by Evelyn McKechnie
An Ayrshire Mill Town
Kilbirnie is a small town in the Garnock Valley, North Ayrshire, with a population of around 7,500. Like so many small towns, it thrived in the past, but not so much now. In the mid 19th century, it bustled with all types of mills – linen-thread mills, flax-spinning mills, rope works, thread-mills, engineering works and mining. Iron and steel came to the town in the late 19th century and boosted its population.
The Glengarnock Steel Works opened in 1841 but sadly closed in 1979. It was located close to the southern end of Kilbirnie Loch, very useful because of the amount of water required in steel making.
Mostly the mills are closed now, you can still see some of them sitting alongside the River Garnock, which runs straight through the middle of the town. One of the remaining success stories is the thread-mill, which is still operating after 240 years, and are world-renowned experts in net-making.
The Mochrie Family
Just before the turn of the century, Margaret and Andrew Mochrie began their family in this once-thriving little town. They had seven children, Andrew born in 1880, and as firstborn, named after his father. Then came John, 1882, James, 1887, the only girl, Euphemira was born in 1893, Matthew 1894, Robert 1896 and George in 1900, the only son born into the new century. The end of the Victorian era would come to a close in 1901 with the death of Queen Victoria, but a new century beckoned, and no-one could have foreseen the horrors that would be bestowed upon them in just over a decade.
For Andrew and his family, there would have been plenty of work, but in 1914, when the Great War came, most of the men in the town eagerly left the mills and joined up. The fervour was so heightened, that some recruiting offices had to tell men to return in a month. Some regiments in the British Army at that time, trained without uniforms and drilled with broomsticks.
Although there was no conscription at this point in the war, many married hurriedly men joined up. For some with four children, their army pay would be twenty-two shillings a week. They probably consoled their despairing wives with ‘it’s going to be over by Christmas!‘, and that by the time they got ‘over there‘, it would be finished. Thankfully Andrew Mochrie, father of seven, did not join up but six of his offspring did.
Many families suffered severe losses in the Great but for Andrew and Margaret Mochrie, they would lose four of their sons in the Great War. Not one of them has a known grave.
The eldest son Andrew Mochrie, lost three of his brothers, all killed on the same day on 25th September 1915, the horrific first day of the Battle of Loos. Andrew also fought and survived that battle, only to perish nearly two years later in 1917 during the Battle of Arras.
The fifth son served aboard a minesweeper, but unlike in the movie ‘Saving Private Ryan’, John Mochrie, the ‘Scottish Private Ryan’, would not be brought home. He survived thankfully, and so did Euphemira, who had served with the Red Cross. Six members of their family gave service to the Great War and paid a cost so dear. It beggars belief how their mother, Margaret, coped with the loss of four of them.
The Scottish Dead
A quarter of all Scots who fought in the First World War were killed, and when you add those emigrated Scots who served for the Dominions of Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and Canada, the number rises further still. Some believe that the ratio of losses, to per head of population, meant that Scotland gave more than any other country during the Great War.
Because there was no repatriation of bodies, many families could not afford to travel to France or Belgium to visit a grave or memorial. This prompted many villages and towns to erect a memorial. Throughout Scotland, there are memorials of all shapes and sizes to commemorate and remember the losses. Even on the tiny Island of Coll, there is a memorial to five dead of WW1 and five dead of WW2.
Scotland’s WW1 Private Ryan
Should John Mochrie, who was still serving on the minesweeper, have been brought back home when his elder brother Andrew died in 1917? During the Second World War, the United States brought a sole survivor act into place, when the five Sullivan brothers were killed after the USS Juneau sank.
Tom Hanks film ‘Saving Private Ryan’ was loosely based on the story of the Niland Brothers. Fritz Niland at that time, was probably the sole surviving son of four brothers serving in the US during World War Two. It was his chaplain who started the paperwork to return him to the USA. However, one brother turned up later as a prisoner of war.
Hanks called his film ‘Saving Private Ryan’ because the most common name in the American Cemetery Colleville-sur-Mer in Normandy, was Ryan.
However, circumstances during the Great War was different, there were so many brothers joining up, serving together in the Pals Battalions, and often they were killed together, just like the Mochrie brothers. If Britain had enacted a sole survivor act, then many of these men would have been brought back, and at that time, the army could not afford to lose any more soldiers.
In 1916, conscription was brought in when volunteers dried up. The fervour and patriotism that brought so many to recruiting offices up and down the country, was no longer there. Whole towns, streets and villages had been decimated, particularly after the Battle of the Somme.
Kilbirnie Gate Memorial
The huge scale of the slaughter of the Great War, was by 1916, now reaching tiny towns like Kilbirnie, whose menfolk were being decimated. Their loss was commemorated on the Kilbirnie Memorial gate, which was unveiled on 7th October 1922. It has 155 names of other soldiers who died from the area. What is telling about this memorial, is that many of the names have the same surname, indicating that pain and suffering, came more than once to many families of the little towns of the Garnock Valley.
Andrew Mochrie’s three brothers were all killed on the same day on 25th September 1915, the first day of the Battle of Loos. Andrew also fought in that fateful battle but managed to survive the carnage, only to die nearly two years later on 9th June 1917, during the Battle of Arras. This particular battle, although shorter than the Somme or Passchendaele, had the highest daily casualty rate of any battle during the Great War, almost 4,000 a day.
Not one of the Mochrie brothers has a known grave. Robert, Matthew and James are commemorated on the Loos Memorial to the Missing in France. Andrew is commemorated on the Arras Memorial to the Missing. There resting place in one of the ‘Known Unto God’ graves, or possibly there may have never been recovered. Soldiers are still being found on the battlefields today, even after 100 years.
The Mochrie Brothers Roll of Honour
Robert Mochrie, the youngest at 19 was in the 6th Battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers – 25th September 1915 – Loos Memorial to the Missing
Matthew Mochrie, 21, Private, 9th Battalion Cameronian Scottish Rifles -25th September 1915 – Loos Memorial to the Missing
James Mochrie, 28, Corporal, 2nd Battalion, Gordon Highlanders – 25 September 1915 – Loos Memorial to the Missing
Andrew, 38, Private, 9th Battalion Cameronian Scottish Rifles – 9th June 1917 – Arras Memorial to the Missing
The Battle of Loos
The Loos offensive began on 25th September 1915, following a four day artillery bombardment in which 250,000 shells were fired. It was called off in failure, four days later on 28th September. Gas was also used by the British for the first time but the wind changed, blew back over the soldiers and over 2000 British troops were affected.
The attack was renewed by the British on the 13th October 1915, but further heavy losses combined with poor weather caused the offensive to be finally called off. More Scots fought at the Battle of Loos than any other battle during the Great War.
The Loos Memorial to the Missing has the names of more than 20,610 soldiers who died on this front and who have no known grave. 8,500 of those soldiers died on the very first day of the Battle of Loos. Of those, 6,500 soldiers, like the Mochrie brothers, have no known grave, such was the ferocity of the battle.
When the battlefield was being cleared after the war, the cemetery at Loos was named ‘Dud Corner’ because of the high number of unexploded shells.
Today the flat landscape around Loos, is only punctuated by the slag heaps from the mining. The peace and tranquility of the area belies the horrors that took place here on the first day of the Battle of Loos, when so many fell and who have no known grave.
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Thanks for reading. Evelyn McKechnie
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