Armistice 100: Heroes of Passchendaele remembered

James Geddes with wife Anne and daughters Barbara (left) and Maggie
James Geddes with wife Anne and daughters Barbara (left) and Maggie

An old faded photograph of my maternal grandparents appeared from an almost forgotten old album and suddenly childhood memories began assembling in my mind along with a realisation that knowledge of grandad’s World War One war service was sparse indeed.

He never spoke about it and nobody did either.

He had seemed very old to me then, but it came as a surprise to discover from his gravestone that Jimmy Geddes was aged just 72 when he died at his home in Buchanhaven and was buried beside his wife Annie who had gone four years earlier aged 64.

My interest in grandad led me to discover what I could about his time in the Gordon Highlanders after a civilian life and making barrels for Messrs A. Wood and Son, herring fishcurers in Peterhead.

His story began with an article in the Buchan Observer’s files for August 21st, 1917 telling that “Mrs Geddes, 10 Mid Street, Buchanhaven, has been notified that her husband has been wounded on the left arm and is in hospital in England.”

Grandfather’s outfit was the 5th battalion of the Gordon Highlanders (1st Reserve) and was moved up to the front to be engaged in action at Pilkem Ridge on 30-31st July, 1917, on the first day of the third battle of Ypres known as Passchendaele.

The 5th battalion came up against strong resistance and 2nd Lieutenant W. B.Maitland, who commanded, was held up by a machine gun.

Maitland went for it single-handed, dodging and jumping from shell holes until he got to the gun’s emplacement.

He shot down two men and clubbed a third with his rifle butt to take the gun. Maitland was awarded the DSO.

Losses in both the 5th and 6th companies were heavy, with one officer killed and seven wounded. Of other ranks, 58 were killed and 171 wounded with seven missing. Passchendaele was fought between 31st July and 10th November 1917.

Memories of grandad are of an old gent sitting in his armchair by the fire with his radio at easy reach, a bottle of beer (euphemistically described to me as ‘poisonade’) and contentedly puffing at his pipe.

It was all water off a duck’s back to grandad; after the fighting at Pilkem Ridge, of which the coming months are the 100th year anniversary.

Mum was his youngest daughter and astonished accompanying relatives where, in her last years, as part of a crowded Union Street in Aberdeen, she had gone to see the Gordon Highlanders parade.

She pushed me to the kerb and shouted “hurrah for our brave soldiers” proving that grandad must have revealed some of his Army service which still lives on in the family.