JUST over 100 years ago, in October 1917, Lieutenant James Burnett Lawson, a young officer serving in the 2nd Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), wrote to his father from the Western Front arguing that the best was still to come and that the fighting spirit in his battalion was as high as it had ever been. “No wonder there are wars. No wonder Haig’s men have to smash their way up the Passchendaele heights. He is taking the inevitable road to victory. That’s why there must be no faltering. Give way to nerves now, and all our suffering will have been in vain. Let us rather steel our hearts for the second half of the great fight which begins next Spring and ends with complete victory in October 1918.”

Lawson was just one month out in his calculations, but he did not live to see the “complete victory” which he forecast with such enthusiasm. A medical student at Glasgow University who had enlisted early on, he was killed in action leading a counter-attack at Meharicourt during the Germans' Spring offensive in 1918 and he never fulfilled his ambition of becoming a doctor. His life was recorded by his grieving father in a memoir simply entitled A Cameronian Officer which was published in 1921 and is no longer in print but it should be made available again as it is one of the better accounts of frontline soldering from the First World War.

Fortunately, with the centenary of that conflict currently being commemorated, there has been no shortage of similar volumes either written by the combatants themselves or by their surviving families and 2017 has been a bumper year. Pride of place must go to Esmond: The Lost Idol (Helion, £25) by Johnnie Astor and Alexandra Campbell who had access to an enthralling collection of letters and diary jottings written by their subject Esmond Elliot, a younger son of the Earl of Minto, while serving on the Western Front with the Scots Guards. He was killed in action aged 22 during the Passchendaele offensive and like young Lawson who was much the same age Elliot believed implicitly in the cause for which he was fighting.

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The narrative has also been enlivened by the work carried out by Lady Minto as she struggled to come to terms with the loss of her beloved son. As often happens it was only after his death that she became aware of the high regard in which he was held. Clearly a beau ideal of a man, Elliot was mourned by many friends and colleagues and the chapter dealing with the reaction to his death is almost impossibly moving – the book’s title comes from a letter written by his platoon sergeant who told Lady Minto “we have lost our idol, for we had set him on a pedestal in our hearts”. The authors handle their narrative with great authority and compassion and in so doing have produced a book which transcends what the poet Wilfred Owen called the “pity of war”. There is no more vivid an account of what it is like to come under a poison gas attack than the one pieced together by Astor and Campbell from the sources available to them. The Lost Idol will take its rightful place amongst the great literature of the war as it stands comparison with classics such as Charles Carrington’s A Subaltern’s War or Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That.

Equally compelling is Walter Harry de Voil’s memoir, Alle Soldaten sind Kameraden: All Soldiers are Comrades! (Forgan Publishing) which follows the fortunes of a young man caught up in the fighting much against his will, largely because he had worked in Germany before the war and had a natural fondness for the country and its people. This is an unusual autobiography because de Voil was taken prisoner in 1918 and spent the rest of the war in German captivity where he made the surprising discovery that his captors suffered from the same privations as he and his fellow prisoners did. The experience coloured his future life and after the war de Voil trained to become a priest in the Scottish Episcopal church with ministries in Dundee, Fife and Angus. The title encapsulates the feelings of most soldiers and he speaks for everyone caught up in the fighting when he writes: “I just accepted the situation as something which had to be endured and that was all there was to be said about it.”

Although the conflict produced one of the great works of aerial literature in the shape of Cecil Lewis’s classic Sagittarius Rising there are very few memoirs about the war in the air. All the most reason then, to welcome the reissue of Arthur George Wilson’s From Trench to Sky: Letters Home 1915-1918 (Roundtuit, £9.99). Edited by his son Michael Wilson this remarkable book tells the story of “Jolly Pierre” (as he was known) who began his war as an infantryman in the West Yorkshire Regiment and ended it flying above the Western Front as a fighter pilot in the recently formed Royal Flying Corps. Throughout the experience Wilson never lost sight of his faith and one of the book’s many pleasures is the inclusion of the apt Biblical quotations which the author used at the start of every letter he sent home. It is a notable story and there is a touch of serendipity in the fact that the letters were almost lost to the family but for the sleuthing of a diligent police inspector in London who came across them in an ancient deed box.

Wilson’s book is his own memorial, as is de Voil’s but all over the country there are mute war memorials listing the names of numberless young men who failed to come back from the fighting. Populating these memorials has become something of a growth industry as individuals and whole communities set about the task of putting faces and lives to the names carved in stone. To find out how it can be done there is no better example than Edward S. Flint’s comprehensive guide entitled Gorgie & Beyond which lists the 1,600 war dead and other casualties of the Edinburgh districts of Gorgie, Dalry, Dundee Street, Slateford Road and Shandon. (This is available in print and on line at www.scotlandswar.co.uk/pdf_Gorgie_Casualties.pdf)

On this score, and staying in Edinburgh, it is worth mentioning the superb work being undertaken by Sheila Brock and her team of researchers at Old St Paul’s Episcopal Church who are painstakingly putting together an annual publication under the general title of Old St Paul’s Remembers the First World War with each volume focussing on a different year. Not only do the publications tell the story of those men and women from the congregation who served on the war’s many battle-fronts, but they also put their experiences in the context of the fighting. Amongst them was the Canon Albert Ernest Laurie who served as chaplain to the 1st East Lancashire Regiment during the Battle of the Somme where he was awarded the Military Cross for his gallantry in the field. Few would disagree with his observation about the fighting: “It is all barbarous – all atrocious; it is not a war of men with hearts and brains but a war of scientific explosives where hearts and brains are meaningless.”