A Falkirk soldier's tale of love and loss in WWI

The years may have passed but for some families the sacrifice of war is something that can never be forgotten.

Friday, 17th August 2018, 12:40 pm
Updated Friday, 17th August 2018, 1:44 pm

Old photographs, a hastily scribbled letter from the trenches, perhaps a cherished medal, all reminders of the generation who went off to fight in the Great War of 1914-18 and the many who never returned.

As the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One approaches, families across the district are proudly sharing memories of the brave young men who answered the call to serve for King and Country.

But the tragedy of war not only affected those who enlisted but also those left at home, anxiously waiting for details of loved ones and hoping that the day would never come when they received the worst news possible from the Front.

One such family was the McPhersons, who lived in Falkirk’s Griffiths Street.

To more recent generations they will be remembered for the china shop which their daughter, Brucie, ran for many years in Princes Street, Falkirk.

It was later taken over by her niece, Margaret, and it is Margaret’s son Brian Appleby who has looked through old letters and papers to uncover his family’s tragic story.

The McPherson’s elder son Robert joined the Cameronians, 1 Scottish Rifles and went off to war, while father Harry joined the Gordon Highlanders.

Sadly he died on November 22, 1917, aged 49, and only five months later son Bob, who was 22, died from his injuries received in battle.

Brian has discovered that his great-uncle Bob had been injured on two previous occasions, receiving bayonet wounds in combat.

However, in April 1918 his great-grandmother received a letter from the field hospital minister, Mr McCormick, written on the 15th of that month.

He wrote: “I am with your son here in hospital and he is asking me to tell you that he has been wounded. The wound is very serious but he himself is very hopeful and hopes to be able to write himself very shortly.

“He is receiving the very best attention possible in this hospital. Every care and kindness is being shown him. He sends you his love and doesn’t want you to be anxious about him.

“Of course, I must tell you that his condition is critical and as yet we cannot say how he will progress. He sends you his love.”

Brian said: “She must have hoped and prayed but on May 2 she received two brutally terse telegrams, one was from the Officer in Charge of Infantry Records. It arrived at her home in Griffiths Street at 6.12pm and read: ‘Regret to inform you that O/C 64 Casualty Clearance Station France reports Pte R.McPherson 1 Scottish Rifles died April 18’.

“It was preceded at 4.35pm by a cable from Mr McCormick saying; ‘We’ve just been informed that he died April 18’.

“Perhaps Mr McCormick was aware that the regiment were cabling and he wanted to add additional detail. Whatever the reasons, it was a horrible way to learn of her son’s death. It must have been an awful day.”

The minister later wrote to Bob’s sister Brucie. His letter, dated April 25, said: “It’s with great regret that I must write to confirm the news of your brother’s death and answer your letter.

“His illness was a very sad one because for the first few days he seemed to progress very favourably and the doctor hoped it would be possible to have him sent down the line by ambulance train on the very day he passed away. I saw him on the morning of April 18 and spoke to him of going away.

“Then during the day he got worse and it was evident that he could not be moved. He passed away at 4pm on the afternoon of that very day.”

Bob was buried in Poperinge War Cemetery in Belgium and in the 1990s, Brian, a former pupil of Falkirk High School, who was by then living and working in Brussels, visited the grave of his great-uncle with his wife and two sons.

Brian, who worked in management consultancy and now lives in London, recalls how his great-aunt Brucie used to say that he looked like her brother.

He added: “She was one of that generation of women who never married after her fiancé was also killed in the war. She brought up my mum and her two sisters and was like a grandmother to me.

“There was another brother John and he never married either. But neither of them ever forget their brother Bob.

“I’m so glad they kept the letters as they give an amazing insight into the lives, thoughts and emotions of ordinary people getting by in extraordinary times. They are sad beyond words. They are also polite, well-written and show remarkable stoicism in the face of the cruelty of war.”