Tag Archives: World War I

William Keith and the Battle of Jutland

Christina Keith, whose extraordinary wartime story you can read in War Classics, was the eldest of eight children. The Keith family, like so many others, saw one child after another drawn into a different aspect of the First World War. One of her brothers, William Bruce Keith, joined the Navy and was involved in the Battle of Jutland, the centenary of which is being remembered today.

001

William as a boy, appropriately dressed in a sailor suit.

William is known as ‘Uncle Bill’ in our family, but when he was a young boy his brothers and sisters called him ‘Willie’. He was born on 15 April 1898, so was just 16 at the outbreak of war. According to my father:

William wanted to go into the Navy and he discovered that he had just missed the date by which he had to apply and he would have to do something else, and then the war broke out so he was able to get in after all.

The Navy at Scapa Flow was a very real presence in the lives of the Keith family living in Thurso, and in her memoir Christina often refers to the familiar sight of battleships in the Pentland Firth. In 1916 William, now aged 18, was a midshipman on HMS Warspite.  He describes the whole engagement in vivid detail in a letter to his brother Barrogill, who was serving with the army in France.

Our steering gear now got jammed and we started turning in circles – just before the ‘Defence’, which was quite close to us, caught fire and vanished. We were now helpless and the Germans seeing us turning in circles singled us out and concentrated on us. We had about 6 or 7 firing at us, and we couldn’t reply as we were turning so quickly that the guns wouldn’t train fast enough. Shells were bursting all around us, and I thought it was all up. One shell dropped so close that the spray from it drenched us in the foretop. We were hit several times and one small splinter came into the foretop.

Eventually the focus of the battle moved on, and they managed to sort the steering and were ordered to return to Rosyth. In an understatement so typical of the writings of the time, William says they were ‘rather hungry and tired’. Fourteen men had been killed and sixteen wounded. Inside the ship they found a scene of devastation, with chairs, tables, lamps and pictures broken into pieces. All lifeboats and rafts had been smashed, and they were in immediate danger of being torpedoed, so the men made makeshift rafts from the broken furniture. They eventually made it back to Rosyth in safety, and William writes, ‘when we got inside the Forth Bridge we did feel thankful.’

He was able to take some leave at home in Thurso, just across the water from the naval base at Scapa Flow on Orkney. Today, one hundred years on, a service was held in beautiful St Magnus Cathedral to commemorate the 8500 men, both British and German, who lost their lives in the Battle of Jutland.

 

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

2014

2014. The year seems familiar already as this date has been discussed so often. And whatever happens in the independence referendum, we know that 2014 will be a year we’ll always remember in Scotland.

Strange then, that it’s also a year which will itself see a great deal of remembering, as events take place to mark one hundred years since another unforgettable year, 1914. There will be debate about the nature, tone and purpose of such events. For me, there’s an interesting synchronicity in the fact that 2014 will see the publication of my great-aunt Christina Keith’s memoir of her time in France towards the end of the First World War, lecturing to the troops.

I hadn’t particularly planned it that way, but I’m glad now that Christina’s story will join all those others, as it explores a very different aspect of life on the Western Front from that which initially comes to mind.

When the war broke out in the summer of 1914, Christina was 25 years old and about to take up her first position as a lecturer at Armstrong College in Newcastle. Life in the College, as elsewhere, would soon be thrown into turmoil by the sheer scale of this conflict. As part of my research into Christina’s story I read the diaries of her Professor in Newcastle. On August 5 1914, while on holiday, he wrote:

We wake to find ourselves a nation at war with Germany. Germany would not agree to guarantee the inviolability of Belgium to which she is pledged by treaty like Britain; and so late last night Britain announced that a state of war existed between her and Germany. Arnold and I fished for a time in heavy rain.

IMG_7127

Christina’s classes took place here in the Lit & Phil Society building as Armstrong College was requisitioned as a military hospital.

Christina’s memoir is not primarily a story of blood and guts and glory – but then, not everyone fought on the front line, but everyone was affected by the war. Christina’s memoirs tell a fascinating story of an extraordinary few months in her life which, while being laced with the sorrow and weariness of four years of conflict, were unexpectedly liberating.

War Classics: the remarkable memoir of Scottish scholar Christina Keith on the Western Front will be published on 3 March 2014. For me it’s another reason that this should be a memorable year!

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

Remembering

Remembering

 The names of sixteen men from Davidson’s Mains in Edinburgh who were killed in the First World War are carved on the church war memorial which, unusually, is also the communion table.

Communion table inscription (2)

 A few years ago I tried to find out something about the lives behind these names, and this is part of an article I wrote for the church magazine about them.

 To the glory of God and in loving memory of all who served and of those who gave their lives in the Great War 1914-1919.

 John Wilson Bell was 23 when he died in February 1917. He was a 2nd lieutenant in the Royal Engineers and is the only one of the 16 men to be buried in Edinburgh, in Comely Bank cemetery. His parents lived at Hillview Terrace.

 George Dawson Bertram grew up at Dowie’s Mill. He was a Private in the 9th Battalion of the Royal Scots. He was killed in France in 1917 aged 31 and is buried in Etaples Military Cemetery.

 Adam Edgar was a local family man, living in Davidson’s Mains with his wife and small daughters. He was a motor driver, and so served as a driver with the Royal Army Service Corps. He died in Germany in March 1919 aged 33, and is buried in Cologne Southern Cemetery.

 James Hogg had left Edinburgh by the time war broke out. His parents died when he was young, and he lived with his older brother Charles. At some point James emigrated to Australia, and he was working as a leather worker in South Yarra, Victoria when he enlisted. His brother Charles still lived in Mary Cottage in Main Street, and became an elder in the church. In February 1919 James was on leave in the UK. He returned to France, and just weeks later was killed accidentally, aged 31. Although part of the Australian Forces, he is remembered here in the church of his childhood. He is buried in Duisans British Cemetery, Etrun. Some years later Charles also emigrated to Australia.

 Alexander, Duncan and John MacDonald
There are three sets of brothers commemorated on the communion table. Alexander and Christina MacDonald tragically lost three of their sons. They had come from Skye to Edinburgh, where Alexander worked as a railway plate fitter, and they brought up their family in Corbiehill Road. John, who was in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, died in April 1917 aged 25,  and is commemorated on the Arras Memorial. Alexander, of the Black Watch, died on 19 July 1918 aged 23. Like his brother he has no known grave and is commemorated on the Ploegsteert Memorial in Belgium. And then, just 36 days later, a third son Duncan was killed, aged just 21. He had been in the Highland Light Infantry, and is buried at Bac-de-Sud British Cemetery, Bailleuval, France.

 William MacDonald, Royal Scots. I am not sure of his identity.  

 John Marshall, a baker who lived with his wife and children in Ivylea, Davidson’s Mains, is one of two men commemorated on the table who were part of the famous ‘Hearts Company’, or ‘McCrae’s Battalion’. This 16th Battalion of the Royal Scots included thirteen Hearts footballers and many other local young men, often Hearts supporters. They were at the front of the assault on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916, and suffered huge losses. John Marshall died that day, aged 34. His name is remembered along with thousands of others on the Thiepval Memorial, the memorial to the missing of the Somme. John’s father William was an elder who played a significant part in the life of the church over many decades.

 George Robertson, whose parents lived in Main Street, served with the Gordon Highlanders. He was killed at Ypres in April 1916, and is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial.

 Jack and William Sloan’s parents were John and Elizabeth Sloan of Craigcrook Terrace. Their father was an elder in the church. The Kirk Session records of June 1915 reveal that Pte William Sloan, son of members of this congregation and serving in the Royal Scots, has been admitted to the Full Communion of the Presbyterian Church by one of the Presbyterian Chaplains to His Majesty’s Forces. William was another who had joined up with the ‘Hearts Company’. Like John Marshall, he was killed in the carnage of the Somme on 1 July 1916, aged 22, and he is commemorated on the same memorial. His younger brother Jack was 2nd Lieutenant with the Kings Own Scottish Borderers, and died in France on 23 July 1918, aged 21. He is buried in Buzancy Military Cemetery.

 James and Peter Wallace are the third set of brothers to be remembered on our communion table. They both served with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. James had married and was living in West Kilbride when he enlisted. He died in August 1916, aged 25, and is buried at Bois Guillame Communal Cemetery, France. His younger brother Peter was just 20 when he was killed at the Battle of Loos in September 1915 – the youngest of the sixteen men. He is commemorated on the Loos Memorial. Their family home was in Main Street, Davidson’s Mains.

 James Wells of the Royal Flying Corps may be James Ritchie Wells, who died on 17 November 1917 aged 27, and whose parents lived in Glasgow. He is buried Glasgow. I have not found a link with Davidson’s Mains.

 Peter Whiteford, the final name on the communion table, had the closest association with the church as his father was the beadle, and his family lived in the Cottage. He was a sergeant in the Cameron Highlanders, and was killed in action in January 1915, aged 27. He is commemorated on Le Touret Memorial in France.

Remembrance is about much more than one conflict 100 years ago, but whether in the distant past or more modern times it’s surely more meaningful when we honour not just a list of names but real people, with homes and lives and families who grieve. We will remember them.

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.

Women’s education and war

It’s two years now since I first became fascinated by the memoir of Christina Keith, my great-aunt from Thurso. My father – her nephew – has owned this manuscript for many years and I knew of its existence, but had never actually read it. Now it’s to be published. SKMBT_C28413080512270

Christina was an academic who spent much of her working life as a lecturer in Classics at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. Born in 1889, she was part of the generation which pioneered higher education for women, and which would be most affected by the First World War. These two themes, women’s education and war, intertwine in Christina’s story.

Towards the end of the First World War – although it’s worth remembering that when she signed up she didn’t know it was ‘towards the end’ – Christina travelled to France to take part in the army’s education scheme. She taught soldiers of all backgrounds, immersed herself in army life, and was one of the first women to travel across the devastated battlefields once the guns had fallen silent. She has left a fascinating memoir of her time in France which offers a truly fresh perspective on life on the Western Front as the conflict drew to a close.

I spent a wonderful few months in 2012 exploring Christina’s story from her early years as the eldest child in a large Caithness family, through her choice to pursue an academic career in male-dominated subjects, and on to her time in France.  The resulting book consists of my narrative of Christina’s story, her own memoir in full with explanatory notes, and some letters written by her brother Barrogill Keith from the front line. It will be published in March 2014 by The History Press, and you can preorder from Amazon or Waterstones.

Lots more on this to follow over the next few months!

© All content copyright Flora Johnston. You may reblog or share with acknowledgement, but please do not use in any other context without permission.