by Evelyn McKechnie
‘I put my Mammy’s flowers down for her wee brother. That was always her wish’.
Theresa McKend, niece of Victoria Cross recipient Hugh McIver
In 2008, it was the 90th anniversary of the end of the Great War, ‘the war to end all wars’ and it was a special year of remembrance. The Great War was almost out of reach of living memory and was now passing into history. For some, in 2008, the 90th anniversary brought home the losses that were so great. The First World War had been mass slaughter on an industrial scale, the world had never seen anything like it before. The grief for the small mining village of Newton, in Lanarkshire, was keenly felt, especially for one mining family, the McIver’s.
Twelve years ago, marked a special commemoration in Northern France of one Scottish soldier who fell in the year 1918, and his family has been returning to the area ever since.
His name was Hugh McIver, he served for the full length of the war and died just a short time before hostilities ceased. His story is tragic and heroic, but one also of remembrance. Local French people in a small village in Northern France traced nearly fifty family members of this highly decorated Scots soldier, in order that they could unveil a memorial in his honour.
The commemoration, in 2008, took place almost 90 years to the day after the action that saw Private Huge McIver of the Royal Scots being awarded the highest military medal, the Victoria Cross.
The whole village of Courcelles-le-Comte in France, had turned out on the glorious summer’s day of 23rd August 2008 to honour this fallen Scot. French Television also came to record the event; such was the interest in this Scottish war hero.
Attending the ceremony were members of Hugh McIver’s family, Somme Remembrance Association members, soldiers from the 1 Scots, Royal Regiment of Scotland, The French Flags Standards (Les Portes Drapeaux Francais), The Somme Battlefield Pipe Band, and The Royal British Legion (Somme Branch).
The Mayor of the village, Courcelles-le-Comte, Jean-Noel Menage, said,
“It was a very emotional occasion for our small village and was fantastic
to see all these people here to honour Hugh McIver“.
Private Hugh McIver was posthumously awarded the VC in 1918 for his bravery. He also won the Military Medal and Bar for previous acts of heroism. Hugh McIver was just 18 when he signed up on August 18, 1914 serving with the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Scots.
He acted as a company runner, carrying messages under heavy artillery and machine-gun fire. Single-handed he chased a German scout into a machine-gun post and killed six enemy soldiers, then captured 20 more and two machine-guns. He then risked his life in stopping a British tank which had mistakenly opened fire on British soldiers. Tragically he was killed in action 10 days later and just a few weeks before the end of the war.
His commanding officer, Captain Alick Gordon, wrote in a letter to Hugh’s parent’s Hugh senior and Mary McIver that their son was the bravest he had ever known. He said:
“As he was my personal orderly, he was quite close to me when he was killed. We were going up a hill, attacking some machine guns, when he was killed by a bullet. It may soften you to know he never felt it. It is only ten days since I recommended him for the Victoria Cross. And if ever a man deserved the VC, Hugh did, as he was one of the best and bravest boys in the Battalion. In fact, the bravest I have ever known. I am sending you his Military Medal which I cut off his breast for you. I can only say, Mrs. McIver that your son died a hero’s death and he left a record in the Battalion second to none.”
Hugh McIver’s parents travelled to Buckingham Palace to receive the Victoria Cross from King George V but tragically Hugh’s father was killed in a mining accident just a few weeks later.
Hugh McIver, was born in Linwood, Paisley in 1890 and his family later moved to Newton in Lanarkshire to work down the coal mines. Theresa McKend’s mother was Hugh’s sister and she remembers her mother saying that Hugh joined up because his father and brother were down the pits as miners in a reserved occupation and that Hugh wanted to ‘do his bit.’ Theresa attended the ceremony in ill health, determined not to miss it, but sadly died in March 2012.
Theresa, was from a family of 15 and grew up knowing her mother’s sadness at losing her younger brother. She recalls,
“I never saw my mother with a tear in her eye through all the pit strikes, hard times and struggling to raise a family but on Remembrance Day she would always cry for her wee brother. My mother was very, very close to him, knitting his socks and balaclavas and sending him cigarettes and chocolate in a shoe box. She was always proud of him; he didn’t need medals to tell her that.”
After the unveiling ceremony concluded, Theresa said,
“It has been a great day. We have always been so proud of Hugh. My mammy would have been so happy to know all these people are here to remember him“.
Agnes Kellock, who is Theresa’s daughter, said,
“It is marvellous that the French people have done this. We know that Hugh was found and buried unlike so many poor men that have no grave. I feel quite overwhelmed by it.”
Agnes’s son James Kellock, 15 in 2008, was the youngest member of the family who travelled. He unveiled the memorial with eight-year-old Jules, the son of Christophe Gueant, who is a resident of the French village and also a member of the Somme Remembrance Association. James, clad in a kilt, commented with a beaming smile,
“It was a great honour for me to have unveiled this memorial to my great, great uncle Hugh McIver“.
Another family member who travelled was Hugh McIver’s great niece, Martha McLaren,
“I feel very proud to be related in some way to Hugh McIver. This has been a very emotional and touching ceremony for the whole family. Hugh McIver, by all accounts, was a quiet and unassuming man and for him to be remembered in such a special way is a truly fitting tribute to his bravery. I was so looking forward to meeting those involved in organising this event and I wanted them to realise how much we appreciate what they have done and more significantly how they are remembering and acknowledging the bravery of a Scottish soldier.”
Hugh McIver’s heroic story was published in the comic ‘The Victor’ in 1972. Not only was he a Victoria Cross recipient but he had also received the Military Medal and Bar.
Members of the Somme Remembrance Association in France began to trace members of Hugh McIver’s family in 2007, as they planned the memorial in the village of Courcelle-le-Comte. Vice President of the SRA, Philippe Douin said,
“It has been an honour to work on such project and especially
when the family of the soldier could be found.”
Christophe Gueant of the SRA said,
“I have been interested in the Great War since I was six years old. My father was a farmer at Mailly Maillet, just behind the 1916 front line and we found many relics in the farm and fields. I started a collection and have always been interested in the history of the soldiers who fought all around here. I started researching Hugh McIver’s VC action in 2005 and we have had a lot of support. This was a joint project with British and French masons working together to build the memorial and people from the surrounding villages giving us stones.”
Francois Bergez, President of the Somme Remembrance Association said,
“This endeavour was started a few years ago by Christophe Geaunt. When he joined the SRA and presented his project, we all agreed to help him. Christophe did a lot to make it a success and such a memorable day. Philippe Drouin was a great help as well and did a great job on communication around the project.
I was very impressed that so many members of Hugh McIver’s family made the trip to attend the ceremony and share this special moment with other visitors and the inhabitants of this small village. It was a very moving event, knowing that 90 years after this young man won the VC (and died a few weeks later), so many people were able to honour and remember him. The SRA, with this new memorial, will make sure that this soldier, hero of the Great War, will never be forgotten.”
Fourteen soldiers including a piper from the 1st Battalion Royal Regiment of Scotland (1st Scots) also attended the ceremony. Captain Stuart, M.B.E of the 1st Scots said,
“This means a great deal to the history and tradition of the regiment. Private McIver was one of only six men in Royal Scots who won the VC during Great War. He showed incredible acts of heroism winning the MM & Bar, even before being awarded VC. We want the family to know that Hugh McIver is still in our thoughts. Remembrance is important to this battalion and regiment and this is a key one for the Royal Scots to support, it is essential that we do not forget.”
Theresa McKend, Hugh’s niece, said at his graveside,
“I am the proudest woman in the world today. I put my Mammy’s flowers down for her wee brother. That was always her wish. She would often say to me, ‘if only I could put down a wee flower for him.”
It was the efforts of the local French people who initiated this wonderful remembrance ceremony which will live on in the memory of so many of Hugh’s family, and also for those of us who were there not as family but still felt privileged to attend.
Remembrance of those who fell in the Great War still plays a very important part to the lives of so many ordinary people here in Scotland. There is grateful thanks to the people of France who continue to remember those who lie in their soil so far from home.
Hugh McIver was one of the many Scottish soldiers, almost one in four, never to return home from the Great War. For more than 40 years, his Victoria Cross hung in St Charles chapel in Newton, until it went to the Royal Scots war museum at Edinburgh Castle where it is seen by thousands of visitors every year.
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Thanks for reading. Evelyn McKechnie
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