By Connie Eggers, Museum Studies Intern
2014 marks the centenary of the beginning of World War I. Special Collections holds hundreds of items connected to the war. Rare books of wartime poetry, public notices and proclamations from a German occupied town in northern France, political diaries, photographs, personal war diaries, and letters written by soldiers serving in combat are just some examples of how World War I is represented in the collections. As part of my postgraduate studies in MSc Museum Studies I undertook a summer placement with Special Collections and one of the tasks set before me was to create the next display for the case in the foyer outside of the Special Collections reading room, using World War I as a theme.
As I set to work on researching items within the collections it did not take me long to find a University connection. Special Collections has over one hundred personal letters, diaries, photographs and reunion club memorabilia from the 6th Battalion Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders (MS Gen 1376) The battalion’s B Company was made up largely of staff and students recruited from the University in September of 1914.
The 6th battalion did their training in England between September of 1914 and July of 1915, when they shipped out to France as part of ‘Kitchener’s New Army’ – the nickname given to the over two hundred thousand ordinary men from every walk of life (as opposed to career soldiers) who volunteered in Britain during the first year of the war.
As I worked with the 6th Battalion items over a period of several weeks, I must admit that I felt as if, in some small way, I actually came to know some of the men. I saw their faces in photographs and I heard their voices in the lines they wrote about each other, for themselves, and to their loved ones back home. There were times they made me laugh and there were times that I had to get up and walk away for a few minutes to collect myself and bring my emotions back to the ‘here and now’.
The names Francis MacCunn, James Campbell, George Kerr, Robert MacOwan, John Kenneth Bulfin-Crawford, Angus Falconer Douglas-Hamilton, and William Robieson are not simply names on a page to me anymore. Their lives become tangible in the pictures, letters, and objects they leave behind…
Francis MacCunn was from Tarbet, Loch Lomond. He was an assistant in the History Department at the University of Glasgow and a member of the Officers Training Corps as well as being a published author. He joined the army as a Lieutenant and was put in charge of B Company’s No. 5 Platoon. Promoted to Captain during training, he was made B Company commander when the battalion deployed to France in July 1915. He wrote home faithfully every week during training in England and from the war in France. His letters were usually addressed to his mother. In 1967 Francis MacCunn’s nephew donated a collection of almost sixty of his uncle’s letters to the University of Glasgow (MS Gen 532). One of the most poignant is dated 24 September 1915 and reads, in part:
“Dear Father and Mother, Just a line to say that we are moving forward to the attack to-morrow morning, and to bid you a provisional good-bye…
We have had many a happy day together in the Highlands and elsewhere, and will, I trust and believe have many more.” (MS Gen 532/62)
Francis MacCunn was killed two days later at the Battle of Loos on 26 September 1915 – one year to the day after he enlisted. His body was never recovered. He was 27 years old.
The 6th Battalion suffered heavy casualties at the Battle of Loos including their Battalion Commander, Lt. Col. A.F. Douglas-Hamilton, who was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery on Hill 70.
Douglas-Hamilton had come out of military retirement to take command of the newly created battalion in 1914 and after his death his men said of him:
“But for the war Douglas-Hamilton would have lived and died merely a competent and respected soldier, and there would have been few who guessed the indomitable spirit and qualities of leadership his death proved him to possess”. (MS GEN 1376/7)
I visited the Scottish National War Memorial at Edinburgh Castle recently and located the book that records the Roll of Honour for the Cameron Highlanders. It was a sombre moment as I ran my finger over the names of Francis MacCunn and Angus Douglas-Hamilton.
James Campbell was from Helensburgh and served as a machine gunner with the 6th Battalion. Although he survived the Battle of Loos and was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for conspicuous gallantry he did not emerge from the war unscathed. In October of 1915 Campbell was informed of the death of his brother, Peter, who was also serving in France. Peter died of gas poisoning and James had to write home and tell their mother, “…I wrote Mother with my sad news and it was the most difficult task I have ever done.” (MS Gen 1376/6)
Campbell sent back to Britain for an engraved plate to mount on the cross he erected over his brother’s grave and he visited the grave often. On his final visit, before he left France in 1918, he arranged with a local girl to tend to Peter’s grave in his absence. Special Collections holds James Campbell’s active service diary in which he recorded, in detail, his daily activities between July 1915 and March 1918.
Robert MacOwan joined the 6th Battalion following the Battle of Loos and after the war he recorded his own reminiscences. He wrote of “the tattered remnants of a once proud battalion who marched past General Reed, V.C. in Busancy, on whose battlefield the kilted dead lay thick as sheaves in a harvest field, and where, ‘The Thistle of Scotland will flourish for ever amid the Roses of France’.” (MS Gen 1376/2/11)
Because the 6th Battalion was created as a wartime battalion, it was disbanded in 1919. In 1929 a group of the surviving members, including Robert MacOwan and James Campbell, formed a reunion club. They met annually in Glasgow until 1974.
Following their final meeting the 6th Battalion Reunion Club gifted their records to the University of Glasgow, including this picture of the surviving twenty members.
Recognition of the centenary of the beginning of World War I is a delicate subject. In creating this display of the 6th Battalion my goal was to offer a glimpse of a group of ordinary men in extraordinary times. Some of them survived the war and returned to take up their lives. Some of them did not. Though their stories echo those of many soldiers the world over, these men were Glasgow’s Own.
Connie’s Voices: Glasgow’s own in the Great War display can be found in the Special Collections foyer on level 12 of the library until the end of the year. You can learn more about the University community who served during the war, and the upcoming commemoration events at the University of Glasgow World War One commemoration site.