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1st/5th Battalion Gordon Highlanders

Why some men appear on the Volunteer Roll but did not go overseas.

Quite a few men who appeared in the newspaper list of volunteers did not go overseas, indicated by their failure to appear in the Campaign Medal Rolls Index.  These are rolls showing the medal entitlements of all soldiers who saw service overseas.   If a card shows that a man was awarded a 1914 Star, it indicates he served in France or Flanders between 5th August and 22nd November 1914.  The award of the 1914/1915 Star shows he was in a theatre of war before 31st December 1915. The Victory Medal and British War Medals were awarded to any soldier who served overseas in a theatre of war. (For more information on Campaign medals, see The National Archives site. )

The reasons why a soldier did not go overseas are almost impossible to know without some personal knowledge of the man concerned or access to their military records. However there were at least three possible explanations:

Click here to see details for some men who were discharged early.

Some men did not in fact sign for Imperial (overseas) Service despite initially indicating to the contrary.  As mentioned elsewhere, the  role of the Territorials was primarily home defense and men could not (initially at least) be compelled to serve overseas without first agreeing to this Imperial Service commitment.  To quote from the book A Nation in Arms by Ian Beckett and Keith Simpson:

In some instances commanding officers made commitments on behalf of their men which proved somewhat optimistic, as in the 51st (Highland) Division [of which the 5th Bn Gordon Highlanders was a part], where a 75 per cent acceptance was officially recorded, only for it to fall significantly when individuals had to signify their assent personally and on paper.

William Forbes Cassie was one young man who joined the Battalion after war was declared, appearing as a new recruit in the October list. He would therefore have been aware that he may be required to serve overseas.   It must be assumed either that he had taken, or was at least willing to take, the Imperial Service obligation.  However he is subsequently shown as having been in the 2nd/5th Battalion and served in Britain throughout the war. [Biographical information from 'War Book of Turriff'.  No Medal card.]  Any of the three explanations may fit Cassie. He was born in June 1897 and so would have just been 17 at the outbreak of war. However the fact that he at no time served overseas despite turning 19 (the official age for service overseas) in June 1916 indicates that poor health may have been the reason for his not serving overseas. ( The option of Territorials to serve at home was rescinded during the war, with many fit men being 'combed-out' for foreign service.)

Some men simply evaded the age limit restrictions.  William Forbes No1727, a farm worker from Balquhindochy, was discharged at Bedford because he was under age.  However, after his return home, he lied about his age and re-enlisted in the 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders. (War Book of Turriff)

Many men failed to meet the more stringent requirements for overseas service. In fact the available records do show several men being discharged due to poor health or illness. For example, No 2100 Robert Connon, a farm servant from Turriff, (D Company) was discharged as medically unfit in December 1914 while No1654 Thomas Norrie, another farm worker, of Cairnhill, Monquhitter, also from D Company, had likewise been discharged in September 1914.  No1692 James Riddell enlisted on 15th Dec 1913, was embodied at the outbreak of war, signed for foreign service at Bedford on 25th September 1914 but was discharged as medically unfit for further service following complications that arose after contracting measles at Bedford.  Records show that between ten and twenty percent of men in many Territorial battalions proved to be unfit for active service. (Note: The 1914 Battalion Roll has been updated to show details of many of the men who were discharged early and whose records survive in The National Archives series WO364)

One man, about whom I have some information, is William Baird No2070 (C Company).  (See Additional information.) Although appearing on the list of volunteers in 1914, his medal card shows he did not receive the 1915 Star, indicating he didn’t go to France with his Battalion in May 1915. However, unlike William Cassie, he went overseas later in the war. From the accounts of relatives, it is known he did serve in France “late in the War” (campaign medals confirm this - he was awarded the British War Medal and the Victory Medal) and was captured, becoming a prisoner of war and had “a pretty rough time”. Why he didn’t go with the Battalion is unknown. It may have been because of his age – he had only just turned 18 when war was declared, and although the enlistment age was 17 (younger boys could join under certain circumstances), as mentioned above the preferred age for overseas service was 19.  Once again, the accounts of relatives may shed some light on the reasons for the delay in his departure.  William's father was opposed to his joining the army and may have prevented his son from going overseas until he was 19.
See here for a photograph of Baird with the 3/5th Battalion at Ripon.

Many lads did circumvent this age restriction and the casualty lists shows several boys of 17 and 18 being killed. There is even one 16 year old – No 3368 Alexander Lobban (born 22 October 1899) – who was killed in March 1916 after being in France for less than three months. (See Casualty List).  Lobban was illegitimate and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission records show he was the ward of a Mrs Strachen. As was the case with William Baird, many parents intervened to prevent their under-age son's being sent to France, but it is possible Lobban had no such protection.

Similarly, Drummer Albert J Balloch, No1703,  was a month younger than Lobban and a great deal luckier. Unlike Alexander Lobban, he had parents to watch over his interests. Balloch appears on the 1914 volunteers' list, yet was only 15 at the time (born 3 November 1899). His Service Number indicates he would have enlisted in 1913 at the age of fourteen. The 1909 regulations for boys stated, 'Boys between fourteen and seventeen years of age may, with the consent of their parents or guardians, be attested (i.e.enlisted) for appointment or training as trumpeters, buglers or bandsmen.'   The Mobilisation Orders of 1914 stated that such lads could proceed overseas with the permission of their Commanding Officer (and presumably their parents). However in the case of young Balloch, the records, or rather the lack of them, indicate that he did not go overseas in 1914, or at any time during the War. (He would only have reached the legal age for overseas service about a  week before the Armistice.) 

James Walker, a farmer's son, was even younger than Loddan, being born in about 1900.  He successfully enlisted on 3rd April 1915 stating he was 19 years of age, but was discharged two weeks later. His discharge documents show "He is claimed by his parents as being under military age."  He was discharged under Paragraph 392 VI of Kings Regulations : Having made a mis-statement as to age on enlistment".

One of the youngest member of the battalion must surely have been William Forbes. No1583 William Keith Forbes enlisted as a drummer at Peterhead in February 1913 when he was still at school.  His medical records show be was a mere four feet tall and his stated age was given as 14. However as he was born on 24th October 1901 this is incorrect and he would have been eleven years old in February 1913 when attested, in contravention of the 1909 regulations mentioned above. He was still under thirteen years of age when eventually discharged at Perth on 29th Sept 1914. His father 571 Pte William K Forbes was also in  the battalion and was reported missing during the German advance of 21st March 1918 and was deemed to have died on that date.

This problem of underage soldiers in Territorial units was a major concern to the Army in the early years of the War. 

An Army Council instruction of 23rd December 1914 contravened the original Mobilisation Order on this point and stated that:

Complaints have been received that untrained and immature lads have been allowed to proceed overseas with certain TF units, notwithstanding the orders that have been issued that no one in a unit of the TF is to be allowed to proceed to join the BEF unless he is medically fit, fully trained, and is 19 years of age or over.

The Army Order was obviously known to the officers and men of the Territorials. However, as a considerable percentage of a battalion could be under age, to remove all these men would leave the unit considerably under strength. As a result in many cases a blind eye was turned, such as in the case of Alexander Copland (born 3 April 1898).

On 20th January 1915 No 2081 Alexander Copland, then aged 16, and stationed with the Battalion at Bedford, wrote to his mother: “I think I will be soon be back in Peterhead because I am not 19 years old.”   However, notwithstanding the December (and subsequent) Army Order, underage lads continued to find their way to France, including Copland, who was killed by a single bullet to the head in the early hours of 18th June 1916. He was just two months past his eighteenth birthday.

For details about the other end of the age scale see the information relating to Sergeant William Cruickshank in Additional information

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Carolyn Morrisey