In July 1915, three brothers presented themselves at Glencorse Barracks on the outskirts of Edinburgh to enlist in the Royal Scots. The First World War was almost a year old, but despite the mounting casualty lists and a growing realisation that it would not be over anytime soon, my grandfather and his two brothers joined up.
They were miners and anything must have seemed better than going down the pit, and the pit villages of central Scotland were especially grim. One, Robert, paid the highest price for that decision and he still lies outside Ypres in Belgium, scene of some of the bloodiest fighting in that bloody war.
My grandfather took no glory in the war he fought. Come November, he refused to wear a red poppy, pointing out it was the Earl Haig Fund that produced and sold them — it still does in Scotland. Earl Haig was Douglas Haig, British commander on the Western Front from 1915 to 1918. He was — in my grandfather’s words — a “butcher”.
British troops were promised they would return to a “land fit for heroes”. The reality was different. My grandfather returned to mine shale at Tarbrax in Midlothian, a desolate village in the middle of nowhere.
A news report in The Scotsman from 1925 was headlined: “Situation at Tarbrax: Faced With Starvation”. For this staid paper of the Edinburgh bourgeoisie to use the word “starvation” shows how serious the situation was.
My father was little over a year old when the mine at Tarbrax shut. His father briefly found work at another nearby shale mine, before it shut too, so the family came to Edinburgh in search of work.
The family of six lived in an outhouse in genteel Morningside and then in a series of slums. My grandfather was unemployed for a decade and more.
The bitterness he felt about the Great War never left him. That is one reason why I never wear a poppy. I have visited my grand uncle’s grave and found the experience moving, but it also left me angry over his loss and that of hundreds of thousands on all sides.
My other grandfather served from 1914 onwards as a stretcher bearer on the Western Front. He never talked about it and, although I never knew him, from all accounts he was clearly traumatised.
For Haig, there was a comfortable retirement at Bemersyde Castle in the Scottish Borders, bought for him by the British government. When he died in 1928, he was given a state funeral. His statues grace Whitehall in London and Edinburgh Castle in Scotland.
World War I cast a shadow over my family. Despite attempts by various historians to rehabilitate Haig, it is clear that he was prepared to throw away the lives of young men to secure an elusive breakthrough in a horrid war of attrition.
At the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, British troops, laden with heavy knapsacks, were ordered to walk abreast towards the German line. They were assured an intense artillery barrage had destroyed the barbed wire and the defenders. It hadn’t.
As the artillery ceased, the Germans left their concrete bunkers, manned the front line trenches and opened fire with their machine guns, mowing down lines of British infantry. More than 50,000 British soldiers died on the first day of the Somme, the greatest military loss of life British forces have ever suffered.
Bloodbath and revolt
A year later, the Battle of Passchendaele was Haig’s attempt to break through in the Ypres area, the most heavily defended part of the German trench line. It was opposed by the British prime minister, Lloyd George, and the French commander.
But Haig insisted it went ahead after another long artillery barrage. He ignored warnings the area would flood if heavy rain came, which it did. It was a bloodbath in the dense mud in which men drowned.
In the spring of 1918, a German offensive broke the British lines in Flanders. Haig wanted to evacuate British troops across the English Channel. Lloyd George refused and insisted a joint British-French command be created with Haig under the French Marshal Foch.
World War I was fought by the Great Powers over the division of the world. When it ended, more territory than ever was coloured red on the map as the British Empire acquired more real estate. It was an imperialist war in every sense.
Rarely are we ever told how it ended. It ended on the Eastern Front with revolution in Russia and on the Western Front with revolution in Germany.
Starting with the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland, the colonial world also rose up against the imperial order. This is what I want to remember, but I also want my children to know how our family was scarred bloody by World War I because I want to ensure they never let it happen again.