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Civil Service at War – the boys who didn’t come back

November 9, 2012

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Government publications are more likely move you to sleep rather than to tears.

But not Neil MacLennan’s excellent monograph which you can read here. It tells the stories of the 79 civil servants who appear on the First World War memorials at St Andrew’s House in Edinburgh.

In 1914 they were based in various Scottish Office departments in London and Edinburgh.  All men and most scarcely out of their teens, having just passed their civil service entrance exams or finished university.  And with everything to live for.

One thing they didn’t tend to mention with all the excitement at the recruiting booths was the reasonable prospect of horrible death. More sensible women like those in the Scottish Women’s Hospital Units knew the reality that lay ahead. Despite being rejected by the War Office, they’d managed to establish a field hospital at Royaumont by the end of 1914.

Going off to war was billed as a great adventure. If you weren’t convinced by “doing your bit” for King and country or  giving the Hun a bloody nose, then you could join up with you’re your pals and impress the girls with a dandy uniform….and still be home for Christmas.

But no mention of being blown to smithereens, cut in half by machine guns, or your lungs wrecked by gas, loss of an eye, leg or your whole mind.

By day Neil is also a  civil servant. But he’s devoted his spare time over the last four years to meticulously researching  the stories behind the names – their families, their work, and their service.

If you’ve been on one of the Doors Open Days tours of St Andrew’s House, you’ll recognise him as the big fella at the back who knows a lot a stuff.  He also unearthed the entertaining stories of  folk who’d worked at St Andrew’s House for the 70thanniversary of the building.

Sir Winston Churchill with the Royal Scots Fus...

Sir Winston Churchill with the Royal Scots Fusiliers near the Western Front in 1916 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Neil’s painstaking work makes real the lives of the lads who joined up with the London Regiment (Artists’ Rifles), Civil Service Rifles,  Lancashire Fusiliers, Yorkshire, South Wales as well as  Scottish regiments, and McCrae’s battalion of  the Royal Scots which included many Heart of Midlothian footballers.

There are also glimpses of Bangour and other hospitals to treat the boys who came home broken in body or in mind. All of this links to the present – for me anyway. Bangour was where my granny (kitchen maid) and grandpa (ambulance driver) first met – grandpa making the Jocks some money through backing him in professional races, or so the family story goes.

The aftermath of the Armistice was grim and lasting. There was  fierce debate among Oxford colleges about whether the names of Rhodes scholars from Germany should go on memorials.

Dr William Spooner, who the inspired “Spoonerisms” linguistic lapses was emphatic that they should – and so they did at New College where he was warden. German students were just the same as British students – both sent like lambs to the slaughter.

And in Germany Robert Bosch, head of the automotive electrical firm, remained pledged to reconciliation  even by 1935 when he organised a meeting French and German World War One veterans in Stuttgart  to promote peace and understanding.

Neil has made extensive use of the online resources where you can now piece together what happened to individual soldiers.  These are just 79 stories out of several million.  But it is good that they can now be told.  It is a deeply poignant and fitting memoir – almost a century overdue.

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