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Great Uncle George’s War

This story begins with Betsy Somerville’s relationship with George Dick, who was proven in court to be the father of her son John. It’s 1890 and Betsy gives birth to another son – called George. This time, there’s no father’s name given. George Dick is now married to Agnes McCallum and living not far away. Could he be George’s father? But there’s another possible candidate for the paternal role. In the 1901 census, she’s living at another address and she has a visitor – George Livingstone, a 29 year old (married) painter from Rothesay. Mr Livingstone’s wife is not present.


That’s almost everything I know about young George. Aged 10, he was still in school but his oldest brother Jim was already hard at work in the coalfields of Lanarkshire. It’s likely that both John and George followed Jim down the pits, as there was little alternative for a working man at that time in that place. But I don’t know for sure. My granddad John would go on to be a butcher, but that was much later. Before that, the world as the family knew it would change forever following the assassination of an archduke in Sarajevo in the summer of 1914. George was photographed at Gilmore’s in Hamilton looking pensive but smartly dressed in a suit of fine check and a gemstone tie pin. His face is youthful and he has the trademark protruding Somerville ears.

When we see him next, he’s in the uniform of The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles). The origins of the Cameronians are firmly set in Lanarkshire, with the regiment’s first muster taking place on the banks of the Douglas Water in 1689. A declaration was read to the assembled men:

“All shall be well affected, of approved fidelity and of a sober conversation. The cause they are called to appear for, is the service of the King’s Majesty and the defence of the Nation, recovery and preservation of the Protestant Religion; and in particular the work of reformation in Scotland, in opposition to Popery prelacy and arbitrary power in all its branches and steps, until the Government of Church and State be brought back to that lustre and integrity which it had in the best times.”

The soldiers of this regiment were zealous Covenanters, whose devotion to the National Covenant of 1638 and the Solemn League & Covenant of 1643 meant that they would even do battle to defend their freedom to worship as they chose. When the crown ejected ministers from their parishes for refusing to submit to the rule of bishops, the Covenanters followed them to the hills and worshipped at open air services which came to be called conventicles. As the threat from government forces increased the Covenanters began to carry weapons to their conventicles and to post armed pickets to keep a lookout. The Cameronians were a unique part of Scottish history for over three hundred years. Their sad end came with the defence cuts of the 1960s and their name was finally erased from the Army List in 1995.

Since the 1880s, the recruiting base for the Cameronians had been located in Lanarkshire and George probably enlisted in Hamilton. His Battalion, the 10th, was formed at Hamilton in September 1914 and were attached to 46th Brigade, 15th (Scottish) Division. By July of 1915, the battalion was in France.

I don’t have George’s service records, as many were lost in a WWII bombing raid on the War Office in 1940. The surviving service and pension records – or Burnt Documents as they are known – were later microfilmed by the National Archives, but unfortunately George’s is not among them. So I have no idea what battles he fought in.

But I do have the 10th Batallion’s War Diary for March 1918, excerpts of which are given below. The language is military and understated, but it is still compelling reading. Rifleman George Somerville was in C Company.


10th SCOTTISH RIFLES
SUMMARY OF OPERATIONS ON MARCH 28th 1918
The Battalion had been relieved in the Front Line by the 9th Black Watch on the night 27/28th March. On completion of relief the Battalion withdrew to the Army Line and were in Brigade Reserve.
Dispositions:-
Right Front – D. Coy. Left Front – A. Coy.
Right Support – C. Coy. Left Support – B. Coy.
Battalion H.Q. – Dugout at ESTAMINET CORNER.
All ranks were accommodated in their new positions by 1.30 a.m. 28th March 1918. Night was fairly quiet until 3 a.m. when heavy shelling commenced, gas shells being used for 2 hours. The enemy had previously indulged in heavy shelling of selected localities. Shelling continued until 7.30 a.m. when it became intense. Companies afterwards reported that no Company Runners were able to get within 200 yards of Battalion H.Q, ESTAMINET CORNER, WILDERNESS CAMP and ARRAS – CAMBRAI ROAD being severely barraged with all calibres. At 8.15 a.m. the Master Cook of the 7th CAMERON HIGHLANDERS rushed into Battalion H.Q. and stated that his Battalion had been very seriously shelled for 4 hours, that heavy casualties had occurred and that the enemy had attacked, penetrating their front line.
At 9.45 a.m. C. Coy. under CAPT. J.S. MUNRO moved off to counter attack. At this time the enemy could be seen coming over the ridge (ORANGE HILL) in small parties and occupying our old front. Support and Reserve positions (JERUSALEM, CROMARTY and INVERGORDON TRENCHES) on the right of the Brigade Front. At 10 a.m. the Company counter attacking had reached the FEUCHY CHAPEL – FEUCHY ROAD with very few casualties.
At 10.30 a.m. orders were received at Battalion H.Q. (Support Line) from G.O.C. 46th Infantry Brigade to stop the counter attack. These orders were sent on at once by runner and were received by the Company Commander at 10.15 a.m. The Company was accordingly withdrawn, still in Artillery Formation. One Officer and about 30 men of the Company had at this stage become casualties and the enemy were firing fairly heavily on Company with machine guns. The Officer and some of the men were able to regain our lines with the assistance of a covering party.
At 11 a.m. the enemy appeared to have ceased advancing on our immediate front and were consolidating in our old front, support and reserve lines, using CALIFORNIA TRENCH as his front line.
At 6 p.m. it became obvious that enemy was withdrawing South of ARRAS – CAMBRAI ROAD. With the exception of a party of 30 – 40 of the enemy, which crept up ditches of the ARRAS – CAMBRAI ROAD, the enemy infantry never pressed home any attack on the Army Line North of the WANCOURT ROAD, and did not come in any strength beyond our old BROWN LINE.
At 4.30 p.m. a gap existed in the Front Line between 46th and 45th Brigades. This was closed by the Front Line Companies side stepping South. At dusk one Company was pushed out as Outpost to occupy shell holes keeping touch with the enemy. Outpost Line on the Right was 50 yards East of BOIS des BOEUFS, on the Left about 200 yds West of FEUCHY CHAPEL – FEUCHY ROAD. The night was quiet except for intermittent shelling of Support Line and Communications.
Casualties sustained during the day :-
Officers Killed :- CAPT. G. McCALL M.C.
LIEUT. G.W. JAMIESON
2.LT. J.W. KERR.
Officers Wounded :- LIEUT. J. MacKENZIE
2.LT. J.R. ROBB.
Other Ranks Killed 22
” ” Wounded 113. Other Ranks Missing 25.
All the Officers in B. Company became casualties and it was necessary to transfer a subaltern from C. Company to take over Command. Most of the casualties were sustained in the Support Line. Officers, Warrant Officers, N.C.Os and men behaved well under heavy shell fire and trying conditions. It was not possible to give the men hot food for 48 hours.

George Somerville was one of the 113 men (the Other Ranks) who were wounded that day in France. I know that he was taken to a field hospital, but from there it’s unclear what happened. Family legend has it that he contracted pneumonia but the record of his medals gives Died of Wounds as cause of death. The horror of battle conditions and the slaughter of countless young men in the Great War has been well documented. George managed to survive three years at the Front and was 27 years of age when he died, only a few months before the end of hostilities. His brother Jack, my grandfather, who served with the Royal Garrison Artillery, came home safe from the war to marry his sweetheart and live out his life in Lanarkshire. If there was anything to be grateful for in that terrible time, it was that Betsy did not have to mourn the deaths of two sons. Over 7,000 Cameronians lost their lives in the conflict.

The National Archives hold a collection of Medal Record cards for World War I and from this, I know that George was awarded three medals: the ’15 Star, awarded to individuals who saw service from 5 August 1914 to 31 December 1915; the British War medal, which was awarded to eligible service personnel and civilians alike. The basic requirement for army personnel and civilians was that they either entered a theatre of war, or rendered approved service overseas between 5 August 1914 and 11 November 1918; and the Victory Medal, awarded to all eligible personnel who served on the establishment of a unit in an operational theatre.

George lies in Wimereux Cemetery in Northern France. His grave is tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
And just by where he grew up in Cemetery Road, Blantyre, a monument commemorates the dead of the war to end all wars. My great-uncle George’s name is there.

1. Many men sent silk embroidered postcards from France to their families at home. Each regiment and corps had its own design and George may have sent a card like the one pictured to his mother.
2. Read the full article about Betsy here.
3. I am most grateful to The Cameronians Museum in Hamilton for the War Diary of the 10th Batallion Scottish Rifles (The Cameronians).
4. Thanks to my cousin, Ian Somerville, for the photo of the Blantyre memorial.
Family History

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Betsy

Betsy Somerville was my great-grandmother on my mother’s side. She was one of the first people I was to find in my hunt for family – and one of the few whose story I could share with my mother before she died. I don’t know what Betsy looked like – there are no photos of her. And it’s no good looking at pictures of her children, for they are very dissimilar. And that’s because – there’s no other way of putting this – Betsy was a bit of a sucker for the men.

When Elizabeth Somerville was born in 1852, she was the ninth of eleven children born to John Somerville and Jean Wallace. John’s quite an important figure in my Somerville history, and I’ll be coming back to him later. A number of villages clustered around Lanark then and the family moved back and forth between them. Carstairs, Carluke and Cambusnethan. They were part of a generation caught up in Scotland’s inexorable slide from agriculture to industry. John’s father had worked the land, but by the time John was grown, he was toiling in the coalfields of Lanarkshire as a winding engineman.

In the 1861 census for Cambusnethan, there’s seven of them living in one room. Betsy and her two younger sisters are recorded as scholars. This should have meant that they attended school on a regular basis. However, parents were often wary of officials and would say that their children went to school when in reality they didn’t.

By the 1870s, Betsy had lost four of her brothers and sisters to consumption, a disease which spread like wildfire in the overcrowded conditions. Three more had settled down and married. But Betsy remained single. Then, in 1879, she had a child who was named for his father, James Morris. He’s a mystery to me is James Snr – all I know of him is that although he gave the boy his name, he and Betsy never married.

Now with a baby son to look after, Betsy moved in and kept house for her widowed father in Cambusnethan, her mother having died three years earlier. Nine years passed and in 1888, she was living in what was to be the first of several addresses in Blantyre. Her father was slowly, agonisingly dying. And Betsy was pregnant again. John, her second son (who would be my grandfather) was born on the 18th of August and Betsy’s father died only a month later. I think it’s significant that Betsy didn’t register the birth of the baby until after her father had died.

Corrected-Entries

My grandfather’s birth certificate was the first document I ever saw. It was at the Public Record Office in Edinburgh in pre-computer days. You had to look up the indices, then place your requests to view (written in pencil – no pens were allowed anywhere in the records office)in a little box. Then you waited. Eventually, a wee man in a warehouseman’s coat would lead you up to the stacks high in the dome of the beautiful Georgian building. Placing the relevant volume on a rickety ledge, he’d find the correct page and stand aside while you copied the record. It was rather thrilling and I rather regret that this hands-on experience has vanished.

Copying John Somerville’s birth record, I saw a note scribbled to the side of the record. It said ‘Entry in Register of Corrected Entries’ and I asked my guide what that was. He grinned knowingly, said ‘Aye…come wi’ me’ and led me off to a separate section of the stacks. What I found in that record left me full of admiration for Betsy Somerville.

Not only was she supporting herself by working as a boot merchant on her own account, she had decided to take baby John’s natural father to court to prove paternity. This was an enormous undertaking for a working class woman on her own. The case was heard in the Sherriff Court on the 10th of November and George Dick, a surface worker at the coal pit from Ayrshire, was decreed to be the father. There was no question of money changing hands for the upkeep of the child – George Dick wouldn’t have had any – just a question of honour. And perhaps a healthy dose of rage – had George tried to wash his hands of her and the baby? George doesn’t appear again in this story, but I traced him in a census three years later. He’s married to one Agnes McCallum – they have no children and are living not far away from Betsy and her boys. And that’s the last we hear of George Dick – or is it?

Fast forward to 1890. Betsy’s now 38. And there’s another baby. Another son. She’s officially a ‘laundress’ – in other words, she’s taking in folk’s washing. Back breaking work but she had little alternative as a single mother with young children. And the name of this new son? George.

Let’s look at the evidence. George Dick is married in 1891, but Betsy’s George is born in November of 1890. No father’s name appears on his birth certificate and there’s to be no taking to court of any man this time.

The final twist is that on the night of the 1901 census, she’s living at yet another address and she has a visitor. George Livingstone, a 29 year old (married) painter from Rothesay. Too young for her? Perhaps – after all, she’s 46 in 1901. But let’s remember that when she had her second boy, John, she was 39 but the father was only 24. A penchant for younger men? I’ll never know.

Betsy-1901-census

Most of John Somerville and Jean Wallace’s children were buried with them in a family grave which I’ve visited at Cambusnethan. But Betsy isn’t with them. Her eldest son, James (my great-uncle Jim, who I knew briefly as a little girl) bought a plot for himself and his wife – and there was room for his mother.

I wonder if Betsy kept in touch with her brothers and sisters throughout her life, or whether she was ostracised by the family. If her behaviour was frowned upon, did caring for her ailing father make up for it a bit? Was she then looked on more kindly? I really hope that was the case.

For I’ve a deep fondness for Betsy Somerville, my great-grandmother. She had her weaknesses, plain to see, but by god she paid for them. She never married and her poverty must have been considerable. But she kept her family together somehow until they were men. That took courage and resilience. In some ways, she was a very modern woman.

Family History

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