It was only in early 2008 that I found out that I had relatives who had served in World War One. After my grandmother died I belated decided to look at my family tree. My mother dug out a tattered photocopy of a tree, faded and barely readable. It transpired that my great uncle had put this information together, diligently researching his ancestry in the days before the internet. One part that I could read immediately stood out – “William Brown MacDuff, b. 1893, d. Gt War 1917”. I was amazed – despite my interest in history I had never thought to ask, and no one had ever thought to tell me, that we had ancestors who had served in the war, let alone who had died.
I bombarded my mother with questions – she vaguely recalled that her Grandmother’s brother had been killed, but also that her grandfather had been in the army, and her great-grandfather was referred to as ‘the Colonel’. Stunned into action, I immediately set out to find out about these men.
My first port of call for William MacDuff was of course the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I quickly found his entry. “Enlisted in 1915 in Canada, Canadian Expeditionary Forces. Gazetted to Black Watch 1917.” This immediately raised more questions – what was he doing in Canada? If he had been gazetted to the Black Watch, why was he with the Border Regiment when he died?
His medal index card gave a bit more information – it showed he had risen through the ranks and been commissioned on 28th August 1917, and was killed in action on 2nd December 1917. Shortly after I discovered that Canadian attestation records are available online, and looked up William’s papers. These told me that William had been a bank clerk; he had enlisted in June 1915 in Calgary, three days after his 22nd birthday, and had experience in the Territorial Force. I ordered his full service record from the Canadian archive and from these papers learned that he had arrived in England in 1916, where he was attached to the Pay Office (not surprising really given his banking experience). Perhaps disillusioned with his non-combatant role, he applied for a commission in the British Army, and embarked on officer training in May 1917.
Searching the London Gazette helped me to understand the discrepancies over which regiment he had served with. After his officer training he was commissioned to the 5th Battalion, Border Regiment. However, it appears he never joined them. Instead he was attached to the 11th Battalion (The Lonsdales), and in November he was commissioned to the Royal Highlanders (The Black Watch).
I also visited The National Archives and looked at William’s British service record and the war diary for the 11th Border Regiment. His service record showed he stated a preference for joining the Black Watch – I later learned his father served as a Lieutenant Colonel with the regiment. However he never got his wish of joining the regiment. The war diary entry for the day William died was frustratingly brief: “The battalion made a night attack on the German positions south of Westroosebeek in conjunction with remaining units of 97th Infantry Brigade and two units of the 96th Infantry Brigade. Zero hour 1.55am.The battalion took its objectives but the two leapfrogging companies fell back before dawn onto subsidiary objectives which were held all day until the enemy launched a counterattack at 4.30pm and the battalion fell back onto the old line. Casualties for the whole action [included] 2nd Lt MacDuff killed.”
However I still wanted to know more about William’s life, and ultimately his death.