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Veterans join in remembering Great War

THEY were two teenagers just starting out in life when the "war to end all wars" broke out.

Alfred Anderson, 108, is now one of only two surviving Scots veterans of the First World War, while 107-year-old Charles Kuentz is the last man alive to have served in the forces of Imperial Germany.

Both went to war almost enthusiastically, but were scarred for life by the horrific realities of trench warfare, where "death came from everywhere" and men were "atomised" by shell blasts.

Tomorrow, on the 90th anniversary of the outbreak of hostilities between Germany and Britain, they will remember their fallen comrades and share the hope that such conflicts can one day truly be consigned to history.

Mr Anderson was a spirited 18-year-old in the Territorial Army when war was declared on August 4, 1914. There was a common belief that the war would be over by Christmas, and Mr Anderson and his mates in the 5th Battalion the Black Watch viewed the trip to France as an adventure.

Mr Anderson, who lives in his own home in Alyth, near Blairgowrie, said that 90 years ago he had not even questioned why the war had begun.

"I didn’t give the reasons much thought; I was too young for that," he said. "It was kind of a jaunt for us."

This impression was shattered when they became some of the first British troops to experience the horror of trench warfare. "When we got to the trenches, that was a different kettle of fish," he said.

He has done his best to forget what it was like when the whistle blew, signalling the men to "go over the top" and attack the German trenches. "I’ve tried to put all those thoughts behind me. I’ve no wish to revive them," he said. "But it’s affected me even to this day."

Mr Anderson served for a short time as batman to the Queen Mother’s brother, Captain Fergus Bowes-Lyon, who was killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915.

His own war ended when he was hit in the neck by a piece of shrapnel in 1916.

"We were entrenched in a listening post in no-man’s land when a shell exploded over our heads, killing several of my pals and injuring many others, myself included. I lay bleeding in the trench all day, until darkness provided the cover to get me to a field hospital," Mr Anderson said recently.

"My fighting days were over. But I was lucky - my dearest friends were left behind forever that day."

After recovering from his injuries, he worked as a joiner. "When you came back, you just had to get on with what was in front of you, day by day," he said.

Mr Anderson had hoped the war would be the last, but is now resigned to the prospect of many more to come.

"What did we gain?" he asked. "We certainly lost a lot. And we’re back to square one now.

"I think men will always fight. War is needed, I suppose, to settle some things, but for other things, maybe there is a better way."

Mr Kuentz’s war began in the same year that Mr Anderson’s ended, and initially he felt patriotic about serving "my Fatherland in its time of need". But action in the battles of Ypres, Artois, Cambrai, Arras and also on the Eastern Front, facing the armies of the Russian tsar, soon changed his mind.

"The life in the trenches of the Western Front was a special kind of war. Death came from everywhere, but the shell and the machine-gun ruled here. I saw men atomised before my eyes by the bursts of high-explosive shells," Mr Kuentz said.

"I wasn’t a keen soldier after a while. Whenever we had a quiet pause out of the line we all dreaded hearing that command that was sending us back to the front. We had fear because of the murderous world we inhabited.

"I live with the memory of my good friend torn apart by shellfire. I could do nothing for him. It was in moments like these that I realised how fate could so easily have put me in his shoes.

"I fought in that war in the belief it would never happen again, but it always does. I will go to my maker still hoping one day mankind will see sense and we will stop killing each other."

Mr Kuentz was born as Karl Kuentz in Alsace-Lorraine, territories taken by Germany in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 but returned to France after the First World War.

In 1939, he was called up into the French reserves but never fought. Once again, his ID papers were changed back to Karl and he was officially a citizen of Germany. His son, Franois, was conscripted into the Waffen SS and was killed fighting Allied soldiers in Normandy in 1944.

Mr Kuentz did not begin talking to his children about the war until he was 100.

"I urge the young of the world to become workers for peace, not to make the mistakes of my generation," he said.

"Through daily acts in their daily lives they must cultivate tolerance, courage, the love of one another ... and not forget the thousands of soldier victims, so that their deaths might not have been totally in vain."

Only one other Scottish veteran of the First World War is still alive. William Elder, now 107, who comes from Selkirk but now lives in a care home in Nottinghamshire, was a soldier with the Royal Garrison Artillery.

His daughter, Kathleen Campbell, told The Scotsman: "He never spoke about the war. I think it was too horrific to remember.

"I think he shut it out from his mind. I think the ones who had it hard did that."

Four British veterans - there are thought to be fewer than 30 still alive - will take part in a ceremony at the Cenotaph in London tomorrow to mark the anniversary.

Veteran Fred Lloyd, 106, who lost both his brothers between 1914 and 1918, is expected to recite John McCrae’s haunting 1915 poem, In Flanders Field, before Royal Navy veteran William Stone, 103, delivers the exhortation.

"War is not a wonderful thing to be remembered, but those who died must never be forgotten. I’ll be there for the lads," said Mr Lloyd.

 
 
 

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