Tuesday, 31 January 2006


Lewis War Memorial. A crowd has gathered for the 2005 Remembrance Sunday

So another two British soldiers have lain down their lives in the service of Queen and country in Iraq. You may well think "What on earth does that have anything to do with a Scottish island??" I'll explain.

In the First World War, 1,000 men from the Isle of Lewis alone perished. From a population of about 25,000, six thousand joined up for the armed forces. That's about HALF of all menfolk. Of those, 1 out of every 6 never came home again. 200 drowned within sight of home at the sinking of HMY Iolaire, on the Beasts of Holm, 2 miles south of Stornoway.

The First World War was a politicians' war, a conflict that had been brewing for a long time before the fuse was lit in Sarajevo, in 1914, when an Austro-Hungarian archduke was shot and killed in the street. A long litany of alliances between various European states then rolled into action, with war being declared in August 1914. I am convinced (personal opinion) that the man in the street at the time wasn't that fussed with a nobleman being assassinated in the street of some Balkan town. There had just been a bloody conflict there, again, only a year or so before. The story of the Christmas truce has surfaced increasingly frequently in recent years. It was touch and go whether the war would have fizzled out at that point. It was very, very near. But it didn't, and after a year of atrocities there was no truce at Christmas 1915.

Scotland generally and the islands in particular have always loyally provided cannon fodder for the forces. The economic situation in the islands was so dire that the honour, glory and payment associated with the colours was a powerful lure. Others joined the merchant navy, which suffered harshly under the U-boat campaign in the Atlantic. Naval reservists were called up and were transformed into foot soldiers under Winston Churchill, a pretty bad decision by all accounts. They were sent to defend Antwerp against the Germans, to no avail. I've described in a previous post that 100 Lewismen ended up in a Dutch internment camp for the rest of the war.

In 1914-18, people did not openly question the politicians' decisions about going to war. These days, we do.

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