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The Corncrake and the Lysander by Finlay J Macdonald

In The Finlay J Macdonald Omnibus, Warner Books, 1988, 187 p. First published 1984.

The Finlay J Macdonald Omnibus cover

This final instalment of the author’s childhood memoirs sees him, having at the second attempt passed the bursary exam, finally off to the “big” school in what he perceives as the metropolis of Tarbert though by wider standards it is little more than a village. In his new school the headmaster “didn’t really expect boys to behave themselves – he had seen too many boys for that – but he did expect them not to get caught.”

Before that, though, the author had time to aid Old Hector, debilitated by malaria contracted in his sole journey away from the village as a seaman, with milking his cow daily – which has the side advantage of providing the opportunity to have a sly smoke without the knowlegde of his parents. Hector wasn’t really old but his infirmity meant he depended on others, a dependency made worse by the death of his sister who had dedicated her life to looking after him. Macdonald, in considering how Hector would have to sell his cow when he leaves for school, conceived of the idea of advertising for a household companion ‘with a view to matrumony’ for Hector, a plan kept secret between the two of them. (Later, however, Macdonald’s father surprises him with his knowledge of Finlay’s part in the scheme. How did he know? “You never could spell matrimony.”) The first replies were unsuitable in various ways but in Macdonald’s absence at school someone did come to fulfil both aspects of the design. These machinations give the opportunity for some light humour as does the visit of the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, that particular incumbent being a Gaelic speaker.

There is a more reflective aspect to the text when the author mentions the melancholy of being present when a language goes into its death throes. (Though nearly ninety years on from the times described here the Gaelic language still manages to survive.) The assumption in the village and more widely on Harris and elsewhere in the Hebrides was that to get on a child had to get out, that not to do so would be a failure, a factor which would inevitably lead to a hollowing out of life on the islands. Macdonald’s going to the big school was a first step on that journey. This quality of Macdonald’s memoir is of a piece with one of the perennial considerations of the Scottish novel; the sense of nostalgia, of things lost, of a strange incompleteness. I suspect that is one of the hangovers of the Union of the Parliaments and the formation of the United Kingdom in 1707. Macdonald also has the Scottish novelist’s eye for landscape description.

Macdonald’s growing to adulthood lay under the shadow of the looming Second World War. There is a grand set piece when the lads who have signed up are piped on to the ferry to the mainland to join their regiment, the ill-fated 51st Highland Division. This was before the actual formal commencement of hostilities when, “Nobody heard Chamberlain’s declaration of war on the Sunday because, in the Hebrides in those days, radio sets were never switched on on a Sunday – not even for the news.” The “wireless” in those days had vagaries of its own which is illustrated by the author with a comparison that is now itself outdated, “the sudden demise of the accumulator tended to have the sort of explosive effect that the telephone bill has nowadays on a house with daughters.” Macdonald’s thoughts on the whole matter are expressed by the sentiment that, “Nobody ever had a ‘good’ war and I can’t imagine how anyody could coin the phrase in cynicism or in jest.” He had a near escape himself when he and his brother unscrewed the spikes from a mine that had floated onto the shore and then hammered them onto their door as a makeshift knocker. His father was appalled when he discovered this.

He himself had been a sniper in the Great War (a conflict to which he never referred) and would not touch a gun since. So its is that on one of Macdonald’s returns home for the holidays he is surprised to find his father kitted out in khaki and with a rifle. He had joined the Home Guard. He allows Macdonald one shot of the rifle (wildly inaccurate of course) but on practice with his platoon merely jerks the rifle instead of firing it.

The drawbacks of progress are illustrated by the demise of the corncrake whose cry is Macdonald’s abiding memory of his childhood and whose habitat was destroyed by the improvement of the soil’s richness by the application of fertiliser reducing their scrub ground cover. Also the local oysters and wolf mussels die out because the run-off from the new internal toilets was being directed straight into the sea. The Lysander in the title refers to an RAF spotter plane which patrolled the waters round the islands in search of U-boats.

It is odd to see words such as ‘carry-out’ and ‘screwtops’ given quotation marks but English was Macdonald’s second language.

Pedant’s corner:- focussed (focused,) a closing inverted comma where there hadn’t been an opening one, Coolins (a curious Anglicisation given Macdonald’s Gaelic childhood, in most texts in English Skye’s mountains are spelled as in Gaelic, Cuillins,) “since the balances of males to females was totally disproportionate” (the balance … was,) some commas missing before or after pieces of direct speech, miniscular (x2, minuscular,) “honoured more in the breech” (breach.)

Markinch War Memorial 2019

Markinch War Memorial and Bench just after Remembrance Day 2019:-

Markinch War Memorial and Bench

Closer view:-

Markinch War Memorial 2019

War Memorial Crosses, Markinch, 2019:-

War Memorial Crosses, Markinch, 2019

Perth Academy War Memorial

Perth Academy’s War Memorial is on the wall of the school hall.

Long View, War Memorial, Perth Academy. The boards above the War Memorial give the names of the various people who were Dux of the school over the years.

Long View, War Memorial, Perth Academy

The Latin inscription to the top of the memorial itself, “Academiae Bertyhanae Olim Cives Bella Caduci Omnia et Ipsos Pro Patria Dederunt,” I think translates as, “To the citizens of Perth Academy who gave up their precious lives in battle.” In 2019 two “ghost” soldiers were on the seat in front of the memorial:-:-

Perth Academy War Memorial 2019

Close View. Great War Names above then, “Dulce et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori.” “MCMXXXIX-MCMXLV” above the lower board – for Second World War.

Perth Academy War Memorial Close View

Soldiers’ Information, beside Perth Academy War Memorial:-

Soldiers' Information, Perth Academy War Memorial

Flowers of the Forest project details:-

War Memorial, Perth Academy

Flowers of the Forest display, Perth Academy:-

Flowers of the Forest, Perth Academy

Gallipoli by Alan Moorehead

Hamish Hamilton, 1956, 382 p, including ii p Bibliography and x p Index.

 Gallipoli cover

This book has been languishing on my tbr pile for decades. Quite why I left it so long I’m not sure but I’m glad now I picked it up. The author was clearly well versed in his subject. It is lucidly written and mercifully free of the alphanumeric soup of formation designations which tends to bedevil works of military history. This one focuses more on the personalities central to the story of Turkey’s involvement in the Great War – the Young Turks, Mustafa Kemal, Lord Kitchener, Winston Churchill, and the various commanders – as well as the details of the many military engagements which marked the Dardanelles enterprise.

The idea out of which the landings on Gallipoli arose came from Lt-Col Hankey, Secretary of the War Council, as an attempt to evade the impasse on the Western Front, where the Allies were neither advancing nor killing more Germans than British soldiers were being killed, by a flanking move through Turkey and the Balkans. Moorehead outlines the political manœvrings between Kitchener and Churchill (First Lord of the Admiralty) on the for side and Lord Fisher (First Sea Lord) with various others against. The issue would lead in the end to the break-up of Churchill and Fisher’s hitherto close friendship.

The aim of the operations was first, using obsolete battleships (whose loss could be borne) to force a passage of The Narrows, a pinch point between the Dardanelles and the Sea of Marmara, and then, on to Constantinople in the hope of prising Turkey out of the war. The initial solely naval effort to do so having foundered on an undetected minefield, plans were made for an amphibious landing (actually two) to take the Gallipoli peninsula and protect the flank of a further naval expedition though the Narrows. This amphibious landing was the biggest in history up to that point. It was planned in three weeks. (Compare Operation Overlord in 1944, which took nearly two years to prepare.)

Turkey had recently suffered a series of military humiliations in the Balkan wars of the early Twentieth Century, leading to the Young Turks seizing control of the government. Their hold was precarious though, and another defeat might have brought their downfall. The withdrawal of the Royal Navy, seen as all-powerful, and its French counterpart after their initial setbacks led to an upsurge in Turkish confidence and, Moorehead goes on to say, acted as a trigger for Turkish resentment to find for itself a target in its minority (and Christian) Armenian population upon whom the government thereupon instituted a policy of genocide – murder, rape (Moorehead uses the words “molest women” the first time he deals with this but the more accurate term later) and forced migration amounting to a death march. The strong implication is that without the Allied ships’ withdrawal the persecution of the Armenians would not have occurred.

The Great War in general was a catalogue of lost opportunities or doomed attempts to follow up early success. Moorehead says that over Gallipoli in particular hung a peculiar lethargy, a miasma of indecision. The one exception to this was Mustafa Kemal, who would come to be known later as Kemal Ataturk and who twice, in the hills above Anzac during the first landings and again near Suvla Bay for the later one, managed to be by happenstance in the correct spot to appreciate the danger for the Turks inherent in the situation and to forestall Allied progress. (Some idea of his desperation and borderline fanaticism is that one of his orders at Anzac read, in part, “I don’t order you to attack. I order you to die.”) None of this excuses the failure of General Stopford, commander at Suvla, (with his insistence, the weariness of his men notwithstanding, that no advance could take place without artillery support) to understand there were no Turkish entrenchments there which required such an insurance, nor of overall Commander Ian Hamilton to impress upon Stopford the necessity of quick movement into the hills when briefing him in the first place.

Moorehead is good on the conditions endured by the troops – not least the depredations ensured by the infestations of flies as summer approached, landing on food as soon as it was uncovered so that no mouthful was without its insect accompaniment – and their diverions when no fighting was taking place. With dead bodies and excrement also prevalent it is no surprise that dysentery was soon rampant among the soldiers – even the headquarters staff. British soldiers’ rations were almost entirely of bully beef, whose fat melted in the can, supplemented by plum and apple jam, with no vegetables to vary the diet. By contrast any army officer invited aboard one of the ships – away from the flies, the lice and the smell of death and decay – marvelled at clean linen, glasses, plates, meat, fruit and wine. (Of course, on land there was a decent prospect of surviving a battle; but if a ship went down you most likely drowned.)

As a precursor to Turkey’s entry into the war, and without their say, so the Germans had mined the Dardanelles (obstruction of which was an act of war) so blocking the vast majority of Russia’s exports. Russia’s grain and other exports piled up in the Golden Horn before their ships had to sail back to Russia. When the time was ripe once more to reopen trade the Revolution in that country had removed (the now Soviet) interest in the trade. According to Moorehead (at time of writing in 1956) that pre-war trade through the Dardanelles had never revived in the forty years since.

One of the aspects of the Gallipoli battles I had not realised before was the extent of submarine operations. Several British submarines penetrated into the Sea of Marmara and devastated Turkish shipping there. One submariner even swam ashore to blow up an important railway line. German submarines – easily able to access the Mediterranean through the Straits of Gibraltar as no technology then existed to detect or prevent them – managed to torpedo some Allied warships.

The campaign saw military innovation on a large scale: as well as the experimental use of submarines and aircraft, radio, aerial bombs, land mines and other new devices, it trialled the firing of modern naval guns against shore artillery and the landing of soldiers by small boats on an enemy coast. But the story is mainly of opportunities missed and

Nevetheless it may have continued for much longer (and Moorehead suggests even succeeded in its aims) had not the Australian journalist Keith Murdoch arrived and witnessed the danger and squalor in the dugouts, the sickness, the monotonous food, the general depression. Despite being only a few hours at the front, in collaboration with the only British journalist Kitchener had allowed on the expedition, Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, he planned to bypass the usual channels and break the agreement not to send reports without submitting them first to the censor at headquarters. His private letter to the Australian Prime Minister reached the eyes of Lloyd George (by now UK Prime Minister) who himself bypassed official channels by circulating it directly to the Dardanelles Committee without first asking Hamilton for his comments. The man sent out to take over from Hmailton and assess the situation for himself, Lt-Gen Charles Monro, already firmly believed that the war could only be won on the Western Front by killing Germans, Turks did not count.

Thus was set in train the process, sanctioned in the end by a visit from Kitchener himself, which led to the withdrawal of troops, at first only from Anzac and Suvla. That this was accomplished without the Turks getting wind of it – at Anzac the opposing lines were in places no more than ten yards apart – and with no loss, with the help of the famous improvised device of the self-firing rifle using dripping water from a can to fill another attached to the trigger or fuses and candles to burn through string and release a weight, in retrospect still seems astonishing.

That left only the beachhead at Cape Helles, upon which the German commander of the Turks, Liman von Sanders, unleashed a delayed attack accompanied by the heaviest artillery bombardment of the campaign on the now depleted British force the day before the final 17,000 troops were to be taken off. The British fire in response, perhaps inspired by desperation, was so devastating that the follow-up Turkish infantry refused to charge – something rarely seen before on the peninsula. This repulse convinced von Sanders that there would be no further British evacuation, but of course there was. Yet again the withdrawal was completed in the utmost secrecy and highly successful. Despite widescale destruction of supplies as the withdrawal took place the booty of food, weapons and ammunition retrieved from Cape Helles by the Turks took two years to clear up.

The hopes of those who advocated withdrawal never came to fruition, none of the troops from Gallipoli (save the Anzacs) were ever sent to the Western Front. Many more than had landed on Gallipoli were posted instead to the Salonika front or drawn into the long desert campaign against Turkey in Sinai and Palestine. Towards the end of 1918 plans were even well advanced to try again to force the Narrows by ship but were pre-empted by the Armistice.

While never neglecting the other side of the argument Moorehead’s position on the Gallipoli campaign is clear throughout the book; that its objective was worthwhile, and achievable, that its success would have shortened the war, given succour to Russia and even prevented the Revolution there and so given history a different direction.

A cruel comment on the whole business is that no special medal was awarded to those who took part.

Pedant’s corner:- “England” or “English” are used extremely often as the descriptive term for the UK or British respectively, which last also of course encompassed Empire/Dominion troops. Otherwise; Novorossik (Novorossiysk,) De Robeck (at the start of a sentence x 2. The man’s surname was de Robeck, the capital ‘D’ is therefore erroneous,) Keyes’ (several times; Keyes’s,) “on the tide” (this was in the Mediterranean. I always understood that the Mediterranean had very little in the way of tides,) “for all the control exercised on then” (on them,) Liman von Sanders’ (von Sanders’s,) thtat (that,) d’Oyly-Hughes’ (d’Oyley-Hughes’s,) commandos (these didn’t exist in units called such until World War 2,) Xerxes’ (Xerxes’s.) “At the the front” (only one ‘the’,) “rising to a crescendo” (a perennial favourite, this; the crescendo is the rise, not its culmination.)

War Memorial, Linlithgow Academy

We visited Linlithgow Academy in March 2019 to go to an antiques fair.

On one of the walls was this War Memorial plaque inscribed, “Pro Patria. These former pupils of Linlithgow Academy gave their lives for conscience, King and country in the Great War 1914 – 1919. Their name liveth for evermore.”

As I’d left the camera at home the photo was taken with a mobile phone. That and the reflective nature of the brass plaque makes it a bit blurry:-

War Memorial, Linlithgow Academy

Great War Exhibition ‘Map’, Black Watch Museum, Perth

Great War anniversary map of Scotland made of boxes with exhibits illustrating aspects of the war relating to the area depicted.

This was an on display in the room adjoining the restaurant at the Black Watch Museum when we visited in October last year.

Great War Exhibition 'Map', Black Watch Museum, Perth

Black Watch Museum Great War Exhibition 'Map'

Memorials, Black Watch Museum, Perth

Last October we again visited the Black Watch Museum in Perth. This time I took better photos of the various memorials in its grounds.

Iraq Cross, 2003 and 2004. Great War anniversary fence behind:-

Iraq Memorial, Black Watch Museum, Perth

Iraq and Afghanistan 2007 and 2009:-

Iraq and Afghanistan Memorial, Black Watch Museum, Perth

Great War Memorial. In memory of the 300 men of the Black Watch who died in the Great War. “Their name liveth for evermore”:-

Great War Memorial, Black Watch Museum, Perth

Second World War Memorial. “Greater love hath no man”:-

Second World War Memorial, Black Watch Museum, Perth

Northern Ireland and Kosovo Memorial:-

Northern Ireland and Kosovo Memorial, Black Watch Museum, Perth

51st Highland Division Memorial, Perth

Also at the south end of Perth’s North Inch is a memorial to the 51st Highland Division. It takes the form of a bagpiper being thanked by a young girl.

51st Highland Division Memorial, Perth


Dedication, 51st Highland Division Memorial, Perth

To either side of the memorial are two cairns with inset plaques.

El Alamein 50th anniversary plaque:-

51st Highland Division Memorial, Perth

51st Highland Division final reunion commemoration. Plaque donated by the people of Genner, Holland:-

Plaque, 51st Highland Division Memorial, Perth

On the memorial itself are several additional reliefs.

51st Highland Division Battle Honours:-

Battle Honours, 51st Highland Division Memorial

Remembrance of our liberators:-

51st Highland Division Memorial Remembrance Plaque

Poem on the Memorial (by Andrew McGeever):-

Poem on 51st Highland Division Memorial, Perth

Friezes of military scenes:-

Frieze, 51st Highland Division Memorial, Perth

51st Highland Division Memorial Frieze, Perth

North Inch, Perth

An old joke has it that Perth is the smallest town in Scotland because it only has two inches. The North and South Inches are of course green spaces used for recreational purposes. They both border the River Tay.

We used to park regularly in the South Inch car park when we visited Perth. Nowadays we tend to use elsewhere.

As a result we one day strolled around the south part of the North Inch. A wall separates it from the river and on that wall is a plaque commemorating the men of Perth Co-operative Society who lost their lives in the two World Wars. It is inscribed, “1914 – 1919. To the lasting memory of the employees of the City of Perth Co-operative Society Ltd who fell in the Great War,” plus, “Also in grateful remembrance of those who sacrificed their lives in the Second World War 1939 – 1945,” and, “Their name liveth for evermore.”

Perth Co-operative War Memorial

From it there is this view of the river and Perth Bridge:-

River Tay and Perth Bridge

Perth Bridge:-

Perth Bridge and River Tay from North Inch

On the same visit we popped into Perth Museum and Art Gallery. Among many other exhibits they have this old Pictish stone found at St Madoes/Inchyra in the Carse of Gowrie, Perth and Kinross.

St Madoes Pictish Stone

East Boldon War Memorial

East Boldon’s War Memorial is a stone cross on a plinth set in a memorial garden beside the A 184 near the B 1299 turn-off.

War Memorial, East Boldon

Closer view:-

East Boldon War Memorial

Dedications. “The people of Boldon record in ever grateful remembrance the names of their brothers who gave their lives in the Great War 1914 – 1919. They were a wall unto us both by night and by day.” Below, “Let us also remember those who gave their lives in the Great War 1939 – 1945,” and World War 2 names:-

Dedications, East Boldon War Memorial

The Great War names are on side-plaques:-

Great War Names, War Memorial, East Boldon

East Boldon War Memorial, Great War Names

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