My grandfather, Robert M Reid, was 35 years old when the first world war began. Having spent much of his free time over the previous 15 years with the Forfarshire Royal Garrison Artillery (Volunteers), he must have seemed an ideal recruiting sergeant for young men volunteering to leave Carnoustie to fight in the war to defend Belgium.
But there was more to him than military experience and those other experiences stood him in good stead. He was well known – and apparently well liked – in many community circles. He had his own small business as a master coachbuilder and he was an elder in the United Free Church. His wife had been a booteress but on her marriage she became a housewife.
Other members of his family shared his Presbyterian work ethic and one sister emigrated to South Africa, one brother to New Zealand, one sister-in-law to California and another to Canada; despite the distance, the ties remained strong and they were a family that valued the British empire. He was one of the first people in Carnoustie to own his own car. His mother
had died in a fire, possibly as a result of her drink problem, and, while he was not a teetotaller, he was abstemious about alcohol.
When his wife was hospitalised (with what we would recognise as post-natal depression), he did not farm my mother out to one of his relatives but, unusually for a man of that period, he took on major responsibility for the care of his only child; the resulting bond between them remained strong until the end of his life. His general willingness to take on responsibilities helped to make him a man that people trusted. In the first 18 months of that war, trustworthy and responsible men all over the country persuaded the sons of their friends, colleagues and employees that the war against the Kaiser was a war that needed their support.
By March 1916, the government decided that they would have to introduce conscription. Many of the men who were volunteering were not fit enough to fight, although they did introduce bantams regiments for men who were too small for traditional soldiering. After the disastrous loss of life at the Dardanelles, some men were less keen to volunteer than their older brothers had been.
Despite the fact that this country was never under any real threat of invasion, the government turned into a war machine. Procedures were established to deal with men who sought exemption from military service. While the vast majority of these applications were from men who were in protected occupations, a small percentage (2.13%) was from men who had a conscientious objection to going to fight a war. These 16,000 men – 'conchies' – became the objects of abuse from the war-supporting public, both at home and on the Western Front. It was a clear example of the ways in which governments can scapegoat small, non-conforming minorities in times of national conflict.
The government would have been increasingly aware that soldiers on the front were becoming critical of the war effort. We now have access to the war poetry of active soldiers like Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg, sickened by the destruction of the war. The Dundonian poet, Joseph Lee, wrote about a sense of solidarity he felt with German prisoners of war:
And how you stooped as men whose strength was spent
I knew that we had suffered such as other
And could have grasped your hand and cried, 'My brother.'
Pat Barker's novels have alerted us to the attempts to cure men, such as Siegfried Sassoon, of their mental health problems so that they could return to France to fight. But the pain and the madness of the men on the front never combined with the grief and the bereavement of the people at home to form a politics that would hold their leaders to account for their murderous war policies.
Just months before the end of the war, 'Despised and Rejected,' a novel by AT Worsley, about a group of bohemian pacifists, some of whom were homosexual, was published. The Times Literary Supplement said in a review: 'As a frank and sympathetic study of certain minds and character, it is of interest; but it is not to be recommended for general reading.'
The director of public prosecutions decided that, despite its small print run, he wanted it banned altogether. The publisher was charged, under the terms of the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), with producing a book 'likely to prejudice the recruiting of persons to serve in His Majesty's Forces.' Conviction followed and unsold copies of the book were destroyed. The
law had been used to demonstrate the idea that 'conchies' were both anti-patriotic and homosexual – doubly unspeakable. The conduct of the war had been all about holding a line, and perhaps the rationale for this prosecution was that a line needed to be held against the proliferation of non-conforming values.
My grandfather, like many others, strove to return to some kind of stability and normality after 1918. There is no record of any thoughts that he might have had about the trial of 'Despised and Rejected.' He continued to be involved in community life. His business did well and he spent many summer holidays with his wife and daughter at the annual conferences of the National Blacksmiths Association.
He did not think that there was any point in women pursuing further education because 'they would just get married' and so my mother, despite her own ambitions and those of her teachers, left school at 15. But he was very supportive of the voluntary work she did with the Girl Guides. He valued the use of the Scots language and did what he could to make sure that various words and phrases were not allowed to die out. Towards the end of his life he became a very warm and fondly remembered grandfather.
A rather grand war memorial was erected in the centre of Carnoustie in 1926 showing the names of approximately 150 young men from the town and its hinterland. Most of them had signed up for regiments with some local connection, such as the Black Watch or the Gordon Highlanders. In a town of 5,000 people, the names of the dead represent 3% of the population. All the townspeople would have known several of the commemorated men and be reminded of their shortened lives every time they looked at the memorial.
I spotted the name of an 18-year-old golfer, the elder brother of my mother's closest friend. Was there some comfort to be had by this public acknowledgement of loss, even if expressions of individual grief were discouraged? Small towns often imagine themselves to be a microcosm of the wider world and, in that sense, I can understand the sense of trust that
they showed about the war in 1914-1915. But after the Dardanelles and the Somme, their perception of events becomes impossible for me to comprehend. Perhaps the war memorial acted as a totemic substitute for unarticulated anger.
1922 was the year when British electors began to express their desire to be ruled by people with more interest in social justice than had been shown by the coalition of warmongers. Winston Churchill was defeated in Dundee by the prohibitionist Neddy Scrymgeour and all over the country Labour MPs were sent to Westminster. Carnoustie, like so many other small Scottish towns, never identified with that wider leftward turn.
However, the Tory MP for Forfarshire, Captain Shaw, was defeated and replaced by James Falconer, a Liberal from Carmyllie with a strong interest in land reform and social insurance for unemployed farm workers. Even after the devastation of the great war, Forfarshire's awakened social conscience still had a local focus.
This article was first published in SR in 2014