A Village Remembers: Strathblane First World War Project

Reminiscences

FOREWORD

The loss of a loved one is always hard to bear, more so when it is unexpected and far from home. That is usually the case when the tragedy involves a member of our armed forces, as we found out when our son and brother Gary was killed while serving as a Royal Marine in Afghanistan in 2006.

While we will never get over our loss, at least we find comfort in the fact that Gary was brought home to be buried in his beloved village – something that only became the norm in recent conflicts. His repatriation, while extremely difficult to cope with, helped us to accept what had happened. That was not something experienced by the families of those killed in World War One, no doubt making it harder to come to terms with their loss.

We learned of Gary’s death within a few hours, whereas 100 years ago it would have been days, sometimes weeks, before the news reached those back home. Even then, it came in the form of an impersonal telegram or letter, while we received the dreaded “knock at the door” from the Padre and another officer. Later that day, as we tried to come to terms with what had happened, we had Sky News on, expecting to witness an announcement, only to be shown footage of the incident in which Gary was killed and his Sergeant seriously wounded.

While there is a huge contrast with our experience, we suspect that the pain and loss felt by the families in this book were just the same. Maybe it took even longer for the bereaved of a century ago to emerge from the state of shock that engulfed us for well over a year. It may even have taken until the erection of Strathblane War Memorial in 1921 for the reality finally to sink in that their loved one was not coming home. At the same time, the unveiling would have come as some comfort, as it did for us when the plaque with Gary’s name was fixed to the wall beside the memorial.

When we lost him, the war memorial became a focal point for the villagers to show their respect and sympathy. (We don’t know who started it but flowers, wreaths and even a small blue candle lantern were placed there, which touched our hearts.)

We experience mixed emotions every Armistice Sunday, mainly pride and feelings of loss, but for us and all the other families in the same position, every day is Remembrance Day.

Ian, Rosemary & Karen Wright Blanefield 2014

INTRODUCTION

“Their name liveth for evermore.” Ecclesiasticus 44v14

Those are the words inscribed on the base of Strathblane War Memorial and on thousands of similar monuments throughout Britain, erected to remember the dead of the First World War. The Biblical quotation was selected after the war by Rudyard Kipling from the Apocrypha (“Their bodies are buried in peace but their name liveth for evermore.”).

In a sense, the statement is true. A century later, the name, rank and regiment of each of the parish’s 27 dead are still there, deeply etched across three panels in groups of nine. One of the panels has been replaced, so that like all those gleaming Commonwealth War Graves it seems unnaturally new and, like the men it names, unaged. The final two names, Philip Binnie and John Dillon, were appended after the unveiling in 1921 but otherwise the men are listed in alphabetical order without regard to rank or social status, in recognition of their equality in death and the brotherhood of the trenches. So the heir to 10,000 acres brushes shoulders with a local coal merchant.

Each year on Remembrance Sunday, self-consciously wearing our poppies, many of us continue to gather at the memorial, drawn by a vague sense of duty to these men. Now that the police stop the traffic, we can nurse sombre thoughts during a two minutes’ silence that is broken only by birdsong, the soft shuffling of guides and scouts and the occasional vocal toddler. Then the community briefly reclaims the section of the A81 that bisects it, by walking to the parish church behind the local pipe band.

The death of the last veterans of the First World War and the fact that nobody attending our little remembrance ritual knew any of these men personally – the eldest participant was born in 1918 – has not lessened the impact of this traumatic anniversary on our collective consciousness. Yet there is a danger that a ritual that is so well-worn becomes emptied of any real meaning. Petrified in stone. A danger that we fall back on well-worn clichés – slaughter, sacrifice, horror, grief – because the truth about why and how these men died is still untellable, even inexplicable. We talk about remembrance while we forget.

So we are left with the litany of names – Jack Barr, Robert Blair, the Cartwright brothers, William Devlyn and the rest of them – our lost boys. As families have died out or moved on or new generations come along who have forgotten or never knew them, we have lost their faces, their voices, their cruelly truncated biographies.

In 2013 a group of local residents was brought together by a single goal: to find out who these men were and tell their stories in a book. The profits will go to Erskine, the Scottish charity that has been rebuilding the shattered lives of veterans since 1916.

A Heritage Lottery Grant was secured and John Watson, a businessman with local links, kindly supported the venture. As word spread, more joined. Our backgrounds and interests included genealogy, local history, librarianship, military history, project management, journalism, photography and design. Curious relatives of the 27 men began to appear, offering precious fragments of memory and memorabilia and keen to know more. Putting flesh on the bones has been both painstaking and at times exhilarating.

Of course, most soldiers did not try to record their experiences or had their letters censored by their commanding officers. Few veterans talked about their experiences and many families later destroyed correspondence. Our fear was that there would be plenty of material from commissioned officers – the privately-educated sons of the great and the good – but precious little from the rank and file. To some extent that was true. The lives and military careers of four of the lieutenants are very well documented. The Edmonstone family has kept all of Willie Edmonstone’s letters home in a wooden box at Duntreath Castle. William Ker’s correspondence is widely quoted in a book about his naval squadron, the Hawke. He also features in two elegiac poems by AP Herbert. And the story of best friends Jack Barr and Eric Yarrow is recorded in heartbreaking detail in a major archive of Yarrow’s letters, diaries and photographs held by Oundle School.

As Yarrow’s great niece Avril Lawson puts it: “He was on the threshold of life with a promising future ahead. However, he was just one of the many young men who lost their lives during those awful days and his family was devastated to hear of his death, like so many others.”

Trying to capture the lives of men who left little behind them was more challenging. First came months of scouring forces’ records and information from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, as well as statutory records and census returns in the Mitchell Library family history section and on the ScotlandsPeople website. Short reports of individual soldiers’ deaths in local newspapers provided precious personal detail. The recent publication online of the official war diaries of a number of regiments, sometimes referring directly to one of “our men”, was a bonus. So was the online publication in May 2014 of the wills of 26,000 ordinary Scottish soldiers who died in the First World War, including eight on the Strathblane memorial.

In some cases descendants were able to share stories and artefacts. Former local garage owner, Donald Macintyre, the nephew of Private James Macintyre, provided the pocket atlas his uncle carried to war, complete with a pressed wild rose bud from Loch Lomondside and the poignant calendar tab on which his crossed-off days in the trenches end with his death. Local transport operator, David Frood, nephew of Nan McGregor, who was Private William Devlyn’s sweetheart, came up with his jaunty diary. Retired head teacher, Sandra Mitchell produced a silk embroidered postcard inscribed “To My Dear Wife” that her grandfather, Private Alexander Mitchell, sent home from France.

Also, though some are poor quality newspaper pictures, we were able to gather images of nearly half of the men. One or two are achingly beautiful, several look more like boys than men, some seem serious and wise beyond their years and a couple appear too sensitive for the savagery of the Western Front. It is hard to look at them without feeling a little pang of anguish.

What has this project taught us, more generally? In different ways, these men represent a microcosm of both the war and the local community, so that studying their lives and deaths is like having access to two powerful telescopes.

Only eight of the 27 joined the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders or the Highland Light Infantry, the two main locally-raised regiments. In fact, the rest represent almost every aspect of military service, including the Royal Naval Division, the Royal Flying Corps, the Machine Gun Corps, the Royal Garrison Artillery, the Army Cycling Corps, the Scots Guards and even the Lovat Scouts. And the deaths of men in the Railway Operating Division, the Army Service Corps and the Royal Army Medical Corps offer a sharp reminder that you did not need to have a gun in your hands to become a war casualty. Their war service demonstrates how behind the huge army fighting on the Western Front lay a second largely unheralded army, providing the complex infrastructure on which the war machine depended.

The variety of regiments represented also reflects the way conscripted men were used increasingly to plug manpower gaps caused by attrition. And there was a wide variety of both ages and physique. James Macintyre was just 19, while bachelor Daniel Morrison was 38. Gardener Robert Blair appears to have joined a bantam regiment, for men under 5ft 3ins, while we know that Willie Edmonstone, at more than 6ft 3ins, was said to have been the tallest officer of his age in the British Army. Two of the 27, James Cartwright and Donald McIntyre, died in training without leaving Britain.

The industrial scale of losses in particular offensives is reflected in the bunching of death dates. Five died at the Somme in 1916 and six more between September 26 and October 12 1917 in the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele).  Success came at a price that often seems to surpass the cost of failure and for what? The same piece of stinking mud. In fact, at least ten men on the memorial died within a few miles of Ypres, from Donald McNeil in November 1914 to George Don three years later.

Reading about the circumstances in which these men died, it is striking how many were felled by snipers, machine gun fire or shells, often while still in their trenches. Though some had certainly experienced it, not one of our 27 definitely died during hand to hand combat. And while there was plenty of unimaginable courage, these accounts leave the impression that this war was more about endurance than gallantry in the conventional sense. As historian Benedict Anderson put it: “The numbers of those killed greatly exceeded those who killed.” (The exceptions must be the machine gunners and artillery, who were able to harness new military technology to such devastating effect.)

All this is echoed in the changing tone of local newspaper coverage of the war. The first Strathblane man to die was 24-year old Sergeant Donald McNeil of the 1st Black Watch, the only professional soldier and one of the first of the “Old Contemptibles” into France in August 1914. His death two months later produced a jingoistic report in the Stirling Observer about a battle in which the Black Watch supposedly charged “clinging to [the] stirrup leathers” of the Scots Greys. The two Scottish regiments then dispatched the enemy with “the wild work of the bayonet” and “the slashing flail of the heavy cavalry sabres”. The report concludes by assuring the bereaved that their man “fills a hero’s grave”. The recently published official war diary of the 1st Black Watch suggests that Donald probably died from enemy shelling near Ypres. The stirrup charge is a complete myth, reflecting the extent to which newspapers helped whip up the patriotic fervour that sent a million British men to recruiting stations by Christmas 1914.

As the war dragged on and casualties mounted, the tone of reporting changed. When Wilfrid Moyes, the minister’s son, was awarded the Military Medal in 1917, the news made a single paragraph in the Milngavie & Bearsden Herald, wedged between coverage of a football match and an advert for a cough remedy. By this time, valour, death and devastating injury had become so commonplace that they had almost ceased to be news. And the jingoism had disappeared as myths crumbled beneath the weight of reality.

Nor is there much sign of the local press downplaying the horror of war. For example, when Robert Rowley Orr and his brother Eric were both invalided home after being gassed in the first German chlorine attack in 1915, the Milngavie & Bearsden Herald reported it, even if it added that the brothers were making a good recovery. Also throughout the war there were lectures at the Village Club and elsewhere on subjects such as “To the Trenches and Back”, rather contradicting the idea that the home population knew nothing of the horrors unfolding in France and Belgium.

No sound recordings survive from the First World War but many soldiers described the mind-numbing and literally deafening impact of the pounding of thousands of shells, the “storm of steel”, sometimes around the clock for days at a time. It is hard to imagine how that must have affected boys from a village where, following the closure of the printworks in 1898, the single loudest noise they had ever heard was probably the demolition of the works’ 160ft high “great chimney stalk” in 1910. (Some of the older boys had played truant from the local school to watch this event.)

As if this cacophony wasn’t bad enough, rank and file soldiers were expected to carry extremely heavy loads over long distances. In his diary William Devlyn describes a 13-mile march in pouring rain in November 1914, while carrying “kit weighing about 70lb, a rifle 9 1/2 lbs and 250 rounds of ammunition.”

Yet it is easy to understand the appeal of joining up, especially in the autumn of 1914 when the press was full of lurid stories about the evils being perpetrated by “the Hun” on “poor little Belgium” and when it was widely believed the war would be over by Christmas. For local men like Daniel Morrison, who was the illegitimate son of a washerwoman and had grown up in poverty, it must have represented a unique opportunity for a foreign adventure.

Typically, the men believed the war would soon be over. A month before his death in the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915, Eric Yarrow wrote to his father: “One hears about the war ending soon so I will be back ere long.” And shortly before he was killed on the Somme in 1916, Willie Edmonstone was writing home: “I think the Huns are beginning to feel the strain of the war and I believe the opinion is that it will be over this year.”

The letters home from the young lieutenants often betray a sort of devil-may-care attitude, as if the war was a bit of a lark. Even allowing for the natural desire to spare their families the full horrors of the trenches and the way a public school education suppressed the expression of emotion, clearly these lads were having a surprising amount of fun. It is sometimes easier to mock these swashbuckling young officers than admire them but that is to forget that these young men, some of them straight from the classroom, were expected to lead their platoons from the front. That may explain why nearly a quarter of the men on the memorial were officers. The life expectancy of a lieutenant on the Western Front was about six weeks, an attrition rate that was even worse than the rank and file. Yet they volunteered unflinchingly. We have Eric Yarrow’s desperate plea to his shipbuilder father in September 1914 to allow him to join up, observing that “there are many of the working class who are sacrificing a great deal by enlisting”.

Perhaps it is too easy to fall into lazy stereotypes about the brave Tommy led by blundering toffs. In this project, nobody is more outspoken about “Kitchy” and British high command than the Eton-educated laird’s son, Willie Edmonstone, godson of King George V.

Amid the carnage and brutality of war, there is also plenty of kindness and compassion. The young lieutenants are forever giving their men gifts of morale-boosting items like cigarettes and socks. George Don’s will leaves £10 to his sister’s children “for their mother’s kindness to me while I have been at the front”. And at Strathblane Parish Church the congregation donated money throughout the war to fund Christmas boxes, which were despatched to local men serving their country as far afield as India.

In some ways, this project tells us as much about our own community as it does about the war. Despite the title “A Village Remembers”, strictly speaking it encompasses the three villages that make up the local parish: Strathblane (which grew out of the village of Edenkiln), Blanefield (formerly Netherton) and Mugdock. And it includes a large rural hinterland that takes in several local estates, including Craigallion, Carbeth and Duntreath, as well as Glengoyne distillery, where the doomed Cartwright brothers’ father worked as a mashman.

The focus of this project on the parish war memorial reinforces the idea of a “lost generation”. In reality, across the UK, despite estimated war dead of 887,000, eight households in nine did not suffer a bereavement. Of the 200,000 Glaswegians who served, around 180,000 made it home, even if many were maimed physically or scarred mentally. In our own community, there are 147 names between two church Rolls of Honour and so our 27 war dead, while higher than average, represent only part of the story.

Nevertheless, they do seem to present a microcosm of the community in 1914, a very different society to today’s largely middle-class population of commuters and the retired. The 27 include Willie Edmonstone 19-year old heir to the largest local estate, Wilfrid Moyes son of the local minister, Colin Rankin son of the former long-serving village doctor, Jack Barr son of the famous industrialist and academic Prof Archibald Barr (of Barr & Stroud) and Eric Yarrow, son of Sir Alfred, the shipbuilder. Many of their addresses –  Duntreath, Campsie Dene, Kessogbank, Milndavie House, Old Edenkiln, Easterton and Westerton of Mugdock – house other families today, linking the modern community with that of 1914.

Yet in amongst the wealthy and privileged are the ordinary Tommies. Many of them worked on local estates or for large houses as gardeners, gamekeepers, stockmen or chauffeurs and occupied garrets, lodge houses, estate cottages or bothies.

Some of the men had grown up in great poverty, others amidst unimaginable wealth. The 1901Census finds nine-year old John Dillon sharing a two-roomed home in the Dumbrock area of Strathblane with seven relatives, while four-year old Willie Edmonstone is in the family home in Belgravia, leaving 42-roomed Duntreath Castle empty except for a few servants. While all the officers on the memorial and a few others were privately educated and four went to Oxford or Cambridge, others had left the local school at 14 to look for work. In fact some of these men were born and brought up far from Strathblane and only lived and worked in the community briefly before being enlisted. Meanwhile, with the closure of the Blanefield printworks that had once employed hundreds of men, women and children, many of those born in the parish had moved away to find work.

Some war dead, reported as being local men in news reports or with gravestones in the local churchyard, and others who had emigrated before 1914, do not appear on the memorial. Perhaps there was nobody left to plead their case. In a couple of instances, men died as a result of war wounds after the memorial had been commissioned. For that reason, our book contains a chapter about these “missing” men. Deciding who to include on the memorial must have been a difficult and sometimes controversial task. (One of these so-called missing men was reported to have “died of shell shock”.)

The overall impression of Strathblane in 1914 is of a community in flux. It had turned from a grimy, polluted industrial place to a pleasant rural retreat, attracting increasing numbers of summer visitors from Glasgow and beyond. A transport revolution is in full swing. That is how we find Sir Archibald Edmonstone going by horse-drawn coach from Duntreath to offer condolences to the parents of Private Macintyre, while Lt Barr’s father employs Corporal Robert Rigg’s father to drive his elegant new motorcar.

Meanwhile, the lives of some women were changing too. William Devlyn’s girlfriend Nan McGregor and her sister are running the village’s new telephone exchange. The parish church Roll of Honour includes the names of three women, including the widow of Sapper Alex Lowe, awarded an honour for her contribution to the war effort in the Queen Mary’s Auxiliary Army Corps. The war had left women taking on traditionally male roles. In Strathblane that included the village posties. This meant two young women carrying out the dreaded job of delivering the letters and telegrams informing households that their family members had been “killed in action” or “died of wounds”.  It may be simplistic to argue that these changes won women the vote but they certainly made female suffrage harder to resist.

Other barriers would start falling too. The very fact that the war memorial lists men alphabetically rather than by rank echoes decisions made after the war by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Looking at them, you get a sense that life in communities like ours would never be the same. (A single page of the 1911 Census lists six local households, three of whom would lose a son in the war.) These families, united by their loss, could not be divided by class. Perhaps deference has never died but it began to lose its power after the communal trauma of World War One.

After the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919, which marked the official ending of the war, one idea that united the entire community was to build a monument to “the men of the Parish of Strathblane who fell in the Great War”. Perhaps those who had lost a father, husband or son needed such a touchstone for their grief, especially at a time when few could afford to travel to France or Flanders and when in many cases no body was ever retrieved.

The £800 cost was quickly raised by public subscription and a design by Sir Robert Lorimer chosen. Built of Doddington stone, it consists of a square base, with a slender shaft topped by four shields and a cross. It was constructed at the junction of Glasgow Rd and Campsie Dene Road on a triangle of land donated by the Graham family and unveiled by the Duke of Montrose on August 25, 1921, amid a torrential downpour. The duke praised the sacrifice of those who had died for their country.

 In 1949 the names of the six local men killed in the Second World War were added: James Callander Gnr RA, Andrew M Maclean Lt RNVR, Gilbert McKay Petty Officer RNVR, Archibald MacNicol Sapper RE, Richard NR Pedder Lt Col HLI and Alexander Turnbull Chief Petty Officer RNVR.  The entire structure was dismantled and moved when Central Regional Council widened the junction.  On an adjacent wall there is now a plaque commemorating Gary Wright, the 22-year old Royal Marines Commando, killed in action in Afghanistan in October 2006.

The idea that a nation had the power to command the ultimate sacrifice from millions of its citizens may seem strange to us in these more cynical more self-centred times. Harry Patch, the last survivor of the trenches, who died aged 111, once said: “It wasn’t worth it.” Who are we to disagree with him? It is certainly harder to see World War One as a “just cause” than World War Two. So Remembrance Sunday is sometimes dismissed as an outdated glorification of war.

Yet, as Richard Holmes put it in his monumental work, Tommy: “We must judge the men who fought the war by their motives and achievements, not by the conflict’s origins or results.” The effect of reading all the 27 stories of the men on Strathblane War Memorial is to admire their courage and cheerfulness and lament the waste of so much potential. Their families may no longer be paralysed by grief but the lingering sense of loss remains. Gathering the stories together gives us some idea of the dark shadow their deaths cast across little communities like ours. As Willie Edmonstone’s father Archibald put it: “Nothing will ever be the same.”

The private grief suffered by these 27 families echoes the closing line of Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth: “And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.” There is a similar resonance in the letter Eric Yarrow wrote to Morag Barr in Mugdock on May 7 1915 about the death of her brother Jack a few days earlier: “Often as I sit in my dug-out, I picture to myself your pretty house and beautiful garden and the contrast with the devastated countryside out here is very sad because although the walls of our fair homes stand intact, in so many cases the hearts of the inhabitants are broken.”

Eric was killed the following day.

Anne Balfour (nee Johnstone), Kessogbank, Strathblane June 2014

A word about medals:
All but two of the 27 First World War dead on Strathblane War Memorial qualified for both the Victory Medal and British War Medal, awarded to millions of serving soldiers. The two apparently without medal cards are Private James Cartwright and Private Donald McIntyre, who both died during training in England. Medals are only mentioned in the individual stories if the soldier qualified for a third medal, such as the Mons Star or the Military Medal.

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