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Humanising the soldier: reflecting on my research in WWI archives

by Brianna E Robertson-Kirkland, PhD Candidate (Music), University of Glasgow

For this blog, I will be reflecting on my recent biographical research on five men from Glasgow who all fought and died in the Great War. I have chosen to highlight three soldiers I investigated who were graduates from the University of Glasgow and whose names are now commemorated in the University of Glasgow Memorial Chapel. My research background is not in anything related to war studies; rather I research 18th century music. That being said, a large proportion of my PhD was untangling the timelines of several British opera singers and reconstructing more accurate biographical accounts of their careers. In many ways, researching Great War soldiers was very similar; during war small but important details skew the timeline and can make it difficult to track what was happening when. However, I did find another alarming difference in my secondary investigations into these men.

What did they do before the war? What were their hobbies? What had been their aspirations if war had never been declared? Did any other family members also serve and did they survive the war?

During my initial research, I found a few brief biographical accounts on the internet but I was surprised at the lack of information regarding the character of these men. For quite a few of the names, there was detailed information about the battles and their travel from place to place; all things I had assumed would be quite complicated to trace. There was even grizzly information about how they were killed, but I couldn’t get a sense of who they were as individuals. What did they do before the war; what were their hobbies; what had been their aspirations if war had never been declared; did any other family members also serve and did they survive the war? These are simple questions, but they can transform the story of a soldier allowing him to become more relatable to a 21st century audience and for a family member in search of information, I would hope that it would bring both comfort and intrigue. More importantly, these aspects about a person’s character come through in the war diaries but have not been incorporated into individual histories. It is for this reason I chose to explore the individuality of each man, and while there is some information about their military careers, I also highlight their schooling, family connections and hobbies.

Major Wilfrid Robert Whitson

b. Glasgow, 30th May 1888; d. Somme, 30th November 1917

Wilfrid Whitson 1

Major Wilfred Robert Whitson graduated with a BSc from the University of Glasgow in 1910.[i] By 1915, he was already serving as captain with the 9th (Glasgow Highland) Battalion, Highland Light Infantry also known as the Glasgow Highlanders.[ii]

In the summer of 1915, though the men were regularly digging trenches and patrolling no man’s land they were given regular periods of rest. They used this time to organise their own concerts, the first of which took place at the Bethune Theatre in July 1915.[iii] Though there is no mention of Wilfrid taking part in this first concert, he was known to have performed a popular music hall song written and composed by Arthur Wimperis & Herman Finck in 1914 and recorded by Basil Hallam who was killed in action at the Somme in 1916. Wilfrid was given high praise for his performance at the second concert given at the same theatre in August. Colonel Reid highlighted in Shoulder to Shoulder that ‘When they came on to sing in the chorus of Capt. Wilfrid Whitson’s song “Gilbert the Filbert the Colonel of the Knuts” the audience nearly took the roof off the house’.[iv]

Wilfrid Whitson 2 Gilbert the Filbert

The song itself is a cheeky number, that performed well would most certainly rouse the troops:

Chorus: I’m Gilbert the Filbert the Knut with a K
The pride of Piccadilly the blasé roué
Oh Hades, the ladies, who leave their wooden huts
For Gilbert the Filbert the Colonel of the Knuts.[v]

Alec Weir in his 2013 book Come on Highlanders! noted that in happier times Wilfrid was even known by the nickname “Gilbert the Filbert”.[vi]

View Wilfrid Whitson’s full biography on the University of Glasgow online Roll of Honour here.

 2nd Lieutenant George Douglas MacLellan

b. 1891, Glasgow; d. 28th April 1917, Battle of Arleux, France

George McLellan 1

George Douglas MacLellan was born to a family who already owned a successful steel and iron business called P. & W. MacLellan and Co formed in 1839. By the early 20th century, the business was flourishing as it was responsible for many of the bridge and railway constructions throughout Britain as well as the building of the South Indian Railway.[vii] At the time of the declaration of war, George had just returned from a visit in India, which was most likely a business trip.[viii]

Having received his early education at Merchiston Castle School, where he also served as a Cadet Sergeant in the Junior Division of the Officer’s Training Core, he enrolled at the University of Glasgow in 1908 studying maths, natural philosophy, chemistry and lab. Having successfully completed his first year, he went onto study engineering and mathematics and graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1912.[ix] However, at the declaration of war George enlisted for service and was gazetted 2nd Lieutenant of the 5th Battalion Highland Light Infantry in October 1914.[x]

On the 7th August 1915, it was reported in the London Gazette that George was made temporary captain at the Ministry of Munitions.[xi] Almost two years later, on the 20th March 1917, he relinquished his temporary rank returning to his former rank of 2nd Lieutenant.[xii] At the same time he was sent to the 2nd Battalion of the regiment who were fighting in France. Unfortunately, he was killed in action during the Battle of Arleux on the 28th April 1917. [xiii]

It was reported in the England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1966 that his family had been notified of his death, but could not confirm the location, though he is commemorated on the war memorial at Arras.[xiv] This could be due to the misspelling of George’s surname which appeared in the war diary as ‘McLellan’.

George MacLellan 2 RoyalTroonGolfClubWW1Memorial

George had also been a member at the Royal Troon Golf Club who noted in their General Committee minutes held in the Clubhouse on Saturday 26 May 1917 at 4:15 pm:

Reported that George D MacLellan had been killed in action and R S McFarlane had died of wounds.[xv]

 

He is commemorated on the war memorial at the Royal Troon Golf Club.[xvi]

View George MacLellan’s full biography on the University of Glasgow online Roll of Honour here.

Captain Alexander Taylor

b. Carrickfergus, 25th March 1872; d. France, 21st April 1917

Alexander Taylor 1

Captain Alexander Taylor graduated with his first degree, a Master of Arts in Classics in 1892 before attending law classes at the University of Glasgow. While studying for his law degree he also received training in the offices of Messrs Robertson, Low, Robertson and Cross. He graduated with an LLB in 1895 and was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates in 1896. The Scots Law Times stated that he contributed several articles on law to top periodicals of the day and acted as a reporter for Justiciary Cases. He was interim Sheriff-Substitute for Banff, Stornoway, Aberdeen and Glasgow and in 1911 he was appointed Sheriff-Substitute at Forfar. As Sheriff-Substitute his judgements were described as ‘always cogent and well-reasoned, and it was only on rare occasions they were submitted to the test of appeal’.[xvii]

Alex Taylor 2 Officers at Tyndrum 1901.jpg

In 1900 he joined the volunteer force, the 9th [Volunteer] Battalion, Royal Scots and was gazetted 2nd Lieutenant on the 3rd November 1900 alongside D.S. Rose.[xviii] Taylor was attached to the Depôt of the Royal Scots in October 1902, and by the following month he was promoted to Lieutenant serving with “C” company. However, in October 1902 the Battalion were to depart for South Africa, and most likely due to his commitments as a lawyer, Taylor resigned his commission.[xix] He re-joined the 9th Battalion as Lieutenant, just a few years later on the 8th February 1905 but little is known of his activities until 1908.

Taylor became Captain of “A” company on the 14th March 1908.[xx] He was in the reserve of officers during the outbreak of war and proceeded with his battalion to France in early 1915. However, he was severely wounded just a few months after his arrival and was sent to the country to recover for a year. Over a year later, he returned to the front.[xxi]

There was a planned attack on Roeux and the chemical works in April 1917, but before this could take place “A” and “C” company of the 9th Battalion were instructed to capture the trench west of Mount Pleasant Wood. The following day “A” company managed to secure the trench, but the position was lost after the decision was made to push beyond their objective. While Taylor’s men were forced back to their original trenches by machine-gun fire, he was killed in action.[xxii]

Alexander Taylor 3 medal card.jpg

His wife, Rhoda Macintyre White (formerly Taylor) applied for her husband to be granted the 1914-15 Star on the 1st April 1919.[xxiii] He was granted the Star, the Victory and the British War medals for serving in France. The Scots Law Times wrote ‘Captain Taylor’s death is deeply regretted by his brethren in the Parliament House, with whom his kindly nature and genial humour made him a great favourite’.[xxiv]

Read Alexander Taylor’s full biography on the University of Glasgow online Roll of Honour here.


With thanks to the Royal Highland Fusiliers Museum and the Friends of Glasgow Necropolis.


 

[i] University of Glasgow Story: Biography of Captain Wilfred Robert Whitson. [online] Available at: http://universitystory.gla.ac.uk/ww1-biography/?id=2992 [Accessed 26 Feb. 2016].

[ii] 1915, Highland Light Infantry Chronicle, January 1915, John Horn Ltd; 1915, ‘Roll of Honour’ Evening Times, Glasgow.

[iii] 1988, Reid, A. K. Shoulder to Shoulder The Glasgow Highlanders: 9th. Bn. Highland Light Infantry 1914 -1918, Ed. Alec Aiken, Unpublished history of the Glasgow Highlanders in the First World War, pp. 27-28.

[iv] 1988, Reid, Shoulder to Shoulder, p. 31

[v] Gilbert the Filbert – Basil Hallam. [online] Available at: http://monologues.co.uk/musichall/Songs-G/Gilbert-The-Filbert.htm [Accessed 26 Feb. 2016].

[vi] 2005, Weir, A. Come on Highlanders! Thrupp, Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton Pub.

[vii] Moss and Hume, 2000-2001, ‘Bridge Building Achievements of P. & W. MacLellan & Co., (1850-1914)’. Transactions of the Newcomen Society, 72, pp. 179-202.

[viii] 2016. George Douglas MacLellan—Friends of Glasgow Necropolis. [online] Available at: http://www.glasgownecropolis.org/profiles/george-douglas-maclellan/ [Accessed 18 Mar. 2016].

[ix] 1914, London Gazette, 3rd November 1914, p. 8893 & University of Glasgow Male Matriculations 1904-1911 Database.

[x] 1914, London Gazette, 3rd November 1914, p. 8893.

[xi] 1915, London Gazette, 5th October 1915, p. 9760.

[xii] 1917, London Gazette, 24th April 1917, p. 3900.

[xiii] 1914-1917. ‘2nd Battalion Highland Light Infantry Diary’, Scotland’s War. [online] Available at: http://www.edinburghs-war.ed.ac.uk/scotland [Accessed 18 Mar. 2016].

[xiv] 2016. England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1966, Available at: http://.ancestry.co.uk [Accessed 18 Mar. 2016].

[xv] McCreath, Douglas. 2016. George Douglas MacLellan. [email].

[xvi] 2016. George Douglas MacLellan [online] Available at: http://.ancestry.co.uk [Accessed 18 Mar. 2016].

[xvii] 1917, ‘The Late Captain Alexander Taylor’, The Scots Law Times, July 1917, p. 69.

[xviii] 1909, Ferguson, James, The 9th [Volunteer]Battalion (Highlanders) Royal Scots, W. A & A. K. Johnstone Ltd, Edinburgh & London, p. 11 & 1908, London Gazette September 18, 1908, London, p. 6768.

[xix] 1909, Ferguson, James, The 9th [Volunteer]Battalion (Highlanders) Royal Scots, p. 32 & 39.

[xx] 1909, Ferguson, James, The 9th [Volunteer]Battalion (Highlanders) Royal Scots, pp. 68-69.

[xxi] 2015, Hughes, Peter. Visiting the fallen: Arras, North, Pen & Sword Military, p. 60.

[xxii] Ibid.

[xxiii] Ancestry, British Army WWI Medal Rolls Index Cards, 1914-1920 for Alexander Taylor [online] Available at: http://www.ancestry.co.uk [Accessed 08 Mar. 2016].

[xxiv] 1917, The Scots Law Times, p. 69.


 

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