Retired history teacher Colin Johnstone, from Aberdeen, had no idea that a casual remark made by his mum would lead to him forming a friendship with a remarkable survivor of World War I.
“My mother read about a chap called Tom Rearie, from Newmachar, a former Gordon Highlander, who was celebrating his 90th birthday and who had been a guest of the Gordons at the Western Front on a couple of occasions,” said Colin, who at the time was teaching at Bridge of Don Academy.
“I’ve an interest in the Great War, so popped out to visit him and met the most amazing man, who, aged 90, was still working full time as a tailor.
“As he sat cross-legged on the table sewing by the light that came through the window, we chatted about his war-time experiences, some of which I managed to record.”
Over several meetings, modest Tom revealed a tale that included being buried alive and witnessing his brother’s death.
Before the war, Tom worked as an apprentice tailor with Henry Ironside, of Newburgh.
“While working there, a group of young German musicians arrived,” said Colin. “These groups used to travel regularly before the war, but eventually aroused so much suspicion that they were spies, they were accompanied on their visits by the police.
“Tom remembered his boss saying, ‘Mark my words, one day we’ll be at war against them’.”
Not long afterwards, war was declared and Tom signed up.
Records at The Gordon Highlanders Museum record a soldier: 241217 Private Thomas Rearie, Gordon Highlanders 5th (Buchan & Formartine) Battalion The Gordon Highlanders (Territorial Force) – also known as the 5th Gordons.
Some 50,000 men served in the Gordons between 1914 and 1918, with the 5th Gordons being involved in active service on the Western Front from May 1915 until the end of the war.
They were involved in some of the most brutal battles of the conflict, such as Beaumont Hamel (the last stages of the Battle of the Somme, November 1916) and Third Ypres (also known as Passchendaele, autumn 1917).
“Tom followed the Gordons around northern France and down into the Somme and fought at High Wood at the Battle of the Somme in July 1916,” said Colin
The small forest near Bazentin le Petit was the scene of some of the bloodiest and most intense fighting from July to September of that year.
“It was there Tom had some of his most traumatic experiences, which included being buried alive under mounds of mud before being dug out hours later by his companions, by which point he’d lost the power of speech.
“Suffering shell shock and unable to speak for six months, he was sent home to see a specialist doctor, which involved some pretty awful treatment – something like having an egg whisk put in his mouth while electric shocks were put through it – before being sent back to the front.
“I could see him reliving his experiences in his mind as he told his story. He was frustrated as they’d tried to dig in on the edge of the wood – the Germans had saws and mechanical diggers but all they had were trenching tools, which were no use at getting through tree roots.
“Not long after, he met his brother and they were sheltering from heavy bombardment in a shell hole, in the belief that lightning doesn’t strike twice.
“They ran out of water so tossed a coin to see who would crawl to a nearby steam and fill up the water bottles.
“Tom lost but had only crawled 10 yards before there was a big explosion – a shell landed in the hole and he never saw his brother again.
“He said that after that, for 10 years, every time he shut his eyes it all came back.”
There were some bright moments, though. At just over 5ft tall, Tom’s lack of height may have helped save his life on many occasions as he did not have to duck down in the trenches.
“He also thought kilts were great as you could be in and out of the latrine quickly,” said Colin.
“Some poor men were shot while doing up their trousers as, if it was a cold day, the snipers would look for steam coming from the latrines, which was a giveaway, and fire.
“The latrines were a dangerous, dangerous place.”
Tom was also in constant demand as a tailor, doing running repairs.
At some point after his service with the Gordons, he joined the Labour Corps and, towards the end of the war, was seconded to the only Scottish Company of the Balloon Propaganda Unit.
As part of a 12-strong attachment, they would send messages across enemy lines, deep into Germany, urging people to give up, which contributed towards lowering German morale.
He was also one of the first to hear of the armistice when his propaganda operations were halted as German missionaries were brought though the lines to discuss peace terms.
Tom was demobbed in 1919 and, after working in Aberdeen and Whiterashes, opened a tailor’s business in Newmachar, which he and his wife Margaret ran for decades.
“He was a most wonderful, self-effacing man, with no claims of glory and no ill will towards the enemy – he simply said they didn’t want to be there any more than he did,” said Colin.
In 1986, aged 89, he revisited the Somme battlefield and, during an interview at the time, said: “It was an experience you can never forget.
“I lost a lot of my pals and the lost of life was just colossal.
“It was just murder.
“It was something you wouldn’t want anyone to experience ever again – something I wouldn’t even wish on my worst enemies.”
Through his friendship with Colin, he met one of the “enemy”, Ala Niedermeier, who had been in the Hitler Youth movement and, at 16, was given a rifle and told to hold back the Red Army.
“He took the decision to throw the rifle away and walk hundreds of miles home to the family farm,” said Colin.
“When Ala was visiting here, I took him to meet Tom and the two became instant pals – Tom chatting away in broad Doric and Ala in broad Bavarian – and I swear each understood the other perfectly.”
Tom died in 1990. Aspects of his life can be seen at the Heritage Centre in Alford, where his tailor’s workshop is on display. The centre is open daily, Monday to Saturday, from 10am-4pm and from 1-4pm on Sundays.