Towards the end of last year The Falkirk Herald included a number of articles about the outbreak of the Great War – some were harrowing stories about local men who lost their lives as well as of the survivors who returned to their families so damaged mentally and physically that their lives were never the same again.
There were happier stories and I want to remember one man, Peter Neil Wilson, the father of my good friend Nanette Hotchkiss from Polmont.
When war broke out in August 1914 Peter was employed at the ill-fated colliery Redding No. 23. It was hard and dangerous work and many miners ignored requests to stay put and raise the coal needed for the war effort and enlisted instead. Amazingly, Peter and one his pals decided to toss a coin – if it came down heads they’d volunteer but if it was tails they would head to Australia where Peter had family. Heads it was and off they went to take the King’s Shilling in Stirling Castle where they joined the Royal Field Artillery.
It was the start of an adventure of which film scripts are made. On the Western Front Peter was put in charge of a horse-drawn gun carriage. At an overnight stop he sold the horse to a French farmer and later that same night pinched it back, hitched up and away up the line.
He wasn’t long in the trenches before he was wounded and had to be repatriated. Nanette remembers in later years how the shrapnel ‘floated’ about inside his leg! While in Stobhill Hospital he met an Irish soldier and the two applied to train as army cooks and were accepted on a course in Cornwall. However, they fell asleep on the train, missed their connection and ended up on the south coast with the squaddies heading back to France.
Peter was soon in action on the Somme and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for going into no-man’s land under fire to repair communication lines. He survived the war and on returning to Redding Colliery was given a gold Albert Watch by his fellow workers.
He worked below for only a short time before trying his hand at running a fish and chip shop in Edinburgh and then headed for Australia to make his fortune. His wife and family remained in Falkirk and after five years he came back home because she was reluctant to uproot and cross the world. He worked for a few years as an agent for a Glasgow company selling imported goods from Canada and Switzerland, but when World War Two broke out the business folded.
Now in his forties he considered volunteering again but his wife laid down the law. No more soldiering for you my lad! Finally he started work in the ICI where he remained until his sudden death aged just 55 in 1948.
Despite 67 years passing, Nanette’s memories of her adventurous father remain fresh and she has some treasured possessions to remind her.
A few photographs, a piece of petrified Flanders ‘mud’, a bashed silver thrupenny (which he said saved his life) and, of course, the medals earned on the field of battle with the DCM in pride of place.
What an amazing life!