The Highland Soldier’s Journey through the Great War
When the war broke out in 1914 there were two categories of soldiers involved. The first were regular soldiers who might even have fought in the Boer War.
The second were territorials who had gone to summer camps in innocence in the decade before the conflict and who now found themselves called up.
Locally the men of the 8th Argylls were territorials and among them was my grand-uncle Eric Mclean from Oban. His brother Hector was in the Scottish Horse. It would be a while before the eager volunteers who ‘took the King’s shilling’ could be trained up for the front.
It took some time for the war to impinge on the consciousness of the Argyll and the Islands population and it was not until 1915 that words such as Festubert and Neuve Chapelle entered their conversation as reports reached home of casualties and dead loved ones on strange-sounding foreign fields Such places would before long become indelibly written on Highland hearts with such words as Somme, Arras and Ypres almost entering everyday language.
The standard communication to home was the bland field postcard which only said ‘I am well’ etc. However, as the casualties mounted the authorities could not stem the information flow in these pre-internet or social media days as newspapers filled up with pictures of casualties of the terrible battles.
The censor would allow little to get through by way of actual detail on postcards home. Some of these were the silk variety now quite sought after by collectors.
The first day of the Somme, July 1, 1916, was the worst day in the history of the British Army, with nearly 20,000 dead and 60,000 casualties. The authorities even allowed a film of the battle to be made and shown to mass cinema audiences and it is rumoured that some went many times to see it hoping to identify their loved ones in the shots of soldiers.
By 1916 those who had volunteered so eagerly 1914 and 1915 were fully involved at the front and they were soon to be joined by those men conscripted to join up.
Pipers often led their men over the top and then acted as stretcher-bearers. Argyll should be proud of two famous 8th Argylls. Pipe Major Willie Lawrie from Ballachulish wrote the retreat march The Battle of the Somme, but was dead from illness before my grand-uncle Eric and his 1/8th colleagues took Beaumont Hamel to end the battle. Lawrie’s successor as Pipe Major was John McLellan DCM from Dunoon who wrote The Bloody Field of Flanders and other great tunes. Both of these great pipers’ most famous tunes were played at the national commemorations of the battles of the Somme in 2016 and Third Ypres (Passchendaele) in 2017.
Although it was a close-run conflict, the Allies eventually won the day and the Highlands could take stock. Memorials were put up in many villages and the standard version was of a soldier with bowed head. In Taynuilt, the three McBean brothers, John, James and William, had been killed and their mother unveiled the war memorial, no doubt with a heavy heart.
Both my grand-uncles survived the war and I proudly have their medals in my possession. Hector told with reverence and awe of how he had been with James McBean who said to him: ‘With two my two brothers gone I will have to be careful as if I die it will break mother’s heart’. At that moment, a bullet ended his life.
But the Armistice on November 11, 1918, did not end the suffering in the Western Highlands and Islands. On January 1, 1919, the Iolaire ran aground near Stornoway harbour and home and 205 men were drowned as the New Year which should have seen joy and hope turned to tears and bitter loss from which some small districts never recovered. In addition, men were left injured or blinded by the war with devastating consequences for them and their dependants.
The resolute Highlanders, as so often in the past, carried on and adjusted to life without loved ones, although the memories never dimmed. For many years after the war ended The Oban Times carried heart-rending messages asking if anyone knew of loved ones with no known grave and who had effectively disappeared from the lives of their loved ones. One hundred years later, we should all try hard to keep these memories alive, as new generations research family history and visit graves that wives and children of those buried in them were never able to do.
Born in Connel and raised in Tobermory, Eric Macintyre MBE has retired after a career in education. He was MC at the banquet to celebrate the Clan MacIntyre gathering this year.
Nothing can conceal the fact that these Seaforths, as the Inveraray War Memorial says, have ‘come out of great tribulation’.
The French are pleased to see their Auld Allies.
A typical hospital ward for wounded soldiers.
Mrs McBean unveils the Taynuilt War memorial, 1921.
An official postcard to re-assure the bereaved that a loved one had a dignified burial in the field.
Pipe Major John McLellan DCM, 1/8th Argylls.
Pipe Major Willie Lawrie 1/8th Argylls.