Reith the Warrior

"In a sense, I had been looking forward to war for years"

The Young Soldier 1914-1917

The outbreak of the First World War brought an excited tone to the 25-year-old Reith's diary. 'WAR' he wrote in capital letters on 29 July, 1914 – the day after the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot dead in Sarajevo. He admits in his autobiography he'd been looking forward to it for years. He had been in the cadet corps at school, then joined the Territorial Army, where he rose from the ranks to become a commissioned officer in the 5th Scottish Rifles. When war was declared, he was immediately called up and sent to France.

There his imposing 6ft 6in. height and pair of oversized spurs got him the description 'The officer with the Scotch hat and big spurs'. His time at the front was marked by rows with some fellow officers – one got him sacked as a transport officer - and examples of outrageous bravado. He seemed - literally – unafraid to put his head above the parapet, preferring to get out of the trench and walk round obstructions rather than keep his head down. On one occasion, he relieved himself in no-man's-land rather than go to the latrines.

A bullet in the face

Reith's luck as a fearless soldier couldn't hold. On 7 October, 1915 he should have had the morning off and he was dressed in his best uniform, a new one because he recently transferred to the Royal Engineers. He knew the outfit would make him more conspicuous, but agreed to accompany his major to inspect overnight damage to the trenches. 'The course of my life,' he later wrote, 'was thus casually altered.'

As he examined a mine crater, a German sniper's bullet hit him in his left cheek, shattering the bone beneath his eye and leaving a wound five inches by three.

His first thought was to remember being hit accidentally by a cricket ball at school. Then he saw the blood. As he lay on a stretcher he muttered: 'I'm very angry and I've spoilt a new tunic'. It was the end of his active service. The wound in his face was clearly visible until the day he died.

A job in the USA

Reith was in hospital for less than a month recovering from his bullet wound.

He then renewed contact with his former boss at Pearsons, E W Moir, who was going to America to organise munition supplies. Reith joined him: 'I knew nothing about the manufacture of small arms; but that bothered me not at all.' He worked at the Remington Arms Company outside Philadelphia and developed experience running a large organisation. He ran an inspection team with 30 experts from the UK and 1,500 locally engaged inspectors checking rifles for the war effort.

Playing to the audience

I was a sort of curio, the first British officer wounded in the war whom the Americans had seen

Reith's 18 months in the US gave him experience of becoming a public figure. He met leading financiers and industrialists, including John D Rockefeller Jnr. His celebrity status was cemented when he was invited to address the St Andrew's Society of Philadelphia. He made a barnstorming speech that he described in a letter to his father as 'a whole lot of rot about glens, forests and straths'. But his audience was ecstatic and when he finished one of them rushed to the piano and started playing God Save the King.

More invitations followed in which he promoted the British war effort using his experience as a British officer wounded on the front line. He spoke at Princeton University, and Lafayette University awarded him an honorary MSc – a recognition he asked his parents to get into the Glasgow Herald. But when the US entered the war in 1917, the Remington factory was turned over to producing guns for the American government and Reith's happy time across the Atlantic had to end.