Lest we forget

AS silence is observed next Sunday at the Quadrangle just a few steps away will be a first-hand account of the devastation the Great War caused for one prominent Peebles family.

John Buchan was already a reasonably well-known author by the time war was declared in 1914.

And it was only poor health which prevented the 39-year-old eldest son a Free Church minister enlisting to fight for King and Country.

Despite not being fit enough for frontline duty, Buchan would go on to play his own vital role in the war effort – acting as war correspondent for The Times before taking up senior government positions in intelligence and information.

John Buchan would also go on after World War I to become one of the country’s most read novelists, a celebrated politician, Governor General of Canada and the First Baron of Tweedsmuir.

But one day more than any other, during the four terrible years of death and destruction on the battlefields of Europe, would impact on him more than any other.

April 9, 1917 was the first day of a major offensive against the German Empire at the northern French town of Arras.

John’s youngest brother, 23-year-old Alistair, died during the fighting, as did his sister Anna’s intended husband, Robbie McMillan, and his good friend and publishing company business partner, Tommy Nelson.

John’s grand-daughter, Lady Deborah Stewartby, explained: “The loss of Alistair as well as the death of Anna’s sweetheart, Robbie, on the same day had a huge impact on the whole family.

“Also losing Tommy would have caused further grief for JB (John Buchan).”

For tens-of-thousands of families back in the UK, it was the written words of John Buchan in his regular columns that brought them the unfolding story from the Front.

And his descriptive and authoritative narration of the day his youngest brother died was to also feature in his weekly correspondence for The Times and Daily News, later being adapted for the 24 volumes of Nelsons History of the War.

It read… ‘April 9. Zero hour was 5.50 on the morning of Easter Monday.

‘At 4am a drizzle had begun which changed presently to drifts of thin snow. It was intensely cold, and it was scarcely half-light, so that the troops waiting for the signal saw before them only a dark mist flecked with snowflakes.

‘But at the appointed moment the British guns broke into such a fire as had been yet seen on no battle-ground on earth.

‘It was the first hour of the Somme repeated, but a hundredfold more awful. As our men went over the parapets they felt as if they were under the protection of some supernatural power, for the heaven above them was one canopy of shrieking steel.

‘There was now no enemy in the trenches; soon there were no second-line trenches; only a hummocky waste of craters and broken wire.

‘Within forty minutes all the enemy’s first position was captured, and our men were moving steadily against the second, while our barrage crept relentlessly before them.’

Alistair was a lieutenant in the 6/7 Royal Scots Fusiliers.

He had gone over the top and managed to reach a third German trench despite the ferocious fighting and persistent bombardments.

But as he attempted to guide two disorientated platoons towards his position he was wounded in the hip

In a letter to the Fusiliers Adjutant officer, fellow 6/7 lieutenant A Nimmo stated: “The wound was in the hip and Buchan complained of pain in the stomach.

“Wheeler helped him from shell hole to shell hole until he met some RAMC men who carried Buchan down to the dressing station where he was under the care of the battalion doctor.


“Buchan died two hours after his arrival at the clearing station which is on the main road to Habarcq.

“He was buried at the clearing station.”

The Buchan family learned of Alistair’s death several days later after his mother, Helen, received a telegram from the War Office.

Further tragic news was to follow for Anna, who herself was an accomplished author, as she learned of Robbie McMillan’s death.

The eldest sister of John wrote under the pseudonym of O Douglas.

And among her many novels were three featuring Peebles – Priorsford, Pink Sugar and Penny Plane.

Lady Stewartby explained: “Anna wrote throughout the war years and she was wonderful at expressing the real boredom and underlying tensions of being at home waiting for news.”

The middle Buchan son, Walter, had become Town Clerk of Peebles in 1906 – a position he held until 1948.

And the rest of the family had also moved to the Royal Burgh, residing at Bank House, from 1910.

As war raged on after the tragic deaths on April 9, 1917 of Alistair, Robbie and Tommy, John Buchan would accept a promotion from working directly for General Haig in the War and Foreign offices to become a Second Lieutenant in the Intelligence Corps, and later to the position of Director of the Department of Information, working directly with Prime Minister David Lloyd George.


Peace was declared on November 11, 1918 with the signing of an armistice.

In The King’s Grace, published in 1935 to mark King George V’s Silver Jubilee, John Buchan summed up how the Great War finally ended.

He wrote: “…in the fog and chill of Monday morning, November 11, the minutes passed slowly along the front.

“An occasional shot, an occasional burst of firing, told that peace was not yet.

“Officers had their watches in their hands, and the troops waited with the same grave composure with which they had fought.

“At two minutes to eleven, opposite the South African brigade, which represented the eastern-most point reached by the British armies, a German machine-gunner, after firing off a belt without pause, was seen to take off his helmet, bow, and then walk slowly to the car.

“Suddenly, as the watch-hands touched eleven, there came a second of expectant silence, and then a curious rippling sound, which observers far behind the front likened to the noise of a light wind.

“It was the sound of men cheering from the Vosges to the sea.”

On October 5, 1922 Earl Haig was accompanied by John Buchan to unveil the Peeblesshire War Memorial.

Alistair Buchan is one of 230 men and women from Peebles whose names are inscribed for making the ultimate sacrifice during the Great War.

Next Saturday and Sunday all of them will be remembered with ceremonies, marches and an observed silence.

Following the Commemoration Parade along Peebles High Street on Saturday morning the John Buchan Museum, which tells the story of the Buchan family during the Great War, will be open.

The Dressing Station at Arras where Alistair died


Alistair Buchan, circled, before the Battle of Arras

Peebles War memorial being opened by Earl Haig in 1922