Faces from the Lewis War Memorial is a website which lists the names and further details of the men from the Isle of Lewis who lost their lives in the First World War.
This article is dedicated to their memory.
Faces from the Lewis War Memorial aims to keep their memory alive, and remember their sacrifice. The loss of life, from and island perspective, can best be summed up in this quote, paraphrased from the frontpage of the site: Why did those men from our village have to die because an Archduke was shot dead in Sarajevo?
2. World War I casualties
Researching HMS Timbertown and the sinking of HMY Iolaire led me to find out who the men (and possibly women) were who came from Lewis to die in the First World War. It was obvious at this point that these numbers were large (numbers quoted below are rounded off):
Population of Lewis according to 1911 census: 30,000
Number of people who joined the armed services: 6,000
Number of people killed in the war: 1,300
of whom were lost in the sinking of the Iolaire 200
2.1 The Iolaire Disaster
A unique and deeply tragic aspect of the First World War in the Isle of Lewis is the sinking of HMY Iolaire in the early hours of New Year’s Day 1919. The vessel had left Kyle of Lochalsh at 7.30pm the evening before, carrying 300 naval personnel from Lewis and Harris, as well as crew. Another complement of Lewismen travelled on the regular mailsteamer Sheila. As the Iolaire approached Stornoway from the south, the weather deteriorated and strong winds, coupled with a heavy southerly swell, became prevalent. What exactly went wrong is not known. Fact has it that the vessel ran aground on the Beasts of Holm, a notorious reef off Holm Point, just under 2 miles south of Stornoway, at the entrance to the town’s harbour. It is marked, but not with a light. Seventy-five men managed to gain the shore with the aid of a rope, brought ashore by one of their number. The lifeboats were launched, but were immediately swamped by the swell. Those that jumped overboard drowned or were smashed against the rocks, although the Iolaire ran on rocks that lie barely fifty yards from shore.
By morning, the true horror of the situation dawned. The bodies of nearly 140 sailors washed up on the shores of the island, from Lochs up to Stornoway and round to the Braighe. One was found as late as June 1919, in Loch Grimshader, just 4 miles to the south. Sixty were never recovered.
There was not one village that had not lost a son in this disaster, not a family untouched. Even today, the Iolaire disaster is not easily discussed in Lewis.
2.2 Sources of information for Faces from the Lewis War Memorial
2.2.1 Roll of Honour
The primary source for information on the men who fought and died in the Great War is Loyal Lewis Roll of Honour 1914-1918, published in 1921 by the Stornoway Gazette. An earlier volume, published in 1916, has the overlap for the years 1914-1915 and the first days of 1916. It is chilling to compare the two volumes, and recognise the names of those who died in 1916 or later, still quoted as alive at the end of 1915.
Those that died in the Great War are marked in the Roll of Honour by an asterisk. The amount of personal information supplied is quite variable in quantity and quality. Assuming that the Roll of Honour is the final and definitive source is a mistake. It gives the names of 1,150 men who died in the First World War, but my research has added another 150.
I have transcribed the data from the 1921 Roll of Honour and placed the result on the Internet.
2.2.2 War Memorials
The Lewis War Memorial, which rises prominently above the town of Stornoway, consists of the tower, with the 23 memorial plaques outside. They were moved outside, after water ingress caused structural damage to the tower, which rendered access unsafe. The plaques list 1,150 names of people who lost their lives as a result of the Great War, a very large number in itself.
There are another fifteen local memorials scattered across the landmass of Lewis. The amount of information on war casualties presented on these memorials varies from location to location. All the island memorials have been photographed and transcribed by myself, with the result on display on the Scottish War Memorials Project.
I have visited all of the 22 cemeteries in Lewis. In the first instance, I looked for the distinctive Commonwealth War Graves Commission gravestones. Latterly, I also checked for private gravestones which refer to family members being lost due to war service. The total number of gravestones in Lewis and Harris stands at around 450 – that excludes those that are marked as Known unto God. Photographs of all war-related gravestones that I found in all cemeteries, including those in Barra and Uist, are on display on the Scottish War Graves Forum.
2.2.4 Commonwealth War Grave Commission
The CWGC website is an invaluable tool in gathering information on the casualties whose names were found using the above sources. Many of the entries relating to the First World War quote an address of next-of-kin, which makes it very easy to link it to an island address. The greatest problem is often the lack of information provided and the limited number of first and second names. Looking for a Donald Macleod (e.g.) is like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. Errors in the Roll of Honour make it difficult to track some of the casualties. However, there are a number of names that genuinely do not feature in the CWGC files.
2.2.5 Historical Societies
There are roughly a dozen historical societies in the Isle of Lewis, and one in Harris. Some, like Back and Point, are dormant; others, like Uig and Stornoway are very active. The main problem appears to be monetary and human resources. Through personal contact, I have gathered additional details from the Carloway, East Loch Roag and Lochs areas. I am much endebted to the societies for the assistance they were able to give. There is nothing like local knowledge. Again, it showed up the sometimes major flaws in the information in the 1921 Roll of Honour: one example was that of a man from the Callanish area who was reported killed in the war in the Roll of Honour, but turned up alive and well in Skye in the 1920s.
2.2.6 Hebridean Connections
The Hebridean Connections project, aimed at digitising Hebridean ancestry, culture and history, has proven to be a very useful resource for looking up individuals from Lochs, Uig and Bernera. The site aims to encompass the whole of the Hebrides, but a funding cut has delayed that indefinitely. I’ll go so far as to criticise those in charge of funding the project for withdrawing their financial support.
2.2.7 Overseas Internet resources
The Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders have excellent on-line resources for tracking down casualties who enlisted in their respective expeditionary forces. Veteran Affairs Canada show facsimile copies of attestation papers; the New Zealand Archives have a summary of the enrolment papers with quite a lot of information on public display. Australian Archives have a similar look-up facility.
The Roll of Honour (editions 1916 and 1921) contains portrait photographs of the 400 servicemen who lost their lives during the First World War; there are other photos of survivors. The drab listings are given added poignancy by the faces of the Fallen, as they gaze at us from the past, from a time when they would not know what lay in store. It is the portraits that give Faces from the War Memorial its added value.
All portraits were scanned in at Stornoway Library and transferred to the Internet for use on the website. A few portraits were given to me by private individuals; others originate from the various historical societies, including the ones in Uig, Carloway, as well as the Hebridean Connections website.
Faces from the Lewis War Memorial is presented on the forum of Internet blogging site http://www.blogger.com. This allows to present the casualties from each village or town to be presented on its own blogpost, its own page, and makes it easy to enter additions and amendments. There are 110 pages, one for each village, and one for the town of Stornoway. The sequence on each village’s page is by croft- or house number.