5th Battalion Gordon Highlanders
Brothers Who Served in the Great War
The Thomson Family
I am indebted to Eve Haswell, William Thomson's grandaughter, for the information about this family and the photographs.
One of the most poignant experiences for a researcher is to come across stories of brothers who died in this war. Many families suffered enormous losses with two, three or even four sons being killed. There are numerous instances of such multiple fatalities in the Buchan region. One such family was the Thomson family of Burnhaven.
Margaret and Allan Thomson of Burnhaven, a small village at the southern end of Peterhead Bay, had four sons serving in the army, three of whom were killed, two only a few days apart. The fourth survived but was seriously wounded. To compound Margaret’s tragedy, her husband died in May 1918 at the relatively early age of 47.
Allan Thomson Snr was born in Cruden in 1870, the son of Alexander and Helen Thomson. In 1895 he married Margaret Baxter at Longside and shortly afterwards their eldest child Allan was born. As was the way of things, more children followed soon afterwards at regular intervals - James (1896) William (1898) Alexander John (1899) and George (1901) and then four other children.
Several months before the outbreak of war and about six months short of his eighteenth birthday, James Thomson joined the local Territorial battalion, the 5th Gordons, and served in ‘B’ company, based at Peterhead. His service number was 1816.
With the outbreak of hostilities, his older brother Allan also enlisted. As the two Peterhead companies, ‘B’ and ‘C’ had reached their full establishment following the rush of new recruits, he was assigned to ‘F’ company, the Old Meldrum based unit.
Both brothers volunteered for overseas service and proceeded with the battalion to their war station in Bedford in August 1914.
Younger brother William Thomson enlisted into the 4th Battalion, the Gordon Highlanders. It would appear that he was not in the army until at least 1917, or, to be more exact, did not serve overseas until at least March 1917. Unlike his brother Allan, William has only a six digit service number and not a four digit one which would indicate a pre-1917 enlistment. The fact that he was in the 4th Battalion rather than the local 5th would also argue for a late enlistment, occuring some time after the period when men could choose which unit to join. So, in all probability, William was a conscript, joining up in 1917 when he was 19. He was wounded seriously enough in 1918 to necessitate his evacuation home to the UK. In later life William served as the caretaker of the Peterhead Drill Hall. He died in 1979.
Details of Alexander’s enlistment are less clear. He was in the 8th/10th Battalion of the Gordon Highlanders, one of the New Army battalions, and did not arrive in France until 1918, as that was the year he turned 19. After his arrival in France, he was transferred to the 8th Battalion, the Black Watch, another New Army battalion. It was as a member of this unit that he was killed on Friday 19th July 1918 during the attack on Meteren. That attack failed and the 8th Battalion suffered heavy losses. The 'History of the Black Watch' mentions 87 Other Ranks killed, 111 wounded and 28 missing. In addition 8 officers were killed and 5 wounded. His British War Medal and Victory Medal are both inscribed with his Gordon Highlander service number - S/19588, the regiment of which he was a member when he first entered the war zone. The details of his death show him as a member of the Black Watch, number S/41414. Had Alexander still been in the 8th/10th Battalion in May 1918, he would in all probability have served with his brother Allan, as the two Gordon Highlander units amalgamated at that time.
At the age of 19, James, the first of the boys to enlist, was also the first to die. He had been in France since May 1915. In March of the following year the Battalion was in a region of the line known as the Labyrinth. It was notorious as being honeycombed with mines. Such was the perceived danger, that the line was deliberately thinned of troops in order to reduce casualties, with all surplus men being moved back to a slightly safer area.
The History of the 51st (Highland) Division records:
“The advisability of this measure [removal of some troops] was soon proved, as from 24th March mines were continually being exploded under or in close proximity to the front line. A typical case occurred on 26th March, when at 2.30 a.m. the enemy fired two mines simultaneously, one on the left of the 152nd Brigade, and the other on the right of the 153rd.
These explosions were followed by a heavy bombardment on our front and support trenches with shrapnel, all types of trench-mortar bombs and rifle fire. Our losses were severe: 4 officers (1 killed, 2 wounded, and 1 missing) and 74 other ranks (14 killed, 24 wounded and 36 missing) ...
The missing were those unfortunate men who were buried by the falling earth. Of these two craters, the one on the right proved to be 70 yards in length.” [The 5th Gordons were part of the 153rd Brigade - the one on the right.]
James’s company, ‘B’ company, commanded by Captain Robertson, was holding the front line when the mines were exploded.
Fourteen men, including James, were killed, the bodies of many never being found. Captain Robertson was severely wounded in the explosions and was invalided back to Britain. He later was able to rejoin his unit, and died of wounds in 1918. A number of men originally listed as missing eventually turned out to be prisoners of war.
Private James Thomson is buried at Maroeuil British Cemetery (See casualty lists for March 1916 and also the Buchan Observer reports regarding some of the missing )
Allan Thomson was a courageous and highly decorated soldier, being awarded the Military Medal in July 1917 and the Distinguished Conduct Medal in April 1918. Next to the Victoria Cross, the DCM was the most prestigious gallantry medal awarded to Other Ranks.
The citation for the DCM states:
"240460 L/Sgt A. Thomson, Gord. Highrs (Peterhead).
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. On finding that the platoon on the flank was held up by machine gun fire, he crawled along the parapet, and, single-handedly, rushed the machine gun and captured it, killing the crew. His conduct during the whole operation was an inspiration to his men." It is not known for which action he received this award.
By July 1918 the composition of the Battalion was very different from what it had been in 1915. Very few of the Buchan men who came to France with the unit in were still there in July 1918. Most of the men who had avoided death or injury became prisoners of war during the German Spring Offensive which began on 21st March 1918. (Over 400 men became POWs. Click here for details. ). To quote from the history of the Gordons: "There is little that can be said of the fate of the 5th Gordons [after the German advance] except that they were overrun and thereafter existed only as a handful of survivors of the shock, in addition to what was known as 'Echelon B' - the party, strong in officers and n.c.o.s kept back at the transport lines, transport men and cooks, and such officers and men rejoining from leave."
One such NCO was Lance Sergeant Thomson. He may have considered himself fortunate to have escaped the fate of so many of his comrades, but this ‘good fortune’ was not to last long.
Allan Thomson was killed in action at the battle of Buzancy on 28th July 1918, a mere eight days after the death of his younger brother Alexander.
On 13th August 1918 the following article appeared in the Buchan Observer:
BURNHAVEN - The sad news was officially received in the end of the week by Mrs Thomson, Burnhaven, that two of her sons had been killed and one wounded in the recent fighting. Sergt Allan Thomson who had twice been decorated for gallantry, receiving the Military Medal and the D C M, was home on furlough lately and only returned to the front a few weeks ago; in civil life he was a blacksmith with Mr Whyte, Sandford. The other son killed is Pte Alec Thomson, who has only been at the front for a few months; previous to joining up he was a farm servant in the district. A younger son, Pte William Thomson is in hospital; in civil life he was a tailor with Mr Gall, Queen Street. Mrs Thomson has now lost three sons in the defence of their country, Pte James Thomson having been killed about a year ago; previous to joining up he was a farm servant. What adds to the grief of Mrs Thomson in her great bereavement is that her husband died only last May, thus practically wiping out a gallant and patriotic family. The deepest sympathy is extended to Mrs Thomson in her irreparable loss.
See: Battle of Buzancy
Burr brothers of Methlick
Dunbar brothers of Fraserburgh