Our lives are ordered by convention, enforced process and especially by rationality, so imagination and initiative can easily be submerged, or discouraged. A surprise can then occur, which evades these inhibitions and jogs us into new thinking. And the greatest surprise can be when we surprise ourselves. In that spirit, should we not always leave the door open for surprises, and be willing to follow them? Then, unintended consequences, conventionally expected to be unfavourable, can often be good, and channel our spirits into fresh thoughts and perspectives. Can I share with you such a moment of self-surprise, which opened an unexpected and moving chapter of commitment for me.
My early years were spent in Carluke, a small mining town in South Lanarkshire, where my family had lived for some generations. After an absence of many decades, I returned to view a heritage project which had been raised with me. In looking round the town, I viewed in a shop window, a children’s art competition, based on the remarkable fact that 3 sons of Carluke had been awarded Victoria Crosses. I also was given two soft backed books which had been prepared by the Carluke Parish Historical Society, to record, with short biographies, all of those who had served in the Great War 1914-1918.
My reactions at the time were marked, but not profound, and I expected that, in a busy life, they would soon fall aside. But, inexorably, they kept creeping back into my mind, and growing. A conviction emerged, that I should do something to help mark the centenary of Armistice Day at Carluke, on 11 November 2018. The instinct surprised me, but, as I let it run, it grew, grew again, and I gave it rein.
I conceived and commissioned signs to be placed on each of the principal roads coming into Carluke, and on each platform at Carluke railway station. Beautifully cast in iron, by Ballantine’s the wonderful forge at Bo’ness, with raised lettering, they bore this wording, and three Victoria Crosses:-
a town called
+ + +
The words had been those of a Scots Guardsman, who had been visiting the town some years before. Hardboard versions of the signs have been made, to be placed internally, on many public places.
As I was drawn on, I became aware of the remarkable number of those who had served from Carluke, and their geographical concentration, with many living in the same streets. So I conceived and commissioned a Map of Honour showing all of those who had served, on an expanded map of central Carluke, as it had been in 1914. Those who had been killed were each marked with a black spot, in the street where they had lived, those physically wounded with a red spot, and the others who returned, many suffering from shell shock or gassing, with a blue spot. All those from areas outlying the centre of the town, were placed together in a separate box on the map, in groups of black, red and blue dots.
Continuing research by the Carluke Parish Historical Society informed the map, and new information, sources and many additional names emerged. The final total represented on the Map of Honour exceeds 1000, a remarkable figure for a town with a population at the time of around 7,000. Some streets had 30 or 40 men who served.
A considerable print of the map was instructed. Copies have been given to schools, churches, public buildings, and are available to any who have family connections with those who served.
The map tells a story, but expresses it far more clearly than 10,000 words. No one with a soul could not but be moved on studying it, and appreciating the scale and concentration of service it reveals. Little imagination is needed to think of the families who were touched, their proximity to each other, and the sense of affinity which the town must have experienced. It cannot begin to tell us of the feelings of uncertainty, waiting and loss which must have prevailed. Nor can we contemplate the aftermath on the serving generation who returned, and their families, who had to carry their experience for decades to come. And remember that a large number of those who served were very young, with many living for a further 50 years, or more.
So, we will all bring profound thoughts to Carluke War Memorial on Armistice Day. A commemorative March, has been organised, from Carluke railway station, where most of the troops left and returned, to the War Memorial. The Scottish Power Pipe Band will lead the March and very many townsfolk will take part. At the Memorial, the Brass Band of the
Royal Conservatoire, Glasgow, will also play, and accompany the Service of Remembrance. The Pipe Major will play the great Scottish lament, The Floo’ers O The Forest. The Last Post and Reveille will be sounded and at the end of the two minutes silence, the church bells will all ring out, as they did 100 years ago. Three special wreaths will be laid, in the shape of Victoria Crosses, with bronze flowers. Fittingly, Auld Lang Syne will be played, and sung, after the Service.
It was only a few weeks ago, when all of this was in preparation, that I read a report on Armistice Day 1918, which had been in the local Carluke paper at the time. Word had reached the town that the Armistice was to be signed that morning. The horn was sounded at the jam works, the children were released from school. Soon, the Carluke Brass Band was marching, and playing in the streets, and bunting appeared on the houses.
In the evening a great public meeting was held in the Town Hall. By agreement, it was chaired by Thomas Grossart J.P., (my grandfather). I had been previously unaware of this, and he had died long before I was born, so I never knew him.
He praised those who had served and expressed the grief of all in the town for those who had been killed, and sympathy for their families. He called on future generations to never forget the service and sacrifice which had touched so many. Reading this came like a bolt from the blue to me. In my unguided quest to acknowledge the debt of honour, owed by our generation, there had been a remarkable coincidence. Or was it something more?
All of this has much engaged me, with conspicuous help from others, as some instinct has carried forward my growing commitment. It has been an inspiring, yet humbling journey, in trying to understand, and mark the scale, and enduring effect, of the great service of that generation.
But is it not better, sometimes, to be left with a sense of wonder and unexplained affirmation, in our thoughts and actions, than to seek to find the precise reasons for it? And, sometimes, is there not a better chance that instinct can lead us to inspiration, than rationality?
They shall not grow old
Age shall not weary them,
or the passing years condemn
At the going down of the sun,
and in the morning
We will remember them.