Poetry by Roderick Manson

St Andrews in the First World War

On 11th and 15th November, 2018, Roderick Manson joined us in our Pages of the Sea and While I Breathe I Hope homecoming walk and website launch events, and was so inspired that he took pen to pad and wrote some new poems, which he has very kindly let us share with you all below. Here is what Roderick had to say:

“Although I have written poems themed around The Great War before, I felt that I wanted, as my personal response and tribute to those who fell, were wounded (physically or otherwise) and those who served unscathed, to write some poems around the time of the 100th anniversary of the Armistice. Being somewhat obsessed by numbers and symbols, I wanted to work the numbers fourteen and eighteen into the project somehow, it being the 14:18 War. Being delighted at the stroke of serendipitous symbolism that had the community archive launch event four days later,  I then used the walk paralleling the old railway line from Leuchars Railway Station to where St. Andrews Railway Station used to be to compile a sequence of eighteen poems to commemorate its end.”

While I Breathe, I Hope

lines from the returning, 1919


clouds bulleting a clear grey sky,
melon-slicing a neighbour’s skull,
tearing through the future
beyond death.


are railway tracks,
parade grounds,
bombed-up roads,
prescribed up to the trenches:
is the choice of where and when
and no choice to remember it all.


We are not heroes:
we are cogs in a machine,
broken parts in need of repair
or replacement, as often as not,
but, a machine that functioned,
a machine that prevailed:
to a land fit for parts
we return.


In the rain,
we stroll home
through the mud
that clings like a child,
that gives life to our crops
and to us.
But, all we remember
is the mud that is graves
not buried deep enough.


I left a boy:
I return a man.
So many were left behind,
so many were damaged,
so that I could mature
before my allotted time.


The science of war –
I breathed in air;
I breathed in gas;
I breathed in mud.
The failure of the experiment
went unrecorded.


Welcome to the machines
that breath death,
that will evolve
to breath more death,
and we who are compelled to help
lest the dead be us.


So many women;
so few men.
War is not so bad
if you survive.


I sought my love’s hand
but I had none to offer
in return.


I do not want your pity.
I do not want your praise.
I do not want your medals.
I do not want parades.
I do not want dead monuments.
All I want is your grave.


The silence
of footsteps
that do not fall
is not heard here


What is the point
of coming home
to die?


November leaves,
one per body,


A bridge across the Eden
became a bridge in the Tay:
we have left Paradise far behind.


The cat has nine lives,
yet looks on me
with envy.


Where do I live?
That bed where I lie
or the grave
I could have filled


Are these the crows we saw in France
pecking the eyes of ghosts?
Are these the rats we saw in Flanders
gnawing for the marrow in the bones?
Are these the flies we saw in Belgium
buzzing the death-fluids air?
Is this the Angel I saw at Mons
weeping sixteen million tears?


As pilgrims of pain
we shrive to the shrine:
the Saint was not with us
in Hell.


Over my shoulder,
a gun not forged.
In my pocket,
bullets not made
for the not yet gun to fire
into bodies as yet unborn.

Roderick Manson  (15th November, 2018)

(Written on the Homecoming Walk from Leuchars Station to St Andrews Old Railway Station as part of the launch of the “While I Breathe, I Hope” online community archive on 15th November, 2018)

West Sands

(Inspired by the image of suffragist doctor, Elsie Inglis, commemorated on the West Sands, St. Andrews, 11th November, 2018)

The men and boys all choose to go to France
or Belgium, once they find out where that is.
Their love of country is a deeper dance:
love is not love where death does not exist.
The fishermen read pages of the sea
where graves of men and nations are not seen:
in shifting tides of war there is no “me”,
the passion of the waves will scourge them clean.
Duty is gender-neutral, has no flag
or uniform mistaken for a boast,
secretes its bombast in the old kit bag,
a silent isle of virtue in the host.
Woman can die as readily as man:
we choose to bring such comfort as we can.

Roderick Manson (11th November, 2018)

Corporal John Ripley VC (RH) 1867-1933

St Andrews in the First World War

Corporal John Ripley VC, better known as ‘Jock’ was born in Banffshire. He joined the 7th Volunteer Battalion, the Black Watch in around 1890.

In 1895 Jock married a local girl in St Andrews, Jane Laing, and thereafter lived in the town for the rest of his life. As well as being in the Territorials, Jock worked as a Slater, and was a member of St Andrews Fire Brigade. In 1912, after over twenty years’ service, he left the Territorial Army. His service had seen him rise to the rank of Colour Sergeant, and in 1909 he was awarded the volunteers’ Long Service and Good Conduct Medal.

At 48, Jock returned to active service as a Recruiting Sergeant at the outbreak of the war. In September 1914 he received the rank of Corporal whilst training with the 3rd Battalion, the Black Watch. In February 1915, Jock was transferred to the 1st Battalion the Black Watch who were embarking for France. In a later press interview, when asked how he managed to get recruited for active service despite his age, Jock replied that, “it must have been owing to the slip of the pen”, confirming that he had recruited himself.

Whilst serving with the 1st Battalion, Jock was awarded the highest British milliary honour, the Victoria Cross (VC), for his action at Rue de Bois on the 9th May 1915.

He received the Victoria Cross for:

“For most conspicuous bravery at Rue du Bois at 9th May 1915. When leading his section on the right of the right platoon in the assault, he was the first man of the battalion to ascend the enemy’s parapet, and from there he directed those following him to the gaps in the German wire entanglements. He then led his section through a breach in the parapet to a second line of trenches, which had previously been decided upon as the final objective in this part of our line.

“In that position, Corporal Ripley, with seven or eight men, established himself, blocking both flanks and arranging a fire position, which he continued to defend until all his men had fallen and he himself had been badly wounded in the head.”

Sergeant Ripley after receiving the Victoria Cross, outside the Palace gates, 2nd from the right, shaking hands with George Ayton (golfing family)

On returning to St Andrews, crowds gathered in the street to welcome Jock home. Local people expressed their appreciation of his achievements by presenting him with a purse of Sovereigns in October 1915. His injuries prevented him from returning to active service, however he continued in his role as Recruiting Sergeant until he was demobbed in March 1919.

After the war he returned to civilian life as a Slater and volunteer fireman. On the 14th August 1933, Jock fell from a ladder whilst working on Castlecliffe House on the Scores in St Andrews. He succumbed to his injuries at St Andrews Memorial Cottage Hospital some hours later, aged 66.

He was buried at Upper Largo Churchyard with military honours.

Text prepared by Fiona Gray and Kate Owen

Photograph: The First Ten

St Andrews in the First World War

At the outbreak of the Great War on August 4th 1914, ten local residents immediately set about assisting in the war effort. These men were either ex-servicemen of either the regular or territorial forces; with Britain’s regular army standing at just 80,000 men in 1914, reservists were essential throughout the war.

These men were over the age limit to see active service, but they still wanted to volunteer and help their community as best they could.  They provided basic military training to new volunteers, of which there were nearly 2.5 million signed up across Britain, until conscription was introduced in January 1917.

The First Ten

Photograph courtesy of the St Andrews Preservation Trust.

Text prepared by Fiona Gray and Kate Owen.

Photo: The 2/7th (Fife) Battalion, Black Watch

St Andrews in the First World War

The 2/7th (Fife) Battalion, Black Watch, was formed in St Andrews in early September 1914 as a second line unit, consisting of Black Watch Territorials.

The 2/7th Black Watch leaving Crawford Priory near Cupar Fife, the residence of their Commander Lt. Col. The Hon. Thomas Cochrane who is pictured riding at the head of the group on the black horse.

From “The Dinna Forget Book” of the 7th Black Watch.

Sphagnum Moss – Another War-time Hero

St Andrews in the First World War


On 17th November 1914, an article appeared in the “Science and Nature” section of The Scotsman, entitled “Sphagnum Moss in Surgery”.

The article, written by an Edinburgh military surgeon, Charles Walker Cathcart and Regius Keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, Professor Isaac Bailey Balfour told of the extraordinary capacity of Sphagnum Moss to absorb and retain water.

They identified two particular species of Sphagnum Moss that grew in abundance in Scotland, Ireland and parts of England which were particularly superior at absorbing blood, pus and other body fluids.  Very importantly, Sphagnum Moss has antiseptic properties.

Although the wound-healing properties of Sphagnum Moss had been known for centuries, the Germans had recognised its significance in surgery from the early 1880s. By the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, Sphagnum Moss was well established as the standard material for surgical dressings in Germany.

British surgeons on the other hand used cotton wool dressings at this time which were less than half as absorptive as Sphagnum moss and less comfortable a dressing for patients. The imported cotton was also more expensive, and as the war progressed, more and more of it was being commandeered by the military to make notrocellulose explosive.

Cathcart and Balfour advocated the use of Sphagnum moss and centres for its cleaning and preparation throughout Scotland. His model soon spread to the rest of the UK and Ireland.

By June 1916, The Scotsman reported that Cathcart’s “Edinburgh Infirmary War Dressings Supply (Sphagnum moss)” organisation was sending out about 20,000 of these dressings per month to hospitals.

Gathering and Cleaning Sphagnum Moss in St Andrews

Although appeals went out through The St Andrews Citizen for townsfolk – and holidaymakers – to help collect Sphagnum moss, it was the St Andrews Boy Scouts who were the major collectors. It grew on the moors of Stavithie and Cassindonald Farm near Mount Melville.

The moss was delivered to households by the Boy Scouts to be dried. The semi-dried moss was then passed to a large body of volunteer cleaners or “pickers”. In June 1916 it was reported there were nearly 100 volunteers pickers.

While the collection of moss fell largely to the Boy Scouts, the cleaning was predominantly the responsibility of the League of Honour Girls Club (formed from the National Union of Women Workers in 1915) at 8 Playfair Terrace. The occupants of Gibson’s Hospital were also employed as pickers.

St Andrews War Hospital Supply Depot

The St Andrews War Hospital Supply Depot was initiated in 1915 by Mrs Gilbert Watson, End House. This was a sub-group of the Queen Mary’s Needlework Guild whose war-time focus was on making articles of clothing for the sick, wounded and prisoners of war.

The Depot was to become one of Charles Cathcart’s Centres for preparing Sphagnum moss surgical dressings, overseen by the Edinburgh Infirmary War Dressings Supply (Sphagnum moss). It was noted in March 1918 that St Andrews had been commended as one of their most important branches.

The War Hospital Supply Depot, operated initially from Mrs Watson’s home but soon that became impractical. The situation was resolved by the University when they put Upper College Hall at the Depot’s disposal. There was also a branch of the Depot at St Leonard’s School where the girls made some 60,000 Sphagnum dressings and swabs.

Their work focussed on a range of surgical requirements such as:

  • Shell dressings
  • Pneumonia jackets (for gas attacks)
  • Gauze swabs
  • Stretcher quilts
  • Special large bandages for abdominal, chest, shoulder and hip injuries
  • Sphagnum moss dressings
  • Fracture pillows filled with Sphagnum moss dust

In the first year, the Depot sent out a total of 76,785 articles with 132,141 in the second year. This reflects the ever increasing demand for hospital supplies as the war progressed.

Memories of Mr Laurie Auchterlonie

Laurie Auchterlonie recalls the gathering and distributing of the Sphagnum moss work that his father, James H. Auchterlonie, and members of the local Boy Scout troop in St Andrews carried out during the first world war:

“Gathering the moss was a troop effort. The moss was collected from wet/boggy areas – I believe from some miles up the Grange Road. A motor car was used to carry the youngest Scouts to the area, and returned to pick up subsequent groups.

“A particular task which, he as one of the group of three, carried out, was the distribution of sackfuls of the wet moss, delivery each to a separate household where volunteers spread the moss out to dry and removed unwanted vegetation. The distribution and collection was carried out on a Saturday morning. The trek-cart which belonged to the Troop was used, and this was based in the Scout headquarters.”

Text prepared by Fiona Gray and Kate Owen

Highland Cyclist Battalion

St Andrews in the First World War

The Highland Cyclist Battalion was formed from the 5th Volunteer Battalion of the Black Watch and came into being on 2nd July 1908. Its function was coastal defence, but its members also undertook messenger services as the danger of invasion along the Fife and Angus coast was fairly limited.

Soldiers of the Highland Cyclist Battalion with their bicycles-which they provided themselves

The battalion was to a limited extent motorised with both vehicles and motorbikes.

Corporal John Christie

Corporal John Christie, a member of the Highland Cyclist Battalion, on his motorbike at a Fife camp, prior to mobilisation. Corporal Christie was one of the few motor cycle dispatch riders. Later in the war he became a sergeant instructor, armours.

Photography courtesy of the St Andrews Preservation Trust.

Text prepared by Fiona Gray and Kate Owen.

The First World War Tank at Kirkhill

St Andrews in the First World War

In 1919, many battle-scarred tanks were presented to towns and cities across Britain in gratitude for their particularly noteworthy financial achievements in the purchase of war bonds and savings certificates. One of these Presentation Tanks, “Jo” was given to St Andrews along with a German artillery gun war trophy.

St Andrews to get a Tank

The Scottish War Savings Committee has awarded St Andrews a tank in recognition of its large contributions to the War Loan. Our City is one of the few places in Scotland that has earned this award.  The War Trophies Association have awarded St Andrews a German heavy gun and carriage.
7th June 1919

The Tank arrives

Some gifts are embarrassing, and this would appear to be the case with the tank which St Andrews was presented with in recognition of its large contributions to the War Loan. The derelict war monster has arrived in the Ancient City; and finding that without its internal machinery being in good working order the tank required quite an engineering feat to move it about. The City Fathers would be glad to hand over the gift to some other town with an ambition to possess this kind of war relic.

It will require three traction engines to drag it to a suitable resting place if that can be found.  Then considerable damage would be done to the streets, and the Town Council is not keen to undertake this risk. They have decided to dump the tank down near the Old Station, where it now lies, so that as small an expense as possible may be incurred.
6 September 1919

“Jo” the Tank placed at the Kirkhill

“Jo”, formerly known as “The Adventuress”, the “female” tank [so-called because they were the smaller type and used small guns], has now taken up her last resting place at the historic Kirkhill.

As “Jo” weighs thirty-two tons, she is a very bulky lady. It was discovered that with a little internal “fixing-up”, she would crawl along by herself and the order for traction engines was cancelled.

Crawling along at a fair pace, she started out on her last journey, and proceeded by way of Pilmour Place and North Street Kirkhill.  A little difficulty was experienced in negotiating the corner at Gregory Place, but she was well manoeuvred, and got through the lane without any mishap.

With remarkably little manoeuvring, “Jo” was successfully run on to the concrete bed where one of the old cannons formerly stood.

The site chosen for the tank is probably as good a one as could have been got for it, but there is a danger that unless precautions are taken, children who venture to the edge of the cliff to inspect the front of the tank get a fatal fall.

13 September 1919

“Jo” the WWI Tank at the Kirkhill. The German artillery gun can be seen on the extreme right of the picture. The girl in the foreground is one of the Gourlay family.

“Jo” the Tank was to survive 10 years at Kirkhill before being sold for scrap. By the time of WWII, the majority of towns and cities throughout the UK had done likewise, for various reasons:

  • Town councils were not prepared to pay for their upkeep (they rusted very quickly)
  • Many were scrapped as part of the WWII war effort (although the metal was very low quality and of little use);
  • The Pacifist Movement objected to them as they glorified war;
  • Many people disliked the continuous reminder of the trenches or the loss of family members during WWI.

For St Andrews, it was ongoing Health and Safety concerns that finally the sealed the fate of “Jo”.


Tank and Cannon to go from the Kirkhill

A number of residents in the area petitioned the Town Council with respect to the erosion of the cliffs around Kirkhill. It was stated that the cliff, which is undermined at the tank site, is another increasing source of danger.

Based on the [Burgh Engineer’s] report it was agreed that the tank and cannon at the Kirkhill should be removed forthwith.

11 May 1929


The Tank Sold for Scrap

Dean of Guild Linskill has his troubles in these days, but one thing that has rejoiced his heart is that he is at last to see the success of his effort to have the tank removed from the Kirkhill.

He has always maintained that it marred its historic surroundings. He does not forget what the tank did for us in the War, but he does not think that the historic Kirkhill is the place to preserve one.

It is understood that a purchaser has been found for the tank and that it will be broken up. The cannon will also be removed. The tank has become a danger in its present position, for landslides are always threatening at this part of the cliffs.

1 June 1929


Goodbye to “Jo”

The tank and cannon have now been removed from the Kirkhill and the uninterrupted sea view is a great improvement.

13 July 1929


Photogragh courtesy of the St Andrews Preservation Trust

Text prepared by Fiona Gray and Kate Owen