Armistice100: Letters from the front bring horrors of war home to Fife

British troops in a trench, WW1 1914-1918
British troops in a trench, WW1 1914-1918

Every week for five years, the Fife Free Press carried a roll of honour which captured the full horror of war.

They recorded the losses, and the incredible bravery, of local folk who had signed up and, in so many cases, made the ultimate sacrifice.

British WW1 machine gun troops in a trench

British WW1 machine gun troops in a trench

So many perished that some get barely one line, but their deaths are still recorded for posterity. They shall be remembered.

Every name is someone’s son, brother or husband.

Behind every story printed lay deep personal loss and grief. Lives lost, lives changed forever.

And even as the guns fell silent 100 years ago this very week, the roll of the dead and the wounded continued as families back home received telegrams containing the news they all dreaded.

Flick through the 1918 bound volume and you become immersed in the human cost of one of the darkest moments in our history. The war that was meant to end all wars, but which resulted in the deaths of some 10 million servicemen.

Pick any edition of the Press from January through to November, and the stories fall into three clear categories – missing, honoured or killed.

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And even allowing for the formal tone of the times, the searing sense of loss, of despair and pain still seep through the words.

The letters sent by adjutants and officers were written with the heaviest of hearts but with a sense of duty too as they imparted the darkest news.

“He was a good lad” said one.

Another wrote “I cannot conceive of the battalion without him.”

In some cases they couldn’t offer the comfort of a final resting place, in others they were able to provide painful, but important, details of how loved ones had died.

One hundred years on, their stories have lost none of their power to move.

January 1918 and the Press reports that on the Friday, the last of Lance Sergeant Richard Oliver’s letters arrived home – “his usual cheery self.”

On the Sunday, his mother received news of his death in Palestine. He was 26 years old.

March 2018, a letter arrives at the East Quality Street home of Private Robert Kerr of the Black Watch informing them he had been missing since October.

His battalion had advanced near Passchendale when they faced a sudden burst of gunfire from a pill box. Six of the eight went down. The two who survived didn’t see Private Kerr again. He was 20 years old

May 1918. Curtains drawn in more households and mourning clothes donned as news of further losses reach the town. Sergeant Andrew Watson, killed in action, aged 19; Pvt Wm Lawson, dead at 20; Pvt David Dickman; Pvt William Goodman; Sergeant, John Adamson Black Watch; Private James Cadger, Black Watch, and Pvt James McKay, KOSB taken by shellfire.

Just a few of the hundreds of names preserved for posterity in the columns of the Press. The final mention in dispatches.

On the passing of Private McKay, his commanding officer wrote: “Mercifully his death was instantaneous, and he could not have suffered. He was a good lad, and was liked by his comrades for his quiet, manner. He was a good soldier.’’

He was also just 19.

And so it goes on.

Pvt Geo Clark, died of wounds received in April. His family only found out in June.

Others were left in limbo.

It’s impossible to imagine the heartache faced by the family of Kirkcaldy artilleryman, Gunner James Howie, reading of his death on on April 29, and being informed: “As soon as I have details I will let you know where he is buried.”

Who knows if they ever found his final resting place.

For the Nicol family in Institution Street there were two telegrams – one to say son William was dangerously ill, the second to say he didn’t make it.

Barely 18, he passed away at No 1 British General Hospital, Hamadan. He had seen service in Malta and Mesopotamia and he never had a furlough – a leave of absence – since enlisting

The Steel family of Roseberry Terrace , saw one son killed, one taken prisoner.

Many had nowhere to visit to pay their respects as loved ones were buried where they fell on a battlefield in a foreign country thousands of miles from home.

And some were simply listed as missing, presumed taken prisoner.

Reports of distressing injuries and debilitating conditions from amputations filled the dispatches – shell shock was another major issue.

And still, the casualties piled ever higher.

Major John Galloway, a Black Watch veteran and father of two, was struck by a bullet and died instantly,

His Adjutant grieved: “We can ill spare men of his type.”

The helplessness that forms part of loss was all too evident as an officer sat at his desk and penned a letter to inform the family of the death of Robert Colthart, Captain and Adjutant, Fife and Forfar Yeomanry, who had seen service in Gallipoli and Palestine.

He was badly wounded when a shell landed at the entrance to a cellar just beside him. A head wound saw him pass away without regaining consciousness.

“I cannot conceive of the battalion without him,” his letter home stated.

The camaraderie of the trenches was evident as the name of Private Samuel Kinsman was added to book of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

“One of the chaps in the company has asked me to write to you,” said the letter. “He was either killed by a shell or a bomb. He suffered no pain at all, and was buried last night along with his comrades.”

The war had just weeks to run when another family, this time in Abbotshall Road, was shrouded in grief.

The story behind the death of Lieutenant A.R. Bell spoke of the commitment, courage and selflessness of many who signed up and went to serve in this hell.

The redacted report tells of a flying mission with H------- over the River --------------- where they came under heavy fire.

“He went up to see how high he could climb with an improved engine,” wrote his senior officer. “During the flight, of his own accord, he flew over the lines, doubtless in the hope of meeting an enemy machine. “He was heavily shelled by anti-aircraft guns and came down in a vertical dive, and possibly because his machine may have been damaged the wings folded.

“Firing returns that week showed he had done more than any other in the squadron. He met his death in the performance of his duty to his country.”

Sadly, many others met the same fate.

But amid the carnage, the horrendous loss of life, and injuries, from which many never fully recovered, there were still shards of light, summed up by one final story. In a powerful editorial comment, as peace was confirmed, the Press spoke of “the brutal treatment of our POWs which will ever remain a stain on the character of the Germany military authorities who, as the callous and unblushing authors of this most horrid cruelties, have descended the depths of savagery.”

Corporal James McDade knew first hand what life was like. He was taken prisoner in 1914.

After three and half years in captivity, he wrote to his mother, Mrs Mary McDade of West March Street, with the news she longed to hear – he was on the road home, and had been taken to an internment camp in Holland.

The joy, and relief, poured from the page. “It was like coming out of hell into heaven,” he wrote. “Let all my friends know I am in the pink!”

One hundred years on, as we stand in silence this Sunday, we remember them all.