My father’s Tin Helmet - By Magnus Linklater
My father’s tin helmet sits in the Kirkwall Museum, where it is an object of curiosity, and perhaps inquiry, on the part of those who stop to examine it. It has two holes in it – a neat entry point near the back, where a bullet went in, and, on the opposite side, a large and jagged exit hole where it came out.
In between those two holes, some time in April 1918, was the skull of 85831 Private Eric Linklater of the 4th/5th Black Watch.
The fact that he survived the impact of the bullet that caused them is extraordinary. Fired, almost certainly, from a German machine gun, it took the back of his skull off, but then, deflected by the helmet, missed his brain and ploughed out again; or, as he wrote himself later: “flattened and disappointed by the density of my Nordic skull, [it] forced an exit and went off in the general direction of Ypres.”
For ever afterwards he had a neat dent in the back of his head. As children we pretended to post letters in it.
Not surprisingly, the helmet was important to Eric; he kept it all his life as a souvenir, and we, his family, grew up with it, first in Orkney, then later at our home in Ross-shire. We came to realise that it had been equally important to us. Without it, none of us would be around today.
Last weekend, we decided to celebrate that fact by taking the helmet back to the place where it last saw action – the village of Voormezeele in Flanders, where, in the early months of 1918, the remnants of the Black Watch, and other scattered regiments, held the line against the final great German push of the First World War.
We wanted to see if we could find the place where Eric had been wounded, to get some sense of what he had been through, and to reunite this great symbol of his survival with the exact spot where it had fulfilled its most basic function.
We took as many Linklaters with us as we could: wife Veronica, sister Kristin, daughter Freya, son Alexander, his wife Kerry and their two sons, Eric and Hugh, aged 13 and eight – our grandchildren, for whom we hoped this would be as much a history lesson as a link with the past. Also Marielou, widow of my brother Andro, who completed my father’s history of the Black Watch after he died in 1974, and who himself died last year at the absurdly young age of 68; how he would have relished the trip.
We went with 250 others. That is, we joined a party of Black Watch officers, men, veterans and their families, who travelled to Ypres to unveil a statue to the many soldiers of the regiment – close on 9,000 of them – who were killed in the Great War, as well as the 20,0000 who, like my father, were wounded.
Ypres and the surrounding area is a living testament to the horrors of war. Alongside the little country roads, and in almost every village, are cemeteries with their poignant rows of gravestones, immaculately preserved by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
We called in on the Ypres Museum, where an impressive “knowledge centre” holds the records of every battle and every trench dug on Flanders Fields, and which can trace the movements of battalions as they advanced, retreated, and fought over territory disputed by both sides.
Piet Chielens, one of the archivists, dug out accounts of the actions of the 39th Division, of which the 4th/5th Black Watch were part, in the Spring of 1918, around the village of Voormezeele. The battalion had been driven off the mound south of the village, but had retaken it.
As my father wrote: “Wherever we went we were digging trenches and fighting off an enemy who generally appeared from some entirely unexpected quarter … and when, about this time [Field Marshal] Haig issued the celebrated order in which he said we were fighting with our backs to the wall, there was laughter from one end of the country to the other; for we had no such illusion of support, and we were more likely to be fighting with our backs to the enemy, since the Germans often appeared on both sides of us.”
Mr Chielens also produced a map showing the mound south of Voormezeele, which the battalion had captured and lost.
We set off to find it, and, after driving backwards and forwards in the middle of rolling countryside, where crops were beginning to sprout, we found a mound, looking out over low-lying ground, which seemed to be approximately where Mr Chielens’ map said it should be. We got out, walked over to an old concrete bunker and unpacked the tin helmet.
I would like to report that a shiver of electricity, a start of recognition, perhaps even the sharp jolt of a remembered shot, tore it from our hands, but it stayed silent and immobile. Below us was an ancient shell-hole, now a quiet pond, on which a coot swam busily back and forwards. A tractor ploughed the field below it, where trenches had once run, clouds sped across the sky, life went on.
This is how my father described the moment he was shot: “Early one morning we were driven out of the ruined village of Voormezeele and, in a most unwilling counterattack, recaptured it an hour or so later. Pressing hard, and vastly outnumbering us, the Germans came back. They turned our flank, and my platoon was left in an unfinished trench that thrust like a tongue into their midst. I was at the extreme end of it, because from there ran a sap [a trench at right angles to the line] I had used for sniping. They were very close. One could see the agitation of their features, and the shape of their helmets appeared more sinister than ever. I had used all my ammunition – I had been shooting badly – and in any case my rifle was too hot to hold.
“But I had a box of bombs, already detonated, and I threw one that fell short. I was swinging for the second when I heard a wild shout behind me, and looking round saw the trench was empty save for one man, who had come to warn me that we were retreating. He was an old regular soldier, and had also been a nurse in a lunatic asylum. He was a big, good-looking man, but his cheek has strangely fallen in. He must have lost his false teeth, I thought.
“I threw my second bomb, more usefully than the first, and turned to run. I ran so very fast that, although I was the last by a long way to leave the trench, within two hundred yards I had passed several of those who preceded me; including an officer who was looking back with an expression of reluctance that, in the circumstances, appeared strangely ill-timed.
“I continued to run till, in a mingling of righteous indignation and utter dismay, I felt on my head a blow of indescribably force. It was a bullet, and probably a machine-gun bullet; for the rifle fire of the German infantry was poor.
“When I recovered consciousness, the surrounding landscape appeared entirely empty. But I could not see very well, and perhaps I was mistaken. A few shots, that were evidently hostile, gave me a rough direction, and with clumsy fingers I took from a pocket in the lining of my tunic a little package of field dressings. I could not undo it, but stuck it whole on the back of my head, where I judged the wound to be, and kept it in position with my steel helmet, that a chin strap kept tightly on.
“Scarcely had I made these arrangements when, my sight growing more foggy, I fell into a water-logged trench. It was deep, and full to the brim, and the sides were so well revetted that I had great difficulty in getting out. I was nearly drowned, indeed, and lost my good rifle there. But the cold water revived me, and now my only feeling of discomfort was extreme weariness. So I threw off my equipment and my tunic, and found progress a little easier. Presently, after walking, as I thought for many miles, someone came to help me, and I saw a cluster of men in kilt and kilt-apron who looked familiar. I waved my hand to them. It was the very last, the ultimate remnant of the battalion, and already they were forming for the counter-attack. In the afternoon they recaptured Voormezeele.”
It is impossible to improve on that account, nor to imagine the hell that my father and his fellow-soldiers went through. Despite his wounds, he was lucky. Others were not, and their graves, through which we wandered, reminded us of that. But I was glad we had come back, glad that we had brought the one object that connects us, his family, with those terrible days.
The helmet is now back in the Kirkwall Museum, where it will stay. And I hope that those who come to see it, and to wonder at those bullet-holes, may perhaps appreciate the courage and the sacrifice that it represents.
This article first appeared in The Orcadian on May 8, 2014. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of Magnus Linklater and The Orcadian.