A time to remember (George Burgess)

This is a year in which we look back at World War One and the effect it had on Shetland and Shetlanders.

My father was one who went off with the Gordons to fight in France. As far as the battles were concerned and how he was affected he would speak of the tremendous never-ending noise and also what an inappropriate article of clothing a kilt was in the mud of the trenches.

During the last German offensive in April 1918 he was made a prisoner. A particular recollection was his moment of capture when a German soldier was wrestling with him to take off his wrist watch. The German got a bullet just above his heart and he dropped dead. If that bullet had been a few inches different I would not be writing this letter today.

My father was a prisoner in France until the Armistice in November. During that time he had dysentery and malaria, for which he was treated in a German hospital. These illnesses were something that reappeared from time to time in later life.

The men who returned from the war were often not the men who left Shetland. Among them was my father-in-law who had a leg amputated. For the rest of his life he had pain in different degrees in the stump and not a particularly efficient artificial leg.

After the war my father was one of the team who compiled Shetland’s Roll of Honour so he was very aware of the contribution Shetlanders made to the war – the 600-plus men who died – and he would speak of that. As he wanted that to be recognised he was responsible for organising the poppy day collection. At Armistice time our house would be full of poppies.

He was also an official of the Earl Haig Fund which gave grants to families because there was no breadwinner. There were often times when grants were paid – my recollection, never a very big amount but gratefully received.

So this is a time to remember those who gave their lives in the war; a time to remember those who came back; a time to remember the women who lost husbands; a time to remember the women who never had husbands; a time to think of the bairns who lost their fathers; a time to think of the bairns who never were born.

A final thought. What would our Shetland have been like if Shetlanders who died had been able to live out their days?

George Burgess

37 Burgh Road,



Add Your Comment
  • Peg Young

    • January 26th, 2014 8:27

    Thank you for this reminder, Dodo.
    Sadly, and ironically, my paternal grandfather, Robert Young, died of either botulism or the flu while waiting in south England to be shipped across the channel as cannon fodder– July 30th., 1918. His gravestone says that he died in the service of his country. I think that his country and community would have been better served had he remained at home and continued in his trade as a baker. As a result of his death, he left behind a young wife to raise four peerie bairns on her own. She may even have been one who benefited from the Earl Haig fund. Four grand-children never got to know him.
    Even more ironically, my grand-uncle, Thomas Gray, Chief Engineer on HM service ship “Curaca,” died senselessly as his ship was loading horses for the war effort in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He and the crew were watching as two ships collided and exploded in the harbour. He was blown to bits–in the service of his country. His young wife was left to raise her peerie lass by herself. She may also have been one who benefited from the fund. A grandson never knew him.

    I am always reminded of Wilfred Owen’s words when I think of them, even though they were not killed in combat:

    . . . If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
    Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
    Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
    Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
    My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
    To children ardent for some desperate glory,
    The old Lie: “Dulce et Decorum est
    Pro patria mori.”
    (It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.)

    If Robert Young hadn’t signed up as the result of the desperate appeals to patriotism by his government, he might have lived his life out in Lerwick and enjoyed his children and grandchildren. While the Halifax explosion was a phenomenal accident, had Thomas Gray been elsewhere, he would not have died then and could have lived out his life in Lerwick and enjoyed his daughter and grandson.

    I will be a long time dead before men stop finding reasons to kill each other instead of finding ways to solve problems without violence. Until then, women will bear sons to be killed by other men, and women will be left widows and children fatherless.

    Such a waste–and so eternally stupid.

  • David Spence

    • January 27th, 2014 3:25

    What I find quite disturbing is the amount of wars we, humans, have had over the past 100 – 120 years where it is been mostly be 1 country (in many ways due to technological advances in warfare and the machinery in which to execute it) which has caused more wars (to date over 76 conflicts) but has had no war on its own territory. This country has been the USA, and how, in many ways, it has been the commercial gain and profit which has dictated this countries foreign policy and expansion of its political ideology.

    Even the present conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan has been based on, primarily, economics rather than this of over-powering tyrannical rulers of another country. Many people today, certainly in the west, see the hypocrisy of the justification for war whilst at the same time the powers that be remain silent who were, prior to the war, actually supporting and bringing to power such leaders that we are now spoon fed to despise and to support conflict upon them.

    One of the largest institutions (especially in the USA and controlled by US Foreign Policy) indirectly responsible for many, many conflicts under the guise of freedom or spreading our version of democracy, is the most powerful structure within western society, this of our monetary system and the institutions which control this, are the banks. Although this may be difficult to prove, it is, without any doubt, one of the most lucrative means in which to gain commercial on a scale which most people could not comprehend.

    Is there a connection between conflict, the banking system and the arms industry……….without any shadow of doubt, Absolutely………..the arms industry and banking industry are intrinsically link and are, in many ways, responsible for many of the conflicts over the past 100 years.


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