Remembering those who fought in the Great War.

James McNab Dick

An Apprentice Smith in civil life. A steady man & good worker. Worked in Fergusons and the Clyde Yard.

His boyhood nickname was Dick the Devil because he was very daring and always got up to mischief. We had heard tales about some of his adventures in his Port Glasgow childhood. A favourite ploy was, along with his pals, climbing onto sugar lorries transporting raw goods from the harbour to the various sugar houses in the town and grabbing fistfuls of its sweetness.  His great passion in childhood was swimming. With his pals he dived from the pier into the deep waters of the Clyde, trying to outdo each other in the length of time they could remain underwater. He pushed himself to his limit to be the winner. I wish I could remember the number of minutes he managed because it was the longest any of the boys could do.

            One day a man standing at the edge of the pier accidentally dropped his wallet over the side into the water. My father had noticed this and offered to dive in and retrieve it, which he did after a few tries. That was one of his boyhood exploits he was very proud of. He had a great love of the sea and used to tell us about sailing around the Firth of Clyde with his uncles, who all had boats, as did many Port Glasgow men of that time.

            His mother had died when he was just thirteen and his father, a strict Victorian disciplinarian, had no qualms about corporal punishment but fear of a beating never deterred young Jimmy from carrying out his exploits. He was brave, strong and fast and had a dour determination second to none. Those characteristics were strong in him all his life and must have helped him to survive the terrible experiences to come. I have proud and happy memories of my father. To me he was the man who could do anything.

            As a teenager he joined the Territorial Army because they went camping and as he had never had a holiday and enjoyed the outdoors this appealed to him. Some holiday that lead him into!

            When war broke out in 1914 the TA were amongst the first to be called into military service. He and his TA friends joined the 5th Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders, E Company, which was the Port Glasgow company. Thus began an experience which he, like many others who went through similar horrors, never wanted to talk about.

After training they were sent on guard duty on the Firth of Clyde, his home territory and then they were sent to Gallipoli.   

            Growing up, we were familiar with all those names; Egypt, Palestine, Suvla Bay, Gallipoli, the Dardanelles. We knew those places somewhere out in the east had held some importance in his life. In his youth he had been to all of them as a soldier in the Great War. He was rather sketchy about what had happened there and we didn't press for details; not until we were old enough to know a little of what they represented.

            Gradually he fed us some information about landing at Helles, then climbing the heights behind the bay to reach the place where they would engage in fighting the Turks. At the top was a barbed wire fence, which they had to climb over without getting stuck. A soldier, who had preceded them up the steep slope had become caught on the wire. He had been shot by the Turks and his body was hanging over the fence. The commanding officer ordered his men to run over the body to get over the fence without becoming entangled, which they did.

            'That was the body of one of my friends.'  He never forgot that.

            When he spoke of the enemy he told us, 'Fierce, fierce fighters they were,' his brows drawn down as he remembered. 'They were strong soldiers and they fought desperately. I was what was called a Front Line Runner, a very dangerous duty. I had to run along the front line of battle delivering messages from one officer to another regarding what was going on and decisions taken by them. The enemy front line was almost within touching distance. You were lucky to escape the bullets coming from the Turkish side.

We fell silent, thinking of our strict but kind and caring Dad, who had told us magical stories from his imagination about horses and rabbits and had sung us to sleep at night, being involved in such horrible experiences. We had heard more than we had expected and thought that that was all he would say but now he had started he seemed to want to go on. He fixed his deep blue eye on us as he continued,

            'My kilt was stiff as a board. Caked with the blood of my brave dead school pals.' He told us how, each night, they would light a match and run the flame along the seams and pleats of their kilts to kill the lice.

             'That's how we lived from April till December, through exhausting heat in summer and freezing blizzards in winter, without any leave. Killing and seeing friends being killed every day. For what? That's why I don't go to any of their parades. They only glorify war and most of the folk that do go have no idea what it was really like. I went out there as a patriot but came back with a different frame of mind. War never solves anything.'

            He put his pipe back in his mouth and resumed reading his newspaper. He must have still been thinking about it, though, as he went on,

            'When the order was given to retreat from the Heights to Helles, we had to do it in silence during the night. The officers showed us a clever way to move without making any noise. We had to stretch our blankets out in front of us and use them to creep along. Soundlessly.  Then do it again and again till we were out of earshot and reached the top of the incline that we had to struggle down.'

These were rare insights into his Great War experiences.  His commanding officer was decorated for what my father had accomplished on the front line. In those days, rank and your place in society was everything so, of course, his 'superior' was given the honour.

            They were taken from there to Palestine, where he and his comrades swam in the Dead Sea, climbed Mount Sinai and visited all the places he had learned about as a child in Sunday School.

            'It was like a sort of holiday after what we had been through and before the next onslaught,' he said. Some holiday! At least it gave them some time to make a kind of recovery from what had gone on before. They went from there to Egypt. He was finally demobbed on 17th November 1917, having served for 4years 236 days.

His papers also state that he was 5ft 6in. with blue eyes, fair hair, fair complexion and 22 years old when demobbed. It also states he was a steady man and a good worker.  There is a note printed on the back of his Discharge Certificate saying,

            'The attention of soldiers, who have taken their discharge on termination of engagement, but who are physically fit for service, is drawn to the great need for trained men with the largely expanded Armies which have been called into being since the outbreak of war. It is hoped that such men will decide to return to the Colours with as little delay as possible and so to the services they have already rendered to their King and country.'

I can picture him reading that with a wry smile. He came back an older and much wiser man than the boy who had left. I know he had been awarded medals, as had all soldiers but when he received his he sent them right back.

            'They are meaningless and only serve to glorify war,' he would say. 'I went to war as a patriot and came out a pacifist.' Having said that, he would never sit back if he saw a wrong being done and always stood up for what was right and taught us to do the same. ' Dare to be a Daniel, dare to stand alone,' he used to say, 'don't be mealy mouthed. Never be afraid to speak your mind.'

            He had looked forward to being back home amongst his family and away from the horrors he had recently experienced. As a youth he had often fallen out with his father about not attending church. Jimmy said he met so many hypocrites there that he could not stomach it but his father kept insisting. Apart from Jenny his youngest sister, his siblings had now all married and left home, happily living nearby but his widowed father had remarried in 1916. The loss of his mother at an early age had left a deep scar so Jimmy was horrified that his father had seen fit to replace her. However, a surprise awaited him. His new stepmother, Jessie,  turned out to be a wonderful warm hearted woman, who had invited all their friends and family to a gathering to welcome the soldier home. He was impressed by the kindness of her gesture, which was more than his father would ever have done. Jessie,  'The Second Mrs Dick', as she was sometimes referred to, continued in her kindly ways and impressed everyone with the changes she had made in all of their lives. She came to them as a stranger but quickly made her mark in the family, especially with Jimmy, who continued to live at home with them in  the house where he was born.

            The first and most pressing problem to hit him on his return to civilian life was that of finding a job. He returned to the firm of Dunlop, Bremner & Company Limited at Inch Works to finish serving his time. The trade of blacksmith had not been his own choice. His father was a shipwright working in one of the yards in the town. That job had exposed him to all weathers, so as soon as his sons were old enough, he had decided that they would have inside jobs. James and George became blacksmiths. That was the way of things at that time. There was little choice, if you lived in a ship building town, but to get a job in one of the yards and fathers had  to be obeyed. Jimmy worked there for two years. His papers show that he worked next at Ferguson Brothers in their Newark Works in Port Glasgow. This is the only shipyard left now in that town which was amongst others so famous worldwide  for shipbuilding along the River Clyde. He appears to have been in and out of work for some time. Perhaps once his apprenticeship was finished he may not have been kept on.

            My father had always loved singing, like his father before him .Grandpa Dick was a precentor in their church. He would sing a line followed by the congregation singing the same line, the next line done in the same way right through the whole psalm. Jimmy and George had inherited their father's gift of music. Their new stepmother said that their father should have spent his money having their voices trained. Jimmy joined a male voice choir in Greenock. He sang bass and had a strong resonant quality to his voice. He was often asked to sing solo at concerts.. He also joined the Port Glasgow Harriers. Running at full speed along country roads must have been a sheer joy after all the horrors of the past few years. He also attended evening classes to study economics. (In later life he studied genetics from books he read at home) Life was beginning to improve at last... for a time.

             As more men returned from war, jobs became scarcer. The nineteen twenties was a time of great depression in the country, the aftermath of war. Shortly after the death of his stepmother, Jimmy decided to join the flocks of emigrants seeking a better life abroad. He sailed from Liverpool to New York in 1923 with the intention of building his life there. Those young men set out in their hoards with no promise of  job or accommodation. On passage to New York concerts were held aboard ship and we used to have programmes with his name on them as a solo singer, so he still kept up his music even then.

            He told us of the rooming houses, 'All built of wood. Everything was made of wood. Many stories high with wooden staircases. Fire traps, the lot of them.'  He couldn't wait to get out of that. There was plenty work for joiners in the US at that time but less for blacksmiths so he had some difficulty.

            'If I had been a joiner I could have made a fortune,' he told us.

            Whilst there he broke his leg and spent some time in a convalescent home where he had a good view of the river. He enjoyed watching the yachts belonging to millionaires sailing up to Newport Rhode Island. One in particular took his fancy and he kept an eye open for it.

            Back home, his eldest sister, Cathy, wrote to their Uncle Archie McPhail, who had emigrated to the US some years before. She told him about Jimmy's accident and where he was convalescing. She asked if it was anywhere near him, would he mind paying a visit to him. So, one day, much to Jimmy's surprise, his Uncle Archie and his wife arrived. Knowing of his uncle's love of boats the conversation soon turned to the beautiful yacht  my father had been watching. His uncle's reply was hard to believe.

            'I am the skipper of that yacht and you are coming home with us. We'll look after you till you're fit again.'

            He was as good as his word to which his wife had agreed wholeheartedly. He stayed with them at Rhode Island and was regularly taken out on the yacht of his dreams.

            Work became more difficult to get and he was very homesick, so after four years, he worked his passage home on a cattle boat. If you asked him what was the nicest place he had ever seen his answer was always the same, 'The Tail o' the Bank on the way home,' a common expression on the Clyde. When pressed, he once told me, 'The Greek Islands are quite nice. They're a bit like the Kyles o' Bute.'!

            He married my mother, whom he met in her home village of Kilmacolm. She had also done her bit in the war, working in the munitions factory in Gretna in the 'Devil's Porridge' but that's another story. They set up home in Houston Street, Port Glasgow, where we were born.

            During the thirties my father  was in and out of work regularly, more out than in, till the next war started. To escape all the bombing that plagued Clydeside for a long time before the Blitz, they decided to return to Kilmacolm.  People were coming up to the village and sleeping in park shelters to escape the bombing.

All we could get was one room for all four of us in the home of a man who, to put it politely, was rather odd!

He put all sorts of restrictions on us and even stole our rations. As children we took it in our stride but those four years we spent in that room must have been dreadful for our parents especially after all they had been through previously. Eventually we moved into an old house, built in 1817 where we had all the room we needed to spread ourselves about. It was a happy and welcoming old house and we all enjoyed our life there.

            My father was diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease in his early sixties. He died in my arms when I was twenty three. I looked into his face and told him the first thing that was in my heart,  'You never told me a lie and you never broke a promise.'

A fine legacy for us, his children.

Enlisted 27/3/1913 Discharged 17/11/17 4 years 236 days. Wounded - injury to eye - 23/12/1915 Left for Munitions Work 28/7/16 embarked on SS Tunisian 3/8/16

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James McNab Dick