REMEMBERING WAR HEROES
How we honour the fallen is changing
THEY were known as Glad and Rats and in the heat of war they were the best of friends. Glad was William Gladstone-Millar, a newly qualified Church of Scotland minister, whose first parish was in the Gorbals in Glasgow. Rats was William Radcliffe, a young Welshman who got his nickname because he was a dab hand at dealing with the vermin in the trenches.
On July 20, 1918, both men were fighting in the Second Battle of the Marne when Rats was shot and killed. With the bullets rattling everywhere, Glad had to bury his friend then keep on fighting. He never forgot what he had to do that day and years later he went back to France to try to find the spot where his friend had died. For the rest of his life, he kept on remembering. This is a story about remembering.
In particular, this is a story about the way we remember. This weekend, national services of remembrance will be held, with almost every village and town in Britain
taking part in some way. Most of the war memorials – there are some 8,000 in Scotland – were erected after the First World War in the biggest collective act of mourning and remembrance ever seen, and they are still important to us, they are still being built and names are still being added. Many feature statues of a solitary soldier but some – such as the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) War Memorial in Kelvingrove Park, Glasgow – capture the drama of war.
More than 100 years after the outbreak of the First World War, the way we remember is also evolving – we are changing how we remember, and who, and why.
Lynne Gladstone-Millar, the daughter of William “Glad” Gladstone-Millar, is one of those who are doing it differently. The 85-year-old has chosen to plant a tree in a memorial wood in the Pentland Hills and, over a cup of tea at her home in Colinton, she tells me why.
Her father never quite found peace of mind over what happened to Rats, she says – a couple of times he trudged round the woods in France for hours looking for the spot where his friend fell – and planting a tree for Rats is a way of finishing the job for him.
“I thought, this is something I could do that my father wasn’t able to,” she says.
Lynne also likes the idea of people having somewhere to go and the memorial wood provides that.
Established by the Woodland Trust to mark the centenary of the First World War, some 10,000 trees have been planted at the site in the Pentland Hills and the plan is that eventually there will be 23,000.
It is a constantly changing act of remembrance, but it is also for the individuals – men like 2nd Lieutenant William Radcliffe of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and his comrade-in-arms, Captain WE GladstoneMillar. But as far as Lynne is concerned, it is a collective act too – it is for everyone.
I speak to Frances Moreton, the director of the War Memorials Trust, which works for the protection and conservation of war memorials, who tells me that she recognises Lynne’s need to have something physical.
The earliest recorded war memorial in Scotland is a 7th-century stone marking the Battle of Dunnichen, near Forfar, between the Picts and the Northumbrians. “It’s a natural human instinct to commemorate in a physical form,” says Moreton.
However, according to Moreton, there has been a change in people’s relationship with war memorials over the years. When First World War memorials were being built after 1918, it was about giving families and friends somewhere to mourn because in most cases the dead soldiers’ bodies had not been repatriated. But a century later, people see their purpose differently.
“After the First World War, the memorials were for the individuals and were in place of the graves,” says Moreton. “More recently, we’ve found that people want to commemorate the conflict itself.” In other words, memorials have become a reminder of wars and, of course, a warning against them.
However, their purpose as physical reminders for individuals has not disappeared – indeed, names are still being added to memorials and not just for soldiers who have been killed in recent conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Niall Love, from Manchester, has recently succeeded in having the name of his great-uncle Alexander Stephens added to the war memorial in New Cumnock in Ayrshire, but he says it was not easy.
“The family in New Cumnock spent many years wondering why their uncle Alex’s name was not on the war memorial in the village,” says Niall, and although he has still not established why, he became determined to do something about it.
What we know of Alexander Stephens is that he was born in Lybster in Caithness before moving to Ayrshire when his mother took up domestic service at Dumfries House. Later, we pick him up enlisting in Perth, Australia – how he came to be there is not known – before being sent to the front where he fought at Gallipoli and then the Somme. He was killed in action on July 29, 1915
AFTER a long and difficult process, that fact is now recorded on the New Cumnock memorial in shiny new gold letters carved in the stone and Niall is pleased and frustrated in equal measure. “I was fulfilling my family’s wishes,” he says. “But it took so long, most of the family had passed away before it became reality.”
He says part of the problem was finding someone who would take responsibility for the memorial – in the end, East Ayrshire Council arranged it – and Moreton admits this is a common problem.
“It’s a challenging area,” she says. “In terms of more recent casualties, we tend to see those relatively easily added if a family wants to do so. In terms of historic names, it is a challenge because people often don’t recognise the complexities of it. There are some people who were missed but they are a relatively small number.”
Moreton says that people can find it hard to understand that some families at the time did not want their loved one on the memorial – perhaps because they still nursed the hope that they might turn up alive, perhaps because they did not want to see a reminder of their loss every day.
“The question is: is it our right to change that today?” says Moreton.
One of the other issues is that there are no rules about memorials, no central authority and no standardised way of dealing with them, but ultimately the decisions about a memorial, including which names to add to it, are made by the person who is responsible for it in the local community. In some places, there may be no one, which means that, in theory, someone could just hire a stonemason and have their relative’s name added.
“They would have to check if it was protected in any way, if it was listed, for example,” says Moreton. “We had a case recently where someone did just that and then discovered that it’s a listed memorial and they had broken the law.”
Moreton’s advice is to send feelers out through the press and social media to find out who is responsible.
Where communities are taking care of
I was fulfilling my family’s wishes, but it took so long most of them had passed away before it became reality
their memorials – and it is the vast majority (only about eight per cent in the UK are in a poor condition) – they are frequently used as an educational tool. Often, individuals, schools or community groups will set about telling the stories behind the names on their memorial. One example is Gorgie and Beyond, by Edward S Flint, which lists the 1,600 war dead and other casualties of the Edinburgh districts of Gorgie, Dalry, Dundee Street, Slateford Road and Shandon. Suddenly, the names in granite are real stories, real people.
Moreton says this desire to interact with war memorials reflects well on how we memorialise and remember. “This is a country that looks after memorials,” she says. “We cherish and care for them.”
It is also a continuing project, with new memorials being created all the time. Earlier this year, for example, the Queen unveiled a new memorial in London to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A memorial to the African and Caribbean soldiers of the two World Wars was also unveiled in June, perhaps suggesting that our war memorials do not always include everyone who made a contribution.
And then there is the memorial wood in Edinburgh, where the tree in memory of Rats is growing. Lynne Gladstone-Millar says she had the tree planted on behalf of her father, who won the Military Cross for his courage on the day he buried Rats, but it’s also about doing something that she felt that her father couldn’t.
She tells me about an entry in his journal from 1964, when he went back once again to see if he could find the spot where he had buried Rats. Later, he went to the Marfaux military cemetery and wrote down what he felt about his comrades.
“Now there is no sorrow here, only pride,” he wrote. “There is the scent of the roses and of new mown hay. The sun shines in a clear sky. There is silence for a moment. There is no birdsong. There is only beauty and there is memory.”
Best friends William GladstoneMillar, above, and William Radcliffe