Sikhs, and all manner of folk; muleteers, camps, with innumerable little fires in every chink of the cliffs; patient pickets of horses. Bullets plocked and hummed overhead from the battle. At the first I bobbed my head and a Scot by the wayside said ‘Aye, bob yer heid!’ and laughed. They were most of them 40 feet above us I suppose; though a few fell in the nullah. Another gang went up first and we lay down ‘to sleep’ in a turn of the ravine, where there were telephone and RAMC-caves; we lay on the grass. Men smoked and talked and the hollow magnified the plocks and pips and zims enormously, deafeningly. Sometimes a rattling fusillade, silenced by a bang-whizz-bang of a round or two from the big guns, firing over our hollow. Beautiful flashlights, a curved rocket with golden sparks ending in a bright silver star that hangs and illuminates. (These we see beautifully from our camp; the French with a parachute star that hangs for more than a minute, a Turkish that I have seen send a double curve, one to each side; red stars; and green stars — which are signals of some sort.) At 11.30 two guides took us up precipitous cliff paths, across a hilly heath into a great winding corridor of sand, endless and monochrome, with caves here and there in it, plocks and zims over the edge, and tired men lying sleeping in the pathway: telephone wires here and there to catch the chin. Through a side door we emerged on an open heath again — where the plocks and zims had a personal air. The first gang had broken the surface and got down a little. We continued. I had to make bold, once or twice, under good example of other officers, to walk along redistributing jobs and tools. When the clear moon rose the bullets seemed to be fired with some personal animosity. In some places we had to lie low and work on the belly. By 3 a.m. we had done a decent job of cover for those who are to succeed and deepen the work in the daylight. Nobody hit. In another company doing a similar job, they had one k. and one w. Dawn was breaking. We climbed down and marched home in early daylight; with an orange-tawny daybreak spreading horizontally about the tantalising molehill. I worked with my hands so vigorously that all the envelopes that I cadged from the Padre are stuck together. (This is one.)

I was glad to get back at 4.30 a.m. to my broom-strown bed in my little ditch; heath-strown, rather, for softness. I staggered home at the head of my company like a drunken man.

I had the misfortune to break the vulcanite eyepieces of the Colonel’s field glasses. But now they are strange and better than ever — for I asked the armourer sergeant to do what he could for me and he has fixed them up with the tips of brass shell-caps, shrapnel-fuses. I carry them in a rude canvass bag which I sewed from a mess-tin cover: and on the whole am getting to look like the tramp cyclist at the music halls.

Well, nobody knows what may be happening to him in this land of adventure. But we all hope for the best, and nothing is safer than success, at which we all aim, and for which we are not ill provided. I only hope that the Turks will recognise the regiment; then they’ll fly for Byzance yelling, ‘Allah, it’s them Scots again!’ and nobody will find out that I’m a timid little penman from London.

Anyway I’m always a fortnight behind the newspapers, and always your loving little P., who wishes he were safely back in the bosom of Tommy[,] Shady[,] Elizabeth & Co but is nevertheless very well pleased to be where he is.

P.P.P.

The opening one-liner would have been impenetrable to the censor, but it means ‘when the balloon goes up, we shall be in the firing-line’. Kittie would have understood this, as it refers to their young friend Jim Corbet at the Battle of the Brickstacks on the Western Front (see my post of 27 January), which involved trench to trench fighting. Corbet was in great danger then, and subsequently killed (see my post of 15 April). George is making it quite clear, therefore, that he is about to go into battle.

The ‘beautiful ravine’ that George went up the previous night is Gully Ravine, running parallel to the Aegean coast. Here the Turkish position was almost as strongly fortified as the extreme right on the Dardanelles shore, and fiercely fought over. The British position was held by the 29th Indian Brigade, including the Gurkhas and Sikhs. RAMC = Royal Army Medical Corps.

From Gully Ravine George and his company evidently moved through well-established communication trenches to what was in effect the front line opposite Krithia. This was a series of trenches that were marked as dashes on the trench diagram and had to be deepened/built up to become firing trenches in this section of the front for the attack tomorrow. The moonlight made them targets. The ‘tantalising molehill’ was Achi Baba.

The ‘broom’ and ‘heath’ with which George’s bed is ‘strown’ are wild flowers (probably Cytisus and Erica species). The field glasses he refers to were most likely given him by Colonel Hawkins of the 9th Ox and Bucks at Brockhurst.

‘Little P.’ is ‘Little Peety’, George’s invented persona as a dutiful husband. Tommy is the Calderons’ dog, Shady their cat Shadrach, Elizabeth their housemaid Elizabeth Ellis, and ‘Co.’ are probably the two Belgian refugees and all George and Kittie’s closest friends. ‘P.P.P.’ stands for ‘Pore Peeky Peety’. It is enclosed in a circle meaning ‘I hug you tightly’.

In old age Kittie wrote in a very shaky hand on the envelope containing this letter: ‘G.C.’s last letter to K.C.’ She did not receive it until 20 June 1915.

Next entry: 4 June 1915: The Third Battle of Krithia

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About Patrick Miles

I am a writer who specialises in Anton Chekhov and is writing a biography of George Calderon.
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