Why do I write about the Great War?

Music * Politics * History

2nd Lt. Ewen MacDonald MacCormick, MC

It began with a small, pencil-written diary my father found in a box belonging to my grandfather, Ewen MacDonald MacCormick.

I only knew my grandfather as a quiet, benign presence who would sit in a large armchair and observe the rest of the family at play in his house in Streatham. That family was: my grandmother, Florence Beatrice Penny, but known only as Hannah; my parents, Ewen and Olwen, and my older brother Ian; and my uncles Bill and John and aunt, Sheila. There was a lot of laughter in that house.

I vaguely knew my grandad had been involved in something important. He couldn’t use his right arm for some reason. On the wall was a dramatic engraving of some kilted soldiers standing fast against shot and shell in front of a windmill. And in a drawer in the front room was a small maroon case. There was a golden crown on the front and, inside, was a small silver cross with a faded white and purple ribbon. But, what all these things meant, he never once said and I did not ask.

My grandfather died suddenly from a massive heart attack on 5th June 1961. He was 69.

Nearly 30 years later, my father found his father’s Great War diary. You were not supposed to keep diaries in the front line. He did, and it recorded his arrival in France in August 1915 as a Private in the 1/20th (Blackheath and Woolwich) Battalion, London Regiment, Territorial Force. On 15th September 1915 he fought in his first battle: the Battle of Loos. Part of the follow up wave, he was crossing No Man’s Land when he ran into a relative of his future wife. So, they stopped and had a chat. As you do in the middle of what was then the biggest British offensive of the war.

The rest of the diary is filled accounts of taking pot shots at low-flying aircraft (he was a county champion rifle shot in his days at Rochester Mathematical School), going for long walks with his mates in the French countryside behind the lines, thinking about, and eating, food parcels from home, and being promoted sergeant.

At the end of October 1915 came news that his father, Chief Engine Room Artificer 1st Class William MacCormick, had been killed in a boiler room accident on the elderly disarmed pre-Dreadnought battleship HMS Hannibal on 29th October at Mudros in the Aegean. Grandad was given compassionate leave to console his mother, Mary, but he found time to pop up to London to meet his fiancée Florence and take in a couple of shows. Then it was back to the day job.

In December 1915 he applied for a commission and, having been interviewed by the Divisional Major General, he was deemed suitable. He was put forward for a commission into the 3/5th Leicestershire Regiment but, instead, accepted one in the Blackheath and Woolwich. This was delayed when, in May 1916, he narrowly avoided being blown up in a surprise German attack on Vimy Ridge. But, before he rejoined his unit as a 2nd Lieutenant, another event took place: the first day of the Battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916.

On that day, two Territorial Divisions (the Territorial Force was set up in 1908 and, pre-war, was made up of volunteers who undertook to attend a variety of training sessions during the year), attacked a small village called Gommecourt in what was a diversion to the main attack.

In the 56th (1st London) Division was 19-year-old 4540 Private Charles Robert Peck Tompson. He was born on 15th July 1896 and lived at 25, Salisbury Road, Watford. Had he lived, he would have been my mother’s uncle. He did not.

Going over the top with the 1/9th London Regiment (Queen Victoria’s Rifles) at 7.30 a.m. on 1st July 1916, he was killed at some point during that bright, sunny morning. His body was never found, and his name can be found amongst the 72,331 officers and men listed on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing. His name is high up on Pier and Face 9C.

Most of the battalions of the 56th Division lost heavily that day and numerous ‘vacancies’ were created for fresh young officers. My grandad was sent to the 1/4th London Regiment and, with five other new subalterns, joined the battalion in France on 7th August. On 5th September they returned to the Somme near two woods: Bouleaux and Leuze, known locally to the Tommies as Bollocks and Lousy Woods.

On 9th September the battalion attacked near Lousy Wood. It was a typical shambles: a pre-emptive German bombardment, troops losing their way, and heavy casualties. My grandad found himself in a trench 150 yards ahead of the actual objective. Finding they were unsupported, he went back across No Man’s Land to get new orders. The orders were to withdraw. Back across a shell and machine gun swept No Man’s Land he went to collect his men – and bring them back over a No Man’s Land he had now crossed four times in the day.

The little silver cross in the maroon case in the draw in the house in Streatham was the result. He was awarded the Military Cross, then, after the Victoria Cross, the second highest award for gallantry in the British Army. The citation reads: ‘He rallied his company with great courage and determination, then went forward and reconnoitred the position, establishing machine guns in advance of the line under very heavy fire’.

In the carnage of the Somme his charmed life could not last. And it didn’t.

On the 25th September 1916, the 1/4th Londons attacked to clear the north end of Bollocks Wood. Though successful, several men were killed or wounded, 2nd Lt Ewen MacCormick was one of the latter. He was not expected to survive.

His family were informed by telegram:

Post Office Telegraph dated 29th Sept 1916
“To: MacCormick, 27 Rock Ave., Gillingham , Kent
06598 Regret to inform you Second Lieut E M MacCormick 4th Londons wounded 25th. No further particulars.
Territorial Record Office London”

Post Office Telegraph dated 3th Oct 1916
“To: MacCormick, 27 Rock Ave., Gillingham, Kent
06703 Second Lieut E M MacCormick admitted 1, Red Cross Hospital Le Touquet October 3rd gunshot wound right arm, fractured humerus and chest, severe. Regret permission to visit cannot be granted.”

Eight days later my grandfather was able to scribble a reassuring letter home to his fiancée:

“My dear Florence,
Glad to hear from you and thank you in anticipation of the fruit you are so kindly sending me. I got your letter and one from Hylda on the same day so count myself lucky.
My right arm is smashed pretty badly above the elbow. I think I must have been hit by two or three machine gun bullets. Before the attack we were cinematographed so look for a dashing young officer next time you see the Somme films. We were greatly amused at the whole proceedings. Have you seen the tanks yet?
All the sisters are awfully good to us and we have quite a good time during the day but the night time is rotten as my arm always starts straffing between 12 and 2. My arm is in a huge iron splint and if the other was the same I’d look like a crucifix. Still I’ll be in England soon and I won’t leave it again in a hurry.
Cheery-bye and please write again.
Mac”
(This letter was written left-handed of course)

My grandfather returned to England and was treated at various hospitals: Devonshire Street, London; Osborne, Isle of Wight; Cambridge Hospital, Aldershot; and Oakbrook Hospital, Sheffield. His right arm never properly recovered.

By early 1917 he was at Osborne on the Isle of Wight where, with the rank of temporary Major, he was made commandant of the hospital. On the 18th March he received another telegram:

“To: 2nd Lt Ewen MacCormick 4th London Regt. Osborne IoW
Your attendance is required at Buckingham Palace on Wednesday next the Twenty First at ten o’clock am, service dress. Regret that no one except those to be invested can be admitted to the Palace. Please telegraph acknowledgement.
Lord Chamberlain London.”

On the 21st March 1917 he was awarded his MC by the King.

During his time at Osborne he rubbed shoulders with two of England’s literary greats: A A Milne and Robert Graves. In ‘Goodbye to all That’ Robert Graves recalls that he helped form the ‘Royal Albert Society’ “its pretended aim being to revive interest in the life and times of the Prince Consort”. Membership was restricted to those who “professed themselves students of the life and work of the Prince Consort; who had been born in the province of Alberta in Canada; etc., etc., or those who were linked with the Prince Consort’s memory in any way.” The society had fifteen members and ate strawberries by the punnet. Later “one claimed to be the grandson of the man who had built the Albert Memorial”. This was not strictly true, but a quarry on the remote island of Iona off the Argyllshire coast, had supplied the granite base of the memorial and this quarry was owned by my great-great grandfather.

Grandad was officially discharged from the Army in the summer of 1919, assessed as 50% disabled. He returned to Scotland with his new wife Florence to become the teacher on Iona where his father had been born in 1868. There, in 1921 my father was born. The family then returned to south London and my grandfather went on to become a Deputy Head at a school in South London.

2nd Lt Ewen MacDonald MacCormick was a jovial, kindly man who died when I was ten. I wish I could have known him better. I am grateful for his life and for those of his friends who didn’t make it back. It was he, and my unknown great uncle Charles Tompson, who inspired me to write about the Great War.