‘Fighting Falkirk’ on the front line of wars

The Boer War Memorial in Newmarket Street
The Boer War Memorial in Newmarket Street

Next year brings the centenary of the Great War and already the books, articles and TV specials are in production.

No doubt our community will mark the heavy price paid at home and overseas and honour the many thousands who gave their lives. But Falkirk’s sacrifice in war did not begin with the rush to the colours in August 1914. When Britain went to war against Napoleon and later to fight the Boers in South Africa, the ‘Bairns’ were there playing their part.

For the famous ‘Falkirk dizzen’ – there were actually 13 - it was triumph at Waterloo in the cavalry of the Iron Duke whose statue stands in Newmarket Street today.

Another famous Falkirk man who saw service in Wellington’s army was the remarkable James ‘Persia’ Dawson, who served his time at Carron and then joined the Royal Artillery in 1806 and fought in Holland.

He was so successful that he was sent as a gunnery instructor to train the Persian army and later went back to help manufacture cannons for the Shah. Well rewarded for his efforts he returned to Falkirk where he built a range of houses in Bainsford called ‘Persia Row’ before leaving for South Australia where he became a highly successful landowner.

His amazing story is told by one of his Australian descendants, John Mathews, in the latest edition of the local history society journal ‘Calatria’, number 29.

Another article in the same edition by Allan Ronald describes how an astonishing number of men from Falkirk district took part in the second Boer War (1899-1902). Although I am familiar with the South African memorial in Newmarket Street with its 38 names I had no idea of the extent of local involvement until I read what Allan has turned up.

Most of the men who were sent to face the Boers were reservists who had served in the Army and were on stand-by if required. They were called up in their hundreds and such was the enthusiasm for the ‘cause’ that the community rallied round to provide for their families.

The Falkirk Herald launched a War Fund and money poured in from employers and individuals along with useful items like sweaters, shoelaces, buttonhooks, meat lozenges, cholera belts and wire nippers!

By the end of 1900 there were so many local men involved that the papers were using the phrase ‘Fighting Falkirk’. But there was a darker side to the story. Many of the men in their letters home were critical of their commanders and complained of lack of food and military incompetence. “There was a wild spirit of mutiny among the men” wrote one corporal.

Altogether it is a fascinating read and I’m sure it will be an eye-opener to many like me who pass the memorial every day without a thought for what exactly took place so many miles from home.

‘Calatria’ 29, is available from Falkirk Local History Society or from Waterstones.