Exhibition shows war’s cost to Lothians family

James Sandercombe in uniform
James Sandercombe in uniform
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The purple stitched pansies are as vivid and beautiful as the day James Sandercombe held the postcard in his hands and, perhaps careful not to sully the crisp white card with the mud of the battlefield, wrote his message.

“Somewhere in France. 5th August 1918. To Mother with love from James.”

He posted it off to his widowed mother, Christina, at her South Queensferry home. It made for a pretty dispatch from a foreign land – purple stitches for the flower petals, lush green thread for the leaves, delicate lilac words carefully stitched to spell out “To my dear mother”, and a splattering of particularly bright blood red buds. Not a hint anywhere of the filthy trenches and stink and the horror of war to taint its loving message.

The postcard arrived at the family home soon after. Sadly James, whose thoughts as he marched on “somewhere in France” were at home with his beloved mother, would never set eyes on her ever again.

And within five weeks of sending his purple embroidered postcard, just weeks before the end of hostilities, James was dead.

Today the postcard – and a selection of other fascinating items related to James and his younger brother Charles, killed on the field of battle two years earlier – make up part of an exhibition that tells the story of the Great War as it impacted on the small community of South Queensferry.

Included is another particularly poignant reminder of the human cost and its devastating toll on individual families – Charles’ wallet, retrieved from his uniform jacket pocket as he lay dead on the battlefield, complete with puncture hole from a German bayonet.

Perhaps most heart-wrenching of all is that there was nothing terribly unusual about the postcard, the torn wallet or the brothers’ deaths. For whether it was in their home town of South Queensferry or any other village, city or hamlet, the same crushing blow was being dealt to thousands upon thousands of families.

Grieving mothers like Christina would receive grim news day, after day, after day.

Monday’s official launch of events to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War hammered home once more the terrible human toll of four years of battle: more than one million British and Commonwealth soldiers died and 1.6 million UK soldiers came home broken and wounded.

Christine Vincenti – great niece of the Sandercombe brothers – remembers her mother cherishing the collection of items as family heirlooms. Among them are letters from the War Graves Commission offering to place wreaths on the men’s graves at Christmas, Easter and Armistice Day for 8 shillings and 6d and a list of handy French phrases handed to one of the brothers, such as “C’est homme est un espion”, meaning “This man is a spy”, and “Je suis blessé” – “I am wounded”.

There are also the brothers’ war medals, photographs of them standing proud in their uniforms and a letter from the manager of the local Distillers Company praising Charles – Charley to his pals – and looking forward to him coming back to work.

There are also grainy black and white photographs of the brothers’ headstones – at Longueval, on the Somme, for Charles and Lijssenthoek in Belgium for James – obtained for the family by the War Graves Commission.

Unlikely to be in a position to travel abroad, the pictures were the family’s only means of actually seeing their loved ones’ final resting place.

“My mother always treasured the photographs of her uncles,” says Christine, 54, of Colinton, whose daughter, Anna, is one of Team GB’s brightest ski hopes and narrowly missed out on taking part at the Winter Olympics at Sochi.

“It must have been very hard for their mother. Her husband died in 1900 and she had seven children to raise. Then Charles, James and another son, William, all went to war.”

Charles volunteered in November 1915 aged 19 and joined the 2/10th Battalion of the Royal Scots, a cyclist battalion which had been formed in Linlithgow within weeks of war being declared.

He later joined the 7th/8th Battalion of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers but after ten months of active service, on August 18, 1916, he was killed in the bloody Battle of the Somme.

Older brother James, a cooper at the distillery, served for almost the entire war but perished weeks before it ended.

At under 5ft 3in, he was originally regarded as too short to enlist. However, a “Bantam Battalion”, raised by Lord Rosebery in February 1915 specially for men of under regulation height, gave him his opportunity to serve his country. He joined the Royal Scots 17th (Service) Battalion (Rosebery). He was 36 when he died in September 1918 from wounds sustained during the Battle of Pozieres, weeks after sending his mother the postcard.

Another brother, William, fought on the Russian Front and returned after the war to a battered nation financially crippled by the conflict and hit by unemployment. Like many of his generation, he soon emigrated to Canada.

According to local historian Frank Hay, of the South Queensferry Local History Group which has staged this week’s exhibition to coincide with the Ferry Fair, the mementos create a vivid picture of one family’s personal loss.

“They are typical of many local men who went to war,” adds Frank.

To illustrate the local people and families affected, the history group is now trying to find out more about the pair’s other brothers in arms – the dozens of men whose names are immortalised on local war memorials, 66 at South Queensferry and 37 at Dalmeny.

“As well as the Sandercombe brothers there were four other families who lost two brothers – McArthur, Fossett, Lapsley and Smith – and one that lost three brothers, Ley.

“We estimate that at the start of the war the population of males between 15 to 40 in South Queensferry to be about 660, which gives a war death rate of ten per cent.”

Meanwhile, according to Christine, her family’s precious items are a tangible link with the family members who – like so many others across the country – gave their lives in the war to end all wars.

“It’s hard to imagine how hard it must have been for them all,” she says. “Their mother was widowed with a large family of young children to care for, she’d already lost a child in infancy and then two sons in the war. Her other son emigrated and her youngest son, Roddy, never married. The war affected all their lives.

“Having these things makes it very real.”

South Queensferry Local History Group is looking for memories, mementos and photographs relating to the area for its First World War research and website, www.queensferry-at-war.org.uk. E-mail mail@queensferryhistorygroup.org with details. The Sandercombe brothers’ story is told in the First World War exhibition at South Queensferry Library which runs throughout this week

‘Queensferry was surrounded by naval activity’

South Queensferry’s location on the edge of the Forth, opposite Rosyth and close to the Capital meant the community played a vital role during the First World War.

“When people talk of World War One, they talk about the trenches and Flanders, but rarely mention the navy,” says Frank Hay of the local history group.

“Queensferry was completely surrounded by naval activity. We had two naval hospitals, destroyers were based at Port Edgar, the Royal Navy was in the Forth, and there were fortifications at the Forth Bridge.”

According to Frank, the area around the Forth was put on war footing from the moment war was declared on August 4, 1914.

Within weeks HMS Pathfinder, a destroyer flotilla leader, became the first ship to be sunk by a submarine’s torpedo off Abbs Head. The injured were rushed to South Queensferry’s Butlaw Naval Hospital.

The Battle of Jutland in late May 1916 left more than 6000 Commonwealth sailors dead and over 670 wounded, many of them treated at South Queensferry’s hospitals.

“Most of the war graves at Queensferry cemetery are those of men who died in the Battle of Jutland,” adds Frank.