Category Archives: Genealogy

The Battle of Loos: a personal story

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Today is the hundredth anniversary of the start of the Battle of Loos, a battle which left deep scars on Scotland. There are commemorations taking place in various locations across the country this weekend, including Dundee and Inverness, home to some of the regiments which were so brutally affected.

Around 30,000 Scots were involved in the battle, and the losses were absolutely devastating. Loos was an attempt by the Allied forces to gain ground and create movement in attack, but as the troops launched their attack on 25 September it became clear that much of the German barbed wire was still in place, and the enemy machine guns and artillery were ready and waiting. A failure to provide reinforcements and relief to the first wave of attack contributed to the horror that unfolded. Loos was also the first time that the British army used poison gas.

My great-uncle, Alexander Morrison (Sandy), was killed at Loos on 25 September, one hundred years ago today.

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Sandy Morrison as school captain

Sandy was the third of seven brothers, born to Hebridean parents living near Oban. The family moved to Edinburgh for the sake of the education of the boys, sending them to George Watson’s College. By all accounts, Sandy was outstanding. This could simply be family legend, the natural result of grief over his death, but it seems to be borne out elsewhere.

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The Morrison family: Sandy is standing on the far right.

I spent the last three years of my schooling at the same school as the Morrison brothers. I remember towards the end of either fifth or sixth year, during that wonderful lazy time we used to have after exams (which today’s students don’t have with the much more efficient but much less enjoyable system of moving on before the summer holidays) I managed to escape some classes and spent the time instead in the library, going through old editions of the school magazine searching for references to the Morrison brothers. (Yes, I’ve been obsessed by all this stuff since back then!) There are some hugely entertaining references to these loud voiced Gaelic speakers keeping everyone else awake on camp, or to one of the brothers playing the bagpipes through Morningside at midnight, and many references to their full involvement in school life. Through it all it’s clear that Sandy was exceptional, and you can find out more about his school career here.

After school Sandy studied agriculture at Edinburgh University, then emigrated to become a farmer in Edmonton, Canada. The records suggest he was already making his way home to Scotland – probably for a visit – when war was declared. He joined up with the Cameron Highlanders, becoming a Captain.

In 2008 I was working on an oral history project, and took the opportunity to record some of my father’s wealth of family stories. This is his account of Sandy’s death at Loos, one hundred years ago today:

On the 24th of September 1914 Shakes [Sandy’s brother, William Shepherd Morrison] was stationed at Loos and he was forward in the trenches because he was spotting the fall of the shells and he met his brother Sandy. Now Sandy according to the family was the brightest of them all and the leading one of the family, and he had become a farmer in Canada but immediately that the First World War broke out he came back to Britain. He joined the Cameron Highlanders and at this stage he was a Captain in the 5th Camerons. The Colonel was Lochiel, Cameron of Lochiel, the chief of the Camerons. And there was to be a big attack on the Germans on the following day, the 25th, and the order was that the officers were not to be armed with their revolvers as was usual, but they were to carry rifles. But Sandy carried neither. He went into battle with an axe. His company was a Gaelic speaking company – this is the 20th century, but this is what happened! The night before then he met Shakes and he told Shakes that he didn’t think he would survive the following day and he didn’t – he was killed in the attack. And they found his body lying beside three dead Germans all with axe wounds on them.

One hundred years on it’s hard to be sure of the truth of this family anecdote. Despite the story, Sandy’s body was never found and buried – like 20,000 others who fell at Loos he has no known grave but is commemorated on the Loos Memorial. But of course, in the carnage and confusion of a battle which lasted for days, someone might well have seen his body and testified to the manner of his death without a burial taking place or being recorded.

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There is in fact an echo of the story of the axe in an unexpected place. In War Classics, my book about Christina Keith’s time in France at the close of the First World War, I published some letters written by her brother Barrogill to their mother from the Western Front. Just a few weeks after Loos, Barrogill was repeating a story he’d heard about the actions of someone they knew during the battle:

I heard that AS Pringle – who was north with Keith Fraser – has been badly hit. He was magnificently game. With a battleaxe and a revolver old Toosie got over the trenches. He was hit 4 or 5 times and still fighting when last seen.

So maybe Sandy did go into battle armed with only an axe, and maybe he wasn’t the only one. If so, it’s perhaps little surprise that he didn’t survive the horrors of Loos. His death was a huge loss to the family – decades later my grandfather, a doctor, still kept a photograph of his older brother in his consulting room. In Sandy Morrison we see the loss of someone with enormous potential – a tragedy which is repeated in the lives of every single one of those young men who fell.

In memoriam.

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

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Remembering

Remembering

 The names of sixteen men from Davidson’s Mains in Edinburgh who were killed in the First World War are carved on the church war memorial which, unusually, is also the communion table.

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 A few years ago I tried to find out something about the lives behind these names, and this is part of an article I wrote for the church magazine about them.

 To the glory of God and in loving memory of all who served and of those who gave their lives in the Great War 1914-1919.

 John Wilson Bell was 23 when he died in February 1917. He was a 2nd lieutenant in the Royal Engineers and is the only one of the 16 men to be buried in Edinburgh, in Comely Bank cemetery. His parents lived at Hillview Terrace.

 George Dawson Bertram grew up at Dowie’s Mill. He was a Private in the 9th Battalion of the Royal Scots. He was killed in France in 1917 aged 31 and is buried in Etaples Military Cemetery.

 Adam Edgar was a local family man, living in Davidson’s Mains with his wife and small daughters. He was a motor driver, and so served as a driver with the Royal Army Service Corps. He died in Germany in March 1919 aged 33, and is buried in Cologne Southern Cemetery.

 James Hogg had left Edinburgh by the time war broke out. His parents died when he was young, and he lived with his older brother Charles. At some point James emigrated to Australia, and he was working as a leather worker in South Yarra, Victoria when he enlisted. His brother Charles still lived in Mary Cottage in Main Street, and became an elder in the church. In February 1919 James was on leave in the UK. He returned to France, and just weeks later was killed accidentally, aged 31. Although part of the Australian Forces, he is remembered here in the church of his childhood. He is buried in Duisans British Cemetery, Etrun. Some years later Charles also emigrated to Australia.

 Alexander, Duncan and John MacDonald
There are three sets of brothers commemorated on the communion table. Alexander and Christina MacDonald tragically lost three of their sons. They had come from Skye to Edinburgh, where Alexander worked as a railway plate fitter, and they brought up their family in Corbiehill Road. John, who was in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, died in April 1917 aged 25,  and is commemorated on the Arras Memorial. Alexander, of the Black Watch, died on 19 July 1918 aged 23. Like his brother he has no known grave and is commemorated on the Ploegsteert Memorial in Belgium. And then, just 36 days later, a third son Duncan was killed, aged just 21. He had been in the Highland Light Infantry, and is buried at Bac-de-Sud British Cemetery, Bailleuval, France.

 William MacDonald, Royal Scots. I am not sure of his identity.  

 John Marshall, a baker who lived with his wife and children in Ivylea, Davidson’s Mains, is one of two men commemorated on the table who were part of the famous ‘Hearts Company’, or ‘McCrae’s Battalion’. This 16th Battalion of the Royal Scots included thirteen Hearts footballers and many other local young men, often Hearts supporters. They were at the front of the assault on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916, and suffered huge losses. John Marshall died that day, aged 34. His name is remembered along with thousands of others on the Thiepval Memorial, the memorial to the missing of the Somme. John’s father William was an elder who played a significant part in the life of the church over many decades.

 George Robertson, whose parents lived in Main Street, served with the Gordon Highlanders. He was killed at Ypres in April 1916, and is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial.

 Jack and William Sloan’s parents were John and Elizabeth Sloan of Craigcrook Terrace. Their father was an elder in the church. The Kirk Session records of June 1915 reveal that Pte William Sloan, son of members of this congregation and serving in the Royal Scots, has been admitted to the Full Communion of the Presbyterian Church by one of the Presbyterian Chaplains to His Majesty’s Forces. William was another who had joined up with the ‘Hearts Company’. Like John Marshall, he was killed in the carnage of the Somme on 1 July 1916, aged 22, and he is commemorated on the same memorial. His younger brother Jack was 2nd Lieutenant with the Kings Own Scottish Borderers, and died in France on 23 July 1918, aged 21. He is buried in Buzancy Military Cemetery.

 James and Peter Wallace are the third set of brothers to be remembered on our communion table. They both served with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. James had married and was living in West Kilbride when he enlisted. He died in August 1916, aged 25, and is buried at Bois Guillame Communal Cemetery, France. His younger brother Peter was just 20 when he was killed at the Battle of Loos in September 1915 – the youngest of the sixteen men. He is commemorated on the Loos Memorial. Their family home was in Main Street, Davidson’s Mains.

 James Wells of the Royal Flying Corps may be James Ritchie Wells, who died on 17 November 1917 aged 27, and whose parents lived in Glasgow. He is buried Glasgow. I have not found a link with Davidson’s Mains.

 Peter Whiteford, the final name on the communion table, had the closest association with the church as his father was the beadle, and his family lived in the Cottage. He was a sergeant in the Cameron Highlanders, and was killed in action in January 1915, aged 27. He is commemorated on Le Touret Memorial in France.

Remembrance is about much more than one conflict 100 years ago, but whether in the distant past or more modern times it’s surely more meaningful when we honour not just a list of names but real people, with homes and lives and families who grieve. We will remember them.

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

ScotlandsPeople

I spent yesterday working in the ScotlandsPeople centre, doing some genealogy research for a client.

I love working there – climbing the steps into such a fabulous building and walking through the dome on the way to the search rooms. The system’s really easy to use, and it’s much better value than working remotely if you have a lot to do. Everything’s digitised, it’s simple to search, and you can whizz from generation to generation in minutes.

When I first started doing genealogy research, the original records were brought right to your desk. (It’s not that I’m that old, just that I started doing this when I was a teenager – yes, really!) After hunting through enormous index volumes to find the right entry, you filled out a slip and waited for the book to be physically located and produced – at which point you hoped you really had identified the right person, as otherwise you’d wasted half an hour or more. Any information had to copied out by hand, in pencil of course.

Now you log in, press a few buttons, and view the record instantly on screen.

It makes perfect sense, both for convenience and for preservation of the records … but I found myself thinking yesterday how glad I am that I started doing this in the days when you got to handle the real thing.

For me, that seemed particularly significant when looking at the first statutory registers of births, marriages and deaths in Rogart. My great-great-great grandfather, William Forrest, was schoolmaster, session clerk and registrar, and wrote many of the entries in these volumes. People came to his home, Rogart Schoolhouse, with their fee, and he brought out these books and recorded the information in them.

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Modern school at Rogart

On one page of deaths from 1855 the first two entries are in his untidy handwriting – but an assistant registrar was called on for the third one. That’s because it records the death of William’s own little two-year-old daughter Hellen from meningitis, and his signature appears this time not as registrar but as bereaved father.

Rogart Church, where Hellen is buried.

Now that the original records are no longer routinely handed out, I feel privileged to have held the very books which were handled by William as he recorded the births and deaths of the local community and of his own family.

Somehow, it beats looking at a screen.

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.