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How one community rediscovered its First World War dead

It was a strange meeting.

Relatives of the First World War soldiers whose names are engraved on Strathblane War Memorial gather at the monument. Photograph: Martin Shields
Relatives of the First World War soldiers whose names are engraved on Strathblane War Memorial gather at the monument. Photograph: Martin Shields

Most of the 14 people who gathered at Strathblane War Memorial had never met but they all had one thing in common. From 15-year-old Jessica Collie to 94-year-old Sir Eric Yarrow, each had family ties to one of the names carved into the stone plaques. So the atmosphere on that sunny Saturday was a mixture of celebration and sadness.

The group was brought together by an extraordinary initiative that from modest beginnings has grown into a book about the brief lives and dreadful deaths of all 27 men on the memorial who were killed in the First World War. And through them, it tells the story of both the war and the changing nature of the community - and the country - whence they came. Entitled A Village Remembers, this 112-page book will be published in September with profits going to Erskine, the Scottish charity that has been "re-building shattered lives, restoring dignity and providing care for Scotland's ex-Service men and women since 1916".

As a journalist working in Scotland for 35 years, I have noticed that the trauma of the First World War seems to have had a far greater impact on the collective psyche than the Second. Almost every person one interviews has a family horror story about what some still call "the Great War".

Perhaps it is partly because the Second World War carried such a compelling moral imperative. Few doubt that crushing the Third Reich was a just cause. Hitler had to be stopped. By contrast, like the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, both the cause and outcome of the First World War are far less clear-cut. In addition, the industrial scale of killing and injury in the 1914-1918 conflict, largely as a result of the advent of modern weaponry, meant that delight at the Armistice quickly turned to resentment among the survivors and the bereaved towards politicians and military top brass. The commonest question from the descendants of Strathblane's 27 dead servicemen has been: "What was it all for?"

Among those who lived, many felt broken and racked with survivor's guilt: a sense of shame at having come through when so many did not. Most of the bereaved families of Strathblane received just two medals - the Victory Medal and the British War Medal - dished out in their millions to anyone who had set foot in France, regardless of whether or not they had faced the horrors of the Somme and Passchendaele or were just off the boat from Blighty. It seems such a derisory return for their loss. And in the bleak post-war years following 1918, little emerged by way of the promised housing, pensions and welfare that politicians had pledged in this "land fit for heroes". No wonder families felt irked by glib cliches about honour and sacrifice.

Yet the response of the families of those killed and maimed by the conflict was a stiff upper lip and usually a flat refusal to talk about the war at all. Most locked away their grief and many destroyed letters and diaries. Confused feelings about the conflict continue to echo down the generations.

Strathblane's project began with a conversation I had with fellow resident Pat Davy in 2013. Pat had recently visited a church in Norfolk where her great uncle, Private Alfred George Peck, features on the war memorial: "Someone had taken the time to record basic information about each name listed and there was a photo of Alfred. I'd never seen one before and I was really touched. I wondered if we could do something similar."

Researching my family history, I had had a similar experience. My great uncle, 2nd Lieutenant Arthur Johnstone of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, who died at Arras in 1917, is on the memorial in Alloway. His brother, my grandfather, had been shipped out of the trenches with shell shock and sent to Ireland during the Dublin Uprising (something of a mixed blessing). On April 5 he was relaxing in the garden of his billet when he sat bolt upright. He was certain his brother had been killed in France at that moment and recorded this conviction in his diary. He was right. He had been killed in the same hour.

Even today I still can feel the chill shadow cast by these events. My father once told me: "I wanted to know what happened to Uncle Arthur but Dad never spoke about it. It was a closed book. Because Arthur had died and he hadn't, he felt somehow ashamed. Afterwards he couldn't cope with any loud or sudden noise and that affected our childhood." Today I realise that my poor sensitive grandfather, who played the cello and painted beautiful watercolours, lived the rest of his life afflicted by both post-traumatic stress and survivor's guilt.

Having discovered that the Heritage Lottery Fund was giving grants for First World War local history projects, and armed with a generous donation from Scottish businessman John Watson, Pat and I appealed in the village newsletter for help in researching and writing the stories of the men on the memorial. Far from being an exercise in glorification, we saw it simply as a determination that the experiences of these men should not be understated or forgotten. If anything, it points up the futility of the slaughter. The response was amazing. Many of those who volunteered had stories from their own families.

At first, few of those who came forward were related to the men on the memorial. Strathblane at the dawn of the 20th century was being transformed from an industrial village, dominated by the 160ft high chimney of the local calico printworks, to a rural backwater, enlivened by Glasgow holidaymakers during the summer. Many printworkers' children who had grown up in the community had moved away, while men who were raised elsewhere were arriving to take up jobs as gamekeepers, gardeners and chauffeurs on nearby landed estates and in the big houses springing up in the area. (The parish consists of the modern communities of Strathblane, Blanefield and Mugdock and the surrounding area.)

As word spread, relatives of the Strathblane 27 began to get in touch, some of them through the website GenesReunited. One or two had meticulously preserved the letters and mementos of their dead relative and wanted to share them. Others knew very little and were curious to find out more.

Sir Archibald Edmonstone, the 79-year-old owner of Duntreath Estate on the edge of Blanefield, arrived at the war memorial carrying the rough wooden cross that had been erected over the makeshift grave of his Uncle William, who died on the Somme in 1916. He said: "The family had it brought home from France after the war when his remains were moved to the Guards' Cemetery in Lesboeufs." It has lain in the family crypt at Strathblane Parish Church ever since. He believes his grandfather never recovered from the death of his 19-year-old son and heir, who had been commissioned into the Coldstream Guards straight from Eton: "He once told someone: 'Nothing will ever be the same' and it wasn't." Archie's elder sister, Lady Mary McGrigor, was told of the dignity of her grandmother "sitting quietly in the corner with her embroidery" on hearing the news. Though the family had preserved the scores of letters William had written from the Western Front, Mary says nobody was allowed to read them. "I think our father suffered terribly from survivor's guilt. Nobody had any idea of the ghastly effects of the weaponry. The scale of destruction took people by surprise. It was heartbreaking." Sir Archie's daughter, Pippa Maclean, says that though an oil painting of her great uncle in his Guards uniform continues to hang in Duntreath Castle, his death was never discussed.

An even larger archive of material survives from the life and death of Lt Eric Yarrow, son of the Clyde shipbuilder, Sir Alfred, who lived in Blanefield at the time. It is held by Eric's old school, Oundle in Northamptonshire, and includes the young officer's photographs and letters home, as well as the many letters of condolence received by his parents after his death at the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915. Sir Eric Yarrow, who was born in 1920 and went on to lead the famous Scotstoun warship yard until its takeover by BAE Systems, was named after his father's dead brother. "I feel very privileged to bear his name. Despite his own background and education, he had a great interest in the welfare of the less well-off and, if he had lived, I think he would have gone into some kind of social service."

The Yarrow archive includes Eric's letter to his father, pleading to let him volunteer to fight, on the basis that "there are many of the working class who are sacrificing a great deal by enlisting" and "I shall very much regret not having joined, after the war is over". History would repeat itself in 1939 when the next Eric Yarrow had to persuade his father to allow him to enlist, rather than use a post in the family shipyard as a pretext to stay out of the war: "As with my uncle, all my chums were going off to war and I didn't want to be the odd one out," (During his service in Burma he would find himself sinking ships that had been built in his family's yard on the Clyde.)

By contrast with the Edmonstone and Yarrow families, the descendants of soldiers from the rank and file usually recorded very little of their experiences and often left next to nothing for their families to remember them by beyond a couple of mass-produced medals. If they were lucky, the wife or mother would have the soldier's meagre possessions at the front returned to her. Granddaughter of Private Sandy Mitchell of the Cameronians, retired head teacher Sandra Mitchell, who grew up in Strathblane, says: "My dad was two when his father was killed at Arras in 1917. I didn't think I had anything until I found three silk postcards in a box in the loft." The cards, addressed to the gardener's accommodation at Duntreath Castle where Sandy worked, say very little beyond a brief greeting. "My father never spoke about the First World War and when we asked him, he just clammed up."

Emily Collie has lived in Strathblane all her life but also had little by which to remember her grandfather, Private John McCulloch of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders. "My husband found one fuzzy photograph of him on the internet and that was it. Now, thanks to this project, we know about where he came from and we even have a copy of his will in his own handwriting. I'm delighted." Emily is named after John's widow. Her own mother was born in 1916. Emily wonders if Private McCulloch ever laid eyes on his baby daughter before his death at Passchendaele the following year.

Former local garage owner Donald Macintyre had to apply for replacements after the three medals posthumously awarded to his uncle, Private James Macintyre of the Seaforth Highlanders, were stolen from his home. He was thrilled when the war memorial project turned up a photograph of the 19-year-old in uniform.

Transport operator David Frood came up with one of the most fascinating finds: the diary of Private William Devlyn of the Highland Light Infantry, who died near Ypres in 1915. "We were clearing out the belongings of my aunt, Nan McGregor, after her death. This diary could easily have ended up in the bin because we didn't know what it was. We knew that Aunt Nan never married because she had a boyfriend who went to war and never came back but we didn't know his name," he said. "The name Devlyn on the headed notepaper the diary was written on didn't mean anything to us until it emerged that it matched one of the names on Strathblane War Memorial. Now we know that Aunt Nan's lost love was William Devlyn."

Only one man on the memorial died in 1919 after the end of hostilities. Sapper Alex Lowe of the Railway Operating Division of the Royal Engineers was hit by a locomotive while repairing rail lines on the German-Belgian border. His family had a long association with the village and his father, Daniel, had been the gardener at Parklea House (now Blanefield House nursing home). The family lived in the tiny one-bedroomed lodge house, which is still standing, and in 1916 Alex married Effie Matheson, a gamekeeper's daughter from Skye who was working as a tablemaid in the house on the opposite side of the road. While Alex went to war, Effie joined the war effort too, serving in Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps. This not only earned her a place on the parish church's Roll of Honour, but also the Medal of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Effie never remarried and returned to Skye, where she died in 1952.

The Imperial War Museum in London holds a fascinating portrait of Effie, wearing a quizzical expression and holding what looks like a ferret. Effie's mother was a Macdonald from Skye and no fewer than five of her relatives, including one visiting from Canada, joined the group at the memorial to commemorate Alex and Effie.

"It was heart-warming to honour them. It helped us to appreciate that they were more than just names on our family tree, bringing them to back to life nearly 100 years later," said George Macdonald.

The mind-numbing scale of the casualties risks reducing discussion of it to a numbers game. The objective of projects like this is to reverse the process of forgetting and turn these men into real people again rather than merely a list of names. n

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