Privileged insight into war

Cortachy Castle.
Cortachy Castle.

As the country joins together to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice in the First World War, which began 100 years ago this week, we feature our second article on the role Kirriemuir played in The Great War.

Retired Webster’s High School history teacher Alison Summers writes: “Although no one knew in August 1914 how terrible the Great War was going to be, its impact had already been felt in Kirriemuir during that first month of hostilities (see part one last week).

“The local paper of the time, the Kirriemuir Free Press, recorded how, along with the rest of the country, the town answered the call to arms. Now, as summer turned to autumn, a recruiting drive aimed at those young and fit for service was stepped up, with meetings being held and individual recruiters operating in the town and surrounding area.

“Speakers urged the youth of the town to respond urgently to Lord Kitchener’s Appeal so that they would not be seen as last to join up. Shops and businesses encouraged customers to buy tobacco and sweets, which could be sent direct to the front to keep up the morale of those already in action in France.

“Readers of the local press could keep up with news of those in service with letters straight from the front describing in graphic detail the devastating experience of coming under shellfire, or being holed up in early trenches in a sea of mud, unable to shave for a week.

“A regular roll of honour recorded the increasing number of local men who had joined the colours and one father in the town was specially noted as having six sons serving in the struggle against the enemy.

“While for those at home the seasonal cycle continued with the harvest completed and the potato-lifting underway, more recruits from the area left for the trenches in France.

“In the midst of events of local importance, such as the opening of a new Reading Room and Library and the appointment of another Rector at Webster’s Seminary, people could not forget that there was a war going on. Cortachy Castle a few miles away had become an active recruiting station and then a refuge for wounded soldiers. Even the local shopkeepers reminded the public that they should follow the progress of the fighting by buying Nelson’s Portfolio of War Pictures or show their support for King and Country by buying patriotic tea tins emblazoned with pictures of Kitchener or Jellicoe.

“The onset of winter led to a big campaign to provide comforts for the troops. Pupils at Webster’s Seminary as well as work parties in the Kirriemuir churches were busy producing socks, gloves and scarves non-stop to stave off the effects of intense cold suffered in the frontline.

“At the same time, Kirriemarians were constantly putting their hands in their pockets to contribute to Red Cross Appeals, White Heather Days, a Belgian Relief Fund or Lady Airlie’s campaign to raise money for a motor ambulance to tend to wounded soldiers in France.

“With the approach of Christmas 1914 and no quick end to the war in sight, families’ thoughts turned to relatives far away in the thick of the fighting and the need to send presents of chocolates, cakes and other treats to cheer them up and remind them of home.

“While King George’s visit to local Black Watch units had been greatly welcomed and appreciated by all, other reports from the front were distressing. Sadly, while some in the town due to a cold snap were enjoying curling on the nearby ponds, and youngsters were skating in the Den, reports of local war casualties started to appear in the newspaper.

“1914 therefore ended for those in Kirriemuir with the war very much on the minds of young and old. News of wounded soldiers (including J.M Barrie’s nephew), missing men and of one unfortunate lad who ended up in a prisoner of war camp caused anguish in several homes.

“For at least one family in the community the end of the year brought particular grief and tragedy as they received a telegram of the loss of a loved one for whom a special service was held in St Mary’s Episcopal Church.

“Yet, despite all the pain caused in local homes, there was a fierce determination to provide support for those still involved and the hope that the New Year would bring better news and even an end to hostilities. The townspeople could not have guessed that this war would go on for four more gruelling years with much more hardship and heartache to come.

“Like many other local papers at the time, the Kirrie Free Press gives us a privileged glimpse into how the start of the Great War affected Scottish communities and, as we remember 1914 in this centenary year, that is a precious insight for our 21st century generation.”