As the highly contested Poppy season kicks in, Gordon Cairns explores earlier attitudes towards ‘war memorial’.
During the 1980s, half a century of gusting salt-heavy winds, biting frost and rain began to erode the ground around the seawall protecting a forgotten corner of a park in the resort town of Millport. The weather’s war of attrition against the island slowly revealed a rusting gun barrel and then gradually, the metal rimmed wheel of a cannon buried underneath. The islanders had a number of theories about where the gun had come from, before it was discovered that it was part of a pair of German Howitzers presented as a trophy after the First World War. How this ‘rejected relic of imperial power’ and its matching partner, presumed to be buried nearby, ended up in such ignominious surroundings gives a remarkable insight into how one Scottish community chose to commemorate war and exposes the ultra-conformity of today’s keepers of the morality of remembering, where not wearing a poppy or singing the National Anthem is akin to laughing at a funeral.
This strange cargo was delivered to the island’s harbour on a bleak November day in 1919. Two cannons, which until very recently had been used by the German military to kill British soldiers, had been awarded in recognition of the sacrifices the islanders had made during the 1914-18 war. Forty two men died from a total population of just under1600. Everyone would have known at least someone who had perished during the conflict.
Millport was not alone. Across the victorious nations of the Allies, almost 5,000 guns were distributed, along with countless smaller armaments, as trophies to glorify in the defeat of the enemy, the modern equivalent of spiking a head to be displayed on city walls. Even today, from Dunedin in New Zealand to Bridgewater in Nova Scotia, towns and cities still have these relics of imperial power in prominent places; however this was not the case in Millport.
Through modern eyes the following actions of the islanders might seem disrespectful and unpatriotic. The four ton Howitzers remained on the harbour as winter turned into spring, while the council debated where to put them and who should pay the costs of £7 carriage from Rothesay. The anonymous diarist of the Largs and Millport Weekly News had a clear idea. The writer variously suggested the guns be lost at sea, stolen or sent to Edinburgh to replace a missing pair.
As the months wore on, the clearly exasperated commentator eventually wrote: “We have decided to start a competition in this paper. The question set is “What is the best thing to be done with the unwanted junk?” For the best answer, the prize will be one of the German guns and for the second best answer, the other gun.”
This was a popular view. Two councillors, Messrs Sinclair and Gardner, both expressed the opinion that the people did not want a memorial of the war in this form. The provost eventually agreed to pay the overdue transportation fees and it was agreed that the war trophies would be moved to West Bay Park.
But the town was not gripped by anti-war feelings; in fact the council debated about how best to honour the returning soldiers, through having a dance or giving them some kind of memento as a token of the Burgh’s esteem. Eighteen islanders won medals during the Great War and these men were presented with awards in January 1920 in recognition of their efforts. In fact a few years later, after the town had its own war memorial erected in 1922, complaints were made to the council about a litter bin attached to the railings as being disrespectful.
Millport was not the only Scottish coastal community to display such ambiguous feelings towards the spoils of war, illustrated in a Para Handy short story written by Neil Munro. In ‘The Captured Cannon’ published in 1923, the Vital Spark sails up and down the west coast trying to get rid of a German 18-pounder cannon that the towns people of Lochgilphead were ‘sick of the sight of’, before the gun is jettisoned at sea. One character describes the cargo thus: ‘A German cannon’s worse than a drunken reputation, ye cannae get rid of it.’
Millport’s German cannons had a more unusual fate than being dumped in the Irish Sea. In the time since the guns had alighted in the park, a children’s play area had sprung up around them and it was perhaps with this in mind, another local councillor Thomas Freebairn motioned for: “The gun reminders of the Great War be removed from the West Bay Park and put out of sight of rising generations.” Local publican and war veteran Freebairn, who had volunteered at the start of the conflict, had a six-year-old son. Perhaps he didn’t want his only child to be confronted with the weapons of war each time he played in his local park. The motion was passed and the guns were removed, but he couldn’t protect his son from the forthcoming war, Charles Freebairn enlisted in 1939, although thankfully survived the conflict.
Council records are unclear about where the guns went, but at the bottom of the park was a local dump. It would not be too big a jump to suggest this is where they were dragged before eventually being incorporated into the sea wall. Ironically, this fate meant that the guns under the wall are two of the last to remain in the UK today, as the rest were melted for scrap to help the Second World War effort.
Iain Crichton Smith described the telegrams arriving in another Scottish island, telling families of the death of a loved one during the Second World War “as a strange missile pointed at them from abroad.” The evidence suggests that the Scottish islands felt their relics of war were similarly unsolicited but their response was unique; a mixture of civic pride in their sacrifice but no desire to be confronted with the instruments of destruction on a daily basis.