PRIVATE JOHN WILSON KELSO
2ND SEPTEMBER 1917 AGE 19
BURIED: VLAMERTINGHE NEW MILITARY CEMETERY, BELGIUM
William Wilson Kelso created his son's inscription, combining a very short poem by Thomas Osbert Mordaunt (1730-1809) with a line from Shakespeare's Macbeth.
Sound, sound the clarion, fill the fife,
To all the sensual world proclaim
One crowded hour of glorious life
Is worth an age without a name.
Mordaunt's poem, The Call, was at one time thought to have been written by Sir Walter Scott who used it as the motto to Chapter XIII in Volume II of An Old Mortality. W.E.Henley (1849-1903) certainly attributed it to Scott when he used it on the title page of Lyra Heroica, his collection of poetry for boys.
The phrase was frequently used as a shorthand to describe a certain type of person. Vera Britain used it to describe her fiance Roland Leighton:
"I know you're the kind of person who would risk your life recklessly; I was talking to someone a short time ago and I said I thought you were the kind who believes in the 'one glorious hour of crowded life' (sic) theory; is it true?"
There's something rather touching about the way John Kelso's parents recorded that he "left school to join the Colours in February 1916". I expect he was just 18 because they record equally carefully that he was 19 and a half when he died a little over a year and a half later. John was the fifth of their six children and their only son.
Kelso served with the 6th Battalion Seaforth Highlanders, part of the 51st Highland Division. This went into the trenches near Langemarck on 20 August 1917 and remained in the area until 20 September. The History of the 51st Division remarks that this was an interesting period on three counts: "First the mud ... the ground throughout the whole front was so sodden with rain and churned up by shell-fire as to be impossible to troops in any numbers". Second was the "consistently lavish use of the recently-introduced mustard gas, which caused numerous cases of slightly-gassed men, and a lesser number of men seriously gassed. The latter suffered indescribable agonies, and either ultimately died or made an insufficient recovery ever to return to the ranks as whole men". The third feature was the aerial bombing, which the Germans began to use increasingly at this time. The bombing was "difficult to deal with, as shelters for the men could not be provided by means of dug-outs in the clay soil of Flanders".
Kelso died of wounds at a field ambulance on 2 September, whether from gas, mud, shell or bomb we don't know.
After life's fitful fever he sleeps well;
Treason has done his worst: nor steel, nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing,
Can touch him further.
Macbeth Act III Scene ii