New book - Lanark’s 235 heroes are no longer just names on a memorial

Home front in Lanark in World War One, the subject of the current exhibition at Lanark Museum. Here local soldiers 'recruit' a young lass.
Home front in Lanark in World War One, the subject of the current exhibition at Lanark Museum. Here local soldiers 'recruit' a young lass.

There is probably no-one still alive who personally knew any of the 235 men whose names appear on Lanark’s official World War One casualty list.

It is now around a century since any of these men were themselves alive and so a dedicated trio took on a near-impossible task when they decided to tell the individual stories of each of these heroes.

After reading “Lanark War Memorial and the Fallen of Lanark 1914 - 1918” by Lanark Museum’s Paul Archibald, Graham Forbes and Willie Buttery you can’t help but wonder how they completed their two-year marathon of research in time for the centenary of the end of the conflict next month.

The complications involved were frankly mind-boggling!

For starters, they had to ask themselves if the 235 names on the commemorative plaques in Lanark Memorial Hall represented a complete record of our World War One losses?

They quickly realised that the answer to that question was no. Far from it.

Indeed, during their researches, the trio discovered 53 additional names of those who were, for many and varied reasons, missed when the butcher’s bill for the conflict was first calculated after November 11, 1918.

Their job wasn’t made any easier by the fact that many men were transferred from regiment to regiment throughout the conflict, meaning service records could be complex. Many didn’t even fight in the British Army, there being several men who’d emigrated to Canada who came back across the Atlantic to fight for their mother country when war was declared.

There was also the fact that many of “Lanark’s Fallen” weren’t actually Lanarkians. There are a surpringly high number of New Lanark men among the fallen and many of them weren’t even born in Scotland, their families having ‘followed the work’ from Ulster’s flagging weaving industry to the New Lanark mills.

The book is remarkable alone for the sheer number of popular myths and preconceptions about World War One it explodes.

Most of us have visions of all the men on the Memorial Hall plaques being in their late teens or early 20s and having died going ‘over the top’ from their trenches to be mown down by German machine guns.

The truth is very, very different indeed.

A very large number of local lads perished not on the French or Belgian battlefields but in the Near and Middle East, local units having been to the fore in the Gallipoli landings. Indeed, the book reminds us of the now near-totally forgotten ‘Lanark’s Blackest Day’, June 25, 1915, when no less than 13 men from Lanark were killed by the Turks in the bloody Battle of Gully Ravine.

The book also makes it clear that the conflict wasn’t the ‘young man’s war’ many think it was; a very large proportion of casualties were in their 30s and 40s and came from all parts of Lanark society, ranging from labouring and mining families to the sons of eminent town doctors and church ministers.

There is also a surprising number who were not actually ‘killed in action’.

When the committee decided who did and didn’t qualify to go on Lanark’s memorial plaques, they took a fairly loose interpretation of what a ‘casualty of war’ actually was.

Many didn’t die at the front line but from illnesses, albeit caused by or worsened by their military service.

There are several men who obviously died not from bullet nor bomb but from the Spanish Flu pandemic that ravaged the world in 1918/19.

In one case, that of Lanarkian Sergeant James Cunningham, he’d emigrated to the USA and joined its army when the States declared war on Germany. He was on a troopship on his way back across the Atlantic when he died of influenza. He didn’t even make it to Europe, never mind the front line! Still, his name, probably quite rightly, appears on the memorial plaques.

Some men didn’t even die during the war; many lingered into the mid-1920s before dying from wounds received years before. They, at least, were laid to rest in the soil of their home town and not hundreds of miles away in a foreign war cemetery. (One still lies to this day in Cologne, Germany, having died as a prisoner of war).

This really is two books in one as it also covers the saga of the building of Lanark Memorial Hall in memory of those fallen.

This was the most typical of Lanark stories, the hall plan being ‘steered’ by a colossal committee of 57 members and causing bitter disputes in the town.

The hall, somehow, was finally opened in 1926.

The Memorial Hall ‘War’

It’s often joked that a Lanarkian could start a fight in an empty house.

However, they surpassed themselves when it came to creating a hall as a memorial to its dead of World War One.

In fact the sound of the guns on the Western Front had hardly faded away before the arguments and fall-outs started over what form the Royal Burgh’s memorial should take.

Most towns and villages made do with a simple but moving statue of a soldier as a place to lay their wreaths each November.

Lanark decided that its status as a County Town deserved something better. Well, bigger anyway...

The first argument was about there being a hall at all. Many favoured creating a memorial park with a large triumphal arch at its entrance.

However, the hall faction won out although there was more outrage when the cost of the new building was revealed to be £30,000, the equivalent of millions in today’s money (It cost £5.4m just to give the building a facelift five years ago!).

The quibbling over the costs was never fully resolved and when the hall was finally declared open in 1926, the construction fund was still short by over £6,000.

The then local MP didn’t help matters by castigating Lanarkians for contributing only £1 per head of population towards the project, most of the contributions having come from the local farming industry.

This caused huge offence, one insulted Lanarkian hitting back bitterly in the Gazette letters to the editor page by claiming that the area’s farmers could well afford a contribution considering how much profiteering they’d done during the war!

The book “Lanark’s War Memorial and the Fallen of Lanark” costs £10 and is currently on sale from Lanark Library and Museum. Proceeds go to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.