Day 3 of 141 days of the Battle of the Somme 1916-2016 100 years 

“A young soldier’s letters home from the frontline describing the horror and terror of the First World War have been published after gathering dust for over 50 years.

Lieutenant Norman Collins sent 170 letters and 42 postcards back home to his family at regular intervals from the Western Front during the Great War.

In those messages the teenage platoon leader described seeing his friends slaughtered at the Somme in 1916 – and then having to bury them himself.

Movingly, they recall how his young orderly requested some whisky to steady his nerves the night before an attack which would claim his life.

They also reveal how one of Lt Collins’ close friends suffered from a hernia but refused to go sick until after he had participated in a major offensive, in which he died.

After returning from war injured in 1917 Lt Collins presumed the correspondence had been thrown away and lost forever.”


Norman Collins aged 100 years (top) and (bottom) after his first promotion as an 18-year-old Lance Corporal 

But to his amazement the letters resurfaced in 1971 when his brother Bolton passed away and they were handed over to him by his sister-in-law.

Now, 41 years later, the documents been published in a book called ‘Last Man Standing’ by historian Richard Van Emden.

The book also contains numerous photographs that Lt Collins took documenting life on the front. Having a camera was strictly against army regulations at the time.

The drawings in the book was when he was having training at the time. The camera Norman brought for himself in 1917.

In the letters the Seaforth Highlander’s early optimism and patriotism soon becomes haunted by his experiences of the war and seeing his friends die.

He speaks poignantly of his love for his men and his respect for the Germans.

In the book Lt Collins described the tension in the trenches on the eve of an attack on Beaumont Hamel on November 13, 1916, in which two of his closest friends were killed.

Top picture is where all of the team from Sutherland before they got posted and the bottom is where they were off walking through Sutherland town. 

He wrote: ‘The night before the attack, my batman, a lad called Grigor, came to see me and asked if if I could provide him with the means of buying a small bottle of whisky – quite illegal of course, but I gave him the money to do it.

‘He would be going over the top with me and he was likely to be killed, as I thought I would be.

‘In the hours before the attack I recall speaking with two fellow officers, Lieutenants Smith and Mclean…

‘Lieutenant Smith… had developed a severe rupture and he wanted the hernia attended to in hospital, but he wouldn’t go sick beforehand as he had been nominated for the attack and his absence would seem cowardly.

Top picture: “Soldier’s life: Men of the Scottish Rifles spar outside their barracks”

Middle picture: “Norman, holding the ball, surrounded by the rest of the Saracens rugby team”

Bottom picture: “A group of Seaforths pose for the camera. The Sergeant, second from right, was killed at Arras in April 1917” 

‘I thought that was very brave of him because he could have gone sick and saved his life. In the event he was killed.’

Following the battle Lt Collins was given the grim task of leading the burial squad.

He wrote: ‘I was told just to get on with the job of burying the dead.

‘I had a squad of men to help me, carrying picks and shovels, and also stretchers.

‘Of course some of the men they were picking up were their brothers and cousins and they of course were very upset, very very upset.

Norman receiving a cup from the Queen Mother in the 1950s (above) 

‘Their number included my two particular friends Smith and Mclean; both had been killed in the action.

‘Lt Smith had been a dentist in civilian life, and Lt Mclean a divinity student; it shows you the waste of life there was in that war…

‘We took the dead on stretchers back to Mailly Maillet Wood and dug a long trench and put the dead in there, wrapped up in an army blanket, neatly packed in like sardines.

‘They fell side by side and they were buried side by side.

‘We covered them up and we gave them a proper funeral with reversed arms: all the ceremonial of a proper funeral, blowing the Last Post.’

Despite the fact they were fighting the Germans, Lt Collins speaks of his great respect for the enemy in his letters in the book.

He wrote: ‘I must say this, the Germans were good soldiers, many fought to the end.

‘I saw one machine gun nest fight to the last round. I really admired them as soldiers and, if I had to have a battalion on my right it would be a German battalion and I would never need worry that they would fall back.’

Many of the photographs depict Lt Collins and his comrades relaxing away from the front and partaking in boxing matches.

After joining the army at the age of 14 as a Private, Lt Collins was commissioned as an officer the following year.

He went to France as a Second Lieutenant before being being promoted to Lieutenant.

He was injured in a shell blast on December 8, 1916, and returned to the trenches around March 1917.

Four months after that he was caught in another shell explosion and was wounded again, ending his war.

Speaking about the end of the war, Lt Collins said: ‘On the day of the Armistice I was on leave and staying with an aunt and uncle of mine in Sheffield.

‘I was up a bit late that morning and was shaving when the sirens and hooters sounded across the city.

‘Incredibly the war was over, but my only thought was ‘It’s too late – all my friends are gone – it’s too late. It’s no good having an Armistice now.’

(File picture) Great War heroes: Picture from 1916 with British soldier keeping watch on ‘no-man’s land’ while his comrades sleep

‘I had a vision, and I was standing in a trench. I thought of all those I had known; it was like a panorama of passing people, people from the cadet battalion, through the various training course and out in France,

‘I realised it was the dead all walking away and leaving me behind.’

Following the First World War Lt Collins, from Hartlepool, County Durham, served with the 4th Rajputs Indian Army and rose to the rank of Captain.

He left the army and became an apprentice with the Austin Motor Company in Longbridge in Birmingham.

During the Second World War he oversaw the requisitioning of car workshops across the country to repair battle-damaged vehicles.

On his return to the battlefields in 1989 he was granted the Freedom of the City of Albert, the principal town held by the British during the Battle of the Somme.

He died in 1998 at the age of 100.

‘Last Man Standing’ has been published by Pen and Sword books.

 “Resource from online mail by reporter called “LEON WATSON” published on 9th November 2012 

‘They were picking up the bodies of their brothers and they were very upset’: Horrors of the Somme revealed in hundreds of letters sent home by teenage WWI officer



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