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Three Photographs and a plug of tobacco

November 11, 2018


They look out from  the faded picture with 100 year old stares. They look towards the camera but not at it. Really they are straining to see  the future.

My dad is just 18 and he has joined the Scottish Rifles, the Cameronians. He looks scared, not so much for himself, perhaps, as for his idolised big brother standing next to him.

Joe is a Sergeant, leading   a Lewis Gun Platoon, in D Company of the London Rifle Brigade. He joined up in the Post Office Rifles in 1915, when he was 18 and was  sent to France in June 1916, two weeks before the First Day on the Somme. He missed the slaughter of that bloodbath but was one of many to be transferred into the London Rifle Brigade after the battle, to replace their horrendous losses.

The picture was taken around Hogmanay 1917/18. Both are on home leave.

Less than three months later, on March 28th, Joe will be wounded and taken prisoner at Oppy near Arras. For weeks the family only know he is missing after an attack which decimated his battalion. Eventually, via the Red Cross, they discover he is in a PoW Camp at Friedrichsfeld am Wessel in Germany. He won’t return home until 1919, and, weakened by his wartime experiences, he succumbs to TB and dies in 1923, aged 26. At least his family had him back from the war for a time.

In March of this year, one hundred years to the day, I went to Oppy and stood on the spot where he was wounded and captured. In an exposed field just south of the village, with driving rain on my face and up to  my ankles in cloying mud, I tried, hopelessly, to capture some of his experience that Maundy Thursday in 1918. Of course, I failed, but, looking down, I saw a piece of wood: the charred remains of the handle off a stretcher. Strange how something so small and unremarkable could represent the horror of a century ago.

My dad, having suffered polio as a 12 year old, will be passed fit only for home service, perhaps a relief to his parents and siblings. He’ll be stationed in St Andrews and then transferred to the Royal Defence Corps, where, from Stobs Camp near Hawick, he escorts German PoWs on working parties to places such as Beecraigs Loch near Linlithgow, where, coincidentally, I have spent many happy times.

Perhaps mindful of his brother’s situation, whenever he is passing his home on escort duty, he takes his prisoners up the stairs of the family tenement, on Edinburgh’s Southside, where his mother gives them some Leitrim Irish hospitality, soup, and tea.

He will die in 1957 when I am only five, and so, what I know about his war experiences are from official records and family hearsay, rather than from his own lips.

I look at the picture, as I have done for years, and think about the two of them: my frightened 18 year old dad, and twenty year old Joe, looking at least twice as old,  after eighteen months on the front line.

Here’s another photograph, another studio portrait.


A young woman sits with three young children on her knee, beside her widowed mother who’s in black. Behind them stands a young man.

The young man is my grandfather, Tom Duckett. In this August 1914 picture he is still a post office supervisor in Liverpool, in two years time he will be Gunner Duckett of the Royal Garrison Artillery. The two women are his mother and his sister.

The member of the household missing is the children’s father, Jim Donovan, husband of  Gertie in the front row. A Liverpool City policeman, he has already joined the RGA and is on training. The note on the back of the card reads: “Dear Dada, We have come all this way to wish you luck and to show you how well we all are…”

Here is another picture – from the early 1920s. The two women and the children feature again, the children are older, and there is an addition to the family. All are in black.


Jim carried the first picture with him on active service. He won a Military Medal for bravery, and was killed in action in October 1918. This Spring, I visited his grave at Tincourt near Peronne. He is buried with an Australian soldier from near Townsville, New South Wales – a reminder of the random nature of war.

Of course I am remembering Joe and great Uncle Jim as the centenary of the Armistice approaches. They are never far away from my thoughts, these men I never knew. But I am suddenly reminded of the gravedigger at Arlington Cemetery in Washington DC – Clifton Pollard.

After the death of John F Kennedy in 1963, reporter Jimmy Breslin – to become the outstanding journalist of his generation – was tasked by the New York Herald Tribune to find an original  angle on the assassination. He chose to write about  the man who would dig JFK’s grave, and thus inspired a thousand journalists to “look for the gravedigger angle.”

And, as we are surrounded by poppy displays and memories of those who perished in the War, I begin to wonder if there is another angle on remembering the tragedy of warfare.

Looking at those photographs, I wonder about the men who took them.

Back in the early twentieth century, photography was largely in the hands of professionals, a recording of an event, rather than the social media diary of minutiae we know today. People talked of “having a photo taken”.

They went in their thousands to have pictures taken like these.

And I consider the photographers.

In wartime, they would largely have been men too old to serve – but of an age to have sons. Their assistants would likely have been  too  young to serve but with the prospect of fighting still to come.

How did they cope with this procession of young men, proudly posed in army uniform, knowing this might well be the picture that defined them for generations to come, frozen for ever in a formal likeness that was more a resemblance than a true image?

Did they think of those in their  own families in uniform, or about  all the young men they had photographed who never came back, or the family portraits sent to the front to be destroyed in mud and blood?

Was there emotional comfort in that they were providing some connection between loved ones separated by war, a tangible token of love and affection? Did it help, as the years went by to realise that, for hundreds of thousands, the picture they had taken – positioned on a press or sideboard, or taken from a drawer each November, was the only knowledge future generations would have of a great grandad, an uncle, a father?

But at the time, as young men filed in dutifully to have their portrait captured, the knowledge that for many it would be their last picture must have weighed heavily on those photographers. If a picture does indeed paint a thousand words, they must have felt like they were inscribing premature obituaries.

And then I think of my grandfather. Like many immigrants, he worked long hours as a grocer – a “Provisions Merchant”  – in his shop on Buccleuch St in Edinburgh’s Southside, selling all sorts to local folk, including diary produce sent from “home” – Drumkeerin, in Co Leitrim.

Buccleuch St, running from near the University’s Bristo area to the edge of the Meadows, is no more than 300 yards long and today is still lined mostly by late 19th century typical Edinburgh tenements.

In four years, those tenements lost 29 men to the Great War. You might want to think of that as a man – a father, son, husband or brother – every ten yards. Of course, it was not as measured as that.

The McPartlins lived at 120 Buccleuch St when Joe went to war. From that stair, three died, including the Campbell brothers. At the end of the war, the family stayed at 33 Buccleuch St – a stair that lost three men, including the Douglases – father and son. Opposite them, at number 20, six men never returned, again including brothers.

In the close knit community of a tenement stair, the weeping must have been heard from roof to cellar.

Grief and bereavement must have flickered in those tenement stairwells like the light from the old gas mantles – coming and going, but always there.

How the tolling of the street door bell must have sounded through the landings above as each person in the building wondered whose  bell it was that  the telegram boy had pulled to bring them the news.

And how did grandfather cope? His own son at war, missing, or captured? How did he – how could he – greet the mothers, fathers, children and parents of those who would never again come in to the shop? Lads who had grown with his lads, played football with them on the Meadows, neighbours who were part of his every day life. Each familiar face a portrait of loss or worry or acceptance.

To those home on leave in uniform, what comfort could he offer? How could he resist asking about the Front? But how could he bear to do so?

Was the best he could offer to a soldier on embarkation leave a plug of tobacco “No charge”? Or a box of provisions to take back to the platoon: “You can pay me when you come home”. The awkward silence, formed after that pious hope, broken only by army boots on the wooden floor and, as the door is opened, the tinkle of the shop bell, like the harness rattling on the horses towing the gun carriages.

When teaching war poetry, I endeavoured to encourage my pupils to try and imagine the reality of warfare. I passed round handfuls of shrapnel balls brought back from Flanders, tried to describe the trenches – the horrors that went beyond being hit by a shell or bullet. But I found the most effective approach was to point to the empty desks in the classroom and wonder how many would have been filled by the descendants of men who did not live long enough to become fathers.

The idea dawned  that the Armistice may have ended the War for the soldiers in the field, but for millions of others it was just the beginning of a long life shadowed by loved ones remembered and missed, the memories of the young men photographed, the men served in the shop, the familiar sound of the lad from 120/3 running down the common stair.

When I was young I saw men on crutches and with eye patches and missing limbs, or selling matches in the street. There were old women who always dressed in black. I thought this was just what happened to the old, I made no connection to the Great War which seemed to me to be ancient history. I had no concept of the extent to which it still spread its influence over the world in which I lived.

The truth is that a life lost in war is always and forever a life lost, a change in the direction of family, street, or neighbourhood, part of a wholescale slaughtering of potential.

My dad and two of his surviving brothers all died before I was eight years old, but I do have happy memories of the three of them gathered at our house, making me laugh, showing me their love.

It should have been four.









2 Comments leave one →
  1. Diane Laird permalink
    November 11, 2018 3:29 pm

    Moving piece Mr McP and beautiful photographs.
    As someone who struggles to find ways to pay my respects to those who died in the conflicts of war, spending time today reflecting on the aftermath for those who lost loved ones seems appropriate.

    • November 11, 2018 3:45 pm

      Thanks D. Appreciated. nothing about the War or its motivations is simple. We just have to recall the humanity.

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