Tribute to a fallen soldier
A KINSMAN of Oban soldier Private Hugh MacLean has laid a wreath at his French war grave to mark the 100th anniversary of his death, aged 21, during the First World War.
Andy MacLean, whose family came from Ardaneaskan, researched how Hugh fell in battle with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
Private MacLean, the son of Duncan and Isabella who lived at Buchanan Terrace, died of his wounds in Etaples military hospital on April 14, 1917, and was buried at Etaples military cemetery in northern France.
Andy said: ‘I travel past this cemetery from time to time and always stop to pay my respects to the fallen who gave their tomorrows so we could enjoy our todays in peace. I have always visited this young man’s grave as a fellow West Coast MacLean.’
But the gravestone gave no details of where his regiment, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, were fighting when he fell, and Andy hoped to fill in details of his life and untimely death.
He writes: ‘On the morning of April 9, 1917, Private Hugh MacLean was with the 1st/8th Battalion the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in forward trenches at Roclincourt, east of Arras in northern France. At 5.30am the Battle of Arras began and 22 officers with 622 men left their trenches to attack the second line of German trenches at the southern end of Vimy ridge. It is almost certain Hugh MacLean was seriously wounded in this action. Recorded in despatches, two officers were killed, nine were wounded and 38 other ranks were killed, with 168 wounded plus six missing. One of the officers killed in action was 2nd Lieutenant Walter Lightowler Wilkinson, who is a recognised war poet having written The
Wayside Burial about a month before this event.
‘Hugh, with a serious head wound, was sent by train to Etaples military hospital complex where he arrived unconscious. The doctors operated on him but he did not regain consciousness and he died on April 14. He was buried alongside many other brave lads in the military cemetery next to the estuary of the river Canche. His great niece, Katy Flora, sent me a copy of the letter from the assistant matron, GB Stevens, at the hospital, which read, “He was admitted April 11 in a serious condition with a severe wound to the head. The doctors felt from the first that there was no hope, but in order to give him every possible chance he was operated on the day after he was admitted. However, there was no improvement in his condition and he passed away very quietly without ever regaining consciousness. He is buried in Etaples military cemetery, where so many of our brave men have been laid to rest”.’
Andy writes: ‘Etaples military cemetery is a site of great peace, beauty and tragedy. The tranquil spot lies beside the mouth of the river Canche and chilly sea breezes wafted across from the English Channel and through the newly leaved trees. With a backdrop of the magnificent monument to the fallen of the First World War designed by Lutyens, the sheer number of graves standing solidly in their serried ranks was indeed awe-inspiring. Laying a wreath against Hugh MacLean’s memorial stone, something I had vowed to do more than 20 years ago, was an act filled with great emotion as I thought of the sacrifice made by all those young men wrenched from the bosoms of their families to face the lethal barrages on the Western Front 100 years ago. Some children were gaily playing up and down the avenues between the lines of memorials on what was a sunlit if somewhat windy April day. For a fleeting moment I thought their boisterous laughter somewhat irreverent but then I remembered that this was exactly what these brave lads had laid down their lives for – our freedom to enjoy peace and prosperity. Their sacrifice had not been in vain.’ The Wayside Burial By Walter Lightowler Wilkinson They’re bringing in their recent dead – their recent dead! I see the shoulder badge: a ‘Southern crush.’ How small he looks – (O damn that singing thrush!) Not give foot five from boots to battered head! Give him a kindly burial, my friends, – So much is due, when some such loyal life ends! ‘For Country!’ Ay, and so our brave do die: Comrade unknown, good rest to you! – Good-bye! They’re bringing their recent dead! – No pomp, no show: A dingy khaki crowd – his friends, his own. I, too, would like – (God, how that wind does moan!) – To be laid down by friends: it’s sweetest so! A young life, as I take it; just a lad— (How cold it blows; and that grey sky, how sad!) – And yet: ‘For Country’ – so a man should die: Comrade unknown, good rest to you! – Good-bye! They’re burying their dead! – I wonder now: A wife? – or mother? Mother it must be – In some trim home that fronts the English sea. (A sea-coast country: that the badges show.) And she? – I sense her grief, I feel her tears! ‘This, then, the garnered harvest of my years!’ And he? ‘For Country, dear, a man must die!’ Comrade unknown, good rest to you! – Good-bye! It’s reeded: he is buried! Comrade, sleep! A wooden cross at your brave head will stand. A cross of wood? A Calvary! – The Land For whose sake you laid down sweet life, will keep Watch, lad, and ward that none may bring to shame. That Name for which you died! ‘What’s in a name’? – England shall answer! Thou will hear Her cry: ‘Well done, my own! my son – good rest: Good-bye!’
Andy MacLean lays a wreath at the grave of Pte Hugh MacLean, below, on the 100th anniversary of his death, and the matron’s letter notifying the family of his passing.