Private Karl Manson in full Seaforth Highlander uniform before departing for France, 1916.
“If we think only on his life, and count, like the sun-dial, only the sunshine hours, we shall not let the gloom and daily fear which has so long overcast the sky for us at home, spread the dullness and dread of our last few months over our former remembrance of those who have died for us”.
Haunting words, written in memory of Karl Manson, offered as comfort to his mother following his untimely death.
We are told that almost 10 million men were killed during the First World War; we are told that the average life expectancy of a man on the front line was a mere six weeks. These shocking statistics alone are too great to comprehend. In order to begin to understand the human cost of the First World War it is easier to consider individual stories. Putting a ‘face to a name’ enables our minds the opportunity to place ourselves in their shoes.
Lerwick War Memorial, Remembrance Day 2017. The war memorial was opened in 1924 by Janet (Jean) Hardy who lost three sons to the First World War.
Last week our local war memorial was vandalised with graffiti. It struck a chord deep inside me. It pulled at every heart string imaginable. I know that 100 years has passed since the First World War ended, but how could I not feel utterly heartbroken at such sacrilege? The memories of these brave men and boys should be respected, cherished and remembered. I feel privileged to have been allowed access to so many personal letters from servicemen during my time at the museum; windows into the lives of those who fought hard to ensure our freedom today. Many of these letters are all that remain of these brave young men; letters now age-worn and yellowed, creased and folded from being read, re-read before being carefully slipped back into an apron pocket.
Graffiti on the Lerwick War Memorial last week (August 2019)
The desecration of such a sacred place of remembrance has spurred me to revisit the story of Private Karl Manson from Lerwick. I hope that in publishing this again, it will make people stop, think and remember. Give a thought each time you pass a war memorial or war grave, and remember them. Putting this to paper has always been difficult for me. How can words today describe the realities felt by those serving in the trenches? How can I convey a mother’s grief on receiving the news that your worst fears have become a reality. In this blog, I would like to pay homage to the memory of one boy who served among millions. His story, is replayed in the lives of many more, like him, who fought on the frontline of the First World War. This is his story.
Private Karl Manson
Karl Manson (b. 11thJune 1897) was the son of Thomas and Margaret, Hillhead, Lerwick – just a stone’s throw from the current day war memorial. A Private in the 1/5 Seaforth Highlanders, Karl, was killed by a sniper, aged 19, on the first day of the Battle of Arras (9thApril 1917). A keen scholar with an enquiring mind, Karl was destined for great things before his life was tragically cut short by war.
On 13th June 1915 the troopship H.M.S Cambria left Shetland carrying the 240 Territorials, the Shetland Companies Gordon Highlanders. Karl writes in his diary "Terriers went tonight, saw them off". Unable to depart as he was still at school, Karl signed up, in anticipation of the completion of his higher education at the Anderson Institute. Three days after finishing school (May 1916), and raring to go, he was bound south on the boat to embark on army training.
Like many other young men, Karl was keen to sign up and get, what he describes as, “a taste of war before it was over”. In one letter to his father from the training camp, he writes "the 'great push' has begun and is going so successfully but whether this means that the war will soon be over is hard to say, any how I should like to have a glimpse of it before it is ended". Following training with the Seaforths in Dunfermline, his division was sent to France (October 1916). His frontline experience was to be short, for he contracted trench fever on his way to the line, causing him to be hospitalised for a short spell. But, on 11th March 1917 he had his first taste of life in the trenches.
Karl Manson's letters to his mother from France. The one on top is dated April 8th 1917.
A clear picture of Karl’s life emerges in the letters he wrote home to his mother. Being literary minded, his correspondence is detailed, frequent and concise, allowing the reader a unique insight into the remarkable mind of this 19-year-old soldier and scholar.
Through letters and diaries, a young man with boundless ambition emerges. Writing to his father from France, thinking ahead to his future career in the civil servic, he says that he would like a job that “affords the opportunity for reading and a little quiet study”, as “after one has dabbled in literature a little, it becomes more or less part of one’s life”.
Karl’s father, Thomas Manson, was the then editor of the Shetland News, and as the weeks of the war progressed, the paper kept islanders up-to-date on news of local casualties. In the years following the war Manson collated Shetland’s Roll of Honour & Service (1920) that details all those who fought and were lost to war from Shetland.
Battle of Arras
On 9th April 1917 the British assault which aimed to gain ground from the Germans began. This offensive gained significant ground for allied forces, most notably, Vimy Ridge. Despite the gains made on the first day, the successes of this attack were offset by the high cost to human life. This onslaught resulted in 159,000 British casualties, including about 20 Shetlanders who were killed on that day. Despite a shorter duration of fighting that the Somme or Ypres, the daily casualty rate at Arras was higher.
Karl’s company were the first over the parapet on that fateful morning. The Battalion War Diary notes the events which unfolded on that dark morning:
"All preparations having been completed, at 5am, on 9th April all the artillery on this front opened a terrific fire, and then over went our infantry. It was a bitterly cold morning with a strong wind and heavy rain showers, changing into snow later on. Line after line of enemy trenches was taken, although the Bavarians on our front, the finest fighting material in the German army, fought stubbornly, some groups holding out until every man was killed […] Machine guns […] did most mischief, but snipers also accounted for many. Our own men, along with the 6th Seaforth Highlanders, formed the attacking waves of the left half of the 152nd Brigade's front”.
Captain Sutherland continues, “I visited the field of battle the day after and what a sight I saw! Surely after the carnage and misery among the nations of the world by this wholesale slaughter, nations will agree that war is to cease and that peace is to reign hereafter! Here were our own men, one here, another there, each lying as he had fallen from bullet or shell, his rifle still in hand. Here were men carrying in the dead and collecting them in one place, while others were digging a huge grave in which the men are now buried side by side.”
Once over the parapet, Karl paused to dress his friend Charlie’s hand that had been shot, before continuing on to his objective. This objective was never met. Shot through the heart by a sniper at the tender age of 19, he was killed outright after little more than a month on the front line. Charlie’s sister, writing to Mrs Manson from their family home in Brechin describes the event recalled to her.
“Charlie and Karl went over the top together and evidently kept together as it was Karl who bound up Charlie’s wound and left him in a shell hole to go forward”.
It wasn’t until 26th April that the telegram arrived bearing the dreaded news. The Commanding Officer wrote that Karl “was killed while playing a brave part in the first advance east […] He was a good soldier and well liked in the Platoon”.
Historians have long argued about the strategic importance of the gains made at Arras on that day, most have conceded that the territorial gains were unimportant in the greater context of the Western Front – a tragic loss of human life for little benefit.
“A queer thing happened last week after we had taken the line [at Arras] & things had quietened down a bit I was having a look round and there was a chap lying just over the parapet, a Seaforth Highlander he was, he had been killed by a German sniper. I thought I had seen him somewhere so I looked for his pay book to see his name, it was Karl Manson (a son of Tom Manson of the Shetland News) he had a photograph of his father & sister in his pocket, so I took them and will send them on to his father after he has heard from the office. The Seaforths were attacking on the left that's how he came to be so near us. I expect he has been on their right, it was queer for me to be the first to come on him though wasn't it?”
Willie later writes to Karl’s mother, enclosing a photo of Karl’s grave in France. The ring, now in Shetland Museum & Archives, was brought back to Shetland by Private Laurence Harper, Hoswick. Harper returned to Shetland after being gassed in France and took the ring with him for Mrs Manson.
In a letter to his father, Karl speaks about choosing souvenirs, saying, “I don’t know if I have made a very good selection for I don’t know what is most pleasing to the female mind […] I meant Mama to have that satchel affair, which I was told was for holding handkerchiefs”. When imagining ‘souvenirs of war’, images of bomb-shrapnel and shell-casing spring to mind; not delicate silks. This cushion speaks volumes; it shows a young boy trying to put his mother’s worried mind at ease, despite being fully engaged in all the horrors of war.
Karl’s letters are full of kind words; reassurances and patience for his mother’s worried mind. He tells her not to worry as “you may be sure I’ll turn up again like a bad sixpence” and he assures her that “all trenches are provided with dug-outs, good deep dug-outs, in which we live when off duty, they are certainly not very roomy, but they are quite warm. So don’t remain under the impression that we live six days and nights in the open […] I hope I have eased your mind a bit.”
He also scorns her for not telling him about Shetlanders who had been killed, and asks, “did you really think, my dear mother, that I should be too much upset if I heard sad news. I have heard and seen too much of that sort of thing to pay much attention to that. I am not so young as I was, you know”.
The final letter to his mother, dated 8th April reads:
“We will be going up to the line in about a days time, so I must warn you that you must not expect a letter for a good while. I might manage to send a field p.c. [postcard], but you must not worry”. This was the last letter Karl would send home, he was killed the following morning.
Whether he was afraid or not, was never given away to his mother. Proud to serve, and to have signed up before he was conscripted, we do see a glimpse of fear in a letter he wrote to fellow Shetlander, Tommy Morrison, whose brother Bertie was also killed at Arras. Tommy recalls Karl’s last words to him, “Well, it’s all past now, Morrison, and I’ve had a first class time… remember if anything happens to me, it’s quite possible, promise that you’ll stand by mother. You’re the only one I’d care to ask this, and I know you’ll do what you can.”
Roclincourt Cemetary, France.
Karl was laid to rest in the Highland Cemetery, Roclincourt. In recognition of his services to King and country he was awarded the 1914-18 War Medal and Victory Medal. The Shetland Archives holds another poignant token of remembrance for Karl’s life; a fragile pressed rose from his grave, collected in 1925 and treasured by his mother until her death.
Bob Gray says: “No matter what situation had to be faced, he did it with a cheerfulness that we all admired. I had come to look on him not as a friend but as a brother”.
Friends echoed this sentiment, Mrs. Little whose family had become close to Karl in Dunfermline said that she would miss “that bright yet thoughtful face [...] he has fallen on the field of battle as every true soldier would elect to fall, facing his duty in his country's hour of extremity.”
From Shetland to France with love
In July 2015 my father-in-law, Jim Pottinger, and his friend, David Robertson, arranged a trip to Europe on their motorbikes. I saw an unmissable opportunity to have a piece of Shetland delivered to France.
Karl’s pre-war diaries describe (held in the Shetland Archives) many a ‘dip’ in the sea, so I decided that the most fitting offering would be a handful of sand from Bain’s beach – a special piece of foreshore that remains in the heart of his hometown, Lerwick. Jim and David duly set off for France with a jar of sand stowed away in the luggage boxes, heading for the beautiful northern town of Arras.
The road to the Highland Cemetery at Roclincourt turns to grass and the cemetery is set amongst beautiful fields of golden barley, within a flint-walled yard. Three hundred soldiers killed during the Arras offensive are laid to rest here under the shade of four large limetrees. Captain Sutherland wrote that “the men are now buried side by side […] in no-man’s land between where our own and the enemy front lines were”.
Once there, the sand from home was poured over his grave. Jim said it “was eery visiting the grave, it was very peaceful and quiet, and the only noise they could hear was a lark singing nearby.”
Jim pouring sand from Shetland on Karl Manson's graveside in France. We will remember them.
Perhaps this was Karl, and like in the words from his favourite Hymn, perhaps he has found peace and built his nest:
“The little birds of Anwoth,
I used to count them blessed,
Now, beside happier altars
I go to build my nest:
O’er these there broods no silence,
No graves around them stand,
For glory, deathless, dwelleth
In Immanuel’s land”.
(The Sands of Time are Sinking)
In memory of all those who fought and died in the First and Second World War. We will remember them.
With love, and remembrance.
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