Sunday, 9 November 2008

Remembrance Sunday - please remember the civilians too

Today is Remembrance Sunday, commemorating the 90th anniversary of the armistice that ended the Great War, but also the soldiers of all conflicts.

However, please spare a thought too for the many civilians who lost their lives.

My grandfather was a young boy trapped in Brussels with his Scottish civilian family throughout World War One. The family had not got out prior to the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, and when the Germans invaded Belgium and commenced the internment of British civilians, my great grandfather, David Hepburn Paton (pictured), was forced into hiding. After a year and a half of concealment, he died from the stress of his fugitive lifestyle.

My eldest great uncle, William Paton, returned to Scotland just before the invasion and was duly sent off to Gallipoli with the Royal Army Medical Corps. His brother, John Paton, who was still trapped in Brussels, was arrested shortly after his father's death and interned at Ruhleben near Berlin from 1916 to 1918, as a civilian POW. My great granny Jessie, with my grandfather and my great aunt, remained in Brussels until the war ended. Jessie was supported only by charitable contributions from the firm which her husband had worked for, and letters from the National Archives show that my grandfather was starving towards the end of the war, with the ravages of inflation making any money sent almost worthless, and with food fast running out.

The following is the letter that my great uncle William received in Gallipoli, concerning his father's death:

Dear William,

By the time you get this letter, I suspect you will have learned the sorrowful news, that your poor Father, has been unable to stand the strain any longer of what he has been passing through since war began, and we have indirectly got word of his passing away. I would rather keep such news from you but perhaps you would rather that I should tell you. I went to your Colonels wife (Mrs Thomson) and she very willingly offered to write to her husband, asking him to break the news to you, and I would follow with a letter giving you what details we have which are very few.

Mr Van D'Endon (Leige) was in Brussels on Business some few weeks ago, and on returning send word to Mr Traill that Mr Paton had died of shock due to nervous breakdown. Mr Traill of course wrote Greenhead, and Mr Hay told me the contents of the letter. What a pity they did not all clear out of Belgium when they could have. Of course, you must understand I was almost going to write false news, but one hardly can discredit the report of a man connected with the Firm, who was in Brussels so lately, and I think we must accept it as being too true. As to your Mother and the rest we have no news. I thought on writing your Mother, and paid a visit to the Belgian Consul to get his advice. At first he said Yes I could risk writing, but he had in his office a Belgian lady whom he called in he said the only way was via Holland. If I knew any one in Holland, I was first to write a letter to your Mother, send it on to Mr Traill (for I told the lady of him) he was to re-write the letter and send it on to Brussels. This, of course, could be done Willie if Traill was willing, but how do we know that they are living at Rue de Mont Blanc now. The chances are very much the other way, so I hardly know what to do. We will get the full and correct account of everything by and by, but the suspense is very trying, worse than if we knew the very worst.

I am very sorry indeed to have to give you such sad news, but sorrowful things are happening daily just now. First we thought of withholding the news from you for a time but then we thought of this plan being the best. I have not told Inverness yet. Do you think I should. I will do so, if you wish it. As to date of your Fathers death we gather it is on or about March 15th nothing definite. You will feel the loss very keenly as we all do and we hope that God will spare you to come home and look after those (being the eldest Son) whom he has left. No more at present will write to you again.

Hope you will bear up and stick to your duty. God bless you.

Your loving Uncle Joe


Scotland's Greatest Story
Professional family history research & genealogical problem solving


Genealogy Gems said...

Thanks for sharing this touching story Chris. An important reminder of the War's impact on everyone who lived at that time. I've posted a link to this blog article on my Genealogy Gems News Blog at All the best, Lisa

Chris Paton said...

Cheers Lisa, and for those who have not yet visited Lisa's blog, do so post-haste...!

Lots of amazing stories and useful podcasts to while away these winter nights...! :)