My great-nephew recently married in Vancouver and I edited one of the many photographs the family had posted with the words ‘over here I am thinking of Mum and Dad and Eric‘ – my brother, his grandfather, known universally as Fergie. My niece replied saying ‘thank you Uncle Robert, we were thinking of them too. But did you notice that behind us on the photo was a painting of the Mill above the fireplace?’
We are at that time of the year again when people cast their mind back to those who in almost every family gave their lives or at least gave their youth to war. My father for instance joined the Scots Greys in 1914, and strangely never spoke about his experiences in the war until he was in his eighties and I had come back up from London for a quiet weekend at home. I found him in his garden behind what we now call the white byre, sitting on a bench having a cigarette and watching the trout jump in what he undeniably thought of as his river. Without warning, he began a long conversation with his describing, the Scots Greys being a cavalry regiment, how they learned to ride – he said it was fairly crude, they had taken a walled garden near Lanark with a ladder up the outside and a man with a horse inside: you went up the ladder, dropped onto the horse, and when you could get round each corner of the walled garden without falling off, you could ride.
To just make sure that they knew what was ahead of them, they sent them to the barracks in York where, in groups of 30 white horses at a time, they practiced cavalry charges up the racecourse. Because the soldiers had to attend Church Parade every week, they went to the local church, which happened to be the one my mother attended with her family. And somehow neither of them could remember quite how they caught each other’s eye, and ‘walked out ‘ for three evenings, and then Jock went off to war. He managed to send her four embroidered cards while in France. He got himself shot twice: once by himself when he was cleaning his revolver (left him deaf for the rest of his life), and the other was a wound he received while riding as a messenger for a New Zealand General. The idea of messengers carrying information and instructions from headquarters to the front now seems bizarre – but at the time it was the only logical way to do it. As my father said ‘they even gave us a red armband so the snipers could pick us out more easily‘.
Eventually he came home, got a job as a grain miller at Garrion Mill on the Clyde and married my mother, and this was home for my elder sister and brother. In 1936 they moved to take over Dalgarven Mill from his father, and your writer was born shortly thereafter. None of the above of course I knew growing up. And even as an adult when I was training as an architect, the war was a closed book. By a strange coincidence, when we restored the Mill buildings in 1985, it was my brother and sister who had both emigrated to Canada in the fifties and sixties who produced the photographs of my father in his war time uniform and of them, one thirteen years older than me, the other eleven years older, showing me growing up. Life went on and eventually it was my turn to leave, and off I went to London to live with my aunt Billie and work for well known architects Chamberlin Powell and Bon. And of course eventually to marry, come back to Scotland and have a family. It must have been in the 1970s while in one of my sadly infrequent visits to my parents at the Mill, I asked my Mum where Dad was, and she said he is out in the garden which lay behind the Byre. So I set off to see how he was, and he was quietly smoking a cigarette, sitting on the bench overlooking his river and watching his fish jump, when for the first time he began to talk about the war of sixty years ago. He suddenly said ‘I still cannot believe that those who were supposed to be our betters and our leaders were so stupid that they thought sending 120 young soldiers on white horses to France to fight the Hun was a good idea‘. And for about the next 45-50 minutes, I heard snippets of his time in France none of which I had never heard him utter before:
“I set out every morning on my horse which had been dyed brown of course, the rest having been eaten, to deliver my messages that I had been given, we had moved forward from my last event so the territory was new, and suddenly I saw a small hill and stupidly I thought if I got to the top of that I would see where I was going – so putting my head down, I galloped towards it, only to find that it was made of bodies. I stopped and thought what the hell are we all doing this for! But of course, when the snipers started again, and the shells whined over the top, you just did what you were supposed to do and delivered the pouch of messages”.
He went on in this vein for quite a long time and I suddenly realised that he and possibly everyone else who had been in that hellish conflict could not and would not forget. So on Armistice Day, although it is not a Sunday this year, I pulled up a chair to the little display cabinet that we setup in his Mill to honour him, and from 11 o’clock to 11.02 we just sat and look at one another, and I quietly said ‘well done Faither’.