The Abandoned War Graves: Will We Remember Them?

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.

The four hidden headstones

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. 20170413_143349His 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.

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William Gallacher was admitted to the Woodilee under a military certification on the 7th of November, 1916.20170413_144311.jpgHis 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.”

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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.”20170413_144947.jpgHe 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.

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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)

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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?

This piece was first published by The Herald on 11 Nov, 2017. It was originally printed in two parts – I have edited them into a single article and incorporated many more images than was possible at the time. Since the original piece was published some work has been carried out at the cemetery to tidy the old ‘common ground’ – though it is still without any formal memorial.

A photo means more than all the words we can write

First published Sept 24, 2015 by Commonspace –

ON the 4th of May 2014 my son – Ciaran Harris McEnaney – was born in Glasgow’s Southern General Hospital.

The latter stages of my wife’s pregnancy had been difficult, as was the birth itself, but he was finally here. When I held him for the first time – hands shaking, chest tightening – I remember feeling that the world had gotten just a little bit better in the instant of his arrival.

That initial elation didn’t last. Ciaran was obviously jaundiced and it soon became clear that he was struggling to maintain his body temperature; eventually, he was taken to intensive care.

I will never, for the rest of my life, forget how it felt to sit in that room, the index finger of my right hand pressed into his tiny palm, eyes fixed on his yellow-tinged body, literally begging – first aloud and then, when the words just wouldn’t come, silently – for him to stay warm, pull through and come home.

He did, but in those moments – when single seconds seemed to stretch out into eternity – I think I would have done anything to save him.

Ciaran is now 16 months old and is a happy, healthy child growing up in one of the most affluent areas of an incredibly rich and stable country, but the fear I felt in those early days has stayed with me ever since.

When I returned home from work today he was in the garden. He now recognises the sound of my motorbike and ran up to the gate as I approached. He stood there, smiling and waving until I pulled off my helmet and reciprocated.

This usually happens immediately, but not today – today, after all that I had seen, I had to take an extra few moments to compose myself.

Ciaran is upstairs now, asleep and mercifully unaware, the sound of his breathing drifting out from the baby monitor. I am sitting with my laptop on my knee, trying desperately – and futilely – to displace from my mind the image which has tormented me all day: the body of a little boy washed up on a European beach.

Alan Kurdi was a little older than my child, his clothes a little bigger, his skin and hair a little darker, but in every way that really matters this boy was no different from the son who means the world to me.

Every time I see that photograph of Alan I cannot help but think of Ciaran, and every time it makes me cry.

In my teaching I spend a lot of time impressing upon students the importance of thinking about their intended purpose and audience – why are you writing, and who are you writing for?

Right now I don’t have an answer for either question. I don’t know who this is for or what it’s supposed to achieve, only that these words demanded to be written.

I do know that in London right now David Cameron has finally been forced – forced – to accept that Britain must offer a safe haven to more of the refugees so desperate to reach Europe that they are willing to risk everything.

I know that discussions will be taking place where the political concerns of our government are weighed against the value of thousands upon thousands of human lives.

I also know that two-and-a-half thousand miles away Abdullah Kurdi is forced to confront something which I can barely comprehend: the loss of his wife and children.

Alan’s photograph may well be the catalyst which changes Europe’s attitude to the refugees screaming on our doorstep, but how can that possibly even begin to compensate a father whose family – whose world – is gone?

Even now I cannot find the words to properly express the way in which Abdullah Kurdi’s experiences make me feel, but I keep thinking about Ciaran, safe and secure a few metres above me.

I ask myself what I would be willing to do to keep him safe, where we would go if Scotland descended into the sort of hell engulfing countries like Syria.

I find myself trying to imagine how it would feel to take my infant son out onto a dangerous sea – one which has already claimed thousands of lives – simply because the land from which we have come is more dangerous than the journey across the water.

I struggle to understand how a continent whose collective identity was forged in the fire of almost unfathomable suffering could have failed so many for so long; how any human heart can be so hardened by hatred that it becomes possible to be indifferent to the suffering of millions; and how a prime minister can claim to have ‘done enough’ for refugees and then bear to look at his own reflection.

But there is something I absolutely can understand, and that is the words of Abdullah Kurdi, whose dreams of a better life in Europe have been ripped apart: “I just want to see my children for the last time and stay forever with them.”

Picture courtesy of Mustafa Khayat

The guilty silence which leaves blood on all of our hands

First published 18 June, 2015 by CommonSpace –

ON Monday Amnesty International offered its contribution to Refugee Week by publishing a scathing report entitled ‘The Global Refugee Crisis: a conspiracy of neglect’.

The entire document (click here to read it) is a searing indictment of the response to the “growing refugee crisis”, with 35 pages laying bare the abject failure of the so-called international community.

The report outlines, in devastating detail, the scale of suffering being experienced by human beings across the world, but perhaps the most shocking point is made in the opening lines of the executive summary: the number of people ‘forcibly displaced from their homes’ has, for the first time since the Second World War, risen to more than 50 million people.

Fifty. Million. People.

To put that figure into some sort of context it is higher than the populations of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania combined.

There are more refugees in the world than there are people living in Spain, Argentina or Canada. Of the nearly 200 countries on earth only 26 have more residents than the number of people that Amnesty International argues have ‘been abandoned to an unbearable existence’.

Across Africa, the Middle East and south-east Asia millions of men, women and children endure daily suffering which, to us, is utterly unimaginable.

In the Andaman Sea Rohingya Muslims make a desperate attempt to escape persecution in Burma. Their journey, which includes prison camps, forced marches, beatings and weeks crammed into boats with minimal supplies was briefly highlighted several weeks ago; in truth, the Rohingya’s plight has been common knowledge for many years.

In the Middle East half of Syria’s population is currently to be found in refugee camps, having fled first the forces of President Assad and now the death, torture and sexual slavery meted out by Islamic State militants.

Last year the United Nations High Commission for Refugees assisted half a million internally displaced persons in Iraq, while the United Nations Relief and Works Agency recognises the rights of around five million Palestinian refugees – denied the right to return to Palestine by the West’s main ally in the region – to access its services.

In sub-Saharan Africa the Dadaab refugee camp is currently home to 350,000 people (more than the total population of North Lanarkshire), with around 3.4 million refugees in the region as a whole.

Conflicts in Somalia, South Sudan and the Central African Republic have ensured the continuation of what may be the longest-standing refugee crisis in the world.

Meanwhile, on the continent’s Mediterranean shores, human traffickers exploit thousands upon thousands of people so desperate that they are willing to undertake a voyage which they know will possibly be their last.

So far this year almost two thousand have drowned trying to reach Europe and, despite the eventual reintroduction of the ‘search and rescue’ campaign which includes the HMS Bulwark (at least for now), it should never be forgotten that innocent human beings were initially to be abandoned because Europe’s political leaders calculated that they were of more value dead than alive.

In a world with 24-hour news services and ever-expanding social-media platforms it is a wonder that any of us sleep at night.

And yet sleep we do.

Of course we are affected – to varying degrees – by the snapshots of agony which appear on our television screens: we mumble that our leaders should be ashamed of themselves as we eat dinner; our ‘eyeballs prick with tears between bath and pre-lunch beers’; we might even donate a few pounds a month to Oxfam or hand over an annual tenner to Children in Need.

But still we sleep – soundly, every night, safe in the knowledge that our birth certificates are also winning lottery tickets.

But we know all of this. We know about the terrible events happening in the world. We have seen the photographs and the videos; we have watched the news reports; we have read the adverts for UNICEF and MSF appeals. How, then, are we able to detach ourselves so completely from the unspeakable suffering of fellow human beings?

On the one hand such detachment is absolutely necessary – we simply could not function if we were to be emotionally affected by every single unnecessary death, and it is entirely reasonable that the loss of someone close to us has a far greater impact than the end of a stranger’s life – but this does not even come close to telling the whole story.

In reality, when terrible crises occur beyond the boundaries of ‘Fortress Europe’ our responses are all too often driven not by a sense of shared humanity, or a belief that we all belong to the ‘same human family’; instead, we separate ourselves from the suffering on the basis that it is not our problem. Worse still, we are able to do this because those suffering simply do not look like us.

This phenomenon is perhaps most easily understood through the overlapping prisms of the Rwandan Genocide – where up to a million people were hacked to death in full view of the international community – and the Bosnian Civil War.

As Stephen R Haynes points out in ‘Death was everywhere, even in front of the Church’, Rwanda and Bosnia were “different stories” because in the latter, despite “the difficult-to-pronounce names and the unfamiliar traditions, we were able to identify victims who ‘look like us’.”

David Livingstone Smith goes still further in his book ‘The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War’ when he argues, correctly, that “we feel that people who resemble us are more valuable than those who do not”.

Consider this: if the sort of outrages to which we have become shockingly accustomed were affecting Europeans or North Americans would our response – both individual and collective – be different?

If the faces staring at us from our smartphone screens and newspaper pages were white would we care enough to act? If we could see ourselves in those 50 million refugees would we, as a nation, still largely turn our backs on them?

In the extraordinarily powerful ‘Spiritual Damage’ – a short reflective essay exploring the impact of reporting on the Rwandan Genocide – Fergal Keane makes clear why this apathy is so dangerous when he argues that “if we ignore evil we become the authors of a guilty silence”.

When faced with terrible injustices inaction becomes complicity and, by that measure, we all bear responsibility for the suffering of refugees around the world.

We are citizens of a country which has provided refuge for just 187 people fleeing a living hell in Syria, which refuses to accept a Europe-wide approach to helping those “in clear need of international protection” (click here to read more), and which, just last week, deported a Pakistani asylum-seeker who is now feared dead.

The UK – as one of the world’s wealthiest nations – should be leading the way in developing the ‘global response’ to the refugee crisis called for by Amnesty International.

Their recommendations, such as the establishment of a global refugee fund, fulfillment of resettlement needs as identified by UNHCR and, most importantly, “an absolute commitment to saving lives” should underpin the foreign policy of any compassionate nation. The UK should be throwing its full weight behind these demands, but it won’t.

Instead, politicians subtly, but persistently, encourage the electorate to blame the ongoing economic crisis on groups of poor and powerless human beings including – though not limited to – asylum seekers and refugees; newspapers boost their circulation figures with articles invoking the dehumanising language of genocide; and, according to a recent YouGov poll, nearly half of Britons believe that our country should not be “a place of refuge for people who have fled from conflict and persecution overseas”. (Click here to read more).

We could and should do so much more, but the truth is that, as a nation, we simply sit back and look on, happy to benefit from the consequences of a globalised world (we have the world’s sixth-largest economy and are also one of the top international arms dealers) but unwilling to share our privilege with those left with nothing but the hope of a better life.

The challenge for all of us lies in facing up to our collective complicity in this ongoing act of evil, particularly when our lifestyles so often directly depend upon the inequalities and conflicts which are driving so much of the horror experienced on a daily basis by innocent men, women and children across the globe.

Our ‘guilty silence’ is written by our refusal to acknowledge that the very structures of our specific society and broader world order put politics and profits before people.

Despite our occasional protestations, the actions of our government – carried out in our name, for our benefit, and ultimately with our consent – coupled with our understandable yet inexcusable apathy leaves blood on all of our hands.