He was Wee Eck because he was the youngest son (though two girls would come after him) of Andrew Phillip, a stone mason from Inverkeillor, and Betsy Rough, of Kettins. The family was mostly girls - seven in all, with just four boys (though one died of croupe at three years old). You can see little Alex standing on the right, holding his mother's arm, in this photograph of the Phillip family from about 1886, about the time they moved to Dundee.
Alexander had the misfortune to be born in a fateful era - the final two decades of Queen Victoria's reign, whose children were ushered into the brave new twentieth century, then raked into the First World War, only to be torn apart and buried in the mud of Flanders, the sands of the Middle East, and the weather-worn hills of Gallipoli.
Wee Eck followed his father into the masonry business, but when the war blew across Europe he enlisted with the City of Dundee Royal Engineers, soon being posted to the 446th Northumbrian Field Company. In July of 1917 he found himself in the Hindenburg support trenches, and on the first day of August he and another Sapper, Henry Cawley, were killed outright by a German shell as they worked in the Swift support trench, right on the front line near to Chérisy.
His commanding officer, Major C. E. Boost, wrote to his father the very next day, the day his colleages buried him at Heninal ...
"I am very sorry to have to tell you that your son, Sapper Phillips [sic] of this Coy., was killed yesterday by a shell in the front trench system. In your great sadness I feel that it would help to know that your son has done splendid work whilst with the company. His close attention to duty and willingness to do anything that was required of him has earned himself a reputation not only with the men of his section, but with his section officers ... I am enclosing his cap badge which I feel you would like ..."
A fellow engineer, Sapper Thomas Brown, wrote a couple of weeks later to Alex's younger sister, Jemima ...
"I hope you will excuse me for intruding upon your grief, but I thought you would like to hear from one that was not far from your brother when he was killed. Please take comfort in the fact that his death was instantaneous and that he died a steady and true soldier, in the cause of his King and country. I cannot speak too highly of your brother for he and I were the best of pals for the all too short time I knew him, and I always felt he was a man to be relied on. I think the way him and I got on so well together was because we were about the only Scots in this lot, so you know we are a little clannish. As long as we stay here I will see that his grave his kept green for it is a sacred spot to me ..."
Look at the family photo above once again. The eldest child, Betsy, just behind Wee Eck, lost two sons in the war - Henry, at Gallipoli in July 1915, and Andrew, who drowned in Ireland while convalescing from wounds received in action at Combles. The tall chap at the back is John, the eldest son. He lost his boy, Alexander, just a few months after his little brother was killed, in December 1917, and another son, William, was poisoned in a gas attack in April 1918 - and survived. The wider Phillip family also suffered. Andrew's brother, James Phillip, lost a grandson, William, at Meteran, with another of his four serving sons wounded.
Alex's mother, Betsy, whose arm he holds in the photograph, died in 1899, so she would never know the horror of the war and the fate of her son and three grandchildren. His father, Andrew, carried the grief of his family's loss until his death in 1931, at the age of 87. He outlived five of his 11 children.
See my WWI family war memorial here.
There is also a war horse in my own family. My ggg-uncle was John Birrell Horsburgh (1865-1940) and his eldest son was John Harvie Horsburgh. John was born on Forfar Road in Dundee in 1892 and, as a teenager, worked in a jute mill. By the time of the Great War he was working as a cab driver and served in the war with the Royal Engineers. After being demobbed he worked as a carter (something of a Horsburgh family specialty) for contractor James Wilson of Malcolm Street, Dundee.
Also starting at James Wilson's, in 1918, was an 11-year-old horse called Darkie. Darkie, so-called because of his handsome black coat, had crossed the Atlantic to Britain in the early years of the war with a French-Canadian Battalion and had gone with them into battle-torn France where he sustained seven injuries to his fore-end, flanks and legs. When the war was over he was bought by Wilson's and was soon teamed up with a carter, my cousin John Horsburgh.
In about 1928 both John and Darkie moved to Tough Brothers, merchants and manufacturers at the Anchor Works in Anchor Lane. Darkie was a 'Belgian type' but had the short neck and powerful shoulders of a Clydesdale. He was an intelligent creature, able to position himself correctly depending on whether he was pulling a cart or a lorry, behaving better than many motorists at traffic lights, able to shift himself out the way of a passing bus upon hearing its horn, and he knew his way round the twists and turns of the Corporation gasworks yard without the slightest guidance needed.
In 1933 Darkie took part in the Broughty Ferry Carnival, and in 1935 he was spruced up and decorated for King George V's silver jubilee. But in August 1937, having never needed to see a vet in all his carting career, he died of an internal ailment. He was about 30 years old and had been at work just the day before. John Horsburgh was inconsolable ...
"... aye, [he was] as cheery at the end o' the week as he wis at the beginnin'. He wis the maist wice-like horse I've ever had onything tae dae wi'."
John himself had married in 1916, to a jute spinner, Elizabeth Anne Williamson. They had five sons (that I know of), though both parents would outlive two of them (James died aged 1 in 1922 and William died aged 25 in 1945). Elizabeth died in 1968, age 73, and John died age 76 in March 1969, just three months before my own birth.
He was born 21st June 1893 in Loan Street, Anstruther Easter, in Fife, the fourth child of an eventual nine to James Parker Gilmour (1861-1934), a slater, and Mary Henderson Borthwick (1865-1929). In his teenage years he became an apprentice watchmaker, and on 5th September 1913 he enlisted with the 1st Royal Highlanders (Black Watch) at Dundee.
Attached to C Company, James landed in France on 13th August 1914, and a month later he was crossing the Aisne as part of the follow-up offensive against von Kluck's German First Army and von Bulow's Second Army. As the two sides faced each other across low-lying open ground the British started to dig ditches for cover, and these soon deepened and lengthened to become the first trenches of the war.
The Black Watch saw particularly heavy action on 14th September at Vendresse, losing 18 officers and 450 men, including their Lieutenant-Colonel. The 15th, 16th and 17th saw heavy shelling of the British positions.
A newspaper listing of 17th November 1914 reports 2567 Private J P Gilmour as missing, and almost a year later, in August 1915, his parents were still appealing in the press for any news of him, stating he had been reported missing on 14th September, though his death was eventually recorded as 16th September 1914.
He is remembered on the Anstruther war memorial, the memorial at the Anstruther Fisheries Museum, and at the cemetery at La Ferte-Sous-Jouarre, Seine-et-Marne, on the memorial for missing men with no known grave. He was 21 years old and the first WWI casualty from Anstruther.
So, please excuse me if I'm a little slower than usual with emails, work and book orders for a while - I'll try not to be!
Whatever, they are seen as 'our glorious dead', heroes revered and venerated at village memorials across the land. Indeed, I have identified thirteen members (so far) of my own family to have died in the conflict of 1914-18, and every one is a tragic tale of a life cut short.
But how about when it's not so clear-cut? This year I will tell the story of one of my distant cousins who died on the first dreadful day of the battle of the Somme, but who - when you know the full tale - you would find hard to fully revere.
His name was Thomas Sherriff, and he was born some time around 1885 to a family of Romany Gypsies, his parents being Hope (aka 'Gypsy Jack') and Trinity (aka Hetty, Genti, Trenetty or even Franette) Sherriff. He'd already served in the Sherwood Foresters alongside his father around the time of the Boer War. I don't yet know whether he saw service in that conflict, but I do know he was imprisoned for seven days for violently attacking a family rival in the marketplace at Wirksworth, in February 1900.
A far more serious offence occurred in January 1903 when Tom was arrested for his involvement in the killing of a policeman. PC William Price had gone to the Sherriff Gypsy camp to investigate the theft of three ferrets from a nearby farm. Things turned nasty and a fight broke out between PC Price and three of the Sherriff brothers, Tom, John and Joseph. Their father, Hope, and a fellow traveller, Arkless Holland (married to Tom's sister, Raini) were also implicated. During the fight, the constable was struck on the head with his own truncheon and the three brothers bolted. Price later died from his wounds and a murder hunt ensued.
After a few days on the run, and two more policemen injured while trying to arrest them, the Sherriffs were caught. Hope and Arkless, held earlier, were acquitted, but Tom, John and Joseph were found guilty of manslaughter and were given fifteen years penal servitude. The brothers never revealed who struck the actual devastating blow to PC Price, but the family story points most strongly at Tom. They were lucky - had the verdict been murder then they would have all hanged.
Joseph died in prison in about 1907. Tom and John can both be seen on the 1911 census as inmates of Portland Prison in Dorset. But, with the First World War looming, it seems they were released early, or perhaps volunteered, into the hands of the army, John into the Notts & Derby Regiment and Tom, at first into the Notts and Derby Regiment, and then the Lancashire Fusiliers. It was with this regiment he found himself on the front line of the Somme on 1st July 1916. At 7.20 am a huge mine was exploded under the Hawthorn Ridge Redoubt and the Lancashires charged, only to come under severe German machine gunning and artillery. The regiment lost seven officers and 156 other ranks in the attack - including Tom Sherriff, a small portion of the 20,000 dead the British suffered on that first day alone.
For the past two years I have been invited by the Romany and Traveller Family History Society to join a delegation at the Cenotaph memorial in London, helping to represent Romanies who served. Sadly I have not been able to make it, and I do always think of the conflicting feelings that surround the sad story of Thomas Sherriff. Tom is remembered on the Thiepval Memorial in Picardy, and also on the village memorial at Newbold, Chesterfield. (Out of interest, Tom wasn't the only less-than-pristine family member to serve... another distant cousin, James Veevers, has a war record that brims with notes about drinking, housebreaking and disorderly conduct, all of which eventually landed him in prison for a while.)
Still, as well as Tom's fellow convict, John (also known as Uriah, wounded in 1917), other Romanies of my family served in the First War: Henry Holland, also with the Notts & Derby Regiment, was wounded on eight occasions in France, the final time, in Sep 1916, seeing him invalided to England before he died at home, in Aug 1918, from complications connected to his wounds; Charles Duffield (aka Hodgkins) was with the North Staffordshires and died at Ypres in July 1916; Perrin Dennett served with the Notts and Derby Regiment in 1918, though stayed in England.
Although my direct Romany-related line had ended their travelling ways in the 1870s or 80s, several descendants also fought in the war - my great-grandfather, Charles Hodgkins fought with the North Staffordshires in Gallipoli (see his story here); his brother Edward was also with the regiment (though a different battalion); their cousin Ernest Sherriff served in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and then the Royal Garrison Artillery; and his brother, Horace, joined the Durham Light Infantry (though did not fight abroad).
This has been my seventh Remembrance Sunday post, though the first for two years. You can see the previous entries here: 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 and 2004. My family war archive can be found here, and my online family war memorial here.
I had a nice quietish Christmas and took some days completely off for the first time in, oh, a long time. I decided to do some family history research, which I haven't spent any proper time on for at least a couple of years or more, and I found some good stuff and cracked a research mystery that has been something of a brick wall for twelve years.
When I mention I enjoy researching my family history a common reaction is surprise that someone so young (ahem) should be interested in a hobby that is generally regarded as the preserve of the retired. I love history, and I love doing research, but the catalyst in this case was a postcard album that my mum inherited from her mother when she died. It had belonged to my great-grandmother, and looking through it mum and I agreed that it might be fun to research some of the people the cards were written to, many of them long-forgotten and now unknown family members. Sadly, my mum died not long after, and the postcard album ended up with me permanently.
A few years later I decided to begin researching my family history and started gathering information from various relatives. At that time a lot of research still had be done by going to the Family Records Centre in Islington (for birth, marriage and death records and census returns) and the National Archives at Kew (most commonly for military service papers). I spent a lot of time with index cards, microfiche readers and gazettes, searching through lists and taking notes. Things are so much easier now! All those indexes and, indeed, many of the original records, are available and searchable online - what a difference. It's great that it's easier, and you can do so much more with database searches, but I must admit the sense of discovery is somewhat lessened when you're not 'out in the field', and you miss sights such as the American lady I saw at the FRC once, who had come to England especially to search the 19th century census returns, and sat at the microfilm reader in full Victorian dress to get into the part.
Discovering and learning about my family history has been a revelation. There are some who just can't understand the fascination, but I find it odd that many people just about know who their grandparents were but nothing beyond that. Knowing the story of how I came to be here, both genetically and geographically, having a 'history-map' of the people and movements that combined to put me, my brother and my parents on the earth, and knowing not just the depth of my background, but the width as well (6th cousins!). It's a big picture that I'm glad to be aware of and I've been able to find the truth behind some well-worn family stories as well as learning a lot about life in the past in general
In my family I've discovered tinkers, tailors, soldiers, sailors, nurses, firemen, artists, Gypsies, actresses, musicians, thieves, murderers, paupers, servants to publicans and peers, teachers, footballers, chimney sweeps, farmers, labourers, coal miners, clerks, shopkeepers, makers of cities, roads, ships, shoes, hats and fancy boxes, drivers of trains, trams, taxis and horse-drawn carts, preachers, vicars and, I'm sorry to say, one less than admirable Catholic Priest (very distantly related, I stress!).
One resource that has opened up relatively recently are newspaper archives. With this you can delve into the actual detail of life, beyond names, dates and occupations. Unfortunately, it's usually the bad news that gets reported - deaths and criminal activity especially, but they do, it has to be said, make for some of the most fascinating stories.
This Christmas I learned what had happened to a gggg-uncle, Robert Ewing, who had previously disappeared from the records as a 10-year old flax winder in Dysart. It turns out he went on to become the captain of his own ship and ended up being thrown into a stormy ocean and drowning off the coast of Syria when he was 32. Another one to add the the tragic Ewing family deaths.
The wife of another gggg-uncle, Henry Higson, I knew had died at age 37, but I had no idea how until a fairly lurid newspaper article revealed that she cut her own throat in front of her children at breakfast one morning - very shocking stuff. The fact that her brother was in an insane asylum was enough, it seems, to explain her tragic actions at the inquest. Knowing this sad story has made me want to now find out what became of the three daughters who witnessed it and were 12, 10 and 4 years old at the time.
The most 'sensational' story was the 1903 murder of a policeman committed by three Gypsy brothers who each received fifteen years in prison. One of them came out to fight in World War One and was killed at the Somme.
My most exciting find is far less sensational and more personal - and would no doubt bore you to death if I explained it in any detail! Since 2000, when I started, I've been trying to break through a wall to discover who the parents were of my ggg-grandmother, Eliza Sherriff. I have finally found the answer. It's been a long and torturous route to make the discovery - but that's what makes it so rewarding; finding the clues, one here one year, one there another year, until a door is finally unlocked and a whole pile of new questions and puzzles is revealed. It's hugely enjoyable.
So if I'm a little slower with emails, if work takes a little longer over the next few weeks, and if I'm a little behind in getting orders out, I hope you'll understand why. Thanks, as ever, for your patience and support!
P.S. I've just noticed that this is my 500th post (on this incarnation of the blog, anyway).
In 2004 I did a write-up of Mark Cameron, killed at the Battle of Jutland. In 2005 it was Charles Hodgkins, who served at Gallipoli. In 2006 I wrote about Walter Cameron, wounded in France with the Scots Guards, and in 2007 it was brothers David and John Ewing, both of the Royal Army Medical Corps. For the 90th Anniversary, in 2008, I wrote about MC-winning Andrew Stewart, and also presented a memorial list of my nine known relatives who were killed in the Great War.
From The Rainbow Orchid volume II, Julius Chancer in the trenches at Gallipoli, partly based on the experiences of my own great-grandfather, Charles Hodgkins.
The above postcard was written from my great grandfather while he was on service in Germany in 1919 as a driver in the Royal Army Service Corps. He was writing to my gran (second from the right) when she was 6 - she died just last year, aged 93. He addressed it to "My Bonnie wee auburn haired lassie, Maggie" and says:
"Well my Hen, can you read yet? Have you learned anymore songs? If so I'll be needing you to let me hear them all when Daddy gets home. You'll be having rare fun now. No lessons and play all day. Ta ta xxx Daddy."
Peter McDougall Cameron returned to civilian life later that year to work as a chauffeur in Dundee. Sadly he died only four years later when a routine operation on his appendix went wrong. His last son, David, was born a few months later.