Part of the privileges of working in the Highlander’s Museum is access to the extensive
library, and the advantage of working front of house is the sometimes you get the
opportunity to read some of the books. This is specially in the Winter when things can be
slow, though it also means that you have got the time to answer visitor’s questions.
One of the most fascinating forms of literature are the biographical writings which came
from the people who fought in the Great War. In Private 12768, John Jackson is giving us a
fascinating insight into the life of someone in Kitchener’s Army. Although he was a
Cumbrian, Jackson was working for a railway company in Glasgow, and impressed by the
appearance of the recruits for the Cameron Highlander’s joined them. Sent to the 6th
Battalion, his unit was therefore one of the earliest of the New Army to be landed in France,
arriving in July 1915. This meant that the 6th Camerons were among the first units to be
involved in heavy fighting, which happened at the battle of Loos. It was quite moving to be
able to get up from the reception desk and walk a few yards and see the large picture of the
6th Camerons at the Battle of Loos which in in the museum.
Jackson was fortunate in that he had a number of hospitalisations which meant that he was
out of the line on occasions – he was not on the line for some of the actions. After his first
spell in hospital he returned via the notorious Bull Ring at Etaples being posted to 1st
Camerons, which still included some of the Old Contemptables, who had been in France
since August 1914. It was with the 1st Battalion that he spent the rest of the War, as a
signaller. While this at first was as a runner eventually he got involved in the Installation and
maintenance of Field Telephones, and there is quite a lot about the whole skill of
maintaining telephone lines under fire. (It must be remembered that the Royal Signals were
not established as a corps until 1920.)
One of the most interesting and as far as I know, unique accounts of in the book is a story
about Op Hush, which was a projected landing on the Belgium coast planned for July/August
1917. In the event it didn’t take place as it would have required 3rd Ypres to have been more
successful than it was, but training did happen, and 1st Camerons were part of the force.
Finally Jackson was involved in the Invasion of Germany (strictly speaking the occupation of
In the end despite the offer of promotion to Sergeant, Jackson chose to be demobbed back
to working on the Railway.
This is a particularly interesting book, not just for its historical content, but also for what
can best be described as its “Tone”. This has been noted by several reviewers. Saul David in
“The Telegraph” writes, “As the historian Hew Strachan remarks in his foreword, “Jackson’s
memoir strikes a very different tone from the “sense of betrayal” of most other post-war
writing. Not only was Jackson sure that “the cause had been right”, he also bears testimony
to the “mutual respect that existed between officers and other ranks””. It may be that
Jackson was writing about 1920 in the early days of the post war joy that the war was over
rather than the reaction which took place later, that there was not a land fit for heroes, and
later the publication of “All Quiet on the Western Front” and other writings, including the
output of some of the War Poets, which were profoundly critical of the conduct of the war.
Those of us who were introduced to serious history in the 1960s of course met up with the
whole “What a Wonderful War” syndrome. The new interest in the Great War as the Second
World War moved to the limbo of no longer being current affairs but too early for
considered historiography, against the background of the publication of memoirs of the
more recent conflict, meant that the 1930s history was reinforced. The result was that
there was a period when the received wisdom was that the Great War was an unnecessary
war, grievously mishandled by all with any responsibility down to Platoon Commanders.
Jackson is more in tune with the revisionist historians who like the late, and sorely missed
Richard Holmes challenged received wisdom, who saw the war as a necessary chore, in
which there was considerable cohesion among the people fighting the war.
Jackson is also unusual in that he managed to survive the war rising no higher than Corporal. My bookshelves groan at the writings of Officers about their experiences of the Great War,
those accounts by other Ranks are even more welcome because of their relative scarcity.
Private 12768: Memoir of a Tommy Paperback
by John Jackson (Author)
Hardcover: 224 pages
Publisher: Tempus Publishing Limited; First Edition (1 July 2004)
Subsequently in paperback
Paperback: 264 pages
Publisher: The History Press; 2nd Revised edition