Today I honour my grandfather, the aristocrat who fought and died with his men
ON this centenary Armistice Day anniversary, I will be amongst the millions of other families across the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth who have lost loved ones. I will remember three of my relations who died in the Great War. In particular, however, I will be thinking about my grandfather, Captain The Hon. Fergus Bowes Lyon, who was killed in the Battle of Loos on September 27, 1915, aged 26.
He was the fourth son of the 14th Earl of Strathmore, and his youngest sister, Elizabeth, later became the Queen Mother.
On her wedding day to the future King George VI in 1923, the Queen Mother, who was 15 when Fergus died, laid her bouquet on the Grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. It is thought she did so in memory of her brother, and it is a tradition that has been followed by subsequent Royal brides.
My mother, Rosemary Luisa Bowes Lyon, was just two months old when her father was killed and I have always felt it was a great pity that she was never given the chance to get to know him.
I feel it is extraordinarily lucky that the current generation have not had to endure anything like it. To think that so many young men went off to war and never came home to their families is unbelievably sad.
It is only in the past few years, since I have been doing some research, that I have been able to learn more about my grandfather’s short life and untimely death.
Fergus was born in 1889, educated at Ludgrove and Eton, and later served in the 2nd Black Watch in India from 1911 to 1914.
Very keen from an early age on all aspects of wildlife, throughout this time abroad he frequently wrote to his parents and siblings, particularly his mother, Cecilia, Countess of Strathmore, often describing the scenery and flowers as well as commenting on current affairs.
In 1914, he decided with regret to leave the Army, telling his mother: ‘I expect I should eventually make a modest fortune out of dairy farming close to London or something akin to it... I am looking forward to City life with horror...Ugh!’
Within weeks, however, at the outbreak of war, he re-enlisted with the 8th Black Watch. On September 17, 1914, he married Lady Christian Dawson-Damer, daughter of the 5th Earl of Portarlington, and on July 18, 1915, they had a daughter, Rosemary, my mother.
Fergus went to Glamis on leave for five days in August to see his young daughter but was, tragically, killed shortly after his return to the front.
The 8th Black Watch War Diary states: ‘The enemy were seen to be bombing our men and about 8.30am Col. Cameron of Lochiel ordered a force of 70 Black Watch and 30 Camerons under Capt. The Hon Fergus Bowes Lyon to go to the redoubt and rally any men who were seen to retire.
‘Capt. Bowes Lyon was killed up there at about 10.30am by bombs but the enemy were prevented from advancing any further.’
His name is on the Loos Memorial to the Missing and until recently he did not have a headstone. In 2011, however, Jean-Luc Gloriant, a French historian who lives on the battlefield site at Auchy-les-Mines, contacted my family with the help of an English historian, Christopher Bailey, to say he thought he had found Fergus’s grave (marked as an Unknown Officer) in the Quarry Cemetery at Vermelles.
HIS reasoning was that no other officer is buried in this cemetery, no other Black Watch soldier is there and other officers killed that day were buried elsewhere or never found. So my wife, Jane, and I went out to meet him.
I contacted the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to ask what records they had and submitted copies of letters from the Glamis archives, as well as a letter from the Director of Graves Registration, received by Fergus’s mother, which confirmed that he had been buried in the Quarry Cemetery.
In 2015, the centenary of his death, my sister Anne and I, our families and Fergus’s nephew, Albemarle Bowes Lyon, visited the grave. Amazingly, just as we arrived, a covey of 16 English grey partridges flew right beside us.
We took with us a wreath of heather from Glamis, which we placed on what we believe to be his grave, and one of roses and thistles for the headstone with his name.
Now, on every Remembrance Day, we send two Royal British Legion wreaths – which Jean-Luc Gloriant lays on each grave.