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Inside the Laurieston book of First World War stories

Hundreds of books about the First World War will be published this year - the centenary of the start of the conflict - but none of them will be like the Laurieston book.

The Laurieston book was compiled by former headmaster James Mather and contains the stories, photographs and mementos of every pupil from Laurieston Primary School who fought in the First World War. Photograph: Steve Cox
The Laurieston book was compiled by former headmaster James Mather and contains the stories, photographs and mementos of every pupil from Laurieston Primary School who fought in the First World War. Photograph: Steve Cox

It is stored at Falkirk Archives in the town's Callendar House, and resembles an old family album, well-used and packed full of pictures, although it is a curious kind of family - the family of boys and young men who joined up when the war broke out; a family that was eventually divided into survivors and victims.

The album was created during the war by James Mather, headmaster of the school in Laurieston, near Falkirk, and brought to prominence when the current primary six pupils began a project on the war. It is a record of every pupil who fought and a record of every one who died. There are photographs of 166 men in the book and in his neat handwriting, Mather has written the word "fallen" next to those who did not come back: 34 in all.

As well as the photographs, there are mementos, greetings cards and postcards. There are cards sent back to families in Scotland and patriotic postcards designed to boost morale, but there are also realistic pictures showing the damage the war was doing. And there is humour: picture postcards sending up the Jerries and poking fun at the ludicrous nature of man fighting man.

Together, the pictures, postcards and mementos, stuck into an album by a diligent headmaster 100 years ago, make up a striking, unusual record of the consequences of war for a small community but they are also the individual stories of 166 men who fought in the Great War. All of them are worth telling. These are some of them.

CAPT JAMES FITZ MORRIS

The records of James Mather include an entry on a visit by Captain James Fitz Morris to his old school. Captain Morris, it says, gave an account of his winning the Military Cross (with bar) and the Croix de Guerre. He was presented with a rose bowl and a pocket book and addressed the pupils. "I hope some of the other pupils at this school," he said. "will have the luck I have had." In August 1918, aged 21, Captain Morris was killed.

He had been born and raised in Polmont and after school at Laurieston, joined the army as a motorcycle despatch rider before being promoted to the rank of second lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps. The fact there was a war in the air in 1914-18 is sometimes forgotten because of the prominence of trench warfare on the Western Front, but the Flying Corps was critical to victory. Morris's first mission was to fly as an observer doing photographic work of the German front lines. Some of the pictures he took are in the archives at Callendar House. Having completed six months training, he was brought back to Scotland, partly to rest and partly to train other pilots, but within six months he was back in France, recording enemy manoeuvres and the locations of German machine gun nests. It required low-level flying through volleys of machine gun fire from the ground; it was extremely dangerous work.

By now, Morris had a reputation for his daring and self-deprecation, and appeared to have little concern for his safety. Interviewed later in his career, he dismissed the idea of risk.

"There is really no danger to speak of," he said. "Indeed, I get quite nervous when I am down on the street level in big cities, where there are so many chances of being struck by trolley cars and autos and all that sort of thing. I like to get up in the air out of all the danger. Naturally, now and then, you get into a bit of a tight squeeze, but you get out again and that is all there is to it."

Morris was caught in his fair share of tight squeezes. In August 1916, he lost a wheel and damaged a wing due to enemy fire but managed to crash-land. The following year - by which time he had qualified as an ace after downing five enemy aircraft - he was attacked by seven enemy planes but managed to escape. It was for that he was awarded the Military Cross.

Morris was now a British hero as well as a hero in Laurieston. In May 1918, the Rev AB Robb addressed the pupils and spoke of the young captain's qualities.

"The school existed," he said, "not only for the purpose of teaching the three Rs, but for higher purposes as well, and one of these was the teaching of patriotism." It was the kind of language used by teachers that was later satirised in films such as All Quiet On The Western Front, but the Rev AB Robb meant it.

The Royal Flying Corps also realised the value of Captain Morris and he was taken off main duties to perform propaganda work in America, making speeches and performing demonstration flights.

The aim was to encourage America to increase the size of its air force and to send more men and machines to aid the allies at the Front.

His first appointment in his new ambassadorial role was in Cincinnati, where he was interviewed by the press. Again, he was modest.

"Yes, I played in the big game over there," he said. "But there are millions of others who are trying to do their bit just as I have, and the experience of one is the experience of most."

Morris then took off in his two-seater plane for a test flight before a proposed aerial display later that day. Shortly after take-off, however, the engine stalled and the plane went into a nose dive.

Morris had no time to recover control and after striking the ground, the plane turned over, burying Morris underneath. A doctor on the scene proclaimed him dead.

What happened next would probably be called a cover-up today. In the hours after the crash, Morris's commanding officer, Brigadier-General Lee made a statement to the press. "I am convinced the death of Captain Morris was due to a sudden fainting spell," he said.

"His plane was in good condition, I know this, for I took it up for a short flight myself just before the accident. Recently, Captain Morris had admitted he was not feeling particularly fit."

Perhaps Captain Morris really was ill but it was also suggested in the aftermath of the accident the statement was made to conceal a fault with the plane - something that would have been embarrassing on a trip supposed to drum up support for the air force.

At Captain Morris's funeral in Cincinnati a few days after the accident, a quarter of a million people lined the streets.

When he was re-buried in his home town of Polmont: local people lined the route and every shop was closed, every blind was down in every window.

One report said "the route along which the funeral procession passed was thickly lined with thousands of people who paid a last tribute of respect to the gallant young airman.

"The coffin was covered with the Union flag, on top of which the sword and cap of the deceased officer were placed."

Back at Captain Morris's old school, his former headmaster recorded the death next to the picture with one word: "Fallen".

PRIVATE DONALD McINTYRE

Some of the pictures in the Laurieston album are romanticised images of war: young men standing in front of dramatic landscapes, some looking like matinee idols, others trying to.

The picture of Donald McIntyre is striking because he is holding a horse whip to indicate his membership of the Scot Horse, although he never owned a horse. The army desperately needed horses but found it hard to find the numbers they required, meaning that even members of the mounted regiments had to go without.

In the end, McIntyre, who had been a bricklayer before the war, moved to the Black Watch and, as his record in the Laurieston archive shows, he fought in the Salonikan Campaign in Greece - a reminder that the war was not just about the Western Front. The objective was to help the Serbs in their fight against Bulgarian aggression and McIntyre found himself in the thick of it.

For one brutal battle with a group of Bulgars, McIntyre was awarded the Military Medal. He and two comrades, including the commanding officer Corporal Finnie were out on observation work when around 30 Bulgarians tried to attack them.

The corporal was badly hurt by a bomb and, according to a report at the time, McIntyre knew he would have to intervene to prevent the corporal being killed.

"One Bulgar was in the act of bayonetting Finnie," said the report, "when McIntyre swung his rifle and the man's skull cracked like an eggshell. McIntyre shot another two and the rest cleared like the wind. Mac saw that Finnie was too badly hit to walk far and as though he were a baby, Mac lifted the corporal and carried him back along the road."

REILLY BROTHERS

The small black and white picture of the Reilly brothers in the Laurieston album tells the big picture of the First World War. Many colleagues, friends and brothers joined up together but only some of them returned.

In the case of the Reillys, only one of the brothers lined up neatly in that picture came back.

The brothers were Alexander, Robert and James and they were all brought up in Laurieston. Alexander was the eldest and joined the Royal Scots in September 1914.

The following month, James also joined the regiment followed by Robert, who joined the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

James was recommended for the Military Medal three times before finally winning it for saving the lives of two other soldiers.

They had been buried in a dug-out 30ft beneath the ground when a shell came crashing in the entrance.

A report from the time related what happened next: "Two of the soldiers were buried in the debris and Private Reilly, despite the shock he had received by the bursting of the shell, volunteered to return to the dug-out and rescue his comrades. In this, he was successful."


James was later killed, on March 22, 1918, as was his brother Robert on October 29, 1916, during the Battle Of The Somme. Only Alexander survived. All three are remembered on a plaque in their old school in Laurieston.

The plaque, which hangs by the entrance to the nursery, is inscribed with 411 names in all: all the former pupils of the school who enlisted and served. Eighty-two of them died. Above their names is a dedication: "Erected in grateful memory of the former pupils who fell in the Great War. Also in honour of those who served."

Falkirk Archives is at Callendar House, Falkirk. The entire catalogue is searchable online - http://www.falkirkcommunitytrust.org/heritage/archives.

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