The Buchan family receive the news about the death of Alastair Buchan in April 1917. By 1917, many Peeblesshire families had received the devastating news concerning the loss of their loved ones during the First World War. But on April 11th 1917 it was the turn of the Buchan family in Peebles to receive the dreaded telegram about the 23 year old Alastair.
Helen Buchan, his mother, along with his sister Anna and brother Walter, lived at Bank House at the end of the High Street. The eldest son, John Buchan the famous author, was in London. The telegram that was received read:
“Regret to inform you that 2/Lt A.E.Buchan 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers died of his wounds on April 9th. The Army Council express their sympathy. Secy.War Office.”
Today’s world is of instant news , social media and phones – in 1917 it was the telegram boy knocking on the door with this handwritten and brief note. It was to be some time before the details of his death was known, written by a nurse at the casualty field station who had tended Alastair’s wounds and had written to his mother. One of the letters of sympathy was from Winston Churchill, who commanded the 6th Royal Scots Fusliers:
“A most charming and gallant young officer…simple, conscientious, and much loved by his comrades”.
On a more personal note, Anna Buchan wrote in her memoirs “Unforgettable Unforgotten”: “Nothing could be done for them, and they died in a few minutes. When she [the nurse] had washed the battle-grime from their faces and smoothed their flaxen hair, they looked mere children, and, knowing that somewhere over the Channel hearts would break for these bright heads, before they were laid in the earth she kissed them for their mothers.”
Alastair was a serving officer in the Royal Scots Fusiliers and had been wounded the previous year. But his regiment was back in action at the Battle of Arras which began on the 9 April 1917 and saw 160,000 British casualties by the end of May, with a daily rate of 4,000, which was higher than the Somme offensive. Many of these were from Scottish regiments sent to the front line and Alastair was amongst the casualties on the first day.
Alastair’s loss was one amongst many brave lads who travelled to Flanders and didn’t return. Their names are recorded on the war memorial in the Chambers Institution Quadrangle, but imagine the suffering of many Peeblesshire families who grieved for their loved ones. Anna Buchan recalled visiting a bereaved mother in the Northgate after the Armistice: “They tell’t me “It’s Peace”. I came in and shut the doors and the windows so I wouldna hear the bells mocking me”.
After the war, Helen Buchan, with her daughter Anna, visited his grave in a military cemetery near Arras and in 1919 the family arranged for a wooden replica of the cross to be erected in the Peebles kirkyard.
After a century, this cross has succumbed to the rigours of the weather and it has been now been restored. Exactly 100 years after the death of Alastair at Arras, there was a short service of commemoration at the Buchan family graves on the 9th April. All are invited to visit the ‘John Buchan Story’ at the Chambers Institution afterwards, where this is a special exhibition on the Buchan family and the First World War.
The Cross at Peebles Kirkyard
Alastair’s grave at Arras