Beyond Passchendaele – grandad’s voice echoes down century

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On Wednesday September 20, 2017 it will be 100 years since Margaret Powell’s grandfather was killed, leaving behind a wife and baby.

Gordon Highlander James Campbell, from Lochgilphead, died at the height of the Battle of Passchendaele, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres.

His impact of his death has echoed down the years in the family, and it is an event that Margaret was always told about as a child by her father.

Now aged 68 and living in Bishopbriggs, Margaret has recently taken time since her retirement to research her family history, uncovering a remarkable story.

Born on the Isle of Bute, James Campbell came to work as a slater in the Lochgilphead area. He met and fell in love with local lass Phemie Lang, and one of their wedding gifts, on December 27, 1911, was a beautiful clock from the Kilmartin Football Team, for whom James played in goal.

Like many other couples on a Saturday evening, James and Phemie would walk along the shore road to the tree that once stood at the crossroads at the Corran. Folk from Ardrishaig would also be there, listening and dancing to the fiddle music.

James had already served with the Gordon Highlanders in the Boer War between 1899 and 1902, and was kept on the army reserve list until 1913. He had one year of freedom until it all began again.

He managed to get leave to go home from the front, and so in 1916 his only son Hugh was born.

In his last letter home James talked lovingly about his wee boy getting on so well, and in the same letter he told Phemie not to worry as he would be home soon, and all would be well. But it was not to be.

Margaret explained: ‘By September, the Third Battle of Ypres was not going well. It had been the worst summer in Belgium for decades, and troops were bogged down in the horrendous sea of mud. The generals insisted on throwing everything they had into the assault, and the Gordon Highlander regiments were part of the Passchendaele sacrifice.’

Phemie received the dreaded chaplain’s letter dated September 25. It read that her husband was ‘killed in action on the 20th of this month. He took part in the big advancement that day and in helping to win victory he laid down his life’.

Margaret believes James’s own loving letter, with its kisses and cheerful reassurances, would have reached Phemie after the death notice.

With young son Hugh to support on her own, Phemie worked at all sorts of jobs, and saved enough to open a shop selling newspapers and paraffin. She graduated to a tobacconist’s on Argyll Street in Lochgilphead, now the Fyne Living premises, and then to a well-known wooden sweetie shop opposite the Empire Cinema on Union Street during the 1950s and 60s.

Hugh moved to Glasgow, and raised his own family there. Over the years, the lure of Argyll has, however, drawn them back regularly to visit cousins, and to holiday in and around the Lochgilphead area.

‘Granny had a lovely house opposite the Empire Cinema and we visited every Easter and summer, and have visited Lochgilphead since I was six months,’ Margaret recalls.

‘Being the oldest, I got to help in the shop, selling the penny sweets and halfpenny caramels. Granny had a lovely photo of grandad in her house. One of those big old brown framed ones. I still have it in our loft.

‘My dad talked to us about the battle of Passchendaele from an early age. So we have always known about him.

‘When I retired, I did one of those genealogy classes and chose grandad as my focus. We didn’t know about the letter until 1997, the 80th anniversary, when dad showed it to us. Maybe he thought we wouldn’t be interested.

‘The letter was so poignant because grandad was upbeat, and hopeful and it was amazing to hear his own ‘voice’. He sounded like a lovely man. Just the sort of grandad you’d want to have.’

Because James was missing in action, he does not have a grave for the family to visit, but his name is on Phemie’s headstone in Achnabreac Cemetery, on the war memorial in Lochgilphead, listed with the fallen in Belgium’s Tyne Cot Cemetery, and in the booklet recently produced by the Mid Argyll Youth Forum.

This year, on Remembrance Sunday, James’s four grandchildren will bring their own families to take part in the laying of a wreath, in honour of a brave great, great grandfather, still remembered.


James Campbell in full Gordon Highlander regalia. no_a37Passchendaele01

Phemie standing in the doorway of her shop on Argyll St, now ‘Fyne Living’. Her son Hugh is holding his bike. no_a37Passchendaele03_shop

James’s granddaughter, Margaret Powell. no_a37Passchendaele04_Portrait