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Boredom, bungles and dodging death: Charles Lander on the Western Front

A destroyed German trench on the Messines Ridge, 1917. More people died in the battlefields around Ypres than were killed by the atomic bomb. Photo: National Library of Scotland.

What was is like to fight in the First World War? It is a question no living person can answer, but we have inherited many stories from the dead.

My Great Grandfather, Charles Lander, kept a diary of his active service. It is a glimpse of the life of a fairly junior officer in a most extraordinary war. There are heroics and horrors – but he also chose to record some of the boredom, the bungles, the friends he made and lost, and perhaps most strikingly, vivid personal reflections on his own mistakes.

Initially rejected from the army because he was too skinny, Charles, a member of the Officers Training Corps at university, left Birmingham for the Army in 1914. He received a year of training before leaving for France in April 1916 where he was to fight in ‘Kitchener’s Army’, the masses of young men of largely ordinary professions who ‘answered the call’. He was proud, yes. But also nervous.

He is courting his fiancee Doris when he is given his orders. At home one weekend on leave he recalls feeling “very peaceful and very much in love” when “a telegram arrived giving us orders to proceed overseas. I must confess that rather a lump developed in my throat and all sorts of fears ran through my mind of what the future had in store for me; whether this was to be my last afternoon in the old house. Fortunately H. Allenby dropped in for tea and sentimentalities were forgotten. The morning came and I said goodbye.”

At 2pm on 20th April 1916 he arrives at Boulogne: “as I stepped on the quay realised that this was the beginning of a new life; full of thrills and new interest.  There were thousands of khaki-clad soldiers about of all units; new drafts, officers and men returning from leave; red tabs and blue tabs; and brass hats by the score.” His division is set for the Battle of the Somme, where they would be a ‘flying column’, advancing 10km a day after the line was broken (this is not how it turned out of course, as you can read in my abridgement of his diaries of that battle).

Fortune and failure

His diary from start to end recalls tales of unfortunate errors and good fortune both.

For starters, he gets told-off a lot. On his first day in Company HQ he is shouted at by the Officer Commanding for meddling with a trench map: “I apologised and shrivelled up somewhat… I was scared of him for days afterwards”. He variously leads supply groups on “short-cuts” which turn out to take much longer, loses his way in the dark, and is severely reprimanded for giving up on laying a telephone cable half way through the job.

On training he tries horse riding. On first attempt the horse bolts: “I would have split my head on the stable door but for the fact that by this time I was hanging under the animal’s neck; and all this in view of stable men and crowds of infantry splitting with laughter.”

Soldiers having tea on the front at Messines, Belgium, 1917. Photo: National Library of Scotland.

Behind the line one evening he and another officer go for a stroll only to be “literally chased by a Boche plane dropping bombs.” Instead of dropping into a ditch, they run into a barn, attracting fire into the farm and “thereby increasing the target”, he scolds himself.

In the Somme he is approached by a gunner on horseback “a sorry mess, covered with blood from head to foot… the poor thing had stopped one in the neck and every time it took a step and moved its head the blood gushed out and smothered itself and its rider.” Charles is obviously shaken. The gunner pleads with Charles to put the horse out of its misery but he is worried about getting in trouble for killing a (valuable) horse and equally worried that he would mess up the job: “I was not very handy with a revolver and thought if I shot the poor beast it might take half a dozen shots as I didn’t want to get too near and get all bloody myself.” The poor gunner trudges on.

Despite his inadequacies and foibles, Charles pushes through every test. Some of his good fortune is almost monumental. In 1916 he misses the first day of the Battle of the Somme – the deadliest day of fighting in the history of the British Army – simply because he is in the 50% of officers kept back for the second day of fighting. In 1917 he is ordered to leave the front for a training course on the eve of the Battle of Passchendaele – he would later join the battle at the start of its third month.

Life away from the front

Time off was precious, and received gratefully. Leaving the front after the end of Passchendaele he is treated to “a good honest steak and chips with beer… What a meal… I never before appreciated a meal, or life, so much as I did that afternoon.”

Contrasts between life on the front and behind it, perhaps even just a few miles away, are poignant. On training in the Somme region he writes “…the only trees in the district seemed all gathered together in woods which stood out as landmarks. The few farms in the district were far between and the peasants houses usually clustered together as small villages, only made of beams with plaster or mud between, with floors of beaten earth.

“We had occasional bathing parades in the River Somme. The river district was very beautiful, the river here consisting of a number of deep and dark pools of icy cold water, with marshy ground covered with rushes and iris between; the river proper wending between with an almost imperceptible flow. There were at this time of the year myriad of highly coloured butterflies and dragonflies about.”

After the Somme he is stationed on the Messines Ridge during a quiet spell. He takes care to describe “…the most perfect communication trench, 6 to 19 ft deep, with duck boards in A-1 condition, sides revetted, sometimes with wire and sometimes with brushwood. Above us and overhanging the trench in places the vegetation was growing thick, and coloured with heaps of poppies and cornflowers. The trees were untouched by shell fire and the hedges grew thick.”

The Somme, circa 2000. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Lander.

He makes good friends in his battalion and his notes dip into and out of fun and adventure.

At one training he even has the opportunity to fly in a reconnaissance aeroplane. “It was thought necessary that signal officers should view the methods from the airman’s point of view. A splendid idea of course.” At the Somme his Division is visited by the King Albert of Belgium who “presented every man with a packet of cigarettes.” And he recalls with glee how his comrades managed to hide a gramophone from a senior officer despite his order that “all surplus kit and musical instruments were to be dumped… He had the officers kit weighed and inspected – but the gramophone still survived.”

Although frustrated at the enemy, he is frequently in awe of their efforts. He records how German prisoners of war did “good work” bearing stretchers from the battlefield “cheerfully giving a hand and chatting and smoking with our fellows as though they had always been the best of pals.” A friend is captured, but reveals after the war the good treatment he received. His most common remark about prisoners of war, noted time and time again, is the smirking faces of prisoners being led away from the front towards him and his fellow soldiers being sent into battle.

He seems intrigued by the French. They “make war look picturesque and almost romantic. When a shell bursts among them you hear a lot of jabber and shouts of ‘Vive la France’ as they poop off with renewed energy – so unlike our chaps who just curse and blast.” Near Ypres an older peasant woman comes to a farmhouse they are staying in asking if they had found her missing 200 Francs. When they were returned “the Madame in her joy kissed the Captain (or tried to) and was loud in her praises of ‘Les Soldets Anglaise’.” Even away from the fighting poverty is rife, and he notes with sadness how little he can do for struggling locals and the many moving refugees.

Making a fight of it

Back on the front, the story is well trodden.

Winter on the Western Front brings few battles: they must simply be endured. He spends many months of the winters of 1916 and 1917 in the trenches, variously cold and wet, or cold and frozen; so cold it is “impossible to sleep”, he notes around Christmas 1917.

When the snow melted things were worse. The Somme battlefield was “a vast sea of mud and slime, not a tree or a building of any form in sight, not a tree stump even a foot high, not a blade of grass.” Resting soldiers made the best of it, some even sleeping in a pig-sty: “it was dry, if not clean, and offered protection against bombs.” In late 2017 he is stationed in tunnels under the infamous Hill 60, Ypres, “the bowels of the earth”. Conditions are grim.

By early 1918 he reports that one third of his battalion has trench foot. “Everyone was lousy and spent most of their spare time scraping the fat louses from the backs of their shirts and from the seams of their uniform; some cracked the blighters between their thumbnails, others burnt them over a candle flame. The huts were very filthy and overcrowded, and the stink from the unwashed; the wet and steaming uniforms mingled with foul tobacco smoke will never be forgotten.”

Death is everywhere. The company has nine officers when he joins is in 1916, that year four are killed and three are injured. His best friend in the army, F. P. Smith, is badly injured by a gas attack in 1917, and he receives a number of minor wounds himself.

He sees hundred and hundreds of dead men, sometimes roughly buried, more often simply strewn about. In the Somme he tells of trenches “chock full of German and British dead”; at Ypres sump holes “infested with rats as big as rabbits waiting to devour the dead… or even the dying.”

Charles is not desensitised to these horrors. He records them with care, noting the names of fallen comrades and the scene before his eyes. In one incident he writes that Edward Briscoe, a 22 year-old Lieutenant from Canterbury, is shot dead after getting lost in no-man’s land at night. His body falls into a German trench and is never found.

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Charles records the fate of Edward Briscoe, lost in action at Ypres and commemorated on the Menin Gate. Photo by Author.

Unsurprisingly Charles is haunted by these experiences. In a break from fighting on the Somme he recalls dreaming he was in a dug-out, waking “in a sweat” and running to the window being convinced that they were “coming down the steps to take us.” When he tells the story at breakfast he is laughed at.

Charles doesn’t attempt to weight the value of this suffering. Nor is it overwhelming; he takes his share of personal and military success.

At the Battle of Messines, the British detonate 19 mines under the German front (said to be some of the biggest man-made explosions before the atomic bomb) enabling the capture of crucial high ground around Ypres. During his final encounters on the Western Front in 1918 these positions are lost again, leaving a sour taste. In fact, on many occasions he sees allied troops sent to take small parcels of land, only to lose them days or even hours later. In the Somme he writes “there was a particularly hot spot which changed hands almost every night, sometimes twice nightly”, recalling gratefully that his battalion is stationed elsewhere.

He often apportions blame and credit to his seniors, and on occasion to his juniors.

In February 1918, with moral and temperatures at a low ebb, he recalls with how the front was quiet and untroubled on both sides: a case “live and let live”. The truce is broken when the visiting Brigadier tells them angrily “this isn’t a war”, and they are to start shooting at German positions. He then “popped off to his cushy billet and left us to take cover from the retaliation.”

Reflecting on the successful Battle of Messines Charles is glowing of his senior officers, but later disappointed to hear that it is a more senior commander who receives the Victoria Cross for the victory.

By 1918 Charles becomes a company commander himself. Although reeling at his “useless” servant, he makes little comment of his company at large. More often he expresses frustration that the “poor bloody infantry” are at the bottom of the pecking order, left in dangerous positions and pushed beyond breaking point.

Preparing for the end

Charles spends the last months of his war in desperate and often chaotic attempts to halt the German advances of early 1918.

Stationed at Albert in the Somme, his company is ordered to embark a train whose destination had suddenly fallen into German hands. Thousands of troops were stranded at the station, “a fine target for Jerry”, he writes, so they agree to disperse and take positions about the town. Panic must be contained when they realise they “hadn’t a round of ammunition between us”. They retreat to a nearby hill for some hours, then are led back through Albert in groups. “The town falling to pieces and lit up only by the bursting of bombs… it was most difficult picking one’s way between heaps of fallen masonry with telegraph lines down across the roads tripping one up, or cutting one across the face. Transport lay in heaps obstructing the endless stream of sweating cursing troops.” He continues: “mixed up with this mass of disorganised troops of all units were the remnants of the French civilian population… all pushing perambulators on which they had stacked their most important possessions… most had children with them.” Concluding: “not a murmur came from these people as they trudged on hour after hour.”

In the confusion he tracks circles around the town over the next few days, as the front is hastily reorganised to stem the German advance.

British casualties from a gas attack during the Spring advances of 1918. Photo: IWM.

His final battles would be fought South of Ypres, defending hills won only the previous summer.

On 10th April, following a gas attack, the line is breaking and Charles and a small group of soldiers are left stranded as the Germans advance on all sides. He has no orders. The ends of the trench are blocked up and they hope for the best: “we made a fairly defensive position and all stood-to with fixed bayonets and prepared for the end.” Suddenly a soldier jumps into their trench giving the order from the commanding officer to retreat to our new command post and incidentally, bring my trench coat which in haste I left behind. Papers are destroyed or bundled up, and they strafe across the battlefield “through a storm of rifle bullets” to the new position. Many do not make it.

Days and days of retreat eat away at moral. Retreating down one especially dangerous road at night his company is so tired that some soldiers simply lay down in a ditch and collapse into sleep. “I tried coaxing and I tried cursing and my own mouth was becoming dry from fright.” When they won’t move, Charles had no choice but to press on. They do not arrive back at camp.

Later his company is given their turn getting rest in a barn. At 3am on 7th May 1918 he is woken by shell fire and a hasty discussion breaks out about whether they should shelter in nearby trenches when “a heavy shell came through the roof and burst on the chaff-covered floor among the sleeping men. The confusion was terrible, most of us half asleep and in pitch darkness. The place was filled with fumes and thick with dust raised by the explosion. There was a scramble for the door and some shouted that it was gas, there were cries and groans from the wounded.”

While helping organise the soldiers to safety he notices blood streaming out his shirt sleeve and trousers. “I had been pretty badly hit… but in the excitement had not noticed it. Oh Joy – a blighty one!” Far from fearing for his life, Charles is joyous at the possibility that this injury might send him home.

He is patched up and ready to be taken away when a gas shell hits. “I knew that to lose consciousness now would have been to lose hope, so pulled myself together and managed to get on my gas bag… there I lay for what seemed hours striving to keep conscious and all the time fit to burst. The heat in a gas mask is terrific. I prayed and I cursed the Boche alternately.”

When the shelling stops he is taken away on a stretcher, getting severely agitated when his bearers pop him down to grab a cup of tea. When the cook appears, seeing the look on his face they ask if he would like a cup of tea himself. “To hell with the tea… I tried to thank him nicely but would rather get a move on.”

As it turned out, the shell that fell in that barn had killed two and wounded fourteen. Luck was still falling on Charles, and he knew it.

At a dressing station he is well looked after, and more concerned about embarrassing himself in front of the nurses. He recalls: the nurse “started to change the undersheet, I had a squint at it and found it was only blood, what a relief.”

The next day he is on a ship home to “dear old Blighty”.

Ma, Pop and the Twin's 21st

Charles (centre right, top), Dorothy (centre, bottom), and family on the occasion of their twin daughters Lizzie and Maggie’s 21st birthday, Birmingham. Photo: family collection.

The injury would decisively take him off the Western Front – he would not recuperate in time to fight again. That summer he made the most of his leave, marrying Doris D’Abreu and honeymooning in Stratford-upon-Avon and Llandudno.

Charles and Doris were married for sixty-six years, having six children and dying within two days of each other in 1984.

As a child I heard his stories through the voice of his eldest children, my Grandfather Charles, himself a veteran of the Second World War, and my Great Aunty Mary, a veteran of the Women’s Land Army. Now they are gone too it’s my generation’s job to share these memories. Like many stories of that appalling war, Charles’ diary is full of honesty, humanity and compassion. Values we surely need now more than ever.

  • Charles, known to the family as “Pop”, said little about his time on the Western Front during his lifetime. His diary was found by his daughter Mary after his death and transcribed by his grand-child Jeremy Lander and partner Sally Lander, to whom I am indebted. This article is based on extracts from that transcription, which was later published as: “Lander’s War: The War Diaries of Lt. Charles Herbert Lander 10th Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment”. Jeremy and Sally thanked Cambridge University Library and Colonel Michael Payne, who proof read and advised on their text, so I pay that gratitude forward.
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“I began to feel a little bit shaky”: Charles Lander in the Somme, 100 years ago

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Paul Nash: ‘We Are Making a New World’ (IWM)

100 years ago today began the Battle of the Somme. Few episodes in human history are remembered with such a grand sense of supreme awfulness. But with this grandeur comes distance and incomprehension. As time passes the gulf widens: we need personal stories to bridge it.

My Great Grandfather, Charles Lander, fought in the Somme and recorded his memories in a diary which spanned the whole of the First World War.

A member of the Officer Training Corps when war was declared, Charles would spend 20 months in training before leaving for the Western Front as a junior officer in the British Army.

When he finally did arrive in France in the Spring of 1916 his diary entries are brimming with a sense of fascination and adventure. But as the days go by these stories are increasingly peppered with references to “the coming offensive”. Lengthly preparations are made. He writes, “we handed to the quartermaster letter for home: last letters, which he understood were only to be posted if we were killed.”

It’s 9.30pm on 4th July 1916, and after what must have been an agonising four days in waiting, Charles was given his first order to enter battle.

With a guide and a small group of soldiers he is required to carry rations to his battalion on the front. In the middle of the night, struggling with large sacks of provisions along trenches three foot deep in water, he came across “an unpleasant sight that made me feel very sick.”

“I slipped when wading through some water and my hand caught hold of something round and slimy, half submerged, which rolled over and showed itself to be the head of a dead British Tommy, whose lower portions were stuck in the slime. This was the first dead body I had ever seen.”

As they approached the front their guide leads them out from the trench, and over the top. The ground is shell-torn, criss-crossed with the remains of deep trenches, covered in broken barbed wire and machine gun fire surrounds them. Charles admits, “I began to feel a little bit shaky.”

Eventually they arrive at the command post where they are given further instructions: leave the provisions here, hand out the rum to the men on the front.

By now they are deep into German trenches captured in the previous days of fighting. Solider’s bodies, equipment and ammunition litter the ground. The front is reached. Charles is shocked to find his soldiers exposed, packed shoulder-to-shoulder, in a trench “no more than knee deep.”

A senior officer tells him they are by the church in the village of La Boiselle. He replies “I’ll have to take your word for it” – the entire village had been reduced to rubble.

Dawn breaks. It becomes clear that the battalion are desperately vulnerable, with Germans perhaps as near as 10m away. They cannot move, because the Germans hold higher ground and snipers are poised. “Our own dead lay pretty thick about: Lord knows what they would look like in a few days after the summer sun had got to them.” Shell fire is minimal, which is just as well given their position.

He would survive this encounter. Later in the morning they are relieved, returning to Allied territory along a new hastily dug trench.

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British wounded returning from the Somme battle, July 1916 (Wikimedia)

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For three weeks his company is kept behind the front to clean-up, rest and repair.

Then the order comes to return to fighting. His battalion are to offer support in reserve. Their destination is an area of thick woodland which is shaken by repeated shell fire, causing trees to explode and fall all around. He notes that the trenches in the wood are “full of German and British dead… still unburied and in a horrible state of decomposition and covered with flies, who were having a real good summer.” That night he is woken in the night to find his dugout is on fire, and badly injures his leg in the scramble to get out.

He mentions this little in his diary, perhaps because the following night the officers, of which he is one, are gathered and given orders for “an immediate attack.” Charles is frustrated at his orders. “What hope”, he asks, “for an attack which is to start within the hour, positions to be taken in the dark, without reconnaissance over unknown ground?”

The attack begins and is chaotic. The advance doesn’t move quickly enough and those behind are trapped, caught in the open – fatalities are high.

As the day draws on he hears news that a whole company has gone missing, and is sent to try and find them. He finds them “dead and dying sprawled across a road”, with terrified soldiers lying on the ground, “too scared even to dig in.”

When he seeks help the senior officer he finds is useless. Amidst the crashing sounds of the battle Charles shouts in his ear “pull yourself together and get your men dug in.” As the night draws on he manages to get enough support from other officers to halt their attack and find cover – just beating the advancing dawn.

He spends the early hours of the morning back at the command post. Wearing a gas helmet they are continually working to keep the dugout entrance open. “Deep down though we were, our candles were continually being put out by the concussion of heavy shell bursting on top, and time after time a shell would burst in one or other of the entrances and piles of earth and stinking fumes poured down the steps… We were fearful we would be buried alive.”

At 9am his commanding officer is killed while going to the toilet.

The battalion is given relief later that day, and Charles survives the Somme a second time.

One week later they return to fighting. He notes: “Today was my 23rd birthday. Was it to be my last?” Charles seems constantly aware of just how lucky he is to survive each day on the Western Front, and takes little for granted. His birthday is eventful: a number of men fall, one of whom, injured by shell fire, is carried away on a stretcher and “quite cheerfully smoking a fag” before passing away moments later.

When the mail arrives he remarks “there seemed to be an unusual number of parcels… it would have been a pity to get killed with a haversack still filled with good things.”

But relief comes again, and he disobeys orders to leave the front using what he thinks is a safer route, making him late back to his resting battalion. “We were so far behind that they had given us up as lost – and were too late for soup.”

“What a glorious sleep we had this night. It was a lovely summer night and news had got round that the division had finished with the Somme and were going back to a rest.”

Charles’ battalion would go on to fight in the area South of Ypres before returning to the Somme in October. His descriptions of the now four-month old battle-field are hauntingly familiar.

“A vast sea of mud and slime, not a tree or a building of any form in sight: not a tree stump even a foot high, not a blade of grass.”

“Should a man get wounded and fall in a hole, God help him if he had no pal near – he would surely die or suffocate.”

He passed the old front lines from July to witness hundreds of dead, buried where they fell, “marked sometimes by rough wooden crosses but mostly by rifles stuck bayonet-first into the ground”… “large numbers of these bodies were only just covered and feet and legs still protruded above the ground with just a boot or fragment of sock remaining on the bones.”

“They had expected in a few more days to win the war… none of the poor devils even got as far as the German wire.”

The 18th November is recorded as the last day of the Battle of the Somme.

The night before, Charles’ battalion was required to move into position ready to attack. The weather is poor and they have little knowledge of the terrain. “The water which filled the shell-holes was frozen and covered with snow.” The area near Grancourt is an intricate system of German trenches that they have never seen it in daylight. The night is bitterly cold. When there is a mix-up with one of his companies Charles’ is unnerved by the response from his commanding officer: “he was very cool and more polite than usual – a very bad sign.” Orders are given and the attack begins at 6am.

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Charles Lander in 1915 (Family photo)

Against the odds they makes gains. Charles, waiting at their command post, comes across the dead body of a fellow officer. Soon after his hand is injured by a piece of shrapnel, and quietly, cautiously, he makes his excuses to leave the front. On the last day of the Battle of the Somme Charles Lander finally escapes.

Nearly home, arriving at Manchester station, there is some excitement to see troops returning from the front. “There was a cheering crowd at the station; we did feel foolish.”

Charles spent Christmas 1916 back with his family, returning to France to fight in the Battle of Messines and Passchendaele in 1917. Active on the front near Ypres during the German advances in 1918, his war would end there when a shell exploded in a barn where his company was sleeping, wounding 14 and killing 2. Suffering multiple injuries he would never return to the Western Front.

His diary paints pictures of five years of extraordinary landscapes, horror, despair, gas, trench-foot, fatigue, boredom, incompetence, luck (often) as well as joy and heart-felt relief.

One million people were wounded or killed in the Battle of the Somme. An almost incomprehensible catastrophe.

Charles Lander was one of those who escaped from hell. I count myself truly lucky to have the story of a survivor which I can hold so close to my heart.

  • Charles Lander, known to the family as “Pop”, said little about his time on the Western Front during his lifetime. His diary was found by his daughter, Mary Lander, after his death in 1984 and transcribed by his grand-child Jeremy Lander and partner Sally Lander. This article is based on extracts from this transcription, which was later published as: “Lander’s War: The War Diaries of Lt. Charles Herbert Lander 10th Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment”. Click here to for more information.
  • The original version of this article implied that the Battle of Passchendaele (3rd Battle of Ypres) took place in 2016, not 2017. It was corrected on 8 Nov 2018.
  • The remainder of Charles’ diaries from the War are abridged in my 2018 article ‘Boredom, bungles and dodging death‘.
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What Scotland Looks Like Now

After the Referendum: A Gazetteer for Scottish NGOs

For Scottish civil society two weeks ago was day zero of our political calendar. Two weeks later the impact of the referendum campaign and the result is becoming clearer. The result has set the platform for political campaigning in Scotland for years to come. We need to understand what’s happening and be prepared for what’s coming.

With this in mind this is a brief summary of events and analysis, designed to give a big picture of where we stand and where we’re going.

Seven key issues

There are a number of key issues which for the next while will be the top things to consider in Scottish politics:

#1. New loud civil society voices whose direction of travel is no longer clear. Many influential new groups which sprung up during the referendum are continuing, including:

  • Common Weal have had around 1,000 people offer help after the vote, according to one staff member. They are building support for “a network of venues across Scotland; cafe bars where the movement can meet, discuss and organise”; a new social media engine called “CommonSpace” to allow people to “get easy access to the best writing and thinking”; and a “Common Weal Policy Unit to do research, policy development and analysis” (presumably taking this role away from the Jimmy Reid Foundation) which may include a paid lobbyist at the Scottish Parliament. Their “National Council for Scotland” project, which was about gathering varied voices for a Scottish constitution and was supported by various key Yes voices, appears to have been shelved.
  • The Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) has had huge post-vote support including over 7,000 people expressing interest in their November conference (see Civil society events planned so far), and are set to continue in some form. They still count key activists from the Scottish Green Party, Scottish Socialist Party and International Socialist Group in their leadership. Perhaps related to this they have not agreed to become a new political party, despite murmurings.
  • National Collective, the artists for Yes group, will be continuing “the Yes campaign’s legacy of a politically engaged and educated electorate, regardless of the result.” Full details will come shortly and they’ve been having lots of busy meetings.
  • So Say Scotland, a deliberative democracy project which held events asking people to discuss their priorities for a better Scotland, is continuing. They had previously said that “regardless of the results of the referendum this September, So Say Scotland will continue to build its networks across the country [to make] Scotland a global hub for democratic innovation.”
  • Bella Caledonia, a blog website led by Mike Small, as with Common Weal are planning to expand their blog into a full media website with a full-time editor and “six editorial posts in the following areas: international, community, arts, innovation, social justice and ecology”. They are also planning to create “regular Video News Coverage”, “Citizens Journalism Training”, and a print magazine “Closer”.
  • 45+ is a very loose grouping of Yes voters keen to continue the#3. Forthcoming elections. campaign for independence immediately. They lack support from other major groups but are likely to continue their street campaign and will be putting pressure on the SNP to offer another referendum. The name of the group, among other things, has met criticism (e.g. Rich Shore). Some of their events are collected here.

#2. Huge upsurge in “Yes” party membership.

  • The SNP have had a huge upsurge in membership. With 75,000 members they are now the third largest political party in the UK, far surpassing the Liberal Democrats, and have members of more than 1% of the Scottish population.
  • Scottish Greens have gained 4,000 members in the last two weeks bringing their total membership to over 6,000. Individual branches in Glasgow and Edinburgh now have more members than the entire party had going in to 2014 and they are now the clearly the fourth party in Scotland by membership.
  • Conservatives, UKIP and Labour have made no claims about increased membership. The Lib Dems reported minor increases in membership earlier in the year UK-wide. It’s fair to assume not much has changed for the “no” parties, else they’d be telling us if it had.
  • There is a considerable amount of chatter about the dire state of support for Labour in Scotland, centred around suspicion that Labour voters who voted Yes have been put off by the negative aspects of the Better Together campaign and will fund it hard to vote for Labour in the future. Here’s a hypothesis (Adam Ramsay) and a rebuttal (Mark Ballard) about their prospects for Westminster elections in 2015.

#3. Forthcoming elections. The full impact of these membership and activist upsurges on parliamentary politics will not be clear until the next Scottish Parliament elections (in 2016), where proportional representation will give us a decent idea of how these new members are getting votes. Westminster elections in Spring 2015 are hard to read. Since the formation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 the SNP, Greens and socialists have not used Westminster as a major point of mobilisation. The introduction of new Yes and left wing activists, battle hardened from the referendum campaign, to a Westminster election could be very significant. And then of course there’s the possibility of an EU referendum, promised to us by the Conservatives (and UKIP), who may have some chance of forming a majority in Westminster next year.

#4. The SNP leadership. The First Minister, Alex Salmond, has resigned, and Nicola Sturgeon seems likely to take his place. There will be internal elections including for deputy leader, and there will be much discussion of changes in direction. Stewart Hosie MP and Keith Brown MSP (backed by, amongst others, Humza Yousaf MSP) have announced their candidacy for Deputy Leader. It’s worth noting that if elected Sturgeon would not only be the first woman First Minister, she would make the Lib Dems the only Parliamentary party in Scotland without a woman leader.

#5. The Smith Commission is tasked with triangulating Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem policy on constitutional reform to recommend new powers for the Scottish Parliament before the 2015 UK elections. In the referendum campaign these policies were outlined as including new powers to vary tax and benefit rates and to borrow and today it was suggested that these powers will be fully available by 2017. Civil Society has been invited to contribute to the Smith Commission by the end of October, and groups including NIDOS and Stop Climate Chaos Scotland have suggested they will input. There is considering public scepticism about the process fuelled by UK Government proposals to link the reforms with “English Votes for English Laws” in Westminster (there are a number of constitutional problems this would raise) and things have already gotten messy with Gordon Brown accusing David Cameron of trying to hijack the process. This debate could spurn more serious discussion about federalism in the UK and the creation of a new English Parliament – a “constitutional chain reaction”, as Eve Hepburn puts it – watch this space. The Electoral Reform Society’s “Democracy Max” project may provide some useful ideas.

#6. Iraq War III. David Cameron has admitted he held off a vote about re-invading Iraq until after the referendum vote for fear of jeopardising the result. The bombers have been sent in and we’re told they’re likely to be there for the long haul. This is likely to be a recurring issue for campaigners and could be a major point of mobilisation (see Civil society events planned so far).

#7. Austerity… and another referendum. It seems likely that there will be another referendum on independence within the next decade. A generation has now taken independence seriously, even if they didn’t vote for it, and many will view the events of the years to come through the following lens: “I wonder how things might have been different if we’d gone for yes?” Promises of further cuts by all three big Westminster parties are likely to bolster SNP support and drive the idea that “Scottish politics is different”. As Gerry Hassan says “The British state has bought itself some precious time. If it does not use it wisely, this debate will be back in a decade and Scotland will produce a second referendum rather different from the first.”

If we take the likelihood of another referendum seriously NGOs should start thinking, albeit quietly, about how we want to position ourselves in such a vote. More cautious organisations may reflect on the gains made by the likes of the Scottish Refugee Council and CND who, although didn’t get their preferred outcome, won a lot of public support from their engagement in the debate.

So that’s the political landscape. With all this going on we will have to fight hard to get airtime for TTIP, fracking, UN climate talks, and other thorny Thorn House issues.

Further reading

Some interesting thoughts on related topics from the last two weeks.

Civil society events planned so far

  • Sat 4 Oct, Glasgow
    Stop the War March, Stop the War Coalition
  • Sun 5 Oct, Edinburgh
    Global Justice / Open Space, Edinburgh (World Development Movement, NIDOS, Jubilee Scotland, People & Planet)
  • Tue 7 Oct, Edinburgh
    Post Referendum: A New Scottish Democracy?
  • 30 Sep – 20 Oct, Edinburgh
    Edinburgh World Justice Festival
  • 11-12 Oct, Edinburgh
    Scottish Green Party Conference,. Greens annual meeting in Edinburgh. Conference booking for fringe meetings now open. Branch meetings also happening. “The Scottish Green party reported a parallel surge in membership, with 3,000 supporters joining since Friday.” (Guardian)
  • 23 Oct, Edinburgh
    NIDOS AGM and Annual Conference, “The Path Ahead”, Festival Theatre.
  • 13-15 Nov, Perth
    SNP Conference 13-15 November, Perth. “More than 18,000 people joined the party since Thursday, lifting its overall membership to a record level of 43,644.” (Guardian)
  • 20 Nov, Glasgow
    Third Sector Summit,. SCVO.
  • 22 Nov, Glasgow
    Radical Independence third annual conference,. Venue tbc due to level of interest. Over 7,000 people planning to attend on facebook! Also meeting regularly in local branches.
  • 23 Nov, Edinburgh
    Activist Skills Share with the World Development Movement, People & Planet, Friends of the Earth Scotland, Jubilee Scotland and friends.
  • Lots of local meetings for post-Yes/”We are the 45” groups (see here)

Ric Lander
askriclander@gmail.com
www.riclander.wordpress.com

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7 Pillars of Awesome Events

Following a series of well received workshops on event planning for community groups (People & Planet Scotland Gathering, 2011; Strathclyde Sustainable Futures, 2012; Edinburgh Do, 2013) I’ve written up my golden rules for activist event planning for download.

If you know someone who’s involved in community organising they should find it easy to use and useful for many purposes.

You can read it now on my website:

The document is also available as a printable PDF handout.

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Transition Edinburgh University: Three Years of Action

The Transition Edinburgh University group came to an end after funding for the initiative’s staff ended in 2011.

I had the privilege of being one of those staff.  Many folk involved went on to do great things working for the University’s new Sustainability Office.  I left the university to work on other projects, but remain very proud of what we did at Edinburgh and as the TEU website is now offline, I wanted to link to some records of the project here for posterity.

To find our about what happened during Transition Edinburgh University’s three busy years (2009-11), have a look at the attached reports and look at the photo archive here:

Many of the voluntary projects supported by Transition Edinburgh University continued to flourish, including:

Transition’s work on campus sustainability, including energy saving, waste and transport, has gone from strength to strength in the new University Sustainability Office.

You can read more about their work and will also find helpful contacts for everything university and green.  You can also visit them on Facebook.  There’s still loads going on!

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