No longer unknown: Stories behind portraits of First World War soldiers are revealed
When hundreds of photographs of soldiers from the First World War were found, each portrait was a mystery in its own right. Here, John Lichfield tells the story of one of them
Friday 20 August 2010
"There was a soldier, a Scottish soldier
Who wandered far away and soldiered far away
There was none bolder, with good broad shoulders,
He fought in many a fray and fought and won.
He's seen the glory, he's told the story
Of battles glorious and deeds victorious..."
The kilted soldier shown here – a short, grinning teenager without especially "broad shoulders" – is one of the 560,000 Scots who "wandered far away" to fight in the 1914-18 war. Almost 150,000 of them did not live to "tell the story of battles glorious and deeds victorious".
Scotland suffered, proportionally, greater losses than almost any other nation engaged in the First World War. (France lost 3.36 per cent of its total population killed in battle; Scotland 3.14 per cent; Germany 2.76 per cent; Britain as a whole 1.7 per cent.)
The two images of our grinning "Scottish soldier" – one in which he stands alone and one arm-in-arm with a comrade from the Machine Gun Corps – are among 450-plus glass plates recovered from a rubbish skip and jumble sales in the Somme region in northern France in the last two years. The photographs, published in two batches in The Independent Magazine in May 2009 and May 2010 and on The Independent website, have generated interest all over the world. They were by far the most visited item on The Independent website in 2009 and are among the most popular in 2010.
First World War graveyards and memorials are a legion of names without faces. The lost Somme photographs gave us, movingly, hundreds of faces without names. Of the first batch of images, only one was tentatively identified as a gunner from Ayrshire.
The Independent believes that we can now also name this soldier from the second batch: even though investigations over the last few weeks have generated almost as many questions as they have provided answers. In the process, we have taken a fascinating meander through the history, and subtle differences in uniform, of the Highland regiments of the British Army.
We have also collided with the frustrating barriers faced by many people who try to examine the service records of those British soldiers who did not die and were not decorated in 1914-18. Two-thirds of the British Army's records were destroyed in the Blitz on London in the Second World War.
The soldier in our two images has been identified by his daughter and two of his grandchildren as James Henry Hepburn, who was born in Birse, near Aberdeen, in 1898. He survived the war to have two wives (at different times), nine children, at least 20 grandchildren and a still expanding army of great-grandchildren. He died in 1962, aged 64.
An enigma remains. Hepburn's daughter, Lorna Carnie, 70, has clear memories of walking beside the Gordon Highlander's barracks in Aberdeen with her father when she was a child. He would invariably tell her that he was "once in the Gordons".
She is convinced that the young man in our photograph is her father. Family snaps, shown here, of James Hepburn as a much older man suggest that she is right. Two of Hepburn's grandchildren also identified him in the gallery of Unknown Somme Soldiers published in The Independent Magazine in May this year.
But, according to our researches, he is not wearing a Gordons' kilt or cap-badge. He is wearing the subtly different, circa-1916 battle-dress of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
He must, therefore, be another man entirely? Not necessarily.
There were 66 – at least – different James Hepburns who served in the British Army in 1914-18, according to surviving records. Of these, perhaps surprisingly, only seven were killed. Of the survivors, five served in the Gordon Highlanders and three in the Argylls.
The two images are believed to have been taken close to a clearance hospital at Warloy- Baillon, just behind the British lines, towards the end of the first battle of the Somme in October to November 1916. They were almost certainly taken by a French amateur photographer who charged British Tommies a few francs for a photograph to send home to their loved ones.
The historical value of the plates, as a record of the British Army during the most murderous battle in its history, was first grasped by two local men: Bernard Gardin, a photography enthusiast, and Dominique Zanardi, proprietor of the "Tommy" cafe in Pozières in the heart of the Somme battlefields.
Study of the pictures by the First World War historian Michael Stedman and researchers at the regimental museums of the Gordons and the Argylls has identified a host of absorbing detail.
The young highlander is rather scruffily dressed. He is not wearing a belt. He is wearing his gas mask pouch as a sporran. The two pictures were taken within seconds of one another because his tunic collar and left-hand pocket are crumpled in exactly the same way in both images. In the "comrades" shot, his standard Army-issue tunic is loose at the bottom. In the stand-alone shot, he has folded up the corners to give the tunic a more "Scottish" look and show off his kilt.
Traditionally, young men from north-eastern Scotland joined the Gordon Highlanders. So, according to family memory, did James Henry Hepburn.
"He's nae a Gordon," said Bert Innes, researcher at the Gordon Highlanders' museum in Aberdeen. Although the young man's kilt is broadly similar to the Gordons' kilt, Mr Innes said, it lacks a yellow stripe down the centre (two stripes for an officer). The cap badge is also wrong. "Try the Argylls," Bert said.
Rod McKenzie of the Argylls' museum in Stirling was categorical. The young man is an Argyll. "You can't miss the distinctive A and S H cap badge on his hat," he said.
Would it have been impossible for a man from north-eastern Scotland to serve in the Argylls, which traditionally recruited in the western Highlands and central Scotland? "Not at all impossible. Absolutely not," said Rod. "We had tens of thousands of Argylls from all over Great Britain, including many, many from England. After a time of heavy losses, a man could easily be transferred from one regiment to another. Or a new recruit who did not make a definite request to join a certain regiment could be sent almost anywhere."
All highland regiments, and most Scottish regiments, wore kilts. Scottish soldiers were feared by the Germans who knew them as the "ladies from hell". Some of them, it turns out, were Englishmen in disguise.
Many Scots also served in English regiments. The high death toll for Scots can be interpreted in different ways. Young Scots volunteered in even higher numbers than young Englishmen. They tended, disproportionately, to join infantry battalions. There was probably also a high death toll for Geordies, Lancastrians and Yorkshiremen. Many battalions from Scotland and the industrial north had a reputation for bravery. They were thrown into the worst battles over and over again.
Lorna Carnie, who still lives in Aberdeen, is sure that the two pictures show her father. "The more I look at them, the more convinced I am," she said. "Of course, I didn't know him as a young man but there is something about those eyes and eyebrows. It could only be him."
His granddaugher, Alvine Swanson, 51, a teacher in Edinburgh, is equally convinced, even though she was three years old when her grandfather died.
"I genuinely think it's him. The high forehead, wide nose, mouth, big chin and baggy eyes ... are the same," she said.
Research through the surviving First World War military records at Kew provides no answers to the mystery. Presumably "our" James Hepburn was transferred from the Gordons as a very young man to fill the depleted ranks of one of the seven different Argylls battalions which fought on the Somme. Or maybe he joined the Argylls and was transferred to the Gordons later.
The Army records, devastated and muddled by the Luftwaffe, yield the service medal certificates of two James Hepburns who survived the war in the Argylls, one of whom was too old to be our man. The other certificate, shown here, may well be "our" James. However, yet another James Hepburn was transferred from the Argylls to the Royal Scots Fusiliers in 1918 ...
What happened to this grinning, happy-go-lucky teenager in the remainder of the war? And afterwards? And what kind of man was he?
Lorna Carnie said that her father rarely spoke about the war. He still had a piece of shrapnel in his head and a bullet in his elbow, which he could move around to make children squeal.
His granddaughter, Alvine, said that he told another daughter – her mother, Iris – that he was part of a line of soldiers which was hit by a shell. He woke up, the only survivor, with half a dozen bodies piled on top of him.
After the war, he worked as a dairyman and a parcels deliveryman for the Post Office. His first wife died of TB in the 1920s. He married Lorna's mother, Helen Reid Nicholson, in the early 1930s. She died in 1984.
"He was a different man to different people," Lorna Carnie said. "I think the war affected him more than we knew or, maybe, he knew. He was a man capable of great rages. Some of my older sisters and brothers didn't have such fond memories of him. Not me. I liked my Dad. He was always very gentle with me..."
"In these pictures, he's just a wee boy of 18. I have grandsons about that age. The thought of them being pushed into something as terrible as the battle of the Somme ... it's horrible to think of."
If the photographs were taken to send home, they never made it to Scotland; or at least they were never preserved in the family records. As far as his granddaughter, Alvine, is concerned, the photographs have reached their intended destination after almost a century.
"It's astonishing that ... my buying the paper in Edinburgh on a Saturday morning led me to seeing a photo of my long-dead grandfather as a gallus wee guy in the middle of a bloodbath more than ninety years ago," she said. "The extraordinary nature of ordinary people never fails."
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