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A Moment of Quiet

Brigadier David Allfrey MBE – Chief Executive and Producer, The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo

From August 1914, out of sight and earshot of the civilian population, servicemen and women would have moved away from their ‘home base’ to the theatres of war where they had been assigned. For most, this would have been the first time abroad. Some would have travelled over many months to the ends of Empire while others would have been shipped by foot, train and ship across the English Channel to ports and railheads on the Continent. The conditions they endured on these journeys would have respected social position to a degree, and as practicality allowed, but the closer to the Front, the less differentiation would have been possible. Each man, regardless of social class and upbringing would have needed to come to terms with his new situation and deal with it appropriately. Unlikely friendships would have formed with special bonds created by tension and misfortune. This in itself would have tested the social fabric of the constituent parts of the Nation and set the conditions for much greater upheavals to come in the 1920s and 1930s. Age old certainties and ideas would be under scrutiny and test each and every day.

At each stage of the journey, routine would have been dictated by meals, sleep, personal administration, briefings, study and duty – in all its forms. As the route edged ever closer to the ‘forward edge of the battle area’, so signs of the conflict would have become more pronounced. Logistics and their transport would be starting to concentrate; there would be evidence of previous fights with wreckage and perhaps casualties coming back from the Front to dressing station and hospitals in the rear. The smells of conflict would be more in evidence, the smell of animals and men, fuels and munitions and then, unmistakable and unique, the smell of injury and death.

The sounds too would be different. Briefings would become more intense and urgent. Voices would, as a rule become quieter and more conspiratorial with shouting reserved for moments of greater tension and urgency. Perhaps from the distance, the sound of guns or explosions might carry on the wind, becoming better defined and characterised with each mile closer to the point of conflict.

Rumour would add to the mix, some of it correct and lots the opposite. Each man would be trying to pursue, in his own way, his own sense of accuracy and truth and understand the part he would be asked to play. Everyone, from the private soldier to the general, would have been obliged to deal with uncertainty and complexity – the twins of war.

While much of warfare in the industrial age is characterised by bustle and activity there would always be moments of quiet; moments when men are alone with own thoughts and doubts. All pervading, each man – less the unimaginative – would be thinking about how he might behave when the moment came. The greatest fear would be fear itself. Would he let himself down in front of his mates? Would he be master of the challenge or would he fail?