I had known it would be an evocative and moving trip, but I had expected to be moved in the abstract as it were, by visiting the cemeteries and seeing where the battles of the Somme were fought. It turned into something overwhelmingly personal and direct. On the way south we stopped off at the Menin Gate in Ypres. I couldn’t find the Gordon Highlanders panel – it’s a massive monument, but I know I can check the names online. However, on our first full day we visited the monument to the missing at Thiepval, and there in the register were two Will names, one definitely from the Buchan area. I photographed his inscription and laid a cross in memory. Then in the visitor centre I checked the database and found another 10 Will names from the Gordon Highlanders, 9 of whom were definitely from Buchan. A couple of days later we visited the cemeteries at Beaumont-Hamel, and there was a Mutch, another family name. On our last full day we visited the Sheffield Memorial and cemeteries, and stopped to lay a wreath at the huge Serres Road No 2 cemetery. I was stunned to find another two Will names from different regiments – one a Buchan man who had moved to Canada, and subsequently enlisted in a Canadian Infantry Battalion, the other from the London Scottish regiment.
So that’s 15 possible family members I hadn’t known existed, and who lost their lives in the War. It’ll be interesting to find their connections with my direct line, or if they’re on collateral lines. And in the interests of balance, when we visited the German war grave at Fricourt I found two inscriptions with the same surname as my daughter-in-law’s family. I’ve got more work to do on the Will names, I’ve barely started on Mutch, and I haven’t looked at all at MacRae and Stocks – my mother’s side of the family. I suspect the MacRae’s will be from the Black Watch, as they were from Fife, but I don’t know about the Stocks side, apart from the fact that they were originally from Kirriemuir. My grandfather Stocks, who I never knew, served throughout the war and survived it, living to a good age.
I’ve come home profoundly shaken, with many more questions than answers. But at least I now know how good the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s database is, and that’ll give me some of the answers.