Friday, 25 January 2019

Meet The Ancestors

If there is one popular activity that has become even more popular as a result of the First World War centenary, it is genealogy or the tracing of one's family connections. Innumerable people have been spurred into the investigation of their connections with individual members of the armed forces. Finding out what Granddad did in the Great War is a pastime that has led many to the battlefields and cemeteries of the Western Front and, in some cases, has indirectly led to valuable historical research being carried out.
Take the case of Walter Parkin, a Yorkshire miner, one of seven children whose father deserted the family when Walter was twelve years old. Walter went on to serve with distinction at Passchendaele, but arrived home in 1918, severely wounded and a shadow of his former self; he died in 1933, aged only 45. In 2014, Walter's great-grandson Richard wrote about his experience of tracing the soldier's career and how it had led to the discovery of the truth behind the family legend that "the bullets just bounced off him" when he came across a 1915 newspaper article describing how his grandfather had been saved from certain death by a uniform button which had taken the brunt of the bullet's impact; both items had been temporarily on display to the public in a local shop window!
The interest doesn't stop at ancestors, either. Those whose grandparents and great-grandparents came back in one piece, or who were in the wrong age group to participate actively in the war, have generally found that they had other relations who were involved and whose history can be traced. Others - school pupils, for example - have been encouraged to follow the lives and deaths of individuals who would otherwise perhaps have had no one to mourn them.
I'm not just talking about the war poets, or people of some notability such as artists and composers, but ordinary soldiers and sailors. Sometimes, in a corner of a foreign field, you will come across little notes attached to individual graves by schoolchildren who have found out a little of that particular man's history and written to "thank" him for his contribution, occasionally with a little poem attached.
Sometimes, in the course of their investigations, people uncover less palatable facts about the lives of their ancestors. As I've probably mentioned before, my father was delighted when he discovered that his own father had spent some time in a military prison - okay, it was only for gambling. That's because the authorities didn't realise that he and his friend had stolen armed forces' property and sold it to Italian householders in order to make the money to purchase a Crown & Anchor board, which soon brought the cash rolling in. No wonder they were jumped one night, on their way home from a local drinking establishment, by locals who resented the amount of money they had taken from them earlier in the evening!
If you're wondering why my father was pleased, it was because the documentation which proved that his father had been incarcerated in early 1919, as well as the report describing the mugging in Italy, demonstrated that his father had not been telling tall tales when he described these incidents to his family. It was all true! There was some good luck involved, as many military records from the period were lost in a fire in 1940, ironically caused by Second World War bombing. I've often wondered what my grandmother thought of her husband's anecdotes; being the daughter of a chapel elder, she probably hoped against hope that their marriage had turned him into a reformed character.
I never met my grandfather as he died before my parents got married. I always assumed that this was from natural causes, as indeed it was, but sometimes I wonder how much his First World War service might have contributed to his poor health. Many men saw the war through only to die from the after-effects of gas or shrapnel wounds like the ones my grandfather had (although it is difficult, for example, to discount the effects of smoking and other factors as causes of the premature deaths of former servicemen in the post-war period).
Just recently the pension records of First World War veterans were released. Knowing that my grandfather had one, I checked it, and discovered that his mother was living in a place called Choppington. I am assuming this to be the place of that name near Newcastle-upon-Tyne; my father was unaware of any connection with.north-east England, and it is also a mystery why my great-grandmother should have been using our family surname when we know for certain that she had remarried and was using a different name in the 1911 census. Will we ever find out?
It seems to me that the interest in ancestors and what they went through is, broadly speaking, a positive phenomenon. There is nothing that brings home historical truths to an individual like their personal effects on one's family. The knowledge of what many suffered sometimes even brings about a sea-change in the attitude of their descendants towards war.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

A Hogmanay Tragedy

On the morning of Wednesday, 1st January, 1919, householders in the Hebridean island of Lewis were looking forward with eager anticipation to the imminent arrival home of many of their menfolk, who had been serving with Britain's armed forces overseas in the effort to win the First World War. The fighting was behind them now, and the men themselves looked forward to returning to their homes and crofts and catching up with family life. 283 sailors were travelling home to Stornoway on the Iolaire, and at around two in the morning, they were within a few hundred yards of their home port.
The Iolaire was a yacht launched thirty-seven years earlier. It was privately owned but had been requisitioned by the Admiralty, and had been pressed into service on this occasion because there were not enough suitable vessels available to ferry home the latest band of troops returning to Scotland from active service. One man, 27-year-old Kenneth Macphail, had served throughout the war, including a stint at Gallipoli. In 1917, his ship had been torpedoed in the Mediterranean and he had survived by clinging to wreckage; he spent 34 hours in the water before being rescued, almost the only survivor. The experience was so traumatic that Kenneth, who had completed his recuperation only six months earlier, told his brother Angus that, were he ever in the same situation, he would prefer not to go through the ordeal again and would resign himself to his fate. That was why, when Kenneth's body was recovered from the sea a few days later, his hands were placed firmly in his pockets.
It is hard for most of us to imagine a person not wanting to save his or her own life, but such feelings were not uncommon among servicemen during the First World War. Kenneth Macphail was nevertheless unusual; when the Iolaire struck a rock, within sight of Stornaway harbour, and quickly sank, many of the passengers showed great heroism in trying to escape and help those around them. 201 men - more than two thirds of those aboard - died that night, but John Finlay Macleod, a 30-year-old seaman, had the knowledge of how to ride the crest of a wave to take himself safely onto the rocks, from where he set up a rescue line to bring others safely to dry land. Another survivor, Donald Morrison, actually went down with the ship but managed to climb a mast and cling to it until daylight came and he was rescued.
The causes of the Iolaire disaster were never officially stated, but there were many contributing factors: there were gale-force winds, the ship was not designed to carry so many men, and the crew had never sailed into Stornoway after dark before, and did not have adequate lookouts. The men aboard were weighed down by their uniforms and equipment. Rumours quickly spread that some of the crew had been drunk, which would not have been surprising given that it was Hogmanay and the troops were celebrating their return home. Local people held the Admiralty mainly to blame, but no one was ever disciplined for the failure to bring the men back safely.
Some called the Iolaire's sinking "the crowning sorrow of the war". Women who had been airing the civilian clothes of their husbands and sons in front of their fires found themselves bereaved and in many cases destitute. If Siegfried Sassoon thought that those at home could have no comprehension of what he and his comrades had suffered, he would have been anguished to see the impact on the small communities whose people came down to the shore to find the drowned bodies of their loved ones lined up for identification.
Afterwards, like many of those who had served at the Western Front, the people of Lewis made a point of not talking about the Iolaire disaster. They simply could not cope with the grief. In the recent BBC documentary on the subject, a psychologist pointed out that silence was the way of dealing with such emotions in those days; the islanders never had the benefit of treatment by someone like Dr William Rivers, who might have helped them talk through their thoughts and feelings in order to assuage their grief and stop them sinking into depression (the fate of some of the survivors as well as the bereaved).
Only a hundred years later, now that all those who remember it are dead and gone, has the local community felt free to acknowledge the impact of the events of 1st January 1919. On 1st January this year, Prince Charles - as Duke of Rothesay - and Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon attended a memorial service at the monument to those who lost their lives on that tragic night. As a more lasting tribute, local artist Margaret Ferguson painted portraits of a hundred of the sailors, while composer Iain Morrison, the great-grandson of one of the victims, was commissioned to write a piece in memory of the events. Morrison said that he struggled with the task because he found it difficult to create anything that did not carry a sense of reflection and a message of hope. You can see part of the documentary and hear an extract from the piece on Youtube by following this link: