HE was a war hero who won the Military Cross, a poet whose work has been compared to Wilfred Owen's and whose literary legacy was almost lost when he was killed on the Western Front.

The story of John Munro illuminates the gap between the millions of first world war dead whom we commemorate on Armistice Day and our fading memory of the fallen as individuals.

Munro was born only two doors away from my home and was, until recently, unknown to me. The 28-year-old secondlieutenant in the Seaforth Highlanders died in action on the Belgian-French border on April 16, 1918, just three days after he had been awarded the Military Cross for courage in fighting to repel a German advance.

Munro was born on December 10, 1889, in the crofting township of Swordale, on the Isle of Lewis, which is my home. If I heard of the war hero and poet John Munro as a child growing up in the village 50 years after the Great War then, to my shame, I had forgotten him too.

His reputation as a poet should have ensured wider recognition. Writing as Iain Rothach, his Gaelic name, he left behind fragments of a collection of war poetry complete with themes and imagery comparable to the celebrated English war poets.

In the nearby village of Aignish, two of Munro's nephews, Murdo and Iain Munro and their wider family, keep remembrance through pictures, medals and the letters he sent home. One nephew has a photograph of Munro in military uniform hanging in the living room, the other has his uncle's graduation picture in pride of place in the dining room.

"The picture was hanging in the headmaster's classroom in Knock school for years but as the staff changed and time went on, they forgot who he was, " explained Murdo Munro, who rescued the framed photo from a cupboard where it had been abandoned several years ago. The military portrait of Munro hung there when my father went to school in the 1930s and when Murdo sat in class in the 1950s. By the time I arrived in the 1970s it was gone.

The Munro family thinks the story behind it should be taught in every island classroom.

Munro was part of a small group of educated young friends from Lewis who served with the Seaforths at the Somme and wrote their experiences in Gaelic verse and script.

"What happened to his poetry was nothing short of a disgrace, " says Iain Munro, his nephew and namesake. "My grandfather gave the collection of poems to a local minister to be prepared for publication and they were lost. They just disappeared."

While his literary reputation is being resurrected the family have scarce details of Munro's war service. His military record, however, has been preserved in a place where memories are kept forever.

At the end of the greencoloured District Line on the London Underground the National Archives at Kew Gardens stores Britain's military history in minute detail on shelf after shelf of official documents.

A slim brown folder contains Munro's service record and a larger cardboard box contains the 7th Battalion Seaforth Highlanders' war diary that relays dramatic first-hand accounts of the battle that led to Munro's MC and his death just a few days later.

Each faded page, crisp with age, tells the story of the first world war as it unfolded across the calendar from 1914 to its end in November 1918, 87 years ago this weekend. It is a dramatic contemporary account that follows the battalion through the horrors of trench warfare, gassing, and barrages in beautifully handwritten accounts from different officers. In March 1918, Munro is mentioned in the dispatch for leading a patrol into enemy lines, but it is in April, when the battalion was moved from the Somme by train to Belgium, that the drama of his last days are recorded.

In one of those backwards and forwards actions, while the Germans advanced, Munro displayed the conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty that earned him a Military Cross. He covered the withdrawal of the battalion with his platoon until it was nearly surrounded and then extricated his men from a very difficult position. Three days after having the MC confirmed he was killed in action.

On the night of April 16, on the Vierstraat Line, the Seaforths were launching a counter attack to another German offensive when they advanced through an enemy barrage. The shelling caused few losses but emerging from the woods the British were caught in the open. "All the way across this country the troops were under the full blast of enemy machine guns and rifles on the ridge, " states the diary.

Even the optimistic hand of the battalion diarist cannot hide the fact that the counter attack was a mess of heavy fighting into the next day. Three officers, including Munro, were killed and an estimated 100 Seaforths were killed, wounded or missing. The scale of loss was typical. During April, six months short of the end of the war, the 7th Battalion Seaforth Highlanders lost six officers and 62 ordinary ranks with more than 350 men wounded or missing. Like John Munro they all had individual stories that would die with them.

Munro's younger brother William came through the war unscathed although another brother, Torquil, a naval volunteer, died in Glasgow during the 1919 flu epidemic. Two younger brothers served in the second world war.

John Munro's name is on a new war memorial near his village, one of an increasing number of commemorative sites being erected on Lewis.

Confusingly the inscription refers to Munro as a naval volunteer but the mistake is being rectified. He was one of millions whose loss still has a profound effect.

torcuil. crichton@sundayherald. com

Four faces of courage: Seven Days


SCOTLAND'S remembrance ceremony will take place at Edinburgh's Stone of Remembrance with First Minister Jack McConnell in attendance.

There are also ceremonies in Glasgow's George Square and at the War Memorial in Schoolhill, Aberdeen.

BBC1, 10.15am, Remembrance Sunday: The Cenotaph.