An Edinburgh school, the Great War and remembrance

Rolls of Honour may not be fashionable these days, some seeing them as merely ‘lists’, but they do serve a purpose. In his introduction to “Pro Patria Mori – The Edinburgh Academy at War 1914-1918” – Jonathan Lisher, Head of History at the school, suggests that if we really want to understand the nature of the war, the lives and experiences of those who took part in it is a good place to start. I tend to agree with him. Once we strip aside the politics, strategy and lines on a map what we are left with is the raw stuff of personal experience. Of course, individual experience does not always equate to universal truths about the war, but memoir and biography do offer fascinating insights.

“Pro Patria Mori”, compiled by a small, but dedicated group of people connected to The Edinburgh Academy, is a substantial work that has been beautifully put together to commemorate the 303 alumni who fell during the Great War. Each of the fallen has his own biographical entry and some of the entries are really quite detailed. I only became acquainted with it after I received a letter from one of the contributors regarding her mother’s cousin, Captain Andrew Fraser, MC & Bar, who happens to feature in ‘Arras North’ (Page 275). Although Andrew never attended The Edinburgh Academy, the letter made reference to several men who had and who are mentioned in both our works. Ongoing correspondence since then has provided me with some wonderful snippets about Edinburgh families with connections to the Great War. I also received a copy of a family photograph of Captain Andrew Fraser wearing his Military Cross taken soon after he received it.

One of the men featured in “Pro Patria Mori” is Major Alastair Cosmo Burton GEDDES, MC, 17th Kite Balloon Company, Royal Flying Corps (Arras South – Page 253). Although I managed to find out something about him, I did struggle to come up with very much. I knew his father had been a professor and a renowned botanist, but I didn’t know that he had also been an eminent sociologist, geographer, philanthropist and a pioneer in town planning. Not only that, his son Alastair had shared many of his father’s interests. In 1909, as a young student, Alastair had taken part in the Scottish Arctic Expedition to Spitsbergen. In 1911 he assisted his father in Dublin at the Cities and Town Planning Exhibition and later accompanied him to Madras, as well as other parts of India, working on town planning projects. Although I knew that Alastair had studied at Edinburgh University, I was unaware that he had also studied at Dundee University, where his father was professor, and at the University of Montpellier where he had studied geographical botany and where his father, an ardent Francophile, had been founder of the Collège Écossais. Whilst at The Edinburgh Academy Alastair had been a decent cello player, excelling at Science and Latin with a talent for sword-dancing as well. Such parallel interests suggest a very strong bond between father and son.

His entry in “Pro Patria Mori” also contains an amusing anecdote. He had been tasked with observing hostile fire that was falling close to the HQ of one of our artillery units. He was able to report back that the fire was coming from around 10 miles away and that the time between gun flashes and shells actually landing was 45 seconds. Initially, those at the HQ were disinclined to believe him, but when he accurately predicted the arrival of the next round, which was right on time and very much on target, blowing off the doors of the HQ, its occupants quickly decided to relocate, but not before sending him a message apologising and thanking him. The story also illustrates the important role played by balloonists during the war, though my research over the years has led me to the conclusion that the service was something of a ‘Cinderella’ and often under-appreciated by many. Although part of the Royal Flying Corps, it worked most closely with the artillery, and yet it was not part of it; its role fell between the two branches, which perhaps explains why it has never quite received the credit it deserves. Even though observation took place from behind our own lines it was still a very dangerous job.

Around twenty-five ‘Edinburgh Academicals’ are buried or commemorated on the Arras battlefield, a number of whom are mentioned in “Visiting the Fallen”, including Douglas Kindersley (Roclincourt Military Cemetery), Thomas Nelson (Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery) and Charles Edward Stewart (Warlincourt Halte British Cemetery). The Stewart Prize for History and the T.A. Nelson Prize for academic achievement are still awarded at the school nearly a century on from their deaths. Several others not referred to in my books are worth a brief mention here.

Thomas Ian Thomson Sloan is buried in Level Crossing Cemetery, near Fampoux (Plot I.A.32). Although he and his brother, Lawrence, are described as having been good at sports, it was their brother, Allen, who really excelled in this field, playing rugby for Scotland on nine occasions. However, what Thomas lacked in terms of skill and technical ability he made up for with hard work and determination. When it came to serving his country he initially joined the Royal Naval Air Service as a flight sub-lieutenant, but after only three months he had to give up flying on account of his eyesight. He eventually made it to the front in October 1916 serving as a private with the 7th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders. He was killed in action on the 23rd April 1917. Lawrence and Allen, who served with the Royal Field Artillery and the Royal Flying Corps, and who survived the war, inaugurated a cup named after their brother, a prize that is still presented at the school for the best piper.

Reginald Vaux Cuthbert, 8th Seaforth Highlanders, was one of six brothers who served in either the South African War or the Great War. He was mortally wounded while sitting in a dug-out on the 22nd April 1917, the eve of his battalion’s attack on Guemappe, A shell burst overhead wounding him in the head, arms and legs. Despite medical attention and evacuation to a casualty clearing station he soon succumbed to his injuries. His brother, Thomas, who was a battalion commander with the Seaforth Highlanders, was twice wounded and was mentioned in despatches, winning the DSO followed by the award of a CMG. Of the remaining brothers, Hugh served with the Edinburgh & Berwick Yeomanry, William with the Scottish Horse, both during the South African campaign. James served with the Royal Army Medical Corps whilst Robert was killed in action on the 7th July 1915 serving as a private with the 2nd King Edward’s Horse after returning home from New York where he had begun working as an accountant. Reginald is buried at Duisans British Cemetery (Plot IV.H.50), Robert at La Plus Douve Farm Cemetery in Belgium.

All 303 ‘Edinburgh Academicals’ came from similar very middle-class, and in some cases upper-class backgrounds. They all shared similar values typical of men from that stratum of society at the start of the last century, not least a close connection with their school and a strong sense of fellowship and patriotism. In that sense, they were certainly not unique, but they were, by any stretch of the imagination, a very talented and interesting group of people. Anyone interested in such aspects of the Great War will find “Pro Patria Mori” a very rewarding read. The book, which is in hardback and costs £20.00 plus p & p, can be ordered directly from The Edinburgh Academy via the following e-mail address:

My thanks to Sarah Heintze, indeed to all those involved in the publication of “Pro Patria Mori”, who very kindly allowed me to use their research as the basis for this article.