11th Hour of the 11th Day of the 11th Month.
“We are the Dead. Short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, Loved and were loved, and now we lie in Flanders fields.”
John McCrae, May 1915
It was supposed to be the war to end all wars - and it very nearly put an end to the entire flower of Scotland's manhood too. It wiped out a generation of young men and meant the nation had to practically rebuild itself from the ground up. A total of 147,609 Scots lost their lives during World War 1. While Scotland had just a tenth of the UK's population, its soldiers accounted for a fifth of Britain's war dead. Or, to put it another way, twice as many Scots died per head of population than was the case south of the border.
In a quiet square in Prestonpans, East Lothian, Scotland, there stands a war memorial with 183 names carved into its soft sandstone. This tally consists of 143 names of men who died during World War 1, an astonishingly high number for such a small town, and the names of 40 men who died during World War 2.
The rear face of the monument displays the name A. MacFarlane, killed during the First World War. His body was never found, there is no grave, no one really knows what happened to him, but I suspect his body was probably blown from shell hole to shell hole, or he was simply vapourised. By the end of that century, his family had almost forgotten his sacrifice, some said he died at the Somme, some said the Dardanelles. Most, I suspect had never even heard of him . All that remained were three medals, worth under £50 on Ebay. Not much considering his sacrifice.
Finally, almost one hundred years after his death, I know that one of his descendants contacted the K.O.S.B. regimental museum and received a brief account of the day he disappeared.
“The Battalion was at that time serving on the Gallipoli Peninsula. On the 4th June 1915 there was a major frontal assault on Turkish positions which involved the French, the Royal Naval Division, the 42 (E Lancs) Division and the 29th Division (in which 1 K.O.S.B. was serving). The line of Allies stretched from sea to sea. They met with heavy resistance, made little progress and suffered heavy casualties. Private MacFarlane, a seasoned veteran, was posted “missing presumed dead”, one of over 100 men of the Battalion killed that day.”
Private Andrew MacFarlane was my father’s uncle. My father took care of his medals and they passed on to me after my father’s death. It was me who contacted the K.O.S.B. regimental museum. To me, those three medals are priceless.
Every name on that monument has a similar story attached to it, of a young man taken overseas on a tide of national fervour, never to return. And these monuments are in every town and city in the country, indeed, the world. The collective suffering of that generation, in all countries, is staggering.
They should never be forgotten.