This time 100 years ago, my great grandfather James Archibald McPhee was unaware it was his last night alive. He was born in Glasgow in 1884 and on 1 August 1917 as part of the Battle of Passchendaele he lost his life, leaving behind a wife and two young daughters.
I obviously never met him but he was often talked about to keep his memory alive. He was a sign writer by trade but was a singer with a beautiful voice and it is thought he used to sing at local events. The battalion had a band called the Cuckoos and it’s quite likely that James would have participated in the much welcome musical distractions.
My great grandmother (yes, Nanny McPhee!) had a regretful experience of their parting, where James tipped her hat in an effort to make her laugh and lighten the mood. She got cross with him, the train pulled out and that was the last she saw of him. It left her a bitter and dour woman until she died in 1963.
I have his ‘dead man’s penny’ which I will always treasure but suspect his medals went to an uncle, John Houston, who immigrated to Canada and then America.
Last year I took some time out to do some more research on him and using the war diaries online plus an excellent book titled A Short History of the 16th Battalion The Sherwood Foresters by Lieut Colonel R F Triscott OBE plus the trench maps held by the National Archives, I was able to plot his last days leading up to his death in some detail.
So tonight, James, I will raise a glass to one of many who endured unthinkable conditions over months and years in order that we can live our lives the way we do today. All being well, when the glare of publicity is over this year I’m coming to see you at Tyne Cot. May you be resting in peace.