Written by Lucy M MacDonald, University of Stirling Student and museum volunteer
When I was first asked to write this blog, I had no clue what to write about. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders museum offers so much history and intrigue for its visitors that choosing one thing to write about seemed like an impossible task. Then inspiration struck. For many people the war was an opportunity to see the world. Regiments from Scotland, England and Wales were sent to France and sometimes Africa. The 2nd Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders spent most of their time in France and Belgium; fighting in Ypres, Passchendaele and Flanders. I have decided to explore the month of July in the final year of the Battalion for a personal reason.
There were no families in Britain untouched by World War One, my family was no exception. A number of years ago I discovered that my Great, Great Uncle Alexander (Alick) McRaild of Glendale, Skye, had fought and died in WW1. In 2015 I went to visit his grave in Belgium and discovered that he had been killed at the age of nineteen. Pictures and letters belonging to the family unsurfaced to tell me more about his past. I discovered that both sides of my family had been friends for longer than I thought as I now own a picture of my Great Great Uncle Alick and his friend, my other Great, Great Uncle Murdo MacPhee.
When I started volunteering at the museum I made it my business to discover as much about him as possible. I began, of course, in the World War One room which drew my attention not only to my topic, but to the history of the war itself. The Memorial Plaques exhibit and the note declaring the armistice were objects I found particularly interesting. Exploring this made me understand how the lives of each soldier in the trench must a have been so closely connected.
I was then given the privilege of looking through the Battalion diary, specifically focusing on the weeks leading up to Alick’s death. On the 10th of July 1918, the 2nd Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders relieved the Highland Light Infantry at Brandhoek. Brandhoek was a small hamlet that was part of the front line for British troops in Belgium. It is located near Passendale, so it saw a lot of action throughout the war. The Americans first saw battle in the field in May 1918 but there were still many who hadn’t been trained. That is why from the 16th to the 20th of July the 2nd Battalion played host to a battalion of American troops for training purposes. For all the talk about the American prowess in battle, the reports from the Argyll’s state them to be pretty poor when learning how to conduct trench warfare. Just before their arrival at the front line, the 1st Middlesex Division had carried out a successful attack on the German troops. This lead to a destructive shell attack in retaliation by the Germans. By the end of July 10th men from the 2nd Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlands were dead. One of those who died was my Great, Great Uncle, Alick McRaild.
While searching through the history of the battalion I also compared what I learned about Alick in the letters. Alick himself was not very helpful in this research project as he failed to date any of his letters home. There are a couple of letters that Alick sent home to his dad while he was in the trenches. They are heartbreaking to read but they do show, if only in a small way, how the soldier’s minds work. They wanted to keep things as normal as possible, so they spoke about ordinary things such as the weather and asked about the people still at home. It is comforting to know that throughout the terrible times that the soldiers were fighting they kept up a normal cheerful spirit even though they must have been terrified.
On the 18th of July 1918 Alick McRaild of Glendale was killed and although the records only have it down as being killed in action, through some further research I have discovered exactly how he died. Soldiers in the British Army stick together and the 2nd Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were no different. Not long after Alick’s death his friend Peter C McLean, who was also from Glendale, took special care to discover how Alick died and wrote a letter of condolence to Alick’s family. That, above all else that I have learned in the three months working in the museum, taught me what soldiers and friends would do for each other.