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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The chorus of voices is stilled now...Remembering the Ants

Captain Arthur Henderson, 2nd Battalion, The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders won the VC on 23 April 1917 near Fontaine-les-Croiselles in France. Although wounded in the left arm, he led his company through the enemy front line and then proceeded to consolidate his position, which owing to heavy fire and bombing attacks was in danger of becoming isolated. He was killed soon afterwards.

This village, today known as St. Juliaan, can be found a little to the north-east of Ypres, on the N313. Here and at nearby Langemarck was where, in the words of Hutchinson, "the tiny army of seven Divisions of 1914 stood it's ground before the pick of the world's greatest military force". The village was however taken by the Germans during their attack using gas for the first time on the 24th of April 1915, and then they held it for two years. It was only recaptured during Third Ypres, when it was taken on the first day (31st of July 1917) by the 13th Royal Sussex.

Some graves always catch your eye in any cemetery, and here the inscription on the memorial stone for Corporal Benjamin Anderson is "He was ours & we'll remember. From widow and children". A short but heartfelt inscription, and the CWGC website records that his widow was Jeanie Anderson of Caledonian Crescent, Edinburgh. The inscription on Private George Tait's grave reads "Home is not home since you are not there. By his mother." It is impossible to read these inscriptions and not think about the grief that lay behind them, and the hours spent in searching for the way to honour the loss of a husband or a son in a dozen words or less.


John McCrae

John McCrae was a Canadian, born in Ontario in 1871, who qualified in medicine at Toronto in 1898. He enlisted when the Boer War broke out in 1899, and served with the Artillery during that war. From 1901 until 1914, he practiced as a doctor in Canada and in England. On the outbreak of the First World War, he enlisted within the first few weeks, was sent overseas in September 1914, again with the Canadian Field Artillery. Whilst stationed at Essex Farm, in May 1915 he was moved to write the famous poem "In Flanders Fields". This was after one of his friends, Alexis Helmer, was killed and buried. Seeing the poppies blow around the graves led to the best known image of this poem. "In Flanders Fields" was published for the first time in Punch in December that year, and has since come to encapsulate the sacrifice of those who fought. Helmer's grave cannot be found in the Cemetery; it was lost later on in the War, and he is commemorated on the Menin Gate.

I remember the Ants- the men of Company A originally the 3rd Batallion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders -all volunteers -of August 1914 -who were transferred to reinforce the the First Batallion in Ypres in January 1915. They -and the men of the Black Watch and the Highland Light Infantry who fought by their side -were the heroes of the Ypres Salient.

I met an old Manxman about thirty years ago –he was a veteran of the Struma Valley- and he said I was the spitting image of Shalako Tommy in size in voice in appearance. Shalako Tommy of course was my grandfather and a fighting comrade with the famous soldier much more famous than my Auld Pop Colin Campbell Mtichell (Military Cross 2nd Ypres) , the father of Mad Mitch (Col of the Argylls in Aden)

He was called Shalako because he was a scout and stalker who led the infiltration of enemy strong points. (the best tactic was to infiltrate with a few crack shots who used precise rifle fire and grenades from camouflaged positions WITHIN and BEHIND the German lines. It was very dangerous because unless there was a break through you would run of ammunition and be killed or captured.

But it gave the men a tremendous espirt in attack because they were going forward to relieve 20 or so of their comrades. They used to paint their faces black and hide among the dead soldiers whose skin turned black in death. Sometimes they would just cut the throats of German NCO’s at night before the attack without a shot and of course the effect was completely demoralizing to the young German recruits some who were as young as 15 or 16. But it was war and there was no hesitation in killing the Hun on neutral Belgian soil –guaranteed by German treaty. Holding on to Belgian soil became almost a holy mission. It all seems senseless now but that generation felt that if the Germans took the channel ports France and Britain would fall.

The Germans feared the Highlanders –they were more than their match and of course the Turks and Bulgarians were crushed by such aggressive tactics which seemed to be a mix of hunting and primitive warfare as much as anything. But that is how they held the Ypres Salient by courageous counter attacks against a foe that outnumbered them often three and four to one. But as long as you could get ammunition or they could resupply from supply dumps previously hidden in retreat or supply themselves from the dead –they were formidable. They quite literally were do or die soldiers. True die hards. And their sons were at Dunkirk , Al Alamein ,Guadalcanal and Bastogne and they were no sae bad either. NE OBLIVISCARIS DO NOT FORGET.

Everyone knew the Old Guard of the First Battalion who had enlisted in 1914. Not a single Junior Officer or NCO of 1914-1915 survived to see the Struma Valley and in 1917 my Auld Pop was Auld Pops to the men –after all he was almost 33 years old and the oldest serving soldier of the lot.

I met that Manxman in 1980 I think and he was the last WWI veteran I ever met. We had a drink, walked around the Menin Gate, went to Black Watch Corner and Ypres and had dinner together. He told me he would see me at sundown. He was making his last pilgrimage to the Salient and almost didn’t want to go because it had become so lonely for him but he told me the last time was the best because he met the grandson of Shalako Tommy, Chang Dhost and had heard news of the Auld Comrades. I wrote to him but he never answered. Sure he was near the end of his days. But I am glad I met him and I am proud to have known so many veterans from WWI and WWII and Vietnam and Korea. When I was in the Marines I had one DI who had been in the Marines since 1951 -35 years- all the other men I served with or under were combat veterans of Vietnam. I was of course just an ice cream Marine what Auld Pop would call “a tin-solger wi’ white starched pants and white gloves”. But I served (unlike Kronman and his 60’s generation)

It is quite true that I am the only male of my line in my generation (I have two sisters and six first cousins all female) and it is true that I am the last to speak the old tongue of CIOCH MHOR where my grandfather was born in the Highlands in the true Gaeltacht -in1886 –uninhabited since 1920.

I am the last to remember the ANTS –the men of Company A Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders who held the Ypres Salient in 1915- all volunteers and all civilian soldiers. I knew a few of them myself. They are all gone now.

I am the first of our American line but the last Munro in history to remember the stories and the people of the Glen of Truimisgarry and the clachan of Chioch Mhor. The were always to first to follow the chief and every man marched out in the night all night to save Mary Queen of Scots from her English bought enemies. Clad in Gold she was our young Mary and we were there but now we are all gone every last one gone to Canada, the USA, New Zealand and Australia.

My great –grandfather Jos Munro (Jos M’anrothaiche) was the only one of his eight brothers and sisters not to emigrate and even he died in New York in 1937 for he had no family left in Scotland.

I do not forget –no I never will- but I face firmly towards the future and in that future there is no Scotland for me or any of my race or line.

But all is left now August 16, 2008 is the ghost of the chorus now stilled forever around the Hamilton upright and the memory of the old songs –fine songs for singing rare songs to hear –that only I remember and few ask for them now and fewer yet remember them at all.

So in the end the only Scotland there will be for me is in a pile of song books and old photographs and some small memorabilia –an ancient Gaelic bible –it must date to the middle of the 19th century- a missal in Latin and English dating from 1923 –it was my father’s –small books of Kipling and Burns with blood stains and mud stains of Ypres and the Struma Valley –a 1918 half crown carried in my Auld Pop’s left pocket –it was their custom to keep a bible with a silver half crown just in front of the heart and to put a new one there ever New Year’s but that was the last one.

There is a gold watch that belonged to Major MacKenzie his widow sent it to my grandfather after Armistice Day 1918. (Major Mackenzie was killed that fall in France after having invalided out of the service; he reenlisted to lead a new battalion of young recruits there were no officers left,,,even now I weep for Mrs. MacKenzie and her long years of widowhood. She lived on until the 1970’s as my grandmother lived on a widow until the 1980’s (my mother’s mother).. There are some trench candles. There are some gold coins and silver dollars from the USA 1921-1935, But physically that is is.

But we are still here and I like to think that something always remains.

I have done my best to pass on what I know of our Splendid Ancient Heritage: Bydan Free FOREVER FREE and DREADING GOD as in the days of yore. The sons and daughters of my race and line will not have a single syllable of our ancient treasures of song but I pray that OUR HOLY FAITH and OUR STRONG DESIRE and BRAVE HEARTS FOR FREEDOM will never die and that the COLORS WILL NOT EVER BE STRUCK in my time. And education has not come to an end not by a long shot.

But then the truest education is in the home not the school. We ought not to trust too much in schools and colleges. I warn my parents constantly that many universities are indeed enemy institutions and they must beware. I tell them the truth as I see it and they are glad for it.

Without the love of the hearth and without the women of the house and without the Auld Pops there is no reason to get any schooling. Nothing to remember. Nothing to believe in. Nothing to truly love. Perhaps no identity at all. No pride of name, of heritage or faith.

No reason to have a future. No reason to do anything but eat drink and be merry till it all falls doon like BY THE WATERS OF BABYLON.

Big liberalism and Secular Humanism dud in the mud ‘free love sex’ is not the answer unless you want to commit societal suicide.

No, I will carry on as I have….

AYE BYDAN FREE. And we shall see you at sundown....Aye!

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