Month: November 2015

The Sludge of Flanders

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A transnational history does not always resonate well with the beautifully clear resurrection symbolism of the poppy. The Great War was the dawn of a twentieth century, which led to an even more devastating war and a century of global conflicts, culminating in a redrawing of international borders and the Cold War. The Middle East has been the site of consistent regional war zones and intervention, leading to a new dawn of international terrorism. The poppy represents military sacrifice (and hope), but the sludge of Flanders also seems pressingly symbolic of a century of post-war chaos. Crushed nations. Lost lives. Broken families. Instability. Above it all, the white noise of politicians seeking a catch-all political ‘message’ from the ruin. The glib messages they frequently utter each Remembrance Day creates a distraction from what could be a moment to reach into and retrieve something of value from that sludge of Flanders, without being consumed by it.

My own great-grandfather never quite recovered from his experiences of the First World War. He tried to forget it and bury it, but – like others – he died young and tormented by the death and the mud. The stories of those who died in Flanders in the First World War have become so much a part of the British psyche that it would be difficult to add a fresh perspective. Yet, it would be doing a disservice to the families in our study, if we were to let Remembrance Day pass in a centenary year without observing the historical magnitude of the First World War. Our Victorian families are now being researched into their third generation, which means that we are finding more and more who experienced the First World War. As an ex-soldier, I couldn’t help but identify with the Hill family and be moved by the death in Flanders of a Dundonian, John Fairweather Hill (1878-1915).

John entered our ambit because he is the grandson of James Fairweather Hill (1803-1858) and Margaret Johnston (1801-1870). James was an accountant, but his financial interests left only a small amount in his will, amounting to approximately £579 and some limited property interest. He also died relatively young from chronic diseases of the lungs, kidneys and bladder (this was not a healthy, successful professional). His family were therefore facing a financially unstable future at the time of his death. He left everything to his wife, but Margaret would have struggled to maintain their children. Their ensuing fortunes seem to reflect this uncertainty. Three of their eight children may have died in infancy. Of the others, James (1832-c1900) seems to have been a sailor, but further research is needed. John (1833-1875) emigrated to Australia where he became a rector, before his death in Evendale, Tasmania at only 43 years of age. He was single and childless. David (1841-c1911) was a clerk in marine insurance and moved to Bristol. He also died single and childless. Only Helen and Samuel appear to have had children. Helen (1843-1882) sensibly married John Duncan Minto (1844-1918), a brushmaker master. They had six children, with a range of occupations, from New Zealand bushman to Dundee press photographer. Yet, as with the Fairweather Hills, professional success also evaded the Minto family.

The final child of John and Margaret Fairweather Hill, Samuel (1835-1893), married Christian Gray Spence (1840-?) in Edinburgh in 1864. He was a soldier in the hospital corps. On demobilisation, he became a sometime night watchman and a clerk. Samuel died in Glasgow. He and Margaret had two children. Their first child, Samuel (1874-1943) was born in Bengal, India. At various times, he was a clerk, chemist or druggist. Despite his seeming professional ties, he remained single and ended his days in ‘Rottenrow’, one of Glasgow’s poorest and most notoriously named locations (now in the grounds of the University of Strathclyde). His brother John (1878-1915) was a mercantile clerk, but he had been killed nearly two decades before on 25 September, 1915, in Flanders, France.

John was with the first wave of volunteers in Kitchener’s New Army. He joined the Seaforth Highlanders, which were part of the 9th Division’s ill-fated offensive at Loos in September and October of 1915. They had spent months training in preparation for battle but were ill-prepared for what greeted them in France. John’s regiment were decimated during the opening battle of Loos on 25 September 1915. The Hohenzollern Redoubt was a heavily fortified position in the German lines, known as Hellfire Corner. It was key to the Loos battlefield and, after four days of bombing, the British threw wave after wave of men at the enemy’s lines. It was also the first time that the British used gas against the Germans. The log book of John’s regiment describes the incomprehensible death toll in chilling matter-of-fact detail. His regiment was involved in very heavy fighting. Twenty officers and 509 men of the Seaforth Highlanders were killed, wounded or missing during a few days. That is essentially an entire regiment. At the end of the fighting at Loos, the Germans retook the ground – the sludge – that had been taken by the British. The Seaforth Highlanders’ huge losses are indescribable in the face of such little gain. Following a family history in detail, though, allows one to comprehend the human life among the numbers. Such sacrifice is breathtaking and horrifying in equal measure.

Critics suggest that Remembrance Day glorifies the sacrifice of war. Perhaps it has its own jingoistic heritage to surmount, but it isn’t about revelling in war, nor is it a driver for recruitment. Before and after the First World War, the armed forces offered a tantalising choice to the less wealthy, outcast and desperate – and for centuries it was the career of choice for professionally-aspiring sons. Victorian professional families in Dundee were frequently teetering on the edge of a professional abyss or struggling to enter a concentrically shrinking circle of power. The armed services provided a career for those with limited horizons. Remembrance Day exposes us to the hypocritical relationship that we all have with our own view of war. Those of every political ilk are guilty of discrediting one point of view to misrepresent their own. Remembrance Day should compel us all to be more honest about our own role in the creation, continuation and consumption of war.


Dr Kim Price