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Signaller Andrew Bowie, 1st and 5th Cameron Highlanders
The Last Cameron Highlander of the Great War
Andrew Bowie was born into a middle class family in Edinburgh in 1897. On leaving school, he became a clerk before being called up in May 1916. After training at Inverness he was posted to France in November joining the 1st Battalion, Cameron Highlanders to serve as a signaller.
He arrived on the Somme just as the battle officially ended, remaining in or near the front line throughout the winter until, at the end of January, he was hospitalized with trench foot.
Andrew’s illness was so severe that he narrowly missed having his foot amputated. He remained in hospital in England for several months not returning to France until the following September, when he arrived at Etaples just as an infamous riot there was quelled.
Within days Andrew was sent to join 5th Battalion, Cameron Highlanders close to Ypres. That autumn he went over the top during the Battle of Third Ypres where his battalion was cut down in a hopeless assault near the village of Passchendaele.
Andrew was gassed on the eve of the Germans’ all-out assault to win the war in March 1918. He was sent home but returned to France in September and was with his regiment at the Armistice, serving in Germany with the Army of Occupation.
After the war he moved to Yorkshire, married and had one son, and subsequently moved to Australia in the mid 1960s. He lived in a suburb of Sydney until he died in August 2002 aged nearly 105.
Andrew’s constitution was so good that he continued to play golf until his mid-nineties; indeed, a doctor once told him that had he not been gassed in 1918 he would have lived to the ripe old age of 120!
You see pictures of men sat on their bottoms doing nothing and because the picture was taken during the day, you think that’s what their life is. Far from it. Once it got dark you had to get a move on, you were on a working party and you had to work like blazes to keep up, wiring, carrying sleepers, carrying duckboards.
Corrugated iron, all the things you needed to build and maintain a trench. You are working like a slave. And if there were dead to be buried or taken away, you did that too.
One job started with ‘you, you, and you’ business, about six of us.
‘There’s a dead mule lying outside our parapet,’ we were told. “Go out and bury it.’
A dead thing like that always gave off a bit of a stench, and someone decided that it must be buried. That was the order but it was easier said than done. We went out, and I don’t know if you have ever handled a dead mule, but we couldn’t move the blasted thing, so we took our spades and put mud on it, thinking that would hide it.
But the next morning we looked out, and there was the poor beast visible with these pats of mud on it.
It was no joke being a private soldier in a line regiment at night, and if the weather was bad you had to work through it. You needed that tot of rum they gave you in the morning, no doubt about that, then you’d try and get a bit of sleep or tend to your own affairs, writing letters, looking for lice in your clothes.
We tolerated and understood each other. Men would swear at one another, swear about each other, but the true fact was there was always that other bond of friendship; we were still friends. We accepted things, and our role in the army.
We might call someone a bloody so-and-so one day, but if we heard that chap was badly wounded in the next bay, everyone would go at once to see what they could do for him. Your pals are almost family, a very rough family, mind.
Everybody would have their own pals, the teetotalers got together, and those who liked a drink. Likewise, there was brotherly love within the signalers, and it was the same with the machine gunners. I was a bomber when I went out first time, and you shared everything with your group.
Comradeship was a necessity, and it was a difficult thing to accept if you lost your pal. You had to get one with it, but there was no way of sharing any feeling with anybody else; it was your personal loss. Mind, you often didn’t know they were good until you were parted.
Preparing to attack
I felt more nervous before an attack, when you see fellows writing letters, and you are told to clean up all your equipment. The bombers had to get their grenades primed, the Lewis Gun people had to get the panniers clean: you knew you were going over the top. They didn’t actually say you were going over, but that was what it amounted to.
The fellows would start writing letters, giving them to someone else to post just in case they were killed. There was this feeling in the air that something was going to happen. You were numb and you knew that it would be the end for somebody.You Stand-to the next morning, and you were nervous then because the Germans very often knew you were coming. They seemed to shell before you got off the mark.
At Passchendaele it was somewhat different. Prior to our attack they talked to us about taking Passchendaele Ridge. It was all done in model form, showing us the terrain. We were supposed to be shock troops and we were to rehearse the attack.
We knew the contours of the land to a certain degree, but it all looked different when we got there. The Battalion was to attack on 12 October and, as a signaller, I was supposed to accompany the Captain over the top, and then act as a runner taking messages back.
There were three of us together and when the attack started, one was hit straight away.
‘Andrew, Andrew, I’m hit!’ He was hit in the shoulder and blood was gushing out. I took his equipment off and put a field bandage on ‘What do I do now?’ He was excited, the boy; I said, ‘You get back to the duckboards and go down there to the artillery lines, they’ll look after you.’
He was just a new boy to us and it was his only chance, as he would bleed together otherwise. I didn’t know what happened to him to this day.
We didn’t get fifty yards. I couldn’t measure time but I would think the whole attack was finished in half-an-hour. The Germans were above us and that made it easy from them, and with their machine guns rattling, we were just targets. There just seemed to be a blast of fire straight away, there was no battle.
I saw men dropping down, but they were dropping down for safety as well, because you can’t imagine how intense the fire was, with red hot metal flying around.