The Perils of Passchendaele

Shows two French soldiers beside a muddy cemetery. (via National Army Museum)

Dear Father,
I think I have a little good news to tell you, but of course do not rely too much on what I am going to say as you know in the Army things may be altered at the last moment. We have just received news here that the Main Body are being sent home, and will probably leave any day. I think the news is fairly reliable as the old hands have had their names taken and according to what I hear they are making arrangements in England for the transportation home… …if that is the case I will be well on the way by the time this reaches you, and will be able to spend a very enjoyable Xmas at home. (20.9.17)

This letter was written to John Buchan (1858-1926) from his son Arthur from the battlefields in Belgium.  Sadly, he never got to spend that ‘enjoyable Xmas at home’ as a week later, Private Arthur Buchan of the ‘Main Body’ was gassed and received gunshot wounds to his head and arm. He died only ten days after writing that hopeful letter to his father.

Through gas and smoke, our troops advance to the final assault of Passchendaele Ridge’, 1917.  (via National Army Museum)

In 1893, Arthur was a 2 year old boy emigrating to New Zealand aboard the Rimutaka (seen in a previous post); the cousin of my great-grandfather, Charles Buchan (also aboard).

In 1917, Arthur was one of the 400 000 who died in the Battle of Passchendaele.

This year commemorates the centenary of this horrific event, also known as the ‘Third Battle of Ypres’.

A letter from a friend to Arthur’s cousin, Bill (my GGF Charles Buchan’s brother) gives more detail on the incident that led to his death:

We were in the old Hun front line at Ypres, in front of the village of St Jean & were to go into the advanced front line next evening. Early in the morning Fritz sent over gas shells & we had our masks on for 4 1/2 hours when we got word that it was clear. We were just settling down again to sleep when he sent a stray one over which landed clean on the duckboard in the corner of the bay.  Arthur was lying in the transverse & it landed within a yard of his feet and in addition to gassing him wounded him in three places namely, temple, left wrist shattered & a bad smack in the right shoulder. He was very game &, bad as he was, insisted in walking out himself. He was carried out though and I can truthfully say was not in any pain. The gas is very poisonous & I think that is the cause of his death as another chap got only a small piece in the back and died the next day… A McLennan (24.10.17)
Wounded from Ypres at improvised hospital, Bailleul, nd. (via National Army Museum)
Cousin Bill wrote from his own hospital bed in Walton on Thames to his Uncle John in New Zealand:
I have often told you he was a son and a brother to be proud of – a brave and fearless soldier who was ever ready to volunteer for any dangerous work. From time to time I have met men who had been in the trenches with him and their frank admiration of him as a soldier and acomrade has made me proud that I bear his name.  His many friends at Walton ask me to convey to you their sincere sympathy – his loss is deeply regretted by everyone he knew in the village… the real grief I met with on every hand is the best testimony to the manner in which he had endeared himself to all…
Billy
Perhaps even more tragic is the postscript of the same letter, which reads:
I have just seen the latest casualty list with Billie’s name on it.  What can I say? May God be with you in your time of trouble and comfort you in your bereavement.
Billie was Arthur’s younger brother who died on October 24, 1917, less than a month after his elder sibling.  A letter detailing the circumstances around his death was received by father, John from Billie’s lieutenant:
We had just made the attack on Passchendaele on the 12th October and were for a few days holding the line in front of the Village… We occupied a German pillbox as my [head quarters] and were in it when Fritz commenced a heavy gas shell bombardment. I was in the act of posting a Gas sentry when a shell burst in the doorway and filled the pillbox with gas. We all received a big dose before we could don our masks. We all took all known precautions against the gas, burning and fanning, and after having worn our masks for over an hour I took it upon myself the responsibility of ordering them off. The air smelled perfectly sweet and free from gas, but in about eight hours time most of us began to vomit and go blind. I sent all those affected out and followed shortly afterwards… Three others besides Corp. Cooney and Pte Buchan died as a result of this gassing and I feel sure their deaths in all cases were due to complications of pneumonia… I can only say that no one knew til afterwards that the gas destroyed the sense of smell and so prevented us from detecting its presence… (2nd Lieutenant David Williams (18.7.18)
German pillbox on the Passchendaele battlefield (via NZHistory)

Perhaps it was merciful that their mother, Jessie had died before the onset of WWI in 1910.

Lest we forget.

Arthur & William Buchan (via From Peterhead to Passchendaele, Roy Buchan)

The information and excerpts contained in this post were provided by Roy Buchan from his book From Peterhead to Passchendaele (2003).

The One That Stayed Behind

I had mentioned in ‘Desperately Seeking John’ that there was one BUCHAN who didn’t emigrate to New Zealand on the Rimutaka with the rest of the family.  In Roy Buchan’s book ‘From Peterhead to Passchendaele’ he mentions that “there is thought to be at least one other who stayed behind.”.

Feeling inspired, I wanted to find out more about Charles BUCHAN (junior) – ‘the one that stayed behind’.  He had appeared on all the census records between 1871 and 1891 – odd that he didn’t go with them. I wondered why he had stayed and considered whether his descendants were still living in the Peterhead area?

I downloaded Charles’ birth certificate:

Birth Certificate of Charles BUCHAN
born 27 November 1865

After a search of marriages on the IGI, I was unable to find a likely match so I checked deaths.  I hoped this would give me the name of his wife if he had at all married.

Unfortunately, he hadn’t.

Poor Charles died at 26 years of age in 1892 – about a year and a half before the family moved to New Zealand.  He died from consumption of the lungs (phthisis pulmonaris). His father, Charles (b.1830), was present at his death and registered the event three days later.

Death Certificate of Charles BUCHAN
Died 30 July 1892

Now we know Charles had no option BUT to stay behind.

Desperately Seeking John – A Sad Conclusion

In case brother John DID refer to brother-in-law John, I decided to check for deaths before embarking on a costly census trawl.  There were a few likely entries but since John hadn’t appeared on any of the censuses, I chose one of the infant deaths first and sure enough there he was:

Poor little tyke only lived 12 days – cause unknown.
I think it’s safe to say that the John present at Alexander BUCHAN’s death is his sister Jessie’s (born 1860) husband.  They had married back in Peterhead and emigrated with Jessie’s parents and siblings.

Desperately Seeking John

A couple of months ago, I found out via an 1896 newspaper article that my ancestor, Alexander Ritchie BUCHAN, had a brother called John.  John was there when Alex died pulling in a fishing net but where was he all those other years?
18 foot shark caught in Otago Harbour 1894
Charles BUCHAN and his wife Jessie (Janet RITCHIE) migrated to New Zealand on the Rimutaka in 1893. All their children (except Charles), some of whom had begun their own families went too.  Peter, Jessie (married to John BUCHAN), Alex and William all arrived on the Rimutaka. John had never appeared with the family on the censuses and so I hadn’t realised he was missing.
A little bit of research proved that John was actually twin brother of William – born 11th July 1868 in Peterhead.  Was it just coincidence that he was away from home all those census nights?  Did he stay in Scotland or
A search of shipping lists from 1890 don’t seem to show John’s arrival in New Zealand so it seems likely that he migrated before the rest of the family.
RMS Rimutaka

A search of the IGI comes up with  9 other John BUCHANs born in Scotland in 1868 alone. I have scribbled down these parents names to avoid confusion as the long census search begins…

Edited to add:
Just reread an excerpt from Roy BUCHANs book about the family:

The Buchan family settled in Carey’s Bay, a mile from Port Chalmers. They fished in the comparative calm of the inner Otago Harbour instead of the hazardous and stormy North Sea. The main breadwinners were Jack, his brother-in-law Alexander and father-in-law Dade [Charles]. The younger two men would fish from an open boat in the harbour and Dade would sell the fish.

Could brother John actually refer to his brother-in-law John (married to Jessie)? The newspaper article mentions that Charles also gave evidence at the hearing which means he was probably also there (as the excerpt suggests).

More Buchan ‘Lunatics’

I was very excited to receive an email from Roy BUCHAN – author of the book ‘From Peterhead to Passchendaele’ mentioned on this blog and distant relative of mine.

He also mentioned that the Mr Peter BUCHAN listed above (on the Rimutaka 1893 passenger list) as aged 35 was, in fact, mentally retarded from birth and died 3 years after landing in New Zealand.  This was roughly the same time as his brother, and my direct ancestor, Alexander Ritchie BUCHAN died while working on a fishing boat.
Before I’d even had a chance to look into it, another distant BUCHAN relative, emailed me the information that Peter had actually died in July 1897 (seven months after his brother, Alex).  He apparently died at Seacliff Hospital, Dunedin – also known as Seacliff Lunatic Asylum.
(NOTE: A further email from the same relative warns that this may not be true)
Seacliff Hospital, Dunedin, NZ c.1910

Peter was the son of  Charles and Jessie (nee RITCHIE) BUCHAN.
I will now be checking for his asylum records.

Next Steps:

  • Check for Peter BUCHAN’s death in New Zealand (Place of death – asylum?)
  • Look into story from Roy Buchan’s book that suggests he went out ‘wandering’ and died from exposure