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)

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