Posts Tagged ‘WWI’

Speaking Their Names


Andrew, Isaac and John Newlands

This coming Sunday will be a day of great significance. Firstly, it is Remembrance Sunday, always a poignant day. Secondly, Remembrance Day actually falls this year on 11 November, the day when the Armistice was signed that silenced the guns of the Great War. And thirdly, the day will mark exactly 100 years since that Armistice. Big events are planned. All over Britain there will be services of Remembrance held in churches and war memorials, village greens and beaches – Orkney will be no different.

In Kirkwall at the moment there is a thoughtful art installation in progress – a large animated projection on the side of Orkney’s spiritual heart, St Magnus Cathedral. It is showing every night from 5pm to 8pm, finishing on Sunday night. Here, in the heart of Kirkwall, the great and the good will gather at the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day of the eleventh month; the Last Post will be played, wreaths will be laid at the great granite war memorial, topped by the Angel of Mercy. It is anticipated that hundreds of people will be there to pay their respects.

I don’t think I’ll be there, though. It’s not that I have any objections; it’s just that I plan to be at another memorial, in another part of Orkney – the landlocked parish of Harray. The war memorial for Harray stands at the highest point of St Michael’s churchyard, an elevated graveyard visible for miles around, and built into an Iron Age broch. The church here is now empty and for sale or sold – either way, it ceased to be the parish church a few years ago. The spiritual needs of three parishes – Harray, Birsay and Sandwick – are now met by the lovely new modern Milestone Church in Dounby.

The Harray war memorial has over 20 names on it from the Great War, and the impact of the loss of these men cannot be overestimated. Farms left without farmers, wives without husbands, children without fathers. Most of the names carved into the red granite obelisk are accompanied by the name of the house or farm from whence they came. Not so for the last three names on the memorial; Andrew, Isaac and John Newlands are simply listed as being from Harray. The Newlands, you see, were of no fixed abode.

The Newlands were a well-known Orkney family during the 19th and 20th centuries. For generations they worked as itinerant tinsmiths, known to everyone in the islands as tinklers, or tinkers, or tinkies.

During the summer months they would travel throughout Orkney, living in tents and selling their wares. The children usually went barefoot. During the winter months the family would try and find a kindly farmer who would let them camp on a bit of land with hopefully a hut for shelter, or a yard or stone wall to sleep beside.

Some people treated them kindly but others were less tolerant. In 1898, Andrew Newlands and his wife Rebecca were caught in a blizzard and had to take what shelter they could find by the roadside. They had a baby son at the time, and he did not survive the bitter temperature of that night. Andrew and Rebecca were then charged with his murder. They were found not guilty, but during the trial the prejudice of local people towards travellers was evident.

Despite this, the Newlands stayed and remained well-known in the islands. They had other children – four sons called William, John, Andrew and Isaac – and at least five daughters, including Isabella.

Before WWI, the family based themselves around the area of Moan in Harray, and the brothers often got work breaking stones in a quarry nearby.

They had set up their tents on a piece of land owned by a farmer called Flett, who gave them permission to camp. Some of the neighbours were quite scornful of this act of generosity – one was heard to sniff that Mr Flett ‘would get no thanks for it in this life – but maybe some in the next’! The children of the family looked different too, with their dark hair and swarthy skin. Everyone knew them, and even if they might not have admitted it, many of the farmers’ wives had had their tealeaves read by the mother or sisters of the family, in exchange for eggs or butter.

In 1915, John, Isaac and Andrew joined up at Fort George, along with their cousin, Thomas Newlands. They enlisted in the Royal Scots Fusiliers but were transferred to the 1/6 Seaforth Highlanders in 1917, after the battalion had suffered heavy losses at the Battle of Arras.

In July 1917 the three Newlands brothers’ unit formed part of the defences in the Ypres Salient – a notorious area of the Western Front that became known as the ‘graveyard of the British Army’. On 31 July the British attacked the German lines on the first day of the 3rd Battle of Ypres – a battle that would become forever associated with the name of a small, insignificant Belgian village called Passchendaele. John was killed on the first day of the battle. Andrew was wounded, but recovered and rejoined the battalion early in 1918.

In March 1918 the German Army launched the massive ‘Spring Offensive’ in the north of the Western Front, regaining nearly all the land won by the British in the previous two years. The Germans nearly broke through, but the exhausted British troops held on. The German heavy artillery fired shells continuously; both Andrew and Isaac Newlands were caught in the blasts. They were taken out of the fighting but died soon after of their wounds.

John, who died at Passchendaele, has a marked grave and headstone at the CWGC military cemetery of New Irish Farm, near Ypres in Flanders. He was 34.

Andrew and Isaac were buried in haste during the fighting. Isaac’s grave was located after the war, and he is buried in Bancourt British Cemetery, Pas de Calais, France. He was 26 when he died.

Andrew’s grave was never found so he is commemorated on the Memorial to the Missing at Arras, France. He was 31.

Their cousin Thomas was killed in action in July 1918 at the 2nd Battle of the Marne.

One of the Newlands sisters, Rebecca, lost her partner too. William Dudgeon, with whom she had two children, fought in the war but returned to Orkney suffering from wounds, where he died of pneumonia in 1919. He is buried in the graveyard in Harray, with a CWGC stone, a recognised casualty of war.

The eldest Newlands brother, William, also served in the Seaforth Highlanders. He survived the war, but lost an eye.

Brian Flett, the grandson of the farmer who let the Newlands camp on his land, told me this story. Another Orkney soldier, who knew the Newlands, wrote to their mother to tell her of her sons’ deaths. The letter was addressed to ‘Mrs Newlands, Harray Post Office, Orkney’. It sat in the PO for months; Mrs Newlands could not read nor write so would have had little cause to go looking for letters. Eventually, Mr Flett saw it and took it to her. She said to him ‘I cannot read it, you’ll have to do it for me’. And so he opened the letter and read aloud to her the news that her three boys were dead.

Many, many families in Orkney lost loved ones in the Great War. Some even lost two. Mrs Newlands was not alone in losing three sons, however. A few miles up the road in Sandwick, the family of Corrigall also lost three sons. When the Sandwick war memorial was unveiled in St Peter’s graveyard, Mrs Corrigall was invited to undertake the official ‘opening’ – a fitting tribute, it was said, from a grieving mother. As Brian Flett observed to me, it would never have crossed anyone’s mind to have invited Mrs Newlands to do the same in Harray – her position in society was far too lowly.

I have a pal called Jess Smith, who lives in Perthshire. She comes from a traveller family herself, and until the age of 18 lived in a bus with her parents and siblings, travelling the highways and byways of Scotland and following the traditional pursuits of berry picking, tattie howking, and road mending. Jess is a wonderful storyteller, singer and writer, who has spent many years telling stories from and spreading knowledge and awareness of, Scotland’s travelling people. She has campaigned for the travellers’ heritage to be recognised as a valid and vibrant part of Scotland’s culture. A few years ago Jess came to Orkney to take part in the annual Storytelling Festival – and she was interested in the story of the Newlands. She sang a song here in their honour – the tune was written by Belle Stewart, to accompany the heartfelt words, which Belle discovered many years ago. The words are reproduced below, and although the names are different, the pain of a mother’s loss is clear.

There are still members of the Newlands family in Orkney today, although it has been a few decades since they walked the roads selling their tin pails and whistles. A friend of mine who remembers being at school with ‘tinkies’ observed that people were very scathing; the children would often be cruel, she said, as children can be, but that behaviour and attitude could only have been learnt from the adults around them. People were afraid of them, my pal said, with their dark looks and strange clothes. It was as if the ‘tinkies’ had a foot in the Other World, somehow.

In some belief systems, it is thought that you die three times; once when your body dies, once when your funeral is held, and once when those still living finally stop saying your name.

And that is why on 11 November I won’t be at the big do in Kirkwall – I’ll be on top of a windy hill in Harray, making sure that the names of the Newlands brothers continue to be spoken.

Canty Auld Wife

Noo, Ah’m a canty auld wife near the close o’ life’s span
And it’s many a lang year since I lost my guid man
And my three bonnie laddies, say gallant and brave
They are a’ lying soond in a far distant grave

From bairns tae manhood I raised them wae care
But the want o’ a father – the struggle was sair
Then when war was declared and we fought wae the Hun
Sae prood was Ah then o’ my three gallant sons

O richt proudly and blithely they answered the call
Brave, stalwart and kilted they a’ gin awa’
And though at the parting my hert nearly brak
Sure I hadnae the wish tae keep nane o’ them back

But I kent as I watched them as far’s Ah could see
They’d a’ be heroes for Scotland and me
So I slipped awa’ tae my ain fireside
And I prayed tae the Lord in his mercy tae guide
And guard my dear laddies through war’s deadly strife
That he in his mercy would spare their young lives

Noo a letter fae Donald arrived the next week
And Ah smiled wae a tear rowling down ower my cheek
“Ah keep up yir hert mither, we’ll soon see this through
For you ken every Jock has a mither like you
Wha expects that her sons will dae mair than their pert
Aye we’ll soon be hame mither noo keep up yer hert”

Well I tried to be cheery but oft I was ware
Until time slippit by tae a cauld snowy day
When my hert wae an evil forbodin’ was filled
Then the post brought me news, that wee Donald was killed
Noo Donald was my youngest so sair was the blow
But my fu’ cup o’ sorrow was tae over flow
For Andrew was slain ere the Auld Year had set
And Geordie was missing; he’s aye missing yet

Oh sair, sair was my hert but time slippit past
And then warfare had ended and peace came at last
And happy the mithers tae welcome their sons
Hame safe fae the soond o’ them death-dealing guns

Oh but sair was the herts o’ the mithers bereft,
Whose sons on the red fields of battle was left
But mithers o’ heroes can be jist as brave
So I tried up my tears and rejoiced wae the lave

But noo as I sit here wae a tear in my ee
And I think on my laddies I nae mair will see
Wha for King and for Country
Gaed up their young lives
I’m sae prood o’ my heroes – this canty auld wife.

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Poppies finished

Poppies are on my mind. And with good reason. On Friday 22 April the Weeping Window was officially opened at St Magnus Cathedral – a cascade of ceramic poppies pouring from a high window down onto the steps and the Kirk Green below. As with any piece of good art, it provokes, inspires, and elicits reflection and debate. It is to most people’s eyes a beautiful thing, and it is worth taking a moment to think about why the poppy has taken on so much significance.

Since childhood we in Britain have all been used to wearing a poppy in early November, and it is part of our cultural makeup that the poppy is a symbol of remembrance. The practice began soon after the end of WWI, and became officially adopted by the establishment as a way for the UK to remember its war dead. Several factors led to that decision, but much of the credit must go to a Canadian doctor called John McRae, whose ancestors were from the Isle of Skye, and were renowned as Gaelic poets. McRae was an army doctor serving with the Canadian forces on the Western Front; during one posting he found himself at an Advanced Dressing Station (ADS) on the Ypres Salient – a stretch of trenches so bitterly fought over that it became known as the ‘graveyard of the British army’. His hospital was a series of concrete bunkers hunkered beneath the front line – so close, they said, that they could simply roll the bodies down the slope and into the dark, damp shelters. The floors were covered in mesh to stop the doctors slipping on the blood; conditions were basic, and so was the treatment offered. If a casualty could be saved, he would be sent to a bigger hospital behind the lines, and thence either back to his unit, or back to Blighty. The ones who died were buried in the field next to the ADS, and the resulting graveyard became known as Essex Farm Cemetery, after a regiment that had once been stationed nearby.

The story goes that the Canadian forces had caught the full force of a gas attack, and suffered horribly. McRae dealt with the immediate aftermath, working ceaselessly for three days and nights without sleep. Many men died, amongst them McRae’s good friend Alexis Helmer. Finally McRae had time for a short break so he took himself outside for a cigarette and found that a misty dawn was breaking over the Belgian landscape. He blinked and rubbed his eyes, convinced that he must be hallucinating through lack of sleep; the fields all around him were awash with red blood. When his vision cleared he looked again, and discovered that the scarlet he saw came not from blood, but from poppies.

Poppies grow in disturbed ground, and there was certainly plenty of that on the Western Front what with shelling, rain, and hurried burials. The warm morning sunshine at McRae’s hospital had made the poppies bloom. The weary doctor pulled out a stub of pencil, a scrap of paper, and started to write a poem that began with the words ‘In Flanders fields the poppies blow, between the crosses row on row….’. McRae sent the poem home to his mother, who in turn sent it to a magazine; it quickly became a favourite with the soldiers themselves.

In our modern times, the second verse of the poem can make difficult reading, speaking as it does with the voices of the dead soldiers. They exhort the reader to carry on the fight, to ‘take up our quarrel with the foe’, else their own deaths would be in vain. For those who believe the whole war was a senseless waste of life, this is difficult to hear.

Before my Orkney life I worked for a tour company south who took groups of schoolchildren to the First World War battlefields. For several years I tramped through cemeteries and trenches, visited museums and memorials, followed by 13 and 14-year old pupils – who responded magnificently. Those trips were emotional, heart-breaking, exhausting, and ultimately life-affirming. I would stand on top of a row of fossilised sandbags at Essex Farm and tell the story of McRae and the poppy poem, declaiming the line ‘and in the sky the larks, still bravely singing, fly – scarce heard amid the guns below’; and blow me if there wasn’t always a skylark belting its little heart out high above us, and often clumps of scarlet poppies growing amidst the graves. Small wonder then, that the poppy has a special meaning for me.

And so, to Kirkwall. How did the poppies come to be here? In 2014 the now-famous art installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red (itself named after a line taken from a poem) appeared at the Tower of London. It comprised 888,246 hand-made ceramic poppies, one for every British and colonial soldier who died during the First World War. It was made by ceramic artist Paul Cummins, and designed by Tom Piper. Most of the poppies were then sold to members of the public, and I am lucky enough to own one of them. The two large sculptural elements, Weeping Window and Wave, were kept back – over 10,000 poppies in all. The two large pieces (each containing 4,000-5,000 poppies) were bought by two individuals/organisations, who then donated the artworks to the Imperial War Museum. Weeping Window and Wave are going on a four year tour around the UK. The Orkney Islands Council Arts Officer put in an application for the cathedral to be one of the locations, based on the fact that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Jutland, and the UK official Act of Remembrance will take place in the cathedral on 31 May.

Once the bid had succeeded the process began of constructing the installation. Scaffolders, painters, stonemasons, a team from 14-18 NOW, most of the council’s museum staff….over the space of two weeks many people contributed, and the installation slowly came together under the watchful eye of the Kirkwall residents. For the unveiling, the original artist and designer came to Orkney and proclaimed themselves delighted with the overall effect. The red sandstone of the cathedral gives the impression that the poppies are growing out of the walls – a very pleasing effect. Thousands of photos were taken in bright sunshine and then that night, by floodlights with the full moon behind.

The public’s response has been overwhelmingly positive, and there has been a lot of debate about what the installation signifies, and what might be appropriate behaviour surrounding it. Suddenly, there is poppy etiquette to consider. Is it appropriate, say, to take a poppy selfie? What about weddings in the cathedral – would it be fitting for the bride and groom to have a photo taken grinning in front of what is essentially a war memorial?

A friend brought up the subject of blackenings (the pre-wedding ritual that involves drink, treacle, and being cling-filmed to the nearby Mercat Cross). What message would that send out, she worried, about our young people’s attitude towards our war dead? Did it show a lack of respect? My mind went back to the battlefields and the school kids; in their downtime (having had full days of battlefield experiences) they ran, they sang, they burnt off energy and embraced the high spirits of youth – and I loved them for it. They reminded me that the young soldiers would not have wanted to be memorialised in respectful, mournful silence; they wanted to live, get drunk, dance, run, mess about with girls (or boys). To my mind, the young folk tearing about being young and happy is the best tribute possible to the men and women who died in the two world wars.

The wearing of the poppy for Armistice Day or Remembrance Sunday has become a matter of hot debate in recent years, and opinions can be strong on both sides; for every person who believes it is an outdated imperialist practice, there is another who is in danger of fetishising the poppy with sentimentality and Facebook posts featuring sunsets and ‘lest we forget’ captions.

All this I see when I see Weeping Window – battlefields, poetry, remembrance, philosophy. I also see children looking curious and artists responding and people talking. But most of all I detect an overwhelming sense of pride that ‘we’ were chosen for this. I think – I hope – that we do it justice.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

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.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

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