Thursday, 10 November 2011

Remembrance: a civilian story from WW1

Last night I had the great pleasure to give a talk at the Central Scotland FHS in Stirling about the 5500 British and British Commonwealth civilians interned at the Ruhleben POW camp in Germany during the First World War, amongst whose number was my great uncle, John Brownlie Paton. We regularly commemorate the sacrifices made by the military in the war - quite rightly - but sacrifice came in many other forms. The loss of freedom for four years, as experienced by those interned was one example, but there were others.

My own family remembers the First World War for a very different reason - the loss of my civilian great grandfather in Brussels in 1916. The following post was originally made on my Walking in Eternity blog a year ago, and is reprinted by way of as tribute to those whose names are never remembered in the official narrative of the war:

Every time a war anniversary comes along, we of course commemorate the sacrifice of the fallen. Yet that commemoration almost always focusses on the military side of the war in question. For my family, the First World War led to a completely different ordeal, entrapment for my great grandfather and his family for the duration as civilians in occupied Brussels. It was a decision that would cost the life of one and misery for others.

Blackford born David Hepburn Paton (right) was the manager of two shoe shops in Brussels, working on behalf of R & J Dicks, a shoe factory based on Glasgow Green. When war was declared, like many David assumed it would all be over by Christmas. His eldest son William, also an employee of the firm, left for Scotland to join the Royal Army Medical Corps. David instead made the fateful decision to stay behind to look after the two shops in his care on behalf of his company. With him were his wife Jessie (from Inverness), and sons John, Charles (my grandfather) and his daughter Annie, all born in Brussels.

Brussels was occupied by the German army on August 20th 1914. At first the civilian 'alien' population was monitored, but by the end of October the German public was demanding retaliation for the arrest of several German civilians in Britain. Although mass internment was the last thing the German government wanted, it was forced to concede to public demand, and on November 6th the order was given for all British males of fighting age to be arrested and taken to Ruhleben, near Berlin.

We cannot be certain, but it was almost certainly at this point, or just prior, that David went into hiding in Brussels. He was kept in a series of safe houses, and for the next sixteen months remained undiscovered. But in early 1916 he became seriously ill after collapsing, and tragically died on March 12th 1916. Family tradition has it that he died in the house of a Dutch gentlemen who had been hiding him, and had collapsed after an argument. His body was said to have been left out on the street for the authorities to find, for fear of others being arrested as collaborators. David's son William received the following letter from David's Glasgow based brother Joseph, whilst in service with the RAMC at Gallipoli:

Dear William

By the time you get this letter, I suspect you will have learned the sorrowful news, that your poor Father, has been unable to stand the strain any longer of what he has been passing through since war began, and we have indirectly got word of his passing away. I would rather keep such news from you but perhaps you would rather that I should tell you. I went to your Colonels wife (Mrs Thomson) and she very willingly offered to write to her husband, asking him to break the news to you, and I would follow with a letter giving you what details we have which are very few.

Mr Van D' Endon (Leige) was in Brussels on Business some few weeks ago, and on returning send word to Mr Traill that Mr Paton had died of shock due to nervous breakdown. Mr Traill of course wrote Greenhead, and Mr Hay told me the contents of the letter. What a pity they did not all clear out of Belgium when they could have. Of course, you must understand I was almost going to write false news, but one hardly can discredit the report of a man connected with the Firm, who was in Brussels so lately, and I think we must accept it as being too true. As to your Mother and the rest we have no news. I thought on writing your Mother, and paid a visit to the Belgian Consul to get his advice. At first he said Yes I could risk writing, but he had in his office a Belgian lady whom he called in he said the only way was via Holland. If I knew any one in Holland, I was first to write a letter to your Mother, send it on to Mr Traill (for I told the lady of him) he was to re-write the letter and send it on to Brussels. This, of course, could be done Willie if Traill was willing, but how do we know that they are living at Rue de Mont Blanc now. The chances are very much the other way, so I hardly know what to do. We will get the full and correct account of everything by and by, but the suspense is very trying, worse than if we knew the very worst.

I am very sorry indeed to have to give you such sad news, but sorrowful things are happening daily just now. First we thought of withholding the news from you for a time but then we thought of this plan being the best. I have not told Inverness yet. Do you think I should. I will do so, if you wish it. As to date of your Fathers death we gather it is on or about March 15th nothing definite. You will feel the loss very keenly as we all do and we hope that God will spare you to come home and look after those (being the eldest Son) whom he has left. No more at present will write to you again.

Hope you will bear up and stick to your duty. God bless you.

Your loving Uncle Joe

The circumstances of David's death were further explained in the company AGM minutes from 1916 , as held at Glasgow's city archives in the Mitchell Library:

In addition to material, we have given many men to the war. Our Roll of Honour consists of 135 names. Of these, all were volunteers. Out of the eligible men of military age, 94 per cent offered themselves voluntarily. Out of these ten have been killed, ten wounded, one "gassed", and one is reported as missing. Besides these we have lost the manager of our shops in Brussels; after the German occupation he remained for many months in concealment, doing his best for the Company's interests. I regret that the strain and anxiety cost him his life...

But that was not the end of the story. David's widow Jessie remained in Belgium with my grandfather and his brother John. John was soon after arrested by the Germans and transported to Ruhleben camp, where he was interned for two years, having just turned of age. As inflation hit Belgium, things grew increasingly more difficult for the family. A letter from Jessie to her brother-in-law James Paton, a manager of a Singer Sewing machine factory in London, explains how uncomfortable life was becoming:

British Legation, The Hague. July 16th 1917

The Netherland Legation (British Section) at Brussels present their compliments to His Britannic Majesty’s Minister at the Hague and on behalf of Mrs J. Paton, a British subject residing 100 rue d’Espagne, Brussels, have the honor to beg Sir Walter Townley, if possible, to communicate the following message to her brother Mr. James Paton, Singer Works 42 St. Paul’s Churchyard, London E.C.:-

“Dear Jim, As things here would have become impossible for us, I should like to know what you would advise me to do. Matters concerning the Firm here have been decided & an indemnity of three months given. Viz until the 15th Sept. 1917 when the 75 francs I have been receiving since the 16th March 1915 will cease. Then of course I shall be entirely without means. Myself & the two children who are still with me. The small sum left after the exceptionally heavy expense of poor David’s illness & death is gone & had I means I should be allowed only to touch a very small sum monthly. The cost of living here at the present moment is 10 times (and in some cases 20 times) more than in 1914 so you can well imagine my extreme anxiety in case we will be as we have been. Over the winter in such case I shall be in a bad way. Kindly write to the firms and explain as I could not explain myself properly from here. I shall leave it to your good judgement as to what you will say & arrange for me as I know you will do everything in my interest. Kind regards to every one. We three are pretty well, hoping this will find you all the same. Your loving sister J. Paton”

Brussels, July 9th 1917.

By March 1918, things were becoming desperate:

Mr. de Kattendycke,

I hope that you will forgive the liberty I take in writing to you, but the expense of living here at the present moment is impossible. The £3 which the firm of R. and J. Dick allow me is really not enough for food without speaking of other expenses.

I am entirely depending on what the firm sends me, having no other means whatever. My boy of thirteen is ill through nothing but privation and I can see things getting worse every day. I have no idea what arrangements will be made with the firm after the war, but in the meantime we must live and at the rate things are, £3 is just equal to £1, therefore what I receive is not enough.

I should certainly not trouble you if there were any other way of doing, and believe me I appreciate and am very much obliged for the kindnesses you have already done for me.

Hoping to hear from you as soon as possible, I remain

Yours truly,

Mrs. D. H. Paton

The thirteen year old son ill from privation was my grandfather Charles (right, as photographed in Brussels in 1907).

None of this story was known by my father when I first started my family history research over a decade ago - it has all been slowly pieced together through tracing previously unknown cousins in Glasgow and London, sourcing materials from the Mitchell Library in Glasgow and the National Archives at Kew, from a three day research trip to Belgium a few years ago to retrace the family's footsteps, and many other sources.

If there is one legacy of the whole story it is perhaps this - when the Second World War approached in the late 1930s, Charles, by now married, moved from Scotland to Northern Ireland with his Scottish wife; his mother and sister were also hurriedly moved to Inverness from Glasgow by his brother William. Did Charles move to Ulster because he was fearful of a German occupation of Britain, having witnessed the blitzkrieg sweeping through Europe, and having already experienced life under an occupation? It is a fascinating question to which I will likely never get an answer - but it may well be that David's decision to stay in Brussels in 1914 led to me being born as an Ulsterman and not as a Scot (or a Belgian for that matter!).


1 comment:

  1. What an amazing story Chris. Well told too. Thanks for sharing it.