Armistice 100: Falkirk family's bond has stood test of time and war

Charles Markie Stewart (78) is no stranger to Falkirk '“ even if inevitable change over recent decades means some of it can seem a little unfamiliar to him now.

By The Newsroom
Friday, 2nd November 2018, 10:23 am
Updated Friday, 2nd November 2018, 11:28 am

The most important civic landmarks are still there, although there’s a car park where the brewery once stood, and while he drives around familiar streets a lifetime of bitter-sweet memories come flooding back.

He’s a veteran of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, and fiercely proud of the former regiment in which more than one family member also served.

In fact for Charles, a Bairn who now lives in the Borders, “family” is the operative word where the Argylls are concerned.

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Its veterans are an international community, and their focal point is still Stirling Castle and the soon to be relaunched regimental museum.

As a piper his career involved playing those immortal Scottish regimental favourites from Borneo to Japan, Australia and Gemany. And at a long list of ceremonial parades in front of royalty.

He recently paid a very special homecoming visit to Falkirk, specifically Camelon, to carry out his own very personal commemoration of the Armistice which ended the Great War.

“It means all the world to me”, he said, “but I hope it is also something a lot of Falkirk people will be able to relate to”.

As a boy Charles found that the grandfather he never knew – William Allen – had served in the Argylls in the 1914-18 war, and that he had been killed on the Western Front in the closing days of the war.

He did his level best to find out more, and from his research was able to piece together the key elements of William’s story.

Like so many war dead his body was never recovered, but he is remembered in a memorial at the British war cemetery at Vis-En-Artois, close to where he died.

Charles’ late mum Margaret, who passed away in 2003, tragically never had the chance to meet William, her father, who was cut down aged just 19.

Like Charles she grew up in the silent shadow of somebody who would and should have been a major influence in her life.

“That is why the centenary is important to me and my family”, said Charles.

“Not just for me and my family but for all the other families whose lives were altered for generations by what happened in the First World War”.

His mum and dad, who died aged just 37, are buried together in Camelon Cemetery with Charles’ late brothers - and when at some point in the future his own time comes he will be laid to rest there too.

But as we survey this beautifully cared-for shrine to his Falkirk family he is proud to point out a feature, only newly added, which puts everything into context.

Beneath a large wreath of Armistice Day poppies is a montage of pictures showing his mum as a young woman, and his grand-dad as the young man who left home and family for the killing fields of France – never to return.

Embedded in the headstone ensemble is the picture of William Allen which appeared with the announcement of his death in The Falkirk Herald a century ago.

No pipes were playing for a silent homage last week which – with no need for words, prayers or fine spoken sentiments - finally brought together the memory of these people in this special, hallowed place.

None were needed.

On November 11 Charles will remember the Great War global catastrophe which robbed nations across Europe and beyond of so many of their young men.

While television screens will relay the massive religious services and elaborate parades that will be staged to mark the 1918 Armistice he will be thinking of the countless individual tragedies behind the mind-numbing statistics of suffering and 

Every random death to shellfire, every man who survived but who later died, far too young – from wounds or from the unrecognised black misery of the shock we now call post traumatic stress disorder – represented a family bereaved.

“Everyone suffered in that war”, said Charles, “and I know that in Falkirk the losses were just terrible.

“The Argylls alone fielded 21 battalions (each of around 1000 men), and were almost always in the thick of it.

“But there were many other units, and they all paid a terrible price”.

He added: “This commemoration of William Allen, bringing together his memory with the rest of his family, means more to me than I can say.”

All of this was inspired by Charles seeing that photograph of his “unknown” grandfather as a boy.

It could seem odd at first sight to see a portrait of a soldier beside that of a daughter who is obviously older than him.

But the famous war requiem arguably explains it all: “They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:

“Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

“At the going down of the sun and in the morning

“We will remember them”.