Though people have been laid to rest here since the 12th Century, Kirkintilloch’s Auld Aisle Cemetery is, at least on the surface, a graveyard like any other.
It is a sombre and respectful place, but also beautiful, beginning at the top one of the town’s highest hills before sloping gently southward, reaching out through the past.
Like so many others across the country – and indeed the world – the cemetery also contains a number of Commonwealth war graves. There are 38 in total, 17 of which are the final resting place of men who fought in the First World War.
Wander around the expansive, manicured grounds and you find many of them easily enough – W Shields of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, T H Peden of the Cameronians, A Haggerty of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders. Most are memorialised on traditional Commonwealth War Grave Commission headstones: all equal regardless of rank, race, religion or status.
But four of those headstones are different. Unlike the others, these casualties are not dotted around the various rows and tiers of the cemetery. Instead, they huddle together on the very edge of the grounds, far from the main paths, their faces turned outwards towards the fields beyond the perimeter fence. From most angles they are hidden from view behind a little square of land dominated by a mass of brambles, nettles and ferns lying beneath a canopy of sycamore – an unkempt, uncared for patch of ground which stands in stark contrast to the pristine, landscaped surroundings.
Though the grass around the stones is still cut regularly, and nature therefore prevented from entirely reclaiming the space on which they stand, the inescapable impression is one of abandonment – of being out of sight, out of mind and out of history.
The stories of these men have largely been buried beneath the tangled threads of the last century. We know little about the lives they lived, the deeds they did or the people they loved. But one tale can be told – the sad story of how four strangers came to share a tiny, near-forgotten corner of a cemetery on the outskirts of Glasgow.
Thomas Nelson was born in Auchinleck and first joined the army aged 18, on the 15th of August 1895. He served with the Kings Own Scottish Borderers until 1903, during which time he was deployed to India. He remained a reserve until 1911, and then re-enlisted in the reserves in October 1914, but was discharged due to disability in November the following year. He died on the 28th of November, 1916.
James Weir – who served under the name John Clark – was also an experienced soldier, having spent nine years in India with the Black Watch prior to the First World War. During the conflict his battalion was involved in the battles of the Marne, Ypres, Loos and others, and Weir was twice wounded in the head in the course of the war. In total, he “served with the colours” for 14 years and 64 days and passed away on the 24th of March, 1918.
William Gallacher was born on the 15th of October 1878 in the east end of Glasgow, in the shadow of the then-abandoned Glasgow Barracks. He served with the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders and was a member of one of the battalions to take part in the famous Christmas Truce. He died on the 7th of May, 1918.
William Lemon was well into his thirties when he signed up to serve as a member of the Cameronians. During his time in the army saw action in France, but was discharged on medical grounds in September 1917 after three years of service, and died on the 5th of April 1920.
These men all joined the war under different circumstances, fought with different battalions and experienced different horrors, but in the end they were brought to the same place, just beyond the tree line a few hundred metres south of the cemetery grounds. The area is now covered in a gleaming development of self-consciously expensive new-build homes and luxury flats, but for more than a hundred years something quite different stood here.
Opened in October 1875, the Woodilee Hospital was initially known as the Barony Parochial Asylum. By the time of the First World War it housed more than 1200 desperate patients. Thomas, James, and both Williams were among them, but these four men didn’t just live in this institution – they also died there.
Medical records from the Woodilee Asylum – obtained through the NHS archives at Glasgow’s Mitchell Library – provide a harrowing glimpse into the four soldiers’ final months. Victims of General Paresis of the Insane (the end-stage of syphilis infection) and the weight of their war-time experiences, the end of their lives were marked by the bleakness of their physical and mental decline.
Thomas Nelson was married, with two sons and three daughters, when he was admitted on an “emergency” basis to the Woodilee Asylum on the 13th of March, 1916. His records describe him as “frequently restless & excited believing the Germans are here & and putting bombs under his bed” and that note that he had “no true appreciation of his position and circumstances,” suffering from “exaggerated notions of his position and wealth, thinking that he is King of Britain and that he is a millionaire.” He was also considered him to be dangerous.
William Gallacher was admitted to the Woodilee under a military certification on the 7th of November, 1916.His early records note that “he has marked suicidal tendencies, is restless and constantly getting out of bed. He is dull and depressed. He wets the bed.” It goes on: “He is dull and depressed and requires constant supervision owing to suicidal propensities. Complains of pains in the head and looks dejected. He made an attempt to strangle himself.” In the 18 months he spent as a patient just four brief entries were added to his treatment notes and by January 1918, four months before his death, his documents state that “he lies in bed and answers nothing that is said to him.”
James Weir’s admission paperwork reveals that he had “been at the front and has twice been wounded in the head” and that he suffered a “nervous breakdown while in active service.”He arrived at Woodilee Asylum on the 8th of June, 1916 where his condition – physical and mental – “steadily deteriorated.” He was paralysed, unable to get out of bed, and said “little beyond ‘yes’ and ‘no’.” On the 21st of March, 1918, a medical attendant noted: “Patient had laryngitis lately and now suffers from dysphagia. He does not suffer so much now but is much weaker than formerly.” He died three days later.
William Lemon, the last of the four to pass, was described as being “simple and stupid in appearance” on admission to the asylum on the 24th of April 1918. He suffered from “morbid delusions” while also believing himself to be the “Emperor of England.” The doctors also noted that his illness “began while in the Army, previously he was all right.” A few days before he died he fell out of bed in the night, sustaining an injury below his left eye, and was described as being “in a very helpless state” requiring “constant & vigilant supervision”. (No photograph of William Lemon was found in his records)
Over a two year period, all four died in similar circumstances and within metres of one another. Yet this alone does not explain the location and isolation of their memorials.
The truth is that these four men were connected not just by their service or the circumstances of their deaths; the final piece of this harrowing puzzle is the way in which they were buried.
The clue is on the headstones themselves, in the words literally carved in stone above each man’s name: “Buried in this cemetery”. Such a caveat is not uncommon in the battlefield cemeteries of France and Belgium, where it reflects the hellish chaos amidst which so many met their end. Here in Kirkintilloch, a thousand kilometres from what was the western front, it means the same thing: an unmarked grave.
Thomas Nelson, James Weir, William Gallacher and William Lemon were poor, and so were their families – Gallacher’s father, for example, was a resident of Barnhill Poorhouse at the time of his son’s admission to the Woodilee. With no money for a ‘proper’ burial, all four were laid in shared, unidentified graves somewhere beneath that tangled mass behind which their memorials are now obscured: in the now-abandoned, and entirely un-commemorated, common ground.
By 1922 – just two years after Lemon’s death – there was “no trace” of their burials in the cemetery registers. Just like so much of their lives, the exact location of their final resting place has been lost – probably forever.
Every year at this time we rightly remember those whose lives were cut short by the great lie of the Great War. We remember the soldiers lost in blood-soaked fields, swamp-like trenches or freezing seas. We pause and acknowledge the children who lied about their age, those executed for cowardice, and the vital role of women throughout the conflict.
We pin poppies to our lapels and promise that we will not forget their suffering or their sacrifice.
But what of those whose stories have been forgotten? The ones who do not easily fit within the national narratives of glorious sacrifice?
What of poor men like Thomas Nelson, James Weir, William Gallacher, William Lemon – and who knows how many more like them – who died horrifying, lonely deaths, not in foreign fields and trenches, but a few miles from Glasgow, and were not even afforded the respect of their own burial place?
At the going down of the sun and in the morning, will we remember them?