I walked down from Gartymore to the village this morning, and the sun was shining down on Helmsdale War Memorial where local people were lining the path with wooden crosses, one for the life of each WW1 solider commemorated on the memorial that also serves as a clock and beacon for fishing craft.
For the past 90 years, this memorial has defined the Helmsdale skyline and tomorrow at 10.30am we will meet at The Bridge Hotel and walk up the hill, then along this cross-lined path to remember the fallen.
These past few weeks in particular, it has been such a privilege to be involved in preparations to mark the Centenary of the Great War. Timespan archivist Jackie Aitken has worked tirelessly to put together an exhibition based on local letters, photographs and POW diaries belonging to local families.
Tonight there will be a community theatre tribute at Timespan, Helmsdale’s War written by Lisa Macdonald, which tells with tender commitment, the stories of these service men and women, and their families.
The children of Helmsdale Primary School have all made poppies and written messages which are being pinned to each wooden cross. Inscribed on each cross is the name of a solider commemorated on the memorial clock.
My grandfather Adam MacIntosh read out the names of the fallen at the unveiling of the clock in 1924, and tomorrow his grandchildren will be among those reading out the names on this 100th Centenary. The names include our three great-uncles, Hugh Cameron, John Hugh McIntosh and John Cameron who was killed saving the life of my grandfather,
As I stood watching the crosses being placed on the pathway this morning, all hand-made by Mike Ellis and the local Woodlanders group, I could hear the whoops of the children playing football in the next field. I am sure the soldiers would have felt that the freedom of these youngsters to do just that, was reason enough for their sacrifice.
Hugh Cameron (1895-1914)
Prior to enlisting, Hugh, the youngest Cameron brother had worked at Shearer’s the drapers in Wick. Hugh trained with the F Company of the 5th Seaforths and was killed in action soon after his arrival in France, aged 20, at the Battle of Festubert on 15th June 1915; the very first action in which he was engaged and his body was never found. This was an unsuccessful attack against heavily defended German positions.
The planned artillery bombardment was insufficient due to a shortage of shells and that many of these which were fired did not explode. Sir John French, the General commanding the British Expeditionary Force leaked this information to the newspapers causing a political crisis and the appointment of Lloyd George as Minister of Munitions. Hugh is remembered in the Le Touret Memorial along with 13,388 other soldiers with no known grave who were killed prior to the start of the Battle of Loos on 25 September 1915.
John Hugh McIntosh (1897-1916)
In the spring of 1915, when Adam’s brother John-Hugh Cameron turned 18, left his work as a shepherd to enlist with the 8th Seaforth Highlanders at Helmsdale, spending his training in Cromarty. In his early letters home, his enthusiasm, grammar and style of writing touchingly betray his young age and naivety: ‘we had a rare sail coming from Invergordon to here passing through every sort and size of ship, did you the turnips yet?’
In this era before the discovery of antibiotics, infectious disease was a major risk in closely crowded barracks and trenches. While serving in the trenches John-Hugh developed spino-cerebral meningitis and was hospitalised for several weeks. For days on end, the chaplain who communicated with his family, Rev G S Duncan, made the two mile walk to Hugh’s bedside once and sometimes twice daily – always reciting the Lord’s Prayer with him.
The surviving letters show that he wrote to John-Hugh’s parents at least twenty-seven times over a thirty day period. These letters which came away from France and delivered to the Mackintosh home were a source of comfort to his mother, and there is a letter in her hand to her ailing son, which portrays her as a brave, strong and stoical woman of faith. Margaret was the sister of Joseph MacLeod, the Land League reformer.
When John-Hugh Mackintosh died on the 7th January 1916, aged just 19, Rev G.S Duncan wrote to his parents: ‘After all he has come throuare lifted away.’ Duncan was later Chaplain to Sir Douglas Haig and subsequently Professor of Biblical Criticism from 1919 to 1954 and Principle of St Mary’s College, St Andrews University from 1940 until 1954.
John Cameron (1892-1916)
Sgt. John Cameron, the eldest Cameron brother, worked as a keeper on Kildonan Strath before the war, and like his brothers, Hugh and Tom, trained with the 5th Seaforths in Bedford.
John came across an agricultural diary in a farmhouse in an abandoned French village. It still contains beautiful French postcards and brief diary entries written by its previous owner, a French farmer. John kept the diary for over a year and it documents the war as he experienced it. The diary ends during a period of leave in Kildonan in January 1916 and it seems likely that its preservation was due to it being left with family members at that time.
It was during the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel in November 1916 that John was killed saving the life of his friend Adam MacIntosh by dragging him to safety. At home John’s death was described in the Northern Times as ‘a heroic sacrifice for his King and country’. His name joins the hundreds of others of British and Commonwealth soldiers on the Thiepval Memorial to the ‘Missing of the Somme’