Ghosts of War – Armistice Day Poetry 1

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On Monday 9th, S3 pupils and staff headed for Edinburgh Castle for a workshop entitled “Ghosts of War: Armistice Day Poetry

Our workshop leaders, Lorna and Ken, met us on the Esplanade to introduce themselves and explain the plan for today, before leading us round to the Scottish National War Memorial. Photography is not allowed in the memorial so no pictures.

The frieze in the Memorial is by Gertrude Alice Meredith Williams and was based on drawings by her husband in the trenches. Pupils noticed bagpipes, kilts, bunnets, snowshoes, animals, rope, shovel, boots, weapons and different uniforms. Lorna read a poem leading into in a minute’s silence, with pupils standing shoulder to shoulder. 

During our silence, a clock chimed 11 o’clock; according to Lorna and Ken, that hadn’t happened before. Very moving, and a little eerie.

We move through to the Education Room, formerly known as the Devil’s Elbow, previously used as a dungeon and barracks (not at the same time though). Most appropriate. This takes us out onto a wee walkway very high above Edinburgh

Ken and Lorna explain that we’re going to be writing poems in three parts, and the first stanza is based on the Memorial, so pupils are asked to write down who and what they saw in the frieze. After a little shyness, suggestions include cavalry; cold weather soldier with fur collar; someone with a camel; a pilot with a biplane; animals including dogs, camels, horses, pigeons; weapons including rifles, pistols, machine guns and shells; and the words on the memorial itself: their name liveth; God holds their souls in their hands. 

The first verse is based around pupils’ own experience of being in the memorial, sharing ideas and moving lines about to make the best impact.  

Now Lorna asks for some helpers, but everyone is feeling a bit shy so staff try to volunteer one or two bodies, and then some brave souls step up. Lorna asks why they volunteered and their answers are fascinating:

  • because I was being made to
  • because I thought it might be fun
  • because no-one else was.

Lorna points out that these three responses can sum up most soldiers’ reasons for enlisting. She also explains that there was a tradition for Scots to volunteer, and far larger ratios of Scots volunteered than other countries of the UK. Soldiers had to be at least 5’3″, with 34″ chest, and 18 years old, or 19 for moving out to France. However, the records show many, many recruits who did not match these criteria.  

Mark volunteers to get dressed in typical soldier gear including a jacket, greatcoat, goatskin, webbing pack with pockets, balaclava, helmet, gas mask. It was believed the helmet could stop bullets, but it didn’t. The goatskin smelled as it was smoked for preservation.

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