Vimy Ridge – One Hundred Years On
James Caldwell is my great grandfather, he died in the attack on Vimy Ridge on the 10th April 1917. He was born to Annie Caldwell a domestic servant in Colmonnel, Ayrshire on the 21st July 1892. At the start of the first world war he was employed an asylum attendant in Hawkhead Hospital in Glasgow. His wife to be, Annie McMaster, was a laundress. They married on the 21st March 1916 after James enlisted in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders: a volunteer, not a conscript. The ceremony was probably quiet, taking place in the manse house rather than the Kirk. Annie already had one child, James, and another, Hugh, was expected soon. A marriage in the front room of the kirk in Mingavnie, Annie’s home town, would be society’s tight-lipped shake of the head; their relationship was sanctioned but hardly celebrated.
James’s address on the marriage certificate is given as South Camp, Ripon. This was a huge training camp in North Yorkshire. James made out his informal soldier’s will on 15 July 1916 bequeathing everything to Annie. Looking at the handwritten soldier’s will which is now available online is poignant.
On the Western Front James served with the 1/7 Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. He died of wounds of wounds inflicted during the offensive on Vimy Ridge on the 10th April 1917. I had these basic details from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, but I was to find a fuller picture elsewhere.
A small miracle occurred when I started to look into his life by searching for any documentation that may have survived. Many army service records from the first world war have been lost. They were destroyed during the blitz on London during the second world war. However, some were saved and are know as the burnt records. Finding my great grandfather’s documentation among these was as close to time travel as I am likely to experience.
These documentary fragments showed that he had been ill in France and that he had been punished with a fine of a week’s wages for losing equipment. I wondered what the infringement had been, but the detail was sparse. I found his battalion’s war diary and discovered that on the run up to the Vimy Ridge assault there had been a big football match. I wondered whether he played or spectated?
However, among of the most poignant things was the letter accompanying the personal effects sent back to Annie: two kilt pins, some photographs and letters. This was probably what prompted one of the saddest letters I have ever seen. Annie wrote to James’ regiment. She explained that her husband’s watch had not been returned with his effects. She requested that the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders send her a kilt in the regimental tartan, so that her boys would have something to remember their father by. Annie’s letter is beautifully written in an elegant cursive hand, but awkwardly expressed. Here was a young woman, who’s occupation was given as laundress when she married, using the resources she had to overcome her grief and find a fitting memorial to her husband. There is no record of any reply from the regiment
It is thought within the family that Annie struggled to cope with the loss of her young husband. The couple’s two boys were raised by their aunt Flora, Annie’s sister. Annie passed away in 1935, succumbing to TB at the age of 41.
James’s son is my grandfather, also James Caldwell. He served in the second world war on HMS Ramillies as a Petty Officer. He was a good man, well-respected and loving. Keeping the memory of his father alive is something I think he would have appreciated.
Searching through the documents that mark the simple milestones of James and Annie’s brief time together- births, marriages, deaths, has allowed me to tell this story and, in a small way, to understand their sacrifice.