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A Day of Remembering

Time’s a slippery thing. In many ways, it seems incredible to me that World War One ended as much as 100 years ago; perhaps that’s because, as a child, I knew a grandfather who had fought through it.

Charles Leslie Anderson’s story was well told by my father, his son in law, in A Huntly Loon Goes to War (Loon meaning lad in Aberdeenshire dialect, in case you wondered). I have a dozen copies of the booklet left, and I’ll gladly sell it at a post free price to anyone with whom this story strikes a chord.

Charles’s tale is possibly typical of some, at least, of his generation: born out of wedlock in rural poverty, outside the small Aberdeenshire town of Huntly, using education to make something of himself as a young man (he was a 25-year old butcher when war broke out) and then the four years in the trenches, seeing all the horrors that are being remembered today, and surviving wounds that – but for the grace of a young doctor and his wife’s instincts – could have left him a double amputee.

His post-war journey to being a hard-working man of property, running two shops at once in the town at one point, and even becoming a bailie (councillor) again is reflective of a collective will after the so-called ‘Great War’ to give the surviving soldiers a chance to rebuild their lives.

One of my favourite stories in the book is that, impressed with Charles’s character, his superiors wanted to give him an officer’s commission (at one point he was acting as a sergeant). This was quite something, given his humble origins, and the class-ridden nature of the Army then. Charles turned the commission down. His reasons were entirely practical: the lieutenants were the ones given a handgun and a whistle and expected to go over the top first. There’s heroism, and then there’s just plain daft!

Charles suffered horribly during the war, including from the effects of chlorine gas. This wasn’t anything I understood as a child, when the only eccentricity of this mild-mannered man was a complete inability to put up an old-fashioned deckchair, the inevitable result of which was for him to throw the thing down in disgust, much to the rest of the family’s amusement. What I heard later was that his wartime experiences gave him nightmares for decades afterwards, and his other eccentricity – going out to bang nails into the wall of the shed when some domestic matter raised his temper – would probably nowadays be classed as a symptom of PTSD.

A piece in the Times this week brought back another family memory: writing about another, even more remote part of Aberdeenshire called the Cabrach. It told how the area became a virtual wasteland after WW1 as most of its menfolk were lost in the conflict, and the remaining women and children were forced to seek work of some sort in the Scottish towns and cities. (According to my sister, my Dad’s research indicated this drift away started in the previous century).

Interestingly, the article related how many of the men from country regions like the Cabrach died, not in action, but from diseases which they hadn’t encountered but which their town and city counterparts had some immunity to.

The other point of interest for me in the article was the mention of one William Taylor, because my Dad’s researches had also uncovered family links to the Taylors of the Cabrach, who had gone off to fight in many 19th century wars for King and Country long before 1914.

Maybe it’s just that Scotland’s an old, old, country, and a small one, that I feel such a connection with the previous generations. Much of it, I suppose, is down to that childhood connection with my grandpa, who took a keen interest in teaching his younger grandson about such things as cricket and gardening (particularly the pernicious nature of weeds).

Whatever our connection with that generation, and however distant it might now seem, we do well to remember them today, and the senselessness of the suffering they went through on all sides.

Charles Leslie Anderson in full battledress. Above: in the dress uniform of the 6th Gordon Highlanders.



1914 – 18 A Huntly Loon Goes to War, by Keith Ferguson

My Dad’s writing career produced many published works, including a three part history of Glenrothes, a brilliant – and still useful – textbook on local government law in Scotland, and a contribution to the Stair memorial Encyclopedia on Scots Law, the magisterial tome that all Scots lawyers start their research at.

His final book was a very personal one. Following Mum’s passing in 2011, he was determined to use his extensive family history research tell the story of her father, Charles Leslie Anderson, my grandfather, who had fought through the First World War. Unfortunately Dad died before the book could be published, but my sister had worked with a friendly book designer and a publisher to get a proof copy organised for Dad to see while he was in hospital, and 200 copies have now been printed.

Although my Grandpa Anderson ended his days in Glenrothes, where I knew him as a kindly, wise old man, much loved by my brother, sister and me, he spent most of his life in Huntly, Aberdeenshire (for the uninitiated, ‘loon’ is Doric for ‘lad’). Dad was mindful, as all writers are, of a potential market, and had always intended that the book come out this year on the centenary of the outbreak of the so-called Great War.

Book launches are planned for Huntly and Glenrothes – more details soon.

Here’s the spiel:

1914 – 18 A Huntly Loon Goes to War, by Keith Ferguson

Keith Ferguson’s final book is a personal history of the First World War seen through the eyes of his father-in-law, Charles Leslie Anderson. An ordinary soldier who fought right through all four years of the War, ‘the kindest, most modest and uncomplaining of men,’ he endured all the horrors of trench warfare, including being wounded and gassed.
Ferguson relates the main campaigns Charles and his comrades in the Gordon Highlanders fought through, and how the local media of the time reported such terrible bloodlettings as the Battle of Loos. The Huntly Express, reporting a letter from a local man who was an officer: ‘It was a great sight to see the lads charging. No regular… could have been cooler, and they had 470 yards to go, too, which is some distance. They were magnificent. We had six casualties amongst our officers in the first three quarters of an hour…’
Ferguson intersperses the account of the battles with personal notes from Charles and others. You learn how to de-louse a kilt, and why he (and many others) always had a soft spot for the ordinary German soldiers. The book also tells us the personal story of a man who, from the most deprived of rural backgrounds, rose to be a respected bailie of the burgh, a shopkeeper, father and grandfather who carried German bullets in his legs for the rest of his life but rarely – and only then modestly – spoke of his part in World War One.
The book is 44 pages, with black and white photos from the author’s own collection, and colour illustrations. Price £4.95 inclusive of UK p & p; contact for orders: andrewcferguson [at]blueyonder[dot]co[dot]uk


Charles Leslie Anderson in full dress uniform at Bedford barracks, late 1914, just before embarking for France.