Book Excerpt:The Man From Burnt Island by Wendy Sura Thomson

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From the Blurb:

This book, a saga of a Scottish man born in 1899 whose dogged determination overcomes much, is historical fiction. It is based upon snippets of a true story, filled in where necessary with much research and a little imagination.  It is not to be missed.

                                                                  

October 14, 1914

Dear Margaret:

I hope this finds you well. I am well here, gaining weight and muscle. The lads here are friendly enough, but I’m not the favorite of the drill sergeant. I am quickly learning that questions are not appreciated, nor are smart remarks. I keep finding myself being disciplined, marching all night long by myself, back and forth across the parade field. I finally got a pair of boots that fit. The first boots I was given fit poorly and gave me blisters. I’ve new knit stockings that are warm and thick – the best I have ever had. And I’m making 10 shillings 6 pence a day – and don’t need to give half up for my upkeep!

Basic training is almost over. I don’t know what’s next, but I think they’ll be sending us to a real military base. All we have done here is march – and march with broom handles instead of rifles. I don’t know why this has been so important.

I think we’ve overstayed our welcome here in St. Andrews, although the mistress of the house where I have been staying

has been very kind.

                 I hope you will wait for me. Write me soon? My    

           lieutenant says they will forward letters no matter where  

          they send me.

 Yours, Frank

He sealed the letter, addressed it, and took it to the post. When he got back to his room, he pulled out the two letters he had from Margaret and re-read them. Once finished, he folded them up very carefully and placed them back in his rucksack. He then fell asleep on his bunk, rousing only to crawl under his covers as night fell.

#

“Men, I want to congratulate you for passing basic training. You are now officially privates of the Forty-Second Blackwatch. You have worked hard and gained both skills and discipline. You will need them in the coming weeks. You are being deployed to Hawick for additional training. Departure is at oh-six-hundred hours tomorrow. For king and country!”

The commander was regaled with a loud and enthusiastic echo: “For king and country!”

“Dismissed!”

The newly graduated soldiers broke rank. Some milled around, others headed back to their quarters, and some broke out cigarettes. Frank headed back to his bunk to write a letter to Margaret.

January 13, 1915

Dear Margaret;

We are heading out soon – going down to the Borders for additional training. We leave tomorrow. We still don’t have proper uniforms. But I think we are going to a true military base and not staying with civilians.

I will keep your letters by my side while I am gone. I am not

sure if I will be able to write you often or not. Please don’t let that deter or worry you. I will write as soon as I am able.

Wish me Godspeed, Margaret.

Yours forever, Frank

After supper, Frank walked out to the end of the ancient cemetery that ended at the edge of the North Sea, passing the centuries-old tombstones that crowded this somber space. As he headed towards the white-capped waves, the constant wind whipped at his face. It was cold, and the skies had already darkened. Here, on the windswept coast, the stars formed a magnificent, dense, magical masterpiece against a blue-black velvet backdrop. Frank lit a cigarette and sat down, cross-legged. He looked out north across the water and then up at the sky.

“Ah’ll be leavin’ ye th’morra, Fife,” Frank said to the wind and the North Sea.

He stopped.

“Ah’m leaving you t’morra, Fife,” he repeated, using proper English – the English he had learned in school.

He snubbed out the cigarette on an old, tumbled grave marker and gazed across the water at the horizon.

“Ah’m leaving you, an’ Margaret. Ah hope ah come back tae – to – something better than a messenger lad. Ah dinnae – don’t – want to work in th’ mines when Ah return.”

His musing was interrupted by a glorious green glow dancing on the northern horizon. It was soon joined by yellow, magenta, and purple. Mirrie dancers – aka the aurora borealis – had decided to give Frank a spectacular send-off. He sat spellbound, watching the display.

            “Aye, are ye meanin’ to tell me tae come back, oor are ye giein’ me a guid-bye?”

            Frank stopped again. He repeated the phrase in grammar school English.

            “Are you meaning to tell me to come back, or are you giving

me a goodbye?”

            He sat until he was thoroughly chilled, and then he rose, brushed off his backside, and started to head back. A moment later, he paused, turned, and addressed the sea and sky.

“Ah will bring Margaret here when I come back. Wait for me, will ye?”

With that, he headed back into St. Andrews.

#

The men mustered early, as always…but today there was more energy: the excitement and anticipation of invincible youth going off on what seemed to be a grand adventure. The men gathered their rucksacks and headed toward the waiting transports. The transports dropped their rear tailgates, and the men piled on.

April 6, 1915

Dear Margaret:

We’ve been in Hawick now for several months. I’m not used to being so far inland – I miss seeing the water. This is more of a proper camp, though. They have us in barracks, sleeping in bunk beds. We still don’t have proper uniforms, but they have managed to get us utility clothes for training. They are of sturdy fabric. Mum would like them.

We continue our training here. We are finally training with real rifles. We are with a brigade from the Gordon Highlanders. We keep our distance, though. We Fifers stick together. We’re not just marching anymore, which is good. We are learning military maneuvers. Some have peeled off to learn how to fire machine guns and mortars. They won’t let me do that. I think they know I’m not eighteen, so I am doing other things.

We have been told that one of these days, we will be moving again. I think it will be to a larger base where we can train with

     other units.

I read your letters every night, Margaret. I enjoy them so.

Ever yours, Frank

July 4, 1915

Dear Margaret:

Sorry I haven’t written for a while. They moved us back to Fife – to Kinghorn – but we were only there a couple of days before they moved us again. I wish we had been there longer. You were so close! I would have loved to see you on leave. We are now up in Perth.

This is a proper base, with barracks, a mess hall, a quartermaster, and an infirmary. We are involved in advanced training. I applied to learn to drive a transport but was denied. I think it is due to my age.

I have been able to hold my tongue enough to keep from marching all night long. I would have saved myself many sleepless nights had I figured that out earlier. In any event, I think you might not even recognize me now. I was told I was braw before, but now even more. My mum would even have a hard time, I think.

Some of us have been deployed to replace the 1/7 in France, but we “young ones” have been held back. I’m not the only one that enlisted too young. The officers here have figured that out and are keeping us on base for now. We are not hearing too much about the fighting. Except for me needing to hold my tongue and be very obedient, this is far better than working in a coal mine. The pay and food are way better, that’s for sure. I am proud to be in the 42nd, I can tell you that.

I look forward to your next letter.

As ever, Frank

October 30, 1915

Dear Margaret:

I hope this finds you well. We have moved again – we are now in Grangemouth. I do not understand why we move so often.

I have big news: I have been made calisthenics instructor! This is a great honor and is much more enjoyable than anything I have ever done before. It is keeping me from some of the drudge work assigned to privates. I’ve never been in charge of anything before, but I have been told that I have a talent for it. I hope that if I excel, I can get a promotion. I would not mind doing this for the remainder of the war.

I do think of you often, Margaret, and hope that when I return, we can see each other often. Please wait for me.

Yours, Frank

March 18, 1916

Dear Margaret:

We have moved – again. For the first time in my life, I am not in Scotland. We are in Norwich, down in England. I thought I had seen a proper base – this camp is like nothing I have ever seen. It is quite large, and it is not only for army personnel. There are air forces here, too. Thousands of men, I would think.

I am still a calisthenics instructor, but now I have larger classes. We have equipment and obstacles here, unlike Grangemouth. I am enjoying the challenge. I still have weapons training, but except for that and daily marches, I exercise men all day long.

The discipline here is stricter. We must march to and from mess as a squadron. The lieutenants inspect our barracks every day. Everything must be shipshape. Sometimes the lieutenant tests our bed-making by trying to get a tuppence to bounce off of the blanket. . I don’t much mind. It’s not difficult to keep things tidy.

Some of the lads, though, are having a rough go of it.

More men have been sent to relieve men on the front. Some news has gotten back to us by way of recovering wounded men. The stories are terrible. I will not sorrow you with the details, but I wish more than ever to stay here and train men.

Please write soon.

Forever yours, Frank

August 14, 1917

Dear Margaret:

We have moved again – this time to North Walsham. We are closer to the North Sea now, and when I have leave, I can cycle to the sea. It’s good to be nearer the water.

I have big news: I have been promoted to corporal! I am still instructing calisthenics, but at a higher rank. And more pay. I am very glad I enlisted. I am doing so much better than I would be doing if I had stayed at the Rosie. When I return, I hope I can find other employment. I do not wish to return to the Rosie.

I have news of my family. Jeannie has a bairn. All of my brothers of working age are still at their same jobs. They tell me that conscription started last year for men nineteen years and older, but coal miners are exempt. Not only exempt, but they are highly discouraged from leaving the mines in the name of the war effort. Rob is exempt due to his frailty – I’m the only one in my family enlisted.

More and more men are replacing the fallen. We hear the 42nd had very heavy losses on the Western Front. They were the first ones out of the trenches and were, nearly to a one, done in by machine-gun fire.

I remain safely on British soil, where I hope to stay. I think of you very often.

Forever yours, Frank

April 3, 1918

Dear Margaret:

This might be my last letter for a while. I am in Dover, England, and am being deployed to the front. The 2/7 42nd has been disbanded, and we are being assigned to the Seaforth Highlanders when we cross the Channel. We have been issued proper kilted uniforms.

We have to carry everything we need with us. They piled us high with equipment and rations. The strangest thing we got is this piece of canvas that goes over our kilts. To tell you the truth, I wish we were in trousers instead. My rucksack must weigh 4 or 5 stone with everything in it. I have your letters right in the middle, all protected. I like to read them, especially at night. I think I’ve memorized most of them.

We’re off for France tomorrow. I need to turn in – we have a big day tomorrow.

Wish me Godspeed, Margaret.

Yours, Frank

#

Frank sealed this last letter and took it to the camp post. Then he walked back to the tent where all the deploying soldiers were spending their last night in England in row upon row of cots. A small group of men stood outside the tent, smoking. Frank walked up to them, pulled out a cigarette from his pocket, and lit it.

“Mind if I join ye?”

“Naw, not at all. Can’t sleep?”

“Haven’t tried yet. Should, though. T’morra’s going to be a big day.”

“Aye, tha’ it is.”

The men smoked in silence. Frank took a couple of drags, dropped his cigarette into the dirt, and snuffed it out.

“Godspeed tae ye, lads. Think I’ll turn in.”

He entered the tent, found his cot, and slipped off his boots, and he lay there a while, hands under his head, staring at the top of the tent. Finally, he drifted off to sleep.

May 15, 1918

Dear Margaret:

I haven’t been able to write you for several weeks. I hope you haven’t been worried. I am fine and have yet to see battle. That will be coming soon enough.

We are up near the front lines. I don’t know where, exactly. We rode some in trucks to get here and marched the rest of the way. We can hear the shells from camp here, behind the lines.

We will spend four days in the trenches and then switch out and come back to camp for a while. The men coming back are filthy – all muddy and wet. There’s a problem with lice. Some have bad sores on their feet from being in wet boots for so long.

They don’t complain much, though. They take their turns and get on. There’s training and calisthenics here in camp in between trench shifts to keep strength and skills up. My very favorite training is marksmanship. They do try to keep our weight up, but that depends on the supply lines. If supplies are late, then food is a bit on the light side. They try to make it up when the trucks finally get here.

I start my first trench shift tomorrow. When I rotate back out, I will write again. I miss you, Margaret. When I come back, you and I will dance Friday night away.

Yours forever, Frank.

#

Frank marched into the trenches with the rest of his platoon,

weaving his way through the narrow, winding mud held up by

planks to keep from collapsing. There was standing water in parts,

and areas where enterprising soldiers had dug out small, cave-like areas where they could crouch and sleep to stay out of the water. Artillery shells flew overhead, towards the German line. Most hit in no-man’s land – an otherworldly collection of shell holes, barbed wire, and obstacles of various sorts intended to make traversing this stretch of hell next to impossible. German shells were also regularly fired, but they rarely came close to the trenches.

Frank had excelled in marksmanship, so he was stationed as a sniper. He took his place on the lowest rung of a makeshift ladder, firing when he saw a head or helmet. He never knew whether he hit anyone; it was too far to tell whether the target had been struck or merely ducked. There was little to do between shifts but try and get some rest. The first four days seemed to last forever.

July 15, 1918

Dear Margaret:

I got your letter today. It was the very best thing that has happened to me since I came here – the best birthday present I could wish for. I am glad for you that you got a job as a domestic for the Earl of Wemyss! Such an honor. I am sure you will do very well.

I sorely miss trousers. This kilt is so heavy when it’s wet, and my legs get terribly scratched by barbed wire when I am on patrol.

New troops are arriving every day… I think they must be getting ready for something different. One of the new lads said they are bringing in tanks. I don’t exactly know what those are, but I imagine I will find out soon enough.

Sorry that this is short, but I have to go and direct a class.

    I think of you constantly, Margaret. I can’t wait to see those blue

eyes of your again.

Yours faithfully, Frank

Frank didn’t mention the lines of men who didn’t manage to get their gas masks on in time – the men who were blinded, the men with bandages wrapped around their heads. He didn’t mention the men who had been shot by German snipers, the ones who were wounded, or the ones who were dead. He didn’t mention the foot rot some men had from constantly wet and infected feet.

The camp became crowded with the amassing of hundreds and hundreds of troops. Frank had his hands full conditioning both them and the men switching out of trench duty. It seemed that the encampment couldn’t hold one more soldier…and then Frank heard a rumble, a loud, ominous, rather thundering rumble that was coming closer and closer. He was still on the training field when the first tank appeared from the west. Dozens of them were rumbling in. Training stopped as everyone turned and watched the caravan of these fierce war machines roll in on their treads. The extra men, these fortified machines – Frank knew that something big was going to happen, and happen soon.

It was a gray day when the mass of regular foot soldiers was ordered into the trenches – all shifts. Frank watched as his unit, in their kilts, lined up with the others to enter the trenches. He couldn’t imagine them all fitting in; they must have been shoulder to shoulder. The tanks were assembled, ready to cross a makeshift bridge across the trench into no-man’s land. Frank waited for the artillery barrage to start, but the guns were silent. That was unusual. This felt different. Frank stood back and watched as best he could.

And then the call came. The Seaforth Highlanders were the first to climb the makeshift ladders and charge across the land that had become hell. There was an eerie silence from the German side until the machine guns opened up, mowing down the Scots as they ran into range. They fell, and the men following them fell – but still, the men behind them charged. They stampeded toward the German line, their numbers compensating for the carnage, and when the first of them

reached the German trenches, the tanks crossed. They rolled over piles of fallen Scots, men from other regiments, and rolled inexorably toward the German trenches, immune to the machine guns. They plowed right into the Germans, and between the tanks and the foot soldiers, the German line was taken. What was left of the enemy fell back.

Frank watched in horror as the bodies were deposited on his training field. The mangled were doctored as best as possible and loaded into transports to take them to the field hospital several miles behind the encampment. And the next morning, as the remaining men were mustered, he was aghast at how few of the Seaforth Highlanders were left. Hardly a one. His regiment was basically annihilated.

October 12, 1918

Dear Margaret:

I am sorry if you have been worried about me. We were pulled back and merged with another unit. We have been on the move, and we just got to somewhere we actually can sleep on cots.

I sorely want to come home. I am fine but very war-weary. I could not have imagined war would be like this. We all left thinking we would be such fierce warriors; that part is true. But war is a horrible thing. I never even want to talk about it. There’s nary a one of us that wouldn’t give a year’s pay to be back in Fife.

I don’t know where we will go next. Keep me in your prayers, Margaret. I fall asleep dreaming of you every night.

Yours forever, Frank

#

November 11, 1918

Dear Margaret:

The Great War is finally over. It’s been years, I know – but I’m coming home! The letters you sent kept me going throughout this terrible war. You have always been in my thoughts.

I can’t wait to see you again! I hope you feel the same. I should be back in Fife in a fortnight.

Yours faithfully, Frank

***

Wendy Sura Thomson is a five-star author with several previously published works: Summon the Tiger (2016), The Third Order (2018), Postcards from the Future (2019) and Ted and Ned (2019). She holds two degrees in business; an undergraduate degree from University of Miami (Coral Gables) and a graduate degree from Florida State University.

She finds herself incredibly busy for someone who ostensibly retired several years ago, still freelancing in the financial arena for a few clients, as well as writing, painting, and gardening. She lives in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, with her three Setters; Riley, BeBe and Shiloh. Visit her at http://www.quittandquinn.com, follow her on Twitter @1amwendy, on Facebook at Wendy Thomson, and on Instagram at wsurathomson.

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