By Piper C Stewart
I always wondered why I had no grandparents. I found out that my father had died soon after the war; I found out that his mother and father had died before I had been born, and my mother’s parents had both died as well.
I always remember seeing a photograph in my mother’s bedroom of a soldier and I found out that he was my mother’s dad, my grandfather, whose name was William Allen, and I noticed that he was wearing the badge of The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders which, of course, was the Regiment I had joined in 1959 and served with until 1966 with the Pipes and Drums.
My two elder brothers, Malcolm (ex QVS) and Billy (the boxer), had both been in the Argylls and I had three cousins, Raymond Beekman and Stuart and Frazer Halliday, all of whom joined the Argylls, and later on, one of my nephews. Also, one of my great uncles had been with the Argylls in 1916 and had been wounded. So you could say that we were a Regimental family.
I then tried to find out what history my grandfather had. My mother said that she had learned that he had died in October 1918, a week or so before she was born. I checked up and found out that right enough he was reported missing in action on 24th October 1918 and my mother was born on 21st October 1918. I found out more when I contacted the War Graves Commission: his badge number (26395) and his regimental details. I was advised that he did not have a grave but was mentioned on a memorial in Arras, France. On further investigation I discovered that his details were in the British War Cemetery in Vis-en-Artois.
I arranged a visit in 1984 to the cemetery for the 70th anniversary with my mother and my brother Billy. I booked a hotel in Arras and we drove overnight from Falkirk to catch the early ferry to arrive in Arras by noon the next day. I was desperate to find the cemetery, but after all the travelling my mother needed a rest, so we arranged to visit the cemetery in the morning. After checking the map I found that it was only just outside the town on a straight road to Cambrai.
While our mother rested, Billy and I found the cemetery and the memorial with my grandfather’s details, along with other Argylls. It was very traumatic and meaningful for my mother to find where the father she never knew was commemorated with more Argylls. We spent the rest of the week visiting other burial sites in the region, which were many because it’s right on the front line of the First World War.
I visited the area again in 1998 with one of my younger brothers and his wife (to help look after my mother). Again, it was very meaningful as Billy had died in 1990. I still wondered whether I could find out some more details of my grandfather’s service with the Regiment.
Eventually in 2011 I contacted the Regimental Association at the Castle and received a copy of the 2nd Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders’ account from 23rd to 26th October 1918. The details are gained from the records where on 22nd October the 2nd Argylls, as part of the 33rd Division, relieved the 38th Division east of the village of Montai. On the 23rd as part of the 19th Brigade with the 1st Cameronians, they moved through the Middlesex Regiment to their objective. Very heavy enemy shelling was encountered as they moved to the assembly area and many casualties were incurred. Owing to the confusion, certain platoons were late arriving in the assembly area. During the attack, there were many casualties due to the heavy machine gun fire and shelling. This, I think, must have been where my grandfather was reported missing in action.
Casualties reported for this action were: 2 Officers killed, 6 wounded; 31 Other Ranks killed, 119 wounded and 31 missing. My grandmother did not officially receive confirmation of her husband’s death in that action on 24th October 1918 until December 1919. It was reported in the Falkirk Herald on that date.
Now that I knew where my grandfather had died, I decided to visit the battlefield and arranged a trip with Ledger Holidays who had a trip going to the Arras area. I packed my pipes and kilt and headed off. What an experience. All on that trip (35 of us) had an interest in the battles fought in and around Arras (noted as one of the “forgotten” battles of the Great War). It was one of the bloodiest, in only 39 days it claimed an average casualty rate of some 4,000 for every one of them. I met a couple from Sauchie, near Alloa, also called Stewart (no relation), whose grandfather was buried in that area. I was fortunate to have been able to play my pipes at my grandfather’s memorial in Vis-en-Artois cemetery.
As I had been posted to the Seaforths in 1959 whilst awaiting the Battalion’s arrival at Lemgo, I thought it proper I play at their Memorial. I also managed to play at Canada’s Memorial Vimy Ridge, and to close out I played for the French Foreign Legion’s Indochina Memorial. Veterans parade at Notre Dame de Lorette, the largest French cemetery from the First World War, which has 40,000 graves.
An interesting thing about Arras was that more than 30% of all troops fighting there were Scottish. I did come upon an interesting postcard which said that during all of World War 1 Arras was evacuated due to the heavy shelling in that area, being right on the front line, and most of the billeting was underground. But some days were better than others. The troops could come up into the daylight and enjoy what little peace they could get. The picture shown, as most of you will realise, is the Argyll Broadswords being performed in the city square. I was privileged to perform this with the dance team during many Tattoos with the pipe band.
My trip to Arras and the battlefields was very pleasant, full of memories, and I would recommend this trip to all Argylls who lost relatives in World War 1.