Band of brothers: A tale of war, loss and remembrance on the killing fields of France

The four Anderson brothers were born into middle-class prosperity, their young lives filled with promise. Then came the Great War. As Britain remembers its fallen generation, Robin Scott-Elliot sets out to discover what became of his ancestors on the killing fields of northern France
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The sunken road that rises from Hardecourt-aux-Bois up to Montauban in the Somme valley curves gently through brown fields before starting its climb towards the ridge, its destination the crossroads that lie on the edge of the upper village. At its beginning, the road dips low enough to hide a man, and it was here, on 25 March 1918, that 36-year-old Bertie Anderson began the final hour of his life.

William Herbert Anderson was an acting lieutenant colonel, the novice commander of the 12th Battalion, Highland Light Infantry. It was a world away from his peacetime life as an accountant and father of two young children. That misty spring morning, he and his men found themselves facing almost certain destruction, ordered to resist to the last man and pitched into the path of the largest German offensive since the opening year of the First World War. It was a devastating assault that threatened to strike a decisive blow in Germany's favour after four wearying, bloody years.

From first light, Anderson had shepherded his heavily outnumbered men through a series of increasingly desperate actions to keep the enemy at bay. By late afternoon, the weight of casualties began to tell, and the few that remained were battling merely to survive. Around 5pm, he gathered every last exhausted man – clerks, cooks, servants and signallers – and led them up the road towards the German-held brickworks factory.

As the road rises, so the banks on either side fall away, and Anderson and his men were soon exposed. Many were killed within moments as heavy fire rained down from the brickworks, but Anderson ran on, his remaining men gathered behind the tall, leggy figure who urged them forwards with a revolver in one hand and swagger stick in the other. The brickworks were taken after a brief, bitter struggle. On he went, leading his men into the adjacent field and on towards the village where the next German position lay. He never reached Montauban.

"He was cheering me on, his face wreathed in smiles at the way the counter-attack was progressing," wrote one of his colleagues to Gertie, Bertie's wife, a few days later. "His last words to me were, 'Carry on with those on the left, Cox', and the last I saw was the swing of his stick going on."

There are areas on the Somme that possess a subdued beauty, hidden valleys and flower-filled copses given a breath of life by the happy whistle of birdsong, and every handful of miles, a collection of identical gravestones, arranged in neat rows with curved tops, white sheen and brief details of the men who lie below. The Peronne Road cemetery lies just outside Maricourt, on the way to Albert. Unlike many of the war cemeteries that dot this undulating area of northern France, it is small and rarely visited. Bertie Anderson is in grave II.G.36. There lies the last of the Anderson brothers. There lies my great-grandfather.

When I visited his grave, carved with the Victoria Cross awarded posthumously for his actions on that last day of his life, I was the same age as he had been when he died. Great-grandfathers should grow into old men, lives trailing out, part-forgotten behind them. Bertie never grew old, neither did his brothers, Charlie, Ronnie or Teddie. To study their pictures is to see the young lives of a lost generation, four among millions of victims of the Great War, the war of ultimate futility and waste. The war that, as the historian John Keegan wrote, "ruined Europe as a centre of world civilisation". The war that was supposed to end all wars.

It took a week for rumours of Bertie's death to filter home. A feeling of dread shrouded his parents' home at 14 Lansdowne Crescent in Glasgow's West End. They had to know; Bertie was the last of their four boys who had gone willingly to war in 1914. On 2 April, Willie Anderson telegrammed the War Office:

"Hear report that my son Lt Col WH Anderson 12th HLI killed on 25th. Is this true?"

The following day came the reply:

"No report of any recent casualty to Lt Col Anderson of HLI received at War Office, Secretary, War Office."

Two days passed – did they dare to hope? – and then another telegram, this time to a house in Balloch to the north-east of Glasgow, on the green shores of Loch Lomond, where Gertie Anderson was staying with her parents:

"Deeply regret Lt Col WH Anderson Highland Light Infantry killed in action March twenty-fifth. The Army Council express their sympathy."

Tucked into a corner on the second floor of the Imperial War Museum is a dimly lit room where the Victoria Cross collection is displayed. Bertie's medal is there, beneath his picture and his citation. He never saw the medal, never knew of its award, but it is a connection to him, a symbol through which he can be remembered – not as a war hero, rather as a young man who did something extraordinary, in extraordinary circumstances, and at the ultimate cost. Among the few of his possessions to have survived is a slim, black notebook. In it he has jotted down passages and quotations that had touched him. It is a diverse compilation – ranging from the writings of a Japanese education minister to passages from the Bible – and I hope it reveals something of the man. He notes a Persian proverb: "Help thou thy brother's boat across, and lo! thine own has touched the shore."

It was through this notebook, and another much larger album in which my great-grandmother saved scraps of all description – photographs, newspaper articles, telegrams – relating to her sons' lives, that I pieced together the story of Bertie, Charlie, Ronnie and Teddie. The books tell a brothers' story, but the cast widens, to Willie and Nora, their parents, to Gertie, and on. The First World War stretched its devastation through society in a way that has never been experienced before or since. Few families emerged unscathed. One million Britons died. It is estimated that, of the generation of the age to fight, one in three did not return.

The Andersons were a prosperous Glasgow family. Willie was a partner in a thriving accountancy firm in a city that was booming. Nora spent much of her time in Fife, preferring the country around Upper Largo, where they had a second home, Strathairly. Bertie married in 1909, and in 1913 Gertie gave birth to their second son, Charlie, my grandfather. A year on, and Teddie, the youngest by seven years and Nora's golden-haired darling, was leaving school; Ronnie, a drifter and a dreamer, had returned home from ranching in Rhodesia to spend an aimless summer at home. Charlie was a soldier, stationed in India. It captures an idyllic image; the summer of 1914 was long and hot. Here was a family blessed.

When war broke out, Charlie was soon joined in uniform by his brothers. He wrote home from Egypt, en route from India to the trenches of France: "So glad we will all be in this war..."

Charlie's war was a brief one. He landed in Marseilles with his battalion on the last day of November 1914. The war was three months old. They were ferried north by train, shivering in the cold after years in India. On the night of 11 December, Charlie went into the trenches around Festubert in Flanders. In that first year, conditions on the Western Front were particularly desperate; a cold, treacherous sea of mud, the trenches little more than hastily dug ditches. He did not have to endure them for long.

On 19 December, Charlie took part in an assault on the German line. At first it was successful, capturing the enemy trench, but the Germans counter-attacked and his company was cut off. Under cover of darkness, only a handful of survivors returned. Charlie was not among them.

Like so many, his body was never found. He was declared missing and it took until the following August for Willie and Nora to be given official notice that their son was dead. That is a long time to have to hope and pray for a miracle.

Today, Charlie is a name on a wall at Le Touret memorial in the Pas de Calais. He is not alone; it is estimated that nearly half the dead on the Western Front have no official grave. Charlie's resting place remains hidden somewhere in northern France, perhaps in a mass grave, perhaps still waiting to be discovered beneath a foreign field.

Ronnie, four years older than Charlie, was sent to France the following summer. On hearing of his brother's death, he had asked for a transfer to the Highland Light Infantry, Charlie's battalion, and arrived in France in June. By then, the Western Front had settled into the grind of trench warfare; a battalion would have a turn in the front line, then in reserve and then in the rear, a routine interrupted only by the occasional "Big Push".

Late that summer, he wrote home to his mother: "If I get killed, don't say, 'so like Ron's careless way'." It was around a month after that, on 8 October, that Ronnie, a tall man with the long legs characteristic of the family, was doing his duty rounds one evening and stopped to talk to one of his sentries. He didn't notice that, where he was standing, the parapet of the trench dipped. "A quiet day," recorded the battalion's war diary, "2nd Lt AR Anderson killed."

How would you cope with the death of two of your sons in less than a year? After the war, Nora assembled an album of her boys, a grieving mother seeking a modicum of solace. There are few photographs of Ronnie or Charlie, plenty of the other two. Was that how she tried to survive at first, by suppressing loss and concentrating on what remained?

I read of Ronnie's death in the Public Record Office in Kew. War diaries meticulously record the day-to-day goings-on of each of the hundreds of battalions that filled a torn corner of northern Europe. They are as bland as any form of bureaucracy. You turn carefully through page after yellowing page. "Working party to improve trenches", "Route march to Givenchy", "A quiet day. 2nd Lt Anderson killed".

Turn again to Bertie's black book. "To let the dead bury its dead, to live in the present and for the future, is not only a stern duty but the only recipe for a happy life." That, it would seem, was also a recipe for survival among the Anderson family, and perhaps for thousands of others.

Teddie gives the impression of having lived in the present, and revelled in it. He was everybody's favourite – "Little Ben" to his big brothers, "my Honey Bee" to his doting mother – young, good- looking, full of himself and full of life. Then, as the long years of the war struggle past, you can see him change. He broadens from a boy into a man, but look into his eyes and see the difference, the change from the glory-seeking youth, bursting with pride, who left Scotland for the first time in his life to go to war.

Teddie, too, joined the HLI, but in 1915 he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, the fledgling precursor to the RAF, and arrived on the Somme in May 1916. He wrote joyous letters home. War was the adventure of his life. "Dearest Mother and Dad, I hope you are both well," begins one, as if he were still writing home from his boarding school. "I am in the rarest of health and have been kept very busy up in Cloudland."

"I enjoyed it all immensely," he wrote of an attack in late June, "and felt so 'bucked' that I sang lustily most of the way home!! When I looked over the machine on landing, I found six little Archie [anti-aircraft] holes in the wings, so they were quite near."

On 1 July, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, when Kitchener's New Army went over the top into hell and history, Teddie flew above the battlefield. "I was up about two hours after the attack," he wrote to his "dear Dad". "It was of course immensely interesting." In the same letter he writes of his experience that he "would not have missed it for the world".

Teddie survived his time at the front. A pilot rarely lasted six months, but if they did they were posted home to become instructors. Teddie ended up in Hampshire; one morning, he took a plane up for testing. It fell into a spin and, in those early days of aviation, there was no way out.

A matron from the hospital to which he was taken wrote later to Nora: "I was with your boy nearly all the time and talked to him. In a sense he was conscious but not entirely so. You see he had morphia to save him from the pain. I'm sure he thought he was in a 'plane. He did not realise how bad he was. But he was very thirsty, and was grateful for drinks, and always thanked us and said how sorry he was to be 'such a jolly nuisance'. Towards the end he was quiet under the influence of morphia, and felt no pain at all. Dr Dingley said he would have felt very little and he slowly slipped away to a better place."

Teddie died, aged 21, on 18 March 1918 – seven days before his eldest brother. He lies in the New Kilpatrick Churchyard in Bearsden, not far from Glasgow Cathedral where a plaque in the nave marks the lives of these four sons of the city. But it is in France that the end of the story lies.

Corporal Cochrane survived the battle for the Montauban brickworks and the Great War. He emigrated to Canada, but could not forget the events of that day, and from his new home he wrote to Gertie Anderson, enclosing a hand-drawn map of where her husband's last steps had taken him that evening. When I visited Bertie's grave, there was a small cross and a ceremonial poppy pushed into the earth in front of the stone. In the cemetery visitors' book, somebody had noted, "Visiting Col Anderson's grave"; the writer was from Canada. Later that day, I stood in the sunken road, holding a copy of that map. I also have Bertie's notebook. "Life is short and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are travelling the dark journey with us. Oh! be swift to love, make haste to be kind."

Did I know something of him then? I walked up the road and what is left of the brickworks came into view, a scruffy pile of overgrown rubble. I walked through it, studying the map and then out into the field. I found a spot in the field that might match that final X on a map drawn from memory 89 years ago. I took a photograph of a bare piece of a ploughed field not far from the crossroads outside the village of Montauban. Another quotation from Bertie's book came to mind. It's by Robert Burns:

"But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flow'r; its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the
river,
A moment white – then
melts forever."

'The Way Home', Robin Scott-Elliot's novel of the Anderson brothers' story, is published by Troubador (0116 255 9312; www.troubador.co.uk/shop.asp) at £7.99

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