On 4 August 1914 my mother, Margaret Wallace, was not quite ten months old. She was living with her parents in Edinburgh where her father, Thomas Wallace, was a cashier in a brewery. On 2 December 1915, a couple of months after her second birthday, he joined up, aged 27. He qualified as a signaller and telephonist (First class signalling certificate )with the Royal Garrison Artillery, was mobilized on 17 August 1916, setting sail from Plymouth for France.
He served in France until November 1917 when the 289th Siege Battery was redeployed to northern Italy. I have read 289 Siege Battery’s War Diary (held in the National Archives -WO 95/4205 289) which covers the period from Dec 1917 to May 1918 and gives a very interesting picture of army life up in the mountains above Vicenza. The officers seem to have enjoyed reasonably regular short breaks, allowing them visits to Rome.
Thomas Wallace’s army record seems uneventful. On 22 March 1918 he was admonished by the C.O. for turning up 85 minutes late to 9pm Roll Call, so I hope he had been having some fun. I doubt he ever got to Rome. On 19 April he was awarded First Class Proficiency Pay of ‘6d per diem’ and on 17 May was sent on a ‘Pigeon Course’ at General Headquarters, rejoining his Battery a week later. Three weeks later, on 15 June, during the first day of the battle of Asiago he was killed. Army records show that his effects – comprising photos, 21shillings, metal wrist watch (broken) and signaller’s certificate – were returned to his widow, my grandmother.
The story handed down in the family ran something along the lines that, as a signaller, Thomas Wallace had been alerted to the fact that the Austrians were about to make a surprise attack, that communications had been disrupted and that he was relaying this information by travelling down the Line in person when he was killed. One is naturally very wary of ‘family’ stories, knowing full well how they get corrupted in the telling but in records held in the National Archives, I did read, in a report of the battle of 15 June,
“289 Siege battery detached and section from them to engage suitable targets among the enemy’s advancing infantry
10.15 Runner and motor cyclists used because lines cut to brigade headquarters
Casualties in Brigade: 1 officer and 4 other ranks killed.’
The report of course doesn’t name the ‘other ranks’ but I wondered if Gunner Thomas Wallace was not one of those men.
He is buried at Magnaboschi Cemetery, a lovely tranquil spot, which when we visited some years ago we approached on foot through meadows. A fair proportion of the men buried in this small cemetery were also killed on 15 June 1918. The War Graves Commission information for Thomas Wallace is correct, whereas that created by the War Office is careless enough to have him killed in France. It just shows that one should never trust even the most official of records without corroborating evidence. Some years ago I did manage to get his entry corrected in the Roll of Honour of the Royal Garrison Artillery, contained in Scottish National War Memorial in Edinburgh Castle. Wasn’t it just typical, I thought, when you know something about anything ‘They’ would get it wrong.
That cemetery was a world away from the life my grandmother knew – the villages and small towns of Fife. I doubt she ever saw a photograph of his grave. She never seemed to recover from his death. Life on a war widow’s pension was a struggle. She kept all the letters he sent from the War – and when I was about 12 years old I was allowed to read one or two. I particularly remember one that described his crossing of the Lombardy Plain on the way to Italy. Alas, those letters disappeared around the time of her death in a nursing home in the early 1960s.
Like so many other children of their generation my mother and her brother, who was born in December 1917, grew up without a father. That was all they had ever known.
What were that young couple, my grandparents, saying to each other as they discussed the news of War on 4 August 1914 in their Edinburgh tenement? Did they sense the cataclysm awaiting them? Probably not.
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