By Katie Laing
THERE are few events in life which would still be mourned 100 years later — but so deep and sore was the wound inflicted on Lewis and other Hebridean islands by The Great War, that the collective heart is still heavy with loss.
As sure as the poppies still grow in Flanders fields, the tears still flow at the memory of the hundreds of sons, husbands, fathers and brothers who never came home.
The Going Down of the Sun is a beautiful hardback published jointly by Acair and Comunn Eachdraidh Nis (Ness Historical Society), which features a selection of first-hand accounts on the war by local survivors. These accounts were transcribed from interviews recorded on tape in the 1970s by the fledgling historical society. A wealth of other historical information has been put into the book alongside these precious stories, including a new version of the Roll of Honour and an impressive timeline, which sets out the chronology of the war. This timeline does not just detail the significant events as they played out, including all the victories and defeats in battle and the losses of various ships; it also includes the losses of every individual soldier and seaman. On May 9 in 1915, for example, nine men aged 19 to 31 lost their lives. Most were killed in action in France.
Acair managing editor Agnes Rennie, who was herself involved in recording some of the interviews in the 1970s, said it was a “hugely important” book and paid tribute to everyone involved.
It was edited by Donald Alasdair Morrison and designed by Graham Starmore. Funding came from Bòrd na Gàidhlig, the Heritage Lottery Fund, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, the Scottish Government Gaelic Unit, and some smaller trusts.
Originally Dòmhnall Alasdair, now retired from Customs and Excise, came on board to edit and translate the transcriptions of the veterans’ interviews but it quickly became apparent that there was a wealth of material which could also be used.
Families — not to mention the Comunn Eachdraidh itself, which has official museum status — had carefully preserved photographs, letters and other memorabilia. A series of open days were held in Ness where this was all gathered together.
For Dòmhnall Alasdair, one of the trickiest tasks was making sure that the names of all the men who were lost appeared in the timeline in the correct place.
“It was a big checking operation,” he said, adding that he was struck by “the sheer scale” of the number who volunteered and were called up.
“The numbers are quite staggering,” he said. “From Habost, for example, I think there were 88 on active service. There are probably about eight men today who are in that age bracket. Of 900, 216 were lost.”
The whole story, told in black and white, is harrowing at times, with the loss of the Iolaire so close to home on New Years Day 1919 the most cruel blow of all. One of the survivor accounts in the chapter ‘Bha Mi Ann’ (I Was There) is from Donald ‘Am Patch’ Morrison, who famously survived the tragedy by clinging to the mast until he was rescued the following morning. His brother, who was on board with him, did not survive and his body was never found.
There are accounts of being left for dead on the battlefield — Murdo Murray recalled his sergeant saying “leave him alone, he’s finished anyway” — as well as tales of bravery aboard the Q-ships, the decoy merchant ships which sank a number of German U-boats.
One woman’s story features in the first-hand accounts – that of Jessie Martin, who served in a munitions factory – but the stories of many others are told along the way too.
Catherine Murray, for example, had six sons on active service and she and husband Norman were told they could choose one to come home. Catherine wanted to send for William, the youngest, but her husband refused, saying he would leave them all in God’s hands. All six survived the war.
There is a roll call, at the start of the book, of the number of men from each village who were in each regiment. The new roll of honour is at the end and features new personal information such as nicknames and subsequent marriages, when that information was known, in addition to the crofts and regiments listed in the original ‘Loyal Lewis’.
Another powerful chapter is the one featuring letters home. The exchange of letters between Roderick Murray and his family is especially moving. Roderick, 20, had already been killed in Mesopotamia when his father Norman wrote the last letter to him on November 13, 1917. The letter was returned marked ‘killed in action’.
The very last pages of the book feature lines from the poem For The Fallen by Laurence Binyon, alongside some faces of the men who never came home. “They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old; Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning… We will remember them.”
* The Going Down of the Sun is available from Acair priced £19.99.