Ayrshire at War

By, Sergio Burns

There was a shadow moving across the sun in the summer of 1914. In the evening twilight, the people of Ayrshire might have sat at home reading their newspapers after a hard days work. Stories of imminent war would have been prominent, couples may have passed comment.

In their sparsely furnished front rooms they might have yawned and stretched and gone early to bed. Their immediate concern might have been their shift at the local pit or the local mill in the morning. They might have worked through the night, leaving home after dark and making their way through poorly lit streets to their place of work.

In these days of uncertainty, the sound and the fury and the chaos and the terror of battle would never be far from their minds. It would have preyed on their subconscious, wormed its way into the souls of families across the county.

They would have been staring at the unknown while the possibility of war was being talked about, or written about. It whispered to them in their sleep.

Then… sons, husbands, fathers mobilising for the uncertainty, the unknown of the front. Sons signing up, husbands and fathers enlisting, those left behind sitting in the lonely hollowness of their missing husband/father/son with nothing but worry on their mind. Clinging tightly to memories.

The machinations of the then ‘superpowers’ were beyond the control of ordinary folk and even seasoned politicians. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, next in line to succeed Emperor Franz Joseph as the leader of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, created a month of tension between the larger European powers. This led to Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia on July 28, 1914.

Historian Christopher Clark in a BBC Radio 4 series, A Month of Madness, (June, 2014) has described the events leading to war as having a ‘9/11’ effect. It sent the world onto a road of no return, a march to the battlefields, a long, long journey to the front line trenches and horror of battle. It would bring 70 million into the theatre of conflict, 60 million from Europe and would lead to the death of nine million combatants and seven million civilians.

While, initially, war was declared by Austria-Hungary on Serbia soon Germany, Russia, France and Britain would be swiftly pulled into this swirling vortex of conflict. Officially, Britain declared war on Germany at 19.00 hours on Tuesday, August 4, 1914 – effective from 23.00 hours after an unsatisfactory reply from the Germans who were demanding safe passage through Belgium (then neutral) to attack France.

Ayrshire woke up to war with no mobile phones, smartphones, no texting, no internet, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, no television, no radio (the BBC would be responsible for the first radio broadcasting station in the world, but it did not start until November 14, 1922). Nevertheless, news travelled fast and the people of Ayrshire would soon hear about it through the media of the time. Newspapers, talk on corners, conversations in local public houses, half-time chatter at one of the local football matches, or in the workplace.

The chatter in many of Ayrshire’s vibrant mining and agricultural communities was of war and signing up. These were echoed at the pits around the Doon Valley, in the Nobel factory at Ardeer, which once employed 12,000 souls, at Johnnie Walker’s Whisky bond in Kilmarnock, Blackwood and Morton Kilmarnock (which existed in the town between 1908 and 2005), Andrew Barclay’s Locomotive works also Kilmarnock, and in the lace making mills of Newmilns, Darvel and the Irvine Valley. In all the places people worked or gathered across Ayrshire.

Newspapers led the call for volunteers, and Ayrshire braced itself for what was to come.

According to Trevor Royle in his book, A Military History of Scotland (2012), 690,235 Scots were mobilised, while for comparison Ayrshire, at the time of the 2011 census, had a population of around 268,000.

Many in the county, as we have intimated, were heavily involved in the mining industry while the aforementioned munitions factory at Ardeer took on a new significance.

During the war, the Nobel plant feared attack by submarine, by shelling or the landing of raiding parties. Of course the factory created explosives – nitroglycerin and nitrocellulose – and propellants, used by the armed forces. These propellants were used in the British army’s 303 Lee Enfield rifles issued to British soldiers in World War One. The Lee Enfield it is said, could stop a man at 1000 metres. The production of explosives and propellants made at the Ardeer factory played a huge part in the progress and carnage of World War One.

Inland from Ardeer, at Kilbirnie, war funds were poured into Glengarnock Steelworks to allow the mass production of steel to a suitable standard to be used to make shells.

There was also a Royal Ordnance Factory which was situated close to Irvine beach. The factory employed some 1500 people, while 75 per cent of the workforce were women.

Before the war the women’s suffrage movement had been gathering momentum with a series of high profile incidents including a failed attempt to stop Winston Churchill becoming the MP for Dundee. But as women were increasingly brought in to aid the war effort and ensure the production of munitions (250,000 Scots were involved in this industry during World War One), their demand to be given the vote grew in strength.

Following the First World War a new act was introduced by parliament called the Representation of the People Act which allowed for women over the age of 30, who also met a property qualification, to vote. Of course, only 8.5 million women met the set criteria. At the same time the Act abolished property and other restrictions for men and extended the vote to almost all men over 21. The voting public increased from around 8 to 21 million, though huge gaps in individual rights between men and women remained after the end of war.

In Ayr, one of the local employers was Ayr Tramways Corporation, who operated between 1901 and 1931. As their drivers and conductors – the male workforce – volunteered for the front they were quickly replaced by women. A total of 55 men from the company signed up to fight and 13 of them did not return home. Those lost to the war are commemorated on a plaque held by South Ayrshire Libraries. Of those who enlisted:

W. Geddes, H. Clark, J. Johnson, W. Rae, H.Piper, H.Jones, S.Sharp, J.Ralph, C.Arnold, J.Ridler and D.Bell were listed as the fallen, while A.Hart and J.Haldane died in service (perhaps of disease).

David Bell, who is listed above, lived at 23 Pleasantfield Road, Prestwick with his wife Annie. He was the oldest son of Thomas Bell of Cemetery Cottage, Mauchline and worked, as indicated above, for Ayr Tramways Corporation.

Living next door to him at 21 Pleasantfield Road was Hugh Richmond, a painter working for a Mr Fraser, who lived there with his wife.

We can only speculate on the relationship the two men might have had but they would certainly have known each other. They might have nodded to each other across a garden fence, mentioned the weather as they passed on the street coming or going to work. They would maybe pass comment on the local football team (Ayr United finished 5th in the Scottish First Division in season 1914/15, while their rivals Kilmarnock slotted in at 12th in the 20 club league). They might have met and shared a drink with each other in the local pub, walked home together discussing the progress of the war. They might have talked about their desire to do their bit for the war effort much to the chagrin of their anxious wives.

A 12 year veteran of the Territoral Force, Hugh signed up sometime in 1916. David also answered the call in September 1916 (we don’t know for certain but it is possible they have enlisted together). Remarkably, but not entirely surprising, both men were recruited into the same 8th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers and sent out to Salonika in January 1917.

Hugh Richmond was 36 years old when he was killed in action on September 16, 1918, the same day as his Prestwick neighbour David Bell, 35, was posted missing in action. Later David’s wife Annie received word that he had been presumed killed on the same day Hugh fell.

It is a chilling reminder of how Ayrshire communities were torn apart by the impact of the war. Every town and village across the county would have known someone who was lost to the war. These were extraordinary times and we are reminded of the heroism and bravery of the men who gave their lives, their names engraved on the many war memorials across Ayrshire – “lest we forget”.

Sadly, David Bell has no known grave but is commemorated on the Doiran Memorial in Northern Greece, while Hugh was buried in Doiran Military Cemetery in the north of Greece close to the Macedonian border. Both men are reunited on the Prestwick War Memorial, while David is also commemorated on the Mauchline War Memorial and the plaque for those from Ayr Tramways Corporation who lost their lives in the Great War.

Two ordinary Ayrshire men who are now locked together in bravery and remembered for their selfless sacrifice. Two men who lived next door to each other and who shared the same fate on the same day.

Further north, in Saltcoats, Carlo Cavani had left his tiny Tuscan village Capraia to migrate to Ayrshire where he joined his brother Giovanni as an ice cream merchant. Carlo came to Saltcoats in 1900, four years after his brother, and settled in Dockhead Street, where he is said to have found the people friendly and welcoming.

Cavani’s West End Cafe was founded by Giovanni in 1902 and over 100 years later the cafe (now situated on Hamilton Street) is still run by the Cavani family.

At the outbreak of war, Carlo had decided to do his bit and joined up with the Italian Infantry. He was given, what was described in the local papers as an ‘enthusiastic’ send off by the people of Saltcoats and joined his ‘colours’ on November 23. He died of fever in a field hospital a year later on his birthday, he was 36 and left a wife and three children who later returned to Italy.

The casualties of, what became known as, The Great War, came from every walk of life, and from every part of the county.

In 1808 an Act of Parliament had led to the building of the first railway line in Scotland from Kilmarnock to Troon. It was designed to bring coal from the Ayrshire coalfields to the harbour at Troon. A little over 100 years later railway men were signing up and making the ultimate sacrifice.

Hugh Boyd had worked as a hammerman for the Glasgow and South Western Railway Company. The company operated between 1850 and 1923 in the south west of Scotland and ran trains between Glasgow, Stranraer and Carlisle. The Glasgow and South Western Railway was founded on October 28, 1850 when The Kilmarnock and Ayr Railway merged with Glasgow, Dumfries and Carlisle Railway.

Boyd was born on March 13, 1893, to Hugh Boyd senior and Margaret Lambie, who lived at 15 North Hamilton Street, Kilmarnock. In 1914 Hugh was listed as a private with the Royal Scots Fusiliers, 4th Battalion. His service number is given as 7866. His Battalion was sent out to Gallipoli where a battle ensued between April 25, 1915 and January 9, 1916. The Kilmarnock Standard of July 27, 1915, reported Hugh Boyd missing in action. It was presumed he died at Gallipoli on July 12, 1915. At the time of his death he was living at 5 Henrietta Street, Kilmarnock, next to Hill Street, and was said to be 21. He is remembered on the Helles memorial in Turkey.

Another railway man who went to war was Alexander McIntosh born in 1872. His parents were local carter Alexander McIntosh senior and Helen (Nelly) Clark. Alexander junior married Elizabeth Murphy (a carpet weaver from 27 Fore Street in the town), daughter of John Murphy and Catherine Donnachie, at St Joseph’s Chapel, Kilmarnock, on Saturday, October 29, 1898.

At the outbreak of war Alexander was called up as a reservist and served, initially, in France but had been discharged from the army because of illness in December 1915. Returning home he had gone back to work at the Britannia Railway Works in Kilmarnock. Sadly he only lasted four weeks before dying of tuberculosis on February 4, 1916. He left a widow and a daughter, Helen.

William Robertson was employed as a wagon fitter with the Glasgow and South Western Railway Company. His father David Robertson and mother Jessie McKnight had married at New Cumnock in July 1888. Their son William was born in 1896 and had brothers Andrew and James and sisters Mary, Flora and Janet. The family lived at The Wilton Buildings, Bonnyton Road. He later had another three brothers Alexander, David and Hugh.

Enlisted in the Cameron Highlanders, William was killed on February 9, 1916. A year earlier, William’s older brother James had been reported as missing in action at the battle of Loos.

The first significant battle of World War One, the Scots were well represented at Loos, France, which was fought between September 25, and October 8, 1915. The men were ordered over the top which, essentially, made them target practice for the waiting German gunners. The British lost 50,000 men in this battle.

James had been fighting with the 2nd Battalion of the Gordon Highlanders on September 25, 1915 when he was posted missing presumed dead. He had worked as a joiner with Glasgow and South Western Railway at their Barassie works.

These, of course, are just a few examples of the stories of a few Ayrshire men who fought in World War One. As the war memorials tragically show there were many, many, many more who fought and fell in the war of 1914 to 1918, Every one of those lost to war had, as we know,a very special story to tell because, as we also know, these were very special men.

In homes across Ayrshire, photographs on the mantelpiece of missing fathers, sons, brothers, who, with the passage of time, have transformed into grandfathers, great grandfathers, great uncles. Images and stories handed down through generations these have become reminders to families of the stories of gallant men. By the light of a house in Kilmarnock or Irvine or Ayr, they are remembered in fading photographs. Stories of their war handed down and passed on across the century.

Soon we have a great montage of photographs of the souls who perished in world war one. Like an ancient Facebook, uniformed soldiers staring out from the past, and then stories told of an uncle, great uncle, great grandfather’s bravery. Cold, stone war memorials that breathe their legacy, where we gather at 11am every November 11 to remember. Photographs, stories and war memorials the only tangible representations of what went before and what the meaning of it was then and now – “lest we forget”.

Read More in Issue 25