Former teacher Tom Dick pays tribute to Carluke’s VC winners

Tom Dick, now 98,  remembers the VC winners  -  Picture by Andrew Wilson
Tom Dick, now 98, remembers the VC winners - Picture by Andrew Wilson

THE shudders are almost, if not already, upon us. Soon we’ll be into the year-long Centenary of Solemn Remembrance for all the victims of war.

And it happens that we in Carluke have our fair share and more of hardships of war to remember.

Here as, elsewhere, we still hold our Annual Service in commemoration of those who gave their lives for in the First World War.

This year a yet grimmer trial awaits us: we have to brace ourselves to face up to a special horror - the full horror of how the nations, 100 years ago, drifted, almost casually, not to say blithely, as it seems in retrospect, into conflict - a conflict confidently expected to be of short duration. But not so. Already in existence was a great network of alliances built up over the years for our mutual protection. The conflict soon took on the aspect of war. And war required that the system of alliances should, rapidly and automatically, come into force. Thus, instead of peace, there was now a raging conflagration, an uncontrollable fire, that seemingly without any realisation of the potential danger, presently became the war that was to prove the most terrible in history.

So devastating did it become, indeed, that many young folk like myself, in the idealism of youth and with the ghastliness of Paschendael and the Somme still fresh in the memory, felt compelled to register our objections to all war - not least to wars in which eager, hopeful young men, in carrying out orders, could stumble helplessly to their death by drowning in mud-filled bomb craters.

But how futile. For war, willy-nilly, still came - and in dimensions hitherto unimaginable.

Yet war, for all its obscenities, can still bring forth flowers of sublime beauty: flowers displayed, as ever, by the invincible spirit of man, flowers in the form of the noblest of human virtues: courage,,, displays that called for the highest of honour.

Thus it was that such due high honour was instituted, following the Crimean War, by Queen Victoria. This honour took the form of a simple cross to be awarded as it said,


(It was to be understood also only for valour displayed in the presence of the enemy.) A singular honour that was soon be commonly referred to as the VC.

And Carluke, praise God, has three such VCs to its name - three out of the 14 in total, as I have been informed, for the whole of Lanarkshire.

Armistice Day is still observed in our town, as in other communities no doubt, unsurprisingly, in diminishing degree from year to year. Television and the passage of time, alas, have combined to concentrate the burden of organisation, etc., into the larger towns and cities and naturally, above all, into our own ancient metropolis and capital city - until, today, we can all sit back and take part, however vicariously, in the full parade of all the due ceremony and pageantry, amid a fitting sense of scale and, above all, of national unity, with there, in the very heart of things, the Symbol of our Nationhood, Her Majesty the Queen - to make sure, if nothing else does, that we may feel, every single one of us, fully and properly represented.

Some 60 years ago, our town held a civic party to celebrate the reunion of our three VCs, photographs and all. I am sorry I wasn’t able to attend myself, but I am sure many will recall the occasion with pride. But for myself, thanks to a long life, with relative clarity of mind there is the of sharpness of focus in memory with a clear recollection of the individual features of the characters concerned. For no thanks to myself, I had acquaintance, as man and boy, somehow or other; I knew them all as persons, even to the point of physical contact in some instances.

Donald Cameron (I name him first because he was of the Second World War) I knew as a classmate - half-way down, there, next to the high classroom partition. Later, I was to thrill with the rest of the town when news came through of the part he had played in the mission to seek out and destroy the German warships lying and refitting in that northern Norwegian fjord - how as commander of one of the “mini-fleet” of (four-man crew) mini-submarines whose mission was to find a way through the German anti-submarine boom of netting and lay his quota of bombs under the hulls (only 10 feet or so above the sea-bottom) of the German vessels... that the mission was successful, but in seeking his way back he encountered periscope problems and loss of visibility and was spotted and fired upon by the Tirpitz.. how ultimately he was compelled to scuttle his vessel and surrender. He was taken aboard the Tirpitz in time to feel the blast of the bombs he had helped to lay. How many of his comrades lost their lives I cannot say. But I’ve been informed that he was one of only two of his fellow commanders of the “mini-fleet” to survive, and that both had been awarded the VC. After seeing out the privations of life as a POW, he resumed his contact with the sea (he had been in the Merchant Navy before) in service with the Royal Navy. He died an untimely death, aged 41.

Tom Caldwell (Tam Kurwaal in local parlance) lived on the other side of the street, only a block or two from where I was then living with my granny. He was a fine-looking big man and well known as one of our VCs. Tom’s exploit could have come straight our of The Rover. In the fierce fighting of the final throes of the Great War, single-handedly he had rushed and captured a German machine-gun post, and had taken the whole 18-man crew prisoner. Later in life, I had the pleasure as an Elder of Kirkton Church of visiting his sister out Glenafeoch way to deliver her her Communion Cards. Not long after my early acquaintance with him, he emigrated to Australia, I believe.

And then there’s Willie Angus, of course. Of yes, the poignancy of Willy Angus, both man and story. How grieved we all were, we boys, to hear over and over again the account of his gallantry how he had crawled out into No Man’s Land in the dark to rescue his officer and fellow townsman Lieutenant Martin, who had been seen to be still alive out there after a previous night’s raid on German lines. The rescue was successful, but at what cost. He had been a well-known athletic figure pre-war, a first-class footballer who had worn the Celtic colours, and who had the great Harry Nugent of The Rovers for a brother-in-law, no less. As a short-trousered soap boy in the barber’s I was to lean against his very person. There, I could rub away comfortably enough at his (by then) rounded cheeks, but to look across at his ravaged eyes and brow, and down at his mangled feet, and think of the rest of his stricken body, that was to feel the sting of tears... He built up his own carrier business, dying at a fair age.

Homeric Heroes All.

Homeric? Why, he was to have, as I discovered, his very own predecessor, in both names and deed, in the Classical legends of antiquity. In the Aeneid, the twelve-book epic poem by Virgil about the Siege of Troy and the Founding of Rome. The Trojan hero, or one of them, was Aeneas, which phonetically would be spelled something like Anyjas. It so happens that his very sound is preserved for us in modern Gaelic. The Gaelic orthography spells it Aonghas. This spelling was too much for the neighbours of the Gaelic migrants into Central Scotland some 250 years ago. Ruthlessly, Aonghas was pared down to Angus. The survival of the name is remarkable enough. Quite extraordinary is the similarity of the original Aeneas’ deed to that of our Willie Angus. After the 10-year siege of Troy, Aeneas had to flee for his life. Troy had at last fallen to the Greeks and was set ablaze. Aeneas, as he fled, suddenly remembered his father. He stopped and ran back breathlessly. He found his aged father, lifted him up on his shoulders and carried him to safety - an action that would have him a modern VC on the field there and then. Willie’s exact counterpart. Still, Angus or Aonghas, it’s the perfection of magnificence.

But back to the present, and to the history of all the reason for remembering. For who will count the losses, who measure the miseries? Who will number the eager young men, on the threshold of manhood who were doomed never again to come back home at all?