On the Trail of my Grandfather to the Western Front

The number of visits to my previous blog (about an aspect of Sikhism) is, at the time of writing, 170. A huge thanks to everyone, whoever and wherever you are, for taking an interest in my blog. This is the highest number of visits to my blog pages to date.

There has been quite a long interval between my previous blog and this one. This is largely because I have been very busy deepening my research into the First World War (WW1) experience of my grandfather, one David Muir, in that I have been following his trail, so to speak, from his home in Ecclefechan in Dumfriesshire, from where my family hails, to the Western Front. With last year’s commemoration of the outbreak of the WW1 still fresh in my mind, I thought that I would write about my grandfather this time.


This week’s blog post highlights some of the events that I have discovered, with the invaluable help of a friend, Pete Payne. Pete’s extensive research into David Muir’s war records started me on a lengthy study into how my grandfather travelled from Ecclefechan to one of the most infamous battles of 1915, namely the battle of Loos. Part of David Muir’s journey from rural Dumfriesshire to the trenches near the village of Loos in northeast France in the late summer of 1915 took him briefly to Berwick-upon-Tweed in northeast England, near to the Scottish border. It was to Berwick-upon-Tweed that I set off for a short visit the week before last.

The train from Birmingham New Street station to Berwick skimmed the coast as it nears Berwick-upon-Tweed, affording a brief glimpse of Lindisfarne Caste sitting atop its cone-shaped, rocky outcrop, before the train crossed the river Tweed, via the Victorian Royal Border Bridge, and drew into Berwick station. My grandfather would also have crossed this bridge and arrived at the same station in July 1915. The station was opened in 1847 and would have looked substantially the same when my grandfather arrived in 1915 as it does today.

From the station, my grandfather would have found his way to the barracks on the eastern edge of Berwick, where the battalion of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers (K. O. S. B.) was based. Today, the barracks are a regimental museum. I found it quite an emotional experience to enter through the impressive gate of the barracks and stand in the expansive square, hemmed in on all sides by the pink-grey stone buildings of this large barracks. The square was deserted on the day of my arrival; it must have been a daunting sight to my grandfather, a young man from the rural borders of Dumfriesshire.

Apparently David Muir didn’t spend more than a few days being ‘processed’ in Berwick, after he had previously volunteered for Kitchener’s New Army, before he was sent, by train, along with other new recruits to train at a number of camps on Salisbury Plain. After a period of training, the 7th K. O. S. B. transferred, by ferry, to Boulogne.

My reading of a number of histories of the K. O. S. B. found the battalion moving first by train and then by a series of day marches nearing the Western Front close to the village of Loos. The battalion spent time alternating between billets a few miles from the front and working on trench improvements at the front itself. During these periods at the front, the battalion came under some artillery and sniper fire but casualties were relatively few. I assume that it was during these brief, relatively quiet periods at the front that my grandfather experienced life in the trenches for the first time. I can only begin to imagine what this must have been like for him to be under fire, while suffering the privations of ‘living’ in a trench.

Thanks to the kind co-operation of the K. O. S. B. association archivist, Ian Martin, I was able to read the daily war diary that was maintained by a junior officer. I found that reading the actual war diary a very moving experience in that it gave a contemporaneous account of events leading up to the battle of Loos and its aftermath. The hand-written diary is a straightforward, matter-of-fact account of what the battalion did each day but provoked an emotional response in me, despite its brevity. As I spent a couple of hours reading the diary of the days leading up to the battle of Loos, I kept thinking to myself: this account includes my grandfather, David Muir was there.

After a lengthy period in billets behind the lines, the diary states that the battalion moved forward on the evening of the 24th of September 1915, the evening of the battle of Loos. It wasn’t until I read accounts of the battle that I began to realise that the battle was meant to be a decisive one, in that its aim was to defeat the German army and end the war. We know, of course, that this decisive victory didn’t happen: just the opposite in fact. Nevertheless, the battle of Loos was the largest land battle in British military history up to its date, with 72,000 men spread over a 7-mile front. My grandfather’s battalion was approximately in the centre of this front, opposite the village of Loos.

The diary goes on to summarise the events of the first day of the battle. At 5.30 a.m., increased artillery fire was aimed at the German lines, followed by a gas attack that lasted for about 40 minutes. The diary records that “… [the gas attach] was not a success. The men were affected before the attack commenced … “ The wind had changed direction and blew the smoke and gas back towards the British lines. In fact, this was the first time that gas was used by the British military: the diary entry speaks for itself.

The next line in the diary records that a front of about 400 yards “ … got out of the trenches. Very slippery due to rain … “

This bald, deceptively-simple statement belies what must have been a horrific scene, one that we are all too familiar with: it is what we, of course, know as ‘going over the top’. In this instance, my grandfather was amongst the men who ‘got out of the trench’. It was at this point reading the diary that I felt a shiver run through me, despite the warmth of the room in which I was reading the diary, and my heart rate quickened: David Muir, my grandfather, was amongst this group of men who climbed out of the relative safety of the front line fire trench and walked (or ran) into a hail of machine-gun fire, shrouded by billows of gas and smoke. I struggled to appreciate fully the enormity of the events enveloping my grandfather while attempting to hold this chaotic and familiar image in my mind as I sat in the office at the barracks at Berwick last week almost one hundred years after the event.

The diary records that “… there were heavy casualties for the first 1000 yards …” Although the battalion achieved its first objective, namely to take an area known as Hill 70, it was done at great cost. Two-thirds of the battalion were lost on 25th of September, that is to say that this proportion were either wounded, died of their wounds or were simply recorded as ‘missing’.

David Muir fell (probably literally) into this last category, in that his war record states that he was reported as ‘missing’ in 25th September 1915 and that my grandmother was informed accordingly.

Thanks to Pete, we know the essential facts of the next part of David Muir’s story: he was seriously wounded on the first day of the battle of Loos and was held as a prisoner of war after until the end of the war. I am currently trying to find out under what circumstances he was wounded and taken prisoner. Now that I know this part of David Muir’s story, I am inclined to the notion that being wounded and probably falling in no-man’s-land probably saved his life, while many of those who had gone over the top with him were either killed or died of their wounds.

Somehow or other, David survived his wounds and captivity and returned home to Scotland at the end of the war. If his fate had been somewhat different on the first day of the disastrous battle of Loos I would not be here today, telling you this part of David’s story.

After I have finished editing my second book – a love story – I plan to write a family history that embraces my grandfather’s story, my grandmother’s story and my mother’s story. There is still a great deal of research to do, but I owe it to my dear mother, who passed away at the age of 96 two years ago, that her family’s story is worth the telling.

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