A Nightingale in the Trenches – May, 1915

A. D. ‘Douglas’ Gillespie at Oxford, 1911.

This post celebrates the tragically brief life of a less widely-known Old Wykehamist, A. D. ‘Douglas’ Gillespie, who was killed on the Western Front in 1915. For more Wykehamists, click here.

Douglas’s letters home were published shortly after his death as Letters From Flanders and greeted with great acclaim. At the foot of this post is a link to the full text at archive.org – it is hard to know where to start in praise of this book, whether with the extraordinary blend of pathos and humour, the author’s compassion, his unerring evocation of time and place, or his lightly-worn erudition and wit. These are just a few of many enduring qualities. Below is one of my favourite passages, about a nightingale, but I can guarantee that any page from this book chosen at random will be a delight and an inspiration. As to Douglas’s enormous promise, Hubert Burge, Bishop of Southwark and sometime Headmaster of Winchester, recalled his former pupil’s achievements in his foreword to Letters From Flanders: “Douglas came to Winchester in Short Half 1903 : he had been placed seventh on the Roll for College in the July election. He moved up the school rapidly, and was half-way up Senior Division of Sixth Book, second of his year, in Short Half 1906. In 1908 he won the King’s Gold Medal for Latin Verse, the King’s Silver Medal for English Speech, the Warden and Fellows’ Prizes for Greek Prose and Latin Essay. He was placed second on the Roll for New College in December 1907, and went up to Oxford in the following October. There he proved himself to be intellectually one of the most distinguished men of his generation, winning the blue ribbon of Classical Scholarship, the Ireland, in 1910. If he wished, he might have stayed in Oxford and taken up the work of fellow and tutor of a College ; but he was very definite in his desire to come out into ‘ professional life ‘ and to read for the Bar; he wished particularly to devote himself to the study of International Law.” This was not to be, and on the outbreak of war Douglas enlisted in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, serving as a 2nd Lieutenant on the Western Front. His thoughts on the war are recorded in his first letter home and are succinct and prescient: “It is pitiful to think that the blood of the Archduke should need the blood of so many others to wipe it out—though I suppose his murder was just the match to the powder magazine. I don’t see any means except a war to decide whether the Austrian or the Serb shall have the ruling voice in the Balkans, and I don’t see where the war will stop once it has begun. Instead of being a frame to hold Europe together, it seems that this system of alliances is just a net to entangle us all. Europe will be crippled for thirty years if a great war does come—it might be worth paying such a price to have it driven into the head of every man in Europe that our present armaments are insane—but that, I’m afraid, is just what a war won’t do, because of the passions it will leave behind.

Billets ; May 5, 1915.
This day began for me about midnight, as I lay in my dug-out in the breastwork watching the plough swing slowly round. I shall remember that night ; there was a heavy thunder-shower in the evening, but when we marched down it cleared away for a warm still summer night ; still, that is, except for the sniper’s rifles, and the rattle of the machine- guns, and sometimes the boom of a big gun far away, coming so long after the flash that you had almost forgotten to expect it. The breastwork which we held ran through an orchard and along some hedge¬ rows. There was a sweet smell of wet earth and wet grass after the rain, and since I could not sleep, I wandered about among the ghostly cherry trees all in white, and watched the star-shells rising and falling to north and south. Presently a misty moon came up, and a nightingale began to sing. I have only heard him once before, in the day-time, near Farly Mount, at Winchester; but, of course, I knew him at once, and it was strange to stand there and listen, for the song seemed to come all the more sweetly and clearly in the quiet intervals between the bursts of firing. There was something infinitely sweet and sad about it, as if the countryside were singing gently to itself, in the midst of all our noise and confusion and muddy work ; so that you felt the nightingale’s song was the only real thing which would remain when all the rest was long past and forgotten. It is such an old song too, handed on from nightingale to nightingale through the summer nights of so many innumerable years. … So I stood there, and thought of all the men and women who had listened to that song, just as for the first few weeks after Tom was killed I found myself thinking perpetually of all the men who had been killed in battle—Hector and Achilles and all the heroes of long ago, who were once so strong and active, and now are so quiet. Gradually the night wore on, until day began to break, and I could see clearly the daisies and buttercups in the long grass about my feet. Then I gathered my platoon together, and marched back past the silent farms to our billets. There was a beautiful sunrise, and I went to sleep content. Then I walked into the town to get a bath ; it was a hot May day, sunny and steamy, and the garden of the house where we get our baths has two fine tulip trees in it. Then on the way back I went round to the 24th Brigade Headquarters to ask for Roger Hog, and found him there looking very big and healthy. He is telephone officer, I think, and very happy mending breakages, and inventing new devices, and his colonel and the other officer were very pleasant.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s