I’ve known for quite some time that my grandfather, David Muir, fought in the First World War. He was wounded and captured on the first day of the Battle of Loos, on 25th September 1915, his very first day of action in the war. He spent the remainder of the war as a POW.
It wasn’t until a few months ago that my cousin, P, pointed out that a second member of our family also fought in the First World War. His name was Thomas Hiddleston; he was my mother’s grandfather, David Muir’s father-in-law. Although Thomas and David were a generation apart, they were relatively close in age.
This blog is about Thomas: I plan to include David’s story in my third novel.
Our family comes from Ecclefechan, which is near Lockerbie in Scotland. I imagine that the majority of my readers will never have heard of the place. Ecclefechan is the birthplace of Thomas Carlyle – as well as yours truly – and was the home of our family, the Muir family until my mother and some of her sisters and brothers joined the Scottish diaspora after the end of the Second World War to find work in England. This is how many or our family ended up in Birmingham, where there was plenty of work in the car industry and the like.
The small village of Ecclefechan lies just to the west of what is now the A74(M) between Gretna and Lockerbie. Look out for it the next time you are motoring north to Scotland and have crossed the border, which is clearly marked by The Saltire at the side of the main road. Blink and you’ll miss Ecclefechan.
In the days before the development of the M6, and its extension (the A74(M)) north to Scotland, us kids in the back of my uncle’s car would mark the beginning of the family’s annual holiday to Ecclefechan by cheering loudly when we crossed the border from England to Scotland on the A6.
Almost coincidental with my cousin P telling me about our great grandfather, I received an email from Canada. I didn’t recognise the name of the sender but I read the message eagerly. It brought news about my uncle who emigrated from Scotland to Canada several decades ago.
The sender of the message, M, was anxious to inform me about my uncle’s failing health. A few weeks after this initial contact, M phoned me to tell me that my uncle had passed away and M’s family were in the process of organising his funeral.
It transpires that M’s family was close to my uncle during the closing years of his life. He was very much part of the family and was much loved and cared for.
Shortly after the funeral, M phoned me again. She had been going through my uncle’s belongings and had come across some material that she thought might be of interest to me: she knew that I was researching my grandfather’s experience in the First World War. The outcome of this phone conversation was the arrival of a large parcel from Canada. Included amongst its contents was the Dead Man’s Penny, which commemorates Thomas Hiddleston.
The inscription around the edge reads:
HE DIED FOR FREEDOM AND HONOUR
My great grandfather’s name is inscribed in the rectangle on the right hand side of the plaque.
The hole in the top was made for the purpose of attaching the plaque to a headstone. Consequently, many of them were stolen from the graves of soldiers.
This category of memorial plaque was issued after the First World War to the family of all British and Empire servicemen who were killed as a result of the war. The plaque is made of bronze and was popularly known as a Dead Man’s Penny because of its similarity in appearance to the penny coin of the day. It is, of course, very much larger than a coin.
According to Wikipedia 1,355,000 of these plaques were issued, an indication of the scale of fatalities as a result of the war.
My friend, PP, who is an expert on ancestry research, discovered several documents pertaining to my great grandfather. The key document states that Thomas Hiddleston died in hospital as a result of his service in the war. From there, it was but a short step on my part to find out where he was buried.
The authorities in the city where he was hospitalised sent me a map of the war graves section of a huge cemetery on the outskirts of the city and were very helpful in identifying the exact whereabouts of Thomas Hiddleston’s grave. Armed with the map, I took a train to the city and a taxi to the cemetery.
After a false start: “Wrong cemetery, mate,” said a worker cutting the grass, my disappointment was lightened when he directed me to another part of the cemetery further along the road. Another mower showed me where I could find the war graves section. With my map in his hand, he scanned the rows of pristine, white headstones set in beautifully-kept grounds until he spotted what we were looking for: “There,” he said excitedly, “Thomas Hiddleston.”
I thanked him and he returned to his mowing in another part of the cemetery, leaving me to stand quietly before my great grandfather’s grave.
I had been informed that Thomas shared a grave with two other soldiers. This news came rather as a shock. However as the next image shows, each of the three soldiers has their own headstone.
I laid my summer jacket and shoulder bag on the grass and sat for a while at the foot of the triple headstone, wondering who the other two men were and how they lost their lives. I also wondered if there were families who knew where they were buried and perhaps came to visit from time to time.
My thoughts returned to Thomas. For some reason, which I will probably never discover, my great grandfather’s body was not repatriated to Ecclefechan and his family. Despite his body not making the long journey home to Scotland, he is blessed with a beautiful resting place.
“Best-kept war cemetery,” said my mower guide: one of the team responsible for its upkeep. There was no need for him to be modest, as the next image shows.
My great grandfather’s grave and that of his fallen fellow soldiers look like they were established yesterday, let alone one hundred years ago.
Although Thomas Hiddleston’s body wasn’t returned home, his name did: he is commemorated on the war memorial in Ecclefechan.
Finding my great grandfather’s headstone on that sunny day in June a few weeks ago was a very moving experience. After a while sitting in the hot sun, I gathered up my belongings, left Thomas’s graveside and began my journey home.