The High­land Sol­dier’s Jour­ney through the Great War

The Oban Times - - 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.

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