G. B. (George Brenton) Laurie.

Letters of Lt.-Col. George Brenton Laurie online

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[Illustration: (signed) George Brenton Laurie]

For Private Circulation




(Commanding 1st Battn. Royal Irish Rifles)

Dated NOVEMBER 4th, 1914-MARCH 11th, 1915


_Printed by_
Wellington Works, Aldershot



I dedicate this little volume to you in memory of your father, who, as
you know, fell on March 12th, 1915, in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle.
These Letters, which were written to me from France during the first
winter of the World War, do not in any way pretend to literary
attainment; they are just the simple letters of a soldier recording as
a diary the daily doings of his regiment at the front.

Often were they penned under great difficulties, and many a time under
a rain of fire. The accounts of the awful loss of life and the
discomforts experienced, both by officers and men unused to such
severe climatic conditions, are sometimes heart-rending, and they make
the reading sad.

Touches, however, of his natural cheerfulness relieve the greyness of
the situation, and at times one can almost hear the lightheartedness
of a schoolboy speaking.

Your father cared for his regiment as a father cares for his child,
and was beloved by it. He obtained his commission in 1885 at 18 years
of age, and was, curiously enough, the last officer to enter the
British Army with the rank of a full Lieutenant. Had he lived till the
following September, he would have been 30 years in the Royal Irish

A short sketch of his life and military career is given in this book,
and reference is made to the pleasure he took in being chosen to write
the History of his Regiment, completed in 1914. He was also devoted to
all kinds of sport as a pastime; but I will not write of these things;
rather would I speak of his great wish to win fresh laurels for his
regiment, and of how proud he was when, after the long, dreary winter
in the trenches, the Royal Irish Rifles were the first to enter the
village of Neuve Chapelle. But above all would I counsel you to follow
his example in his faithful attention to duty, fulfilling the French
proverb, "Faites ce que doit advienne que pourra."

He died as a true soldier, leading his men, and what better death
could be desired? He now lies in the British military cemetery of Pont
du Hem, midway between Neuve Chapelle and Estaires, not far from
Bethune in Northern France, and a little wooden cross marks the spot.


_May 12th, 1921._


(_late Coldstream Guards_).

Colonel George Laurie came from a military family. His father a
distinguished General, and his uncle both served in the Crimea and
elsewhere, and many of his near relations joined the army, and were
well-known zealous soldiers of their Sovereign. His elder brother fell
in the Boer War in the beginning of this century, and he himself saw
active service in the Sudan and in South Africa, before he landed in
France to take his share in the great World War. On being promoted to
the command of his battalion, he joined it at Kamptee in India, and
this obliged him to leave his wife and family at home, for young
children are not able to live in that tropical, very hot and unhealthy
district. From that station, with scarcely any opportunity of seeing
them again, he was launched into the severities of a cold and wet
winter in a water-logged part of Flanders. His experiences are
graphically told in his letters, and they will show how much our
gallant troops had to endure when engaged in the terrible conflict
which the ambition of Prussia had provoked, and with what fortitude
and courage they defended the country from the serious dangers that
then menaced it.

All who have read these interesting letters will, I think, perceive
that one dominant feature in Colonel Laurie's character was a keen and
all-pervading sense of duty, and an earnest determination to discharge
it in every circumstance as thoroughly and as completely as possible.
Never did he spare himself. What he had to exact from others, that he
sternly imposed upon himself; and he fully shared with his men all the
dangers and all the hardships of the war, with serene good temper and
with a cheerful spirit. This fine disposition, which he himself had
trained by self-discipline, ensured the prompt and willing obedience
of his subordinates, and endeared him to all who were committed to his
charge; it also secured for him the respect and the confidence of his
superiors, who were well aware that every order they gave him would be
carried out to the letter with prudence and with strict fidelity.

As he had married a beloved niece, I had many opportunities of
observing his character, and I did not fail to recognize how devoted
he was to his regiment and to the military career he had embraced and
how thoroughly he was imbued with this great sense of duty. He had,
moreover, considerable literary ability, and wrote a very excellent
History of the Royal Irish Rifles; he also translated from the French
an interesting account of the conquest of Algiers. In short, he took
pains to learn the many details of his noble profession, and to make
himself an efficient officer. Had he survived, my belief is that he
would have advanced far as a soldier; for he combined with a studious
earnest mind, much activity of body, and a sincere love for outdoor
sport and manly exercise.

His letters show his affectionate nature; his care for his family and
for his officers and men; and his solicitude for all with whom he was
brought in contact. His sympathies were quick and real; and he felt
the responsibilities of his position, and what he owed to those who
belonged to him, or who were placed under his command. And last, but
by no means least, there are many short expressions in the letters to
show the deep and all-absorbing feeling he entertained for Religion,
and how his whole life was guided by the Faith that was in him. May
his memory prove to be an incentive to his young family, so early and
so cruelly deprived of the care of a loving father, to imitate his
sterling qualities of head and heart!


(_From the "Bond of Sacrifice," reproduced by permission of the

George Brenton Laurie was born at Halifax, Nova Scotia, on October
13th, 1867. He was the eldest surviving son of the late Lieut.-General
John Wimburn Laurie, C.B., M.P., of 47, Porchester Terrace, London,
and of Mrs. Laurie, of Oakfield, Nova Scotia.

He was grandson of the Hon. Enos Collins, M.L.C., of Gorse Brook,
Halifax, and great-grandson of Sir Brenton Haliburton, Chief Justice
of Nova Scotia. He was educated at Galt Collegiate Institute, Ontario,
and at the Picton Academy, from whence he passed into the Royal
Military College, Kingston, Canada, in 1883. He joined the Royal Irish
Rifles as a Lieutenant in September, 1885, going with them to
Gibraltar in 1886, and on to Egypt in 1888. He took part in the Nile
Campaign in 1889, but, contracting smallpox at Assouan, he was sent
home to recover, and spent two years at the Depot at Belfast,
rejoining his battalion in Malta. He was promoted Captain in 1893, and
when the Rifles came back to home service he obtained an Adjutancy of
Volunteers in Devonshire in October, 1896, and from that date until
March, 1901, by ceaseless energy he brought the battalion to full
strength and high efficiency.

In March, 1901, he was appointed a special service officer, including
the command of a mounted infantry battalion for the South African War.
He was present at operations in the Transvaal, Orange River Colony,
and Cape Colony, between April, 1901, and May, 1902, having been
Mentioned in Despatches for his services (London Gazette, July 29th,
1902), also receiving the Queen's Medal with five clasps.

After peace was signed he served in Ireland, and in October, 1904,
obtained his majority. Afterwards he served in England till, becoming
Lieut.-Colonel in 1912, he went out to India to take command of the
1st Battalion Royal Irish Rifles. He was deeply engaged at this time
in writing the History of his Regiment, a work soon officially
accepted and highly praised. He had previously written a history of
"The French in Morocco," compiled from many sources during his years
in the Mediterranean.

When the European War broke out in August, 1914, he was at Aden with
his battalion, and until anxiety in Somaliland was allayed the Irish
Rifles were detained there, only reaching France in November. They
spent the winter in the trenches, taking their share in the fierce
fighting in December.

On March 10th, 1915, they took part in the attack on Neuve Chapelle,
and were the first battalion to reach the village, but losses were
heavy. A sergeant-major wrote: "Our Colonel was everywhere,
encouraging his men, and seeming to bear a charmed life. He knew no
fear, and walked quietly in front of us as if no bombardment were
going on."

On Friday evening, March 12th, a fresh assault was ordered.
Lieut.-Colonel Laurie rallied his exhausted men, and, calling out
"Follow me! I will lead you!" he sprang over the parapet, revolver in
hand. A moment later he fell shot through the head. He was buried with
his fallen officers and men in a garden near Neuve Chapelle.

During this war he was twice Mentioned in Despatches (_Gazette_,
January 14th, 1915; and after his death, May 31st, 1915).

Lieut.-Colonel Laurie, who was a member of the Army and Navy and the
United Service Clubs, was fond of hunting, and went out regularly with
the Devon and Somerset hounds. He also hunted in Ireland, and in
Nottinghamshire with the Rufford, and played polo.

He married, in September, 1905, Florence Clementina Vere Skeffington,
eldest daughter of the late Hon. Sydney William Skeffington, and left
three children - George Haliburton, born August, 1906; Blanche, born
1907; and Sydney Vere, born 1910.


_Telegram, November 4th, 1914_:

"Get gun oiled."

[_Note._ - This was a private code message sent to me in London
signifying that the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Rifles was ordered
to France with the 25th Brigade, 8th Division, on November 5th,
1914. Information of the day of departure was not permitted
beforehand. - F.V.L.]

_November 5th, 1914._

MY DEAR F - - .

I telegraphed to you yesterday not to worry about any more equipment
for me, as I should not be able to get the things, no matter how soon
you sent them. We have had our arrangements put back twelve hours, but
even that makes no difference; I shall rub along somehow.

* * * * *

The Camp is up to our necks in mud. Fortunately, the weather is mild,
though we shall have it cold enough later on. Any warm clothes, etc.,
for the Battalion are being sent to you to be distributed to us in a
short time. Then the men will appreciate them more. I should forward
them only as you get the funds.

Capt. Cinnamond is still in bed with lumbago, whilst Major Weir is
staying behind too. Capt. Allgood comes with me. I cannot give you any
more news, as it might let things out. I had a lot to do yesterday,
and dropped to sleep after dinner sitting in a high chair about 8.45

Yours, etc....
G - - .

_Postcard from_ -
_November 5th, 1914._

We had a wet march to this place, and are now on a transport which
ought to land us in France to-morrow. So far everything has gone most
prosperously with us. Curious that the day you left Winchester I
should have got the order to move! I believe the sea is fairly smooth;
am getting the last few horses and wagons aboard. Heard to-day that
the Remount have bought my chestnut horse "Goldfinch."


_November 7th, 1914._

MY DEAR F - - .

We had a very smooth run across to ... and then lay out for about 20
hours. Fortunately, it still remained perfectly calm, and we got in at
2 a.m., having only a slight collision with another steamer. We left
the ship this morning and went into a rest camp to get ourselves
thoroughly fitted out. We were told that "French" wanted us badly, as
he expected to have the Germans back on the Rhine shortly, which may
or may not be! Anyhow, our "rest" will not last many hours! There is a
thick fog at present, so I cannot tell you what the whole place is
like; but the lanes as we came along reminded me of England, say Ore
near Hastings. I saw that your cousin Herbert Stepney was killed,[1]
and his mother will be wild about him....

A Naval Embarkation Officer came up to me at our embarking
post - Southampton - and asked where Laurie was! I told him, remarking:
"I know your face!" He was Captain Perfect from Rostrevor. He said
that poor Major Nugent of Bally Edmond died rather suddenly two days
ago. Perfect then introduced me to the Captain of the ship, who
rejoiced in the name of "Spratt," with the result that I was given
half his cabin coming over. We had to feed ourselves, or, rather, we
bought some cooked food by arrangement. Here we have secured bread
and butter and condensed milk, and we are now waiting for our
transport to come up from the harbour to get some warm tea.

I will let you know as much as I can as we go along. Of course it is
impossible to tell you where we are, etc.... If you want to know about
German atrocities, read _Nash's Magazine_ for November. I just saw it.

G - - .

_November 8th, 1914._

That was as far as I got in my descriptions to you when I had to rush
off with my transport wagon and Quartermaster to complete the
equipment which had not been given us in England. This lasted until
11.30 p.m. in a strange country with thick fog, five miles to go, and
none of us able to speak French! However, I came home about 7 o'clock
in the morning to fix other urgent matters up. The night was not so
very cold.

Being an early bird, I varied matters this morning by calling my
officers! Major Baker[2] is splendid.

After Church parade, reading the service myself, I have been generally
hustling things, and am going out for a route march at 2 p.m. to-day.
The sun is finally dispersing the fog, so we shall get an opportunity
of drilling together. We have practically never done so yet; and I am
really appalled at what might be the consequences of going into action
with the men unpractised. Few of them have been on active service
before, and it will all have to be taught under fire.... Since I have
managed to get a pair of boots for myself from the Ordnance, I now go
dry-footed for a change! I shall probably send you home my good
uniform ones to keep for me, as they were made rather too tight for
this sort of work. If I live through it, I will be able to wear them
all out. If not, it will not matter much to me....

I expect you are having your shoot to-morrow and next day, and I hope
it will be a success.

G - - .

_November 9th, 1914._

I may not have time to write to you again for some days, so first,
please accept my thanks for the waterproof sheet, and all the other
things you bought. Unfortunately I shall not be able to carry them
with me, so the lot must be returned to the Army and Navy Stores....

I think I told you that "Goldfinch," my chestnut horse, has been sold
to the Government, and the roan "Khaki" I sent to Mrs. Clinton-Baker
at Bayfordbury. One of my new horses rolled over me yesterday, but
beyond bending my sword and tearing one of my leggings did me no
damage, though Major Baker thought at first that my leg was broken! It
is colder to-day. We were astonished to see a number of French
soldiers about; one imagined they would be up at the Front fighting.
Also there seemed to be a lot of young men who might have been out
doing a little for their country. Many of the women are in mourning
here. My servant told me that most of our men had now got gloves, and
that it was surprising the care they took of them, as they were
generally not so careful; but they knew that they would want them; so
I am very glad that you have got extra ones, for they do not last
long. The fog has settled down again, mercifully not quite so thick as
before. It was odd the day before yesterday when I was down town on
duty to see the crowds round some large windows which had news written
up on huge placards.

Personally, I have only seen a couple of French papers since I left
England, and they contained simply a repetition of news from the
_Daily Mail_ before we left England. I feel much better with dry feet;
though the boots are coarse, they are strong and useful, but they make
me walk like a ploughboy! Still, if the weather gets colder, I can put
on a second pair of socks under them. We have been lucky enough to get
some good butter and some tinned milk from a small café near here. Of
course, we are in the district that is not invaded by the enemy at
present. My men are very willing, but very troublesome. They lose
themselves and fall out on every pretext.... A Colonel came up
yesterday and said: "You back from Aden?"...

I hear a rumour that John is off to India and my brother Kenrick a
Major already. He is a lucky fellow! Glad you saw me off on Wednesday
at Winchester. I looked up at your window, but could not see you....

[_Note._ - The position of the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Rifles was, at
this period of the war, about 20 miles from the town of Ypres, and the
billets mentioned in the letters were mostly in and around the little
town of Estaires. - F.V.L.]

_November 11th, 1914._

I wrote to you last Monday from our camp where we landed. We left
that, being put into our train by an old gentleman of your uncle's
(Sir John Ross) Brigade. Having told us everything he could, he then
went to dinner. In the meantime, we had to put the loaded Army wagons
from the ground on to the railway trucks. We finished in about four
hours' time, and went off in a very cold train of nearly fifty
carriages. Biscuits and tinned meat were distributed to us, and we ran
on practically without a stop until 12.30 a.m. Wednesday morning. I
say practically, for we halted nearly an hour at one station and got
the men some tea. We had no means of washing, so you may imagine we
looked like black men in a very short time! Next, we got out of the
train and unloaded it in rain, went into some barns and slept until 5
o'clock.... I was in a cart shed much like the one opposite the large
barn belonging to the "Park Farm" at Carlton. I had some doubtfully
clean straw and my coat and waterproof, but I found it cold all the
same. However, as I was only allowed to remain in till 5 a.m., it was
not as bad as one might have expected. Marching again at 9 a.m. I went
into billets after passing a church badly knocked about by German
shells, and a burnt-down house, which owed its departure to the French
shells. Here I am in a building very much resembling Willoughby Farm.
In the hay barn I have 50 men, 100 men and 11 horses in the stables,
and 16 officers in the house, with all the remainder somewhere near
me. It is colder and has been blowing a gale up to now, but I expect
it will turn to rain again when the wind drops. I was inspected this
morning by a superior General: am rather tired of inspections! From
where we sit we can see the flash of the shells bursting in front of
our position. We hear all sorts of reports as to what is happening. I
fancy it is fairly even balanced fighting of a very hard sort. An old
lady belonging to the farmer class had her home invaded by the Germans
some time ago. They took everything in the house - food, clothes,
etc. - and presented her with two francs on leaving, saying they always
paid for things! The country is exactly the same as the ground on the
opposite side of the Trent without the hedges. I have seen no chateaux
or anything of that sort about here. It is evidently a peasant's
country. Our men are very funny bargaining with the farmer's wife; now
and then we have to come to their assistance over the money question.
Rather a curious feature in these parts is that most of the farms
have a large wheel for churning attached to the house. A dog is popped
into this wheel, and he then has to run for his life, and so does the
churning! I suppose such an invention would not be allowed in England
on the ground of cruelty nowadays! I am glad to hear that the _Emden_
and _Konigsberg_ have both been settled. I am only sorry about the
ships off Chili. Poor Admiral Cradock! Do you remember him at Dover,
when Lord Brassey gave an entertainment to the Fleet?

Well, I think that is all my news. I can hardly keep awake as it is. A
pretty cold night, but one just has to put up with it. I only wish
that something would happen to end the war with honour to ourselves.

Still it is a mercy to spend a night like this in the house instead of
in the trenches. There is no fresh meat in the country, only tinned
beef for us!...

_November 13th, 1914._

Well, I have not been able to write to you before this, as I try to do
every day. Yesterday, for instance, I was up at 5 o'clock, and after
an hour's parade, shivering in the dark, I then went off to another,
and got back about 1 o'clock. I was instructing my men in the
difference between English and French distances - _i.e._, what 600
yards looked like in this country for rifle ranges, and where an enemy
was likely to hide, etc. In the middle of this the Brigade Major
dashed up in despair, as some order of his had gone astray. I was
wanted to take ten officers at once and to jump into a motor lorry,
and go with a party of 30 others to the trenches. I popped my ten
officers in, and went off with the Brigade-Major's greatcoat in my
hurry! We raced our lorry through country looking just like the Romney
Marshes, Sussex. As we went we met refugees flying from a burning town
which had been set on fire by German shells. We also passed immense
amounts of transports; for troops must live even when they fight. On
the way I suddenly saw the back of my last General at D - - . You
remember him - a very pleasant man. Well, he showed us round the
trenches. The shells were bursting up along the forward line held by
my brother Hal's[3] old regiment [4th King's Own]. You could see the
shrapnel bursting on the ground, and perhaps setting fire to something
or other. None of the shells were near us, so we were quite safe.
Leaving the line about dark, we had to rattle home. Of course we lost

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