Commemorating the WW1 Centenary on Islay and Jura

Stuart Graham explains why he was driven to write a book about the men of Islay an Jura who gave their lives in the First World War:

Why is it important to remember the men from Islay and Jura who fought in WW1?
Millions of men from all sides died fighting for what they believed to be a 'just cause'. Many millions more suffered appalling injuries and disfigurement. Others endured traumatic psychological effects e.g. shell shock some of which were officially acknowledged, a great many were not. The after-effects of the war lived on in damaged families across the world.

On an even wider scale the greater part of the turmoil and troubles of the present day can be firmly placed at the door of the First World War. The rise of Nazism and the Second World War; current problems in the Middle-East; the rise of the Soviet Union and the Cold War plus numerous other smaller conflicts all have their roots in the carnage and aftermath of the 'War to end all Wars'.

How many men from Islay and Jura were involved?
The Glasgow Islay Gathering held in February 1917 claimed that 'a thousand Islay men (were) at the war'. This from a population of 6287 (1911 Census) and a proportional number from Jura (population 570). To serve in the armed forces, men had to be at least 18 years old and no older than 38. Age limits did not apply to the many men from Islay and Jura who served in the Mercantile Marine. Scores of men who were officially in reserved occupations e.g. farming, fishing, transport, still enlisted, so many that emergency notices were issued, urging, for example, shepherds not to enlist and to remain with their flocks. Continue reading....

How many were killed from Britain and the Empire?
The striking ceramic poppy exhibition at the Tower of London used a figure of 888,246 killed from Britain and the Empire as the basis for the number of poppies displayed. Other sources put the figure at nearer a million casualties, with a further two million wounded.

How many were killed from Islay and Jura?
The names of 190 men from Islay are listed on five Islay War Memorials and a further 14 from Jura. In addition there are at least another 24 men who had Islay/ Jura connections who were killed but who are not commemorated on a local memorial.

Why are there so many memorials on Islay?
After the war and the scale of the losses had become all too apparent, a series of meetings were held to discuss and agree how all these men should be commemorated. At an early meeting held in Port Ellen on the 22nd February 1919 it was put to the people present that a joint memorial be erected at Bridgend. This was unanimously rejected and that “the locality should set up a memorial of its own in Port Ellen”. (Oban Times 1/3/19). A fund-raising committee was then established to raise the necessary funds. This process was duly followed by the other parishes on Islay. This explains why the memorials vary in style and content. Compare for example, the Port Ellen Memorial with the plaque from Kilmeny Church. It may also go some way to explaining why a handful of men are listed on more than one memorial.

What is happening to commemorate the war on Islay?
Back in October last year, two new information boards were unveiled at Kilnaughton and Kilchoman Military cemeteries. This was the beginning of events focusing on the sinkings of the Tuscania and the Otranto in 1918. A major collaboration with descendants from the USA is planned as the centenary of the tragedies draws near. The Museum of Islay Life is currently assembling contemporaneous material to mount an exhibition of memorabilia, family artefacts and other related articles. Our schools have dedicated a great deal of time, energy and effort into commemoration. The High School created an effective and stimulating WW1 display corridor. Sixth-form students used local research and a large pool of talent to create a memorable moving and respectful Remembrance Day service at the school. The churches also held special Remembrance Services.

What else is happening?
Four years ago, I visited the battlefields of France and Belgium. On my return to Islay, on a beautiful tranquil early winter's day, I was standing at the Portnahaven War Memorial on Armistice Day. The contrast between this day and the bloodbath and insanity at the Western Front could not have been more pronounced. It was then that I decided I would write a book about those who had given their lives from Islay and Jura. Four years have passed and the book has now been published.

The book is called 'These Men Are Worth Your Tears' the title comes from a Wilfred Owen poem. The book begins by briefly setting the scene on pre-war Islay and Jura. The origins and causes of the war are then examined. A chronology of how, where and when the men died forms a major part of the narrative based on contemporary obituaries from the Oban Times and information from official war records. This is interspersed with separate items of significance in the history of the war. Landmark battles are described as are General Staff tactics and strategy. Finally there is an assessment of the aftermath of the war followed by a Memorabilia section where members of the community have contributed their own personal documents and photographs.

Despite countless hours of research and the assistance of several interested people following requests in the Ileach, there are still some gaps to be filled. To date the details of how and where 16 men from Islay were killed is still proving difficult to complete. It is my sincere hope that the book will trigger memories and encourage the checking of boxes in attics and stimulate family conversations so that these missing men too can be similarly remembered.

The book has been published on Islay by Ailsapress, founded in 2007 by Cathy Wilson.

The article is published with kind permission of the Ileach

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