Monday, 4 August 2014

Dulce et Decorum Est

 The Battle of Arras in the spring of 1917 was conceived as the big push which would punch through the German front lines and end the bloody stalemate of trench warfare. British and Empire forces led the way and after initial gains the battle descended into a brutal and bloody stalemate. Before it was over, 160,000 British and Commonwealth and 125,000 German soldiers were casualties. One Scottish Battalion had been attacking a chemical factory which had been fortified and was being stoutly defended by the Germans. On May 15th/16th the 6th Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders threw themselves at the factory and were again repulsed. The Regimental diary records 43 dead, 26 missing and 51 wounded on that day which was sadly typical of the slaughter on the western front. Among them was a miner from Fife known to those close to him as ‘Big Peter.’ 
Peter Johnstone signed for Celtic from Glencraig Celtic and proved to be an excellent player in various positions. Willie Maley had constructed an excellent Celtic team in the early years of the twentieth century and it brought many honours to Glasgow’s east end. The ‘six in a row’ side (1905-10) was one of the finest in Celtic’s history and Peter slotted in among legends such as Patsy Gallagher, ‘Sunny’ Jim Young, Andy McAtee and Jimmy Quinn. A confident and self-assured player, Peter was similarly confident off the field. Willie Maley could be an imposing figure, a man who could strike fear into the hearts of lesser men but Peter Johnstone was one player who had the courage to argue his case with the autocratic manager. Maley may have had many verbal spats with the big Fifer but he was never in doubt about his talent or his usefulness to the team. Peter Johnstone helped Celtic to four titles, two Scottish Cups as well as many other honours during his time with the club. He took part in the ‘World Championship’ matches with Burnley in Budapest in the fateful summer of 1914. Celtic drew 1-1 and then defeated Burnley 2-0 in England to claim a trophy which due to the sweeping tides of history wasn’t delivered to Celtic Park for 74 years. It is fair to say that the Celtic team of that era was probably the best side in the world at the time and Peter played a major part in the successes they enjoyed. The fans adored the big Fifer and Peter rewarded them with many excellent displays in the Hoops. However as war clouds gathered in 1914, things were about to take a very different turn for the club and indeed the whole country.
The first two years of the war saw volunteer battalions flood into the forces and this precluded the need for conscription. However as the casualty lists lengthened few were in any doubt that conscription was sure to be introduced. In 1916 conscription duly arrived and by the end of the war 1 in 4 of the male Population of Britain and Ireland had fought in the war. Peter Johnstone worked in the mines as well as turning out for Celtic and this could have continued until the end of the war as mining was a protected occupation. However, he was of a mind to enlist before being drafted into the forces and despite Willie Maley using his considerable powers of persuasion, he did so in March 1916. Initially he was kept away from the fighting to play football for his Regimental team and even took the train north to play for Celtic as late as October 1916. Soon enough though his request to join a fighting Battalion was accepted and he found himself in the mud and blood of the western front.

The assault on the chemical factory at Fampaux in April and May 1917 involved Scottish, Irish and South African Soldiers. Peter Johnstone found himself facing a fortified position bristling with over 30 German Machine guns. One history of the battle gives a flavour of the situation he and his comrades faced as they advanced…

They were seen immediately, probably by spotters from the German 31st regiment who have climbed a 60 foot chimney, or by a German recce plane that had registered them. They were subjected to long range machine gun fire from the Chemical Works and when they were joined by the Royal Irish Fusiliers in the road they were shelled. After what seemed an eternity they were off showing great courage, presenting as perfect targets to the Germans, silhouetted in their khaki battledress and Mackenzie kilts against the snow.Artillery had been scheduled to support  them, but from the off it was of absolutely no value to the woefully exposed men. It did not land on the Germans at all and not a shell was seen to land in the Chemical works. Despite the apparent futility of the action the men of the Seaforth Highlanders and the Royal Irish Fusiliers pressed on against 30 machine guns, in a display of extraordinary courage.’’

In the aftermath of the slaughter one officer bitterly complained about the futility of throwing infantry against entrenched enemy positions without effective support. He concluded his report by stating….

 "The total losses sustained by the battalion were 12 officers and 363 other ranks out of a total of 12 officers and 420 other ranks who took part in the attack. I leave these losses to speak for the gallantry of all ranks."

When news of Peter Johnstone’s death filtered back to Scotland there was genuine shock and grief. He was in his own way a celebrity of the time and it hit home that this war was indeed going to consume so many of the brightest and best. Willie Maley was particularly affected by the news of Peter’s passing. The tough Celtic Manager was said to have cried and entered a period of melancholy which we might call today depression. Peter left a wife and two children behind when he died and Maley made a point of travelling to Fife and ensuring they were adequately cared for. It was the least he could do for ‘Big Peter’ the courageous big Celt who had the gall to argue with him.

Peter Johnstone was only one of over 10 million soldiers who lost their lives in that deadly conflict we call the Great War. Like so many others he was hastily buried in an unmarked grave. Today he is remembered not just on the war memorial at Fauborg d'Amiens but also by Celtic fans who know their history. Other Celts perished too in the ‘war to end all wars’ and on this centenary we remember them all. 

As World War 1 leaves folk memory and enters history, it can be difficult for the younger generation to grasp the scale of industrialised slaughter it brought. Perhaps the poet, Wilfred Owen, himself killed a week before the war ended, sums up the horror of world war one best...

Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling,

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,

And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...

Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est

Pro patria mori.

Rest in Peace Peter and thank you for all you did for Celtic. Perhaps a fitting memorial to you and all the victims of such conflicts would be an end to the obscenity of war forever. Sadly, 100 years after the beginning of the war to end all wars it still seems a long way off.


Peter Johnstone (1887-1917)

Husband, Father, Celt.

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