On breakthroughs and more bricks: Alexander Cruden’s war

alexander cruden catherine black 60th anniversary photo 1968

60th wedding anniversary, Catherine Black and Alexander Cruden, March 1968. Image: Leslie family archive.

As I child I remember being told that my mother’s maternal grandfather, Alexander Cruden (1890-1970), had served in WWI and had a leg amputated. I’m not sure if I was also told he’d served in France, or if I just assumed that to be the case.

Like so much family history research; this story starts with just that one nugget of information.

Mum thought he may have served in the Gordon Highlanders, and she knew for sure he’d spent time after the war at Edenhall Hospital in Musselborough. She gave me photos of him and other ex-servicemen from Edenhall, possibly taken in the early 1920s.

Patients at Edenhall Hospital for Limbless Soldiers and Sailors. Alex Cruden is seated 3rd from left. Image: Leslie family archive

Patients at Edenhall Hospital for Limbless Soldiers and Sailors. Alex Cruden is seated, third from the left. Image: Leslie family archive.

But that was all she knew.

Without being sure of great grandad’s regiment, searching for his service records proved difficult. Alexander Cruden is not an uncommon name in Scotland, and about 40 percent of British WWI records were destroyed during the Blitz of WWII.

Recently though, I had a breakthrough.

Silver War Badge (SWB)

I found out about the Silver War Badge (SWB). This was given to WWI military personnel – like my great grandfather – who had been discharged because of wounds or illness. The records of Silver War Badge recipients are available on Ancestry.

These records show only one Alexander (shown on the record as Alex) Cruden as a recipient of the SWB. The age shown is consistent with my great grandfather, and the regiment he served with was the Gordon Highlanders.

The SWB record showed that Alex had served overseas and provided a service number – S/1891.

From the blog Army Service Numbers 1881-1918, I could confirm that S/1891 was an actual service number for the Gordon Highlanders, and that the S/ in front of the number meant it was a wartime enlistment – rather than someone joining the regular force.

I also learned that this number would have been issued in the first weeks of the war, between August and September 1914.

The Fife Free Press

Knowing that local newspapers in New Zealand published lists of those who enlisted to fight, I wondered if Scottish papers did the same thing, and searched the local Kirkcaldy newspaper, The Fife Free Press, for August-September.

Sure enough, on Saturday September 12th 1914, under the headline The Call to Arms  Kirkcaldy Recruits Still Rolling Up, I found my great grandfather’s name amongst the Gordon Highlanders.

Given the Scottish propensity for naming children after grandparents and parents, finding the name doesn’t automatically mean the report referred to my great grandad, and if it had been any other member of my family, I would have known much more research was involved.

But the Cruden family was relatively new to Fife, having come from Dundee when great grandad was a child. I checked the 1911 census (using quite wide search parameters), and found that my great grandfather was the only Alexander Cruden of enlistment age in the county of Fife, and the only Cruden in Kirkcaldy.

Armed with these bits of information, I was able to find Alex Cruden’s medal cards, which told me that S/1891 Cruden, Alexander was a Private in the Gordon Highlanders who was awarded the Silver War Badge, The Victory Medal, the British Medal and the 15 Star (properly known as the 1914-15 Star) [1].

It also confirmed that he served in France, arriving on 10 May 1915.

The Victory Medal record lists him as having served in the 8th Battalion, which I know to have arrived in France on May 10th, as the Regimental Diary notes:

A beautiful crossing was experienced and we arrived in Boulogne at about 1pm.

None of this is absolute proof that S/1891, Cruden, Alexander was my great grandfather, but it seems highly likely.

A short interlude to celebrate

However. My real interest is in finding out about great grandad’s war. When was he wounded? Where? What experiences did he have that he had to carry with him until his death in 1970?

Neither Ancestry nor FindMyPast has a service record for Alex Cruden, so it’s likely to be one of the thousands destroyed in the Blitz. Without that, I have to rely on secondary sources — in particular newspapers which carried casualty reports, and the Regimental Diaries of the 8th Battalion, Gordon Highlanders. The National Archives has digitized these diaries and made them available to download.

The Diaries fall into two parts; the first May 1915-April 1916; the second April 1916-November 1918. This coincides with the amalgamation, in April 1916, of the 8th and 10th Battalions.

I know that Alex Cruden held the rank of Private, so it’s unlikely he would be named in the Diaries (unless he was court-martialled perhaps), but I did hope that by understanding when the Battalion was on active service, it would narrow the time-frames during which he might have been wounded.

When I began reading, I discovered that in the first months of the Battalion’s tour in France, daily casualties were listed in the Diary. For “other ranks” the information included their surname, service number and rank, and whether they were killed or wounded. In some instances, the cause of their wound/death was recorded.

This changed in late September when the Battalion was engaged in the Battle of Loos. For that period, only the total numbers of dead and wounded were included.

For example, the entry for September 27th states:

Sept 27th the total casualties from 25th to 27th September (?) were 17 officers and about 500 men.

I’m almost at the end of the first Diary, March 1916, and I have found no record of Alex Cruden. I’ve also searched both the Fife Free Press and the Scotsman (which published casualty lists for all the Scottish regiments, as well as those of colonial forces, including NZ). Again, I have found no mention of Alex, and the service numbers recorded next to the names of dead and wounded are climbing steadily into five digits.

Did my slightly built, 5′ 2″ great grandad survive almost a year at the Front without being wounded? Have I missed his name on a casualty list? Or did it somehow get left off such a list?

Or more worryingly, have I got it completely wrong and S/1891, Cruden, Alexander is someone else altogether.

I’ll keep looking.

su christening photo

My christening; with my great grandparents, Alexander and Catherine Cruden. Image: Leslie family archive.

 


[1] Both the British War Medal, 1914-18 and the Allied Victory Medal seem to have been awarded to all officers and men of the British and Imperial Forces who either entered a theatre of war or entered service overseas between 5th August 1914 and 11th November 1918.

The 1914-15 Star was awarded specifically to all who served in any theatre of war against Germany between 5th August 1914 and 31st December 1915, except those eligible for the 1914 Star.

On trying to put flesh on the ancestors bones

I’ve blogged in the past about the invisibility of my largely working class ancestors, and researching my great grandfather – Alexander Cruden – has shown me that even in recent times, ordinary working folk don’t leave behind them a long paper trail.

Great grandad was a much loved and definitely larger-than-life figure in my early years.

My christening; with my great grandparents, Alexander and Catherine Cruden.

My christening; with my great grandparents, Alexander and Catherine Cruden.

He had an artificial leg, wore a hearing aid that he tended to turn off quite a lot so he couldn’t hear my great grandmother, and had a huge bulbous nose, which my mother always said was because he had run a pub when he was younger. One of my brothers was named after him, and my son too carries his name.

My baby brother and I with our Mum, grandmother and great grandparents

My baby brother and I with our Mum, grandmother and great grandparents

What I remember most about great grandad was that he always had a bag of peppermints tucked down the side of his chair, and being given one of those was a huge treat. Even now, the taste of peppermint takes me back to him.

Great granddad died when I was nine. My family had emigrated to New Zealand several years before, and my mother wasn’t able to go to the funeral of her favourite grandparent. I think that was the first time she had ever really felt the distance we had put between us and the rest of her family.

From my mum’s stories, I always felt that I knew a lot about Alexander Cruden, yet when I came to try and document his life, I found that actually, I didn’t. What I had were rich, emotionally powerful memories of him, but very few facts.

One of the really distinctive things about my great granddad was that he had only one leg. I was told that he’d lost the other one “in the war.” I now know that was World War One, but when I asked my mum recently about her grandad’s military service, all she knew for sure was that he had spent time afterwards in a hospital in Musselburgh, near Edinburgh. She remembered visiting him there in the 1940’s which suggests that his injury continued to trouble him for many years after he sustained it.

Patients at Edenhall Hospital, probably in the 1920's.

Patients at Edenhall Hospital, probably in the 1920’s.

I’ve learned that the hospital was called Edenhall East of Scotland Limbless Hospital, and that there don’t appear to be any surviving records going back to World War One.

What I don’t know of course, is how he ended up there. I have no idea when and where he served. My mum thought he might have been in the Gordon Highlanders, but there doesn’t appear to be a service record that matches him. This of course isn’t surprising given that only around 40 percent of service records survive for servicemen in WWI.

A couple of years ago I researched my husband’s grandfather and great uncle who both served in WWI as part of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. We knew that Tony’s uncle Eric had been killed, but no more than that. From Archives New Zealand I was able to get copies of their service records and by putting the information in those records together with a history of his regiment  that was available through the New Zealand Electronic Text Collection (part of the Victoria University of Wellington Library), we ended up feeling that we understood quite a lot about this young man whom none of us had ever met. Elated by this find, I even used the example in a video I made for a university assignment.

Of course, from statuatory records I have learned a lot about Alexander Cruden. I know he was born in 1890 in Dundee, the second of seven children and the eldest son. I know that his eldest sister disappears from the Scottish records after the 1901 census, and probably (if I have the right person) reappears in Middlesburgh in 1924 when she seemed to marry a man called Cecil Leach.

I know that great grandad’s youngest sister died aged 19 of eclampsia in the Royal Maternity Hospital in Edinburgh, and that his only brother Stewart died aboard HMT Shera in the Arctic Sea in 1942; part of the Arctic Convoy which carried supplies to Russia in World War II.

My grandmother, Margaret Cruden and her brother Stewart. Studio portrait probably from around 1914.

My grandmother, Margaret Cruden and her brother Stewart. Studio portrait probably from around 1914.

I know too that Alexander Cruden married Catherine Simpson Bissett Black on 27 March 1908, six weeks before their child (my grandmother Margaret Cruden) was born.

Alexander was 17; my great grandmother 18.

They were married for 62 years and raised five children. During the 1930’s and 1940’s he was the publican of the Fife Arms in Milton of Balgonie, Fife and by the 1960’s he was living in Dysart, Fife.

Alexander Cruden died in 1970, aged 80.

I know the bones of his life from BMD and census records, but little to put flesh on those bones. It seems that his military records – both of service and his subsequent disability – no longer exist, so I will probably never know how he came to suffer an injury that required the amputation of a leg; an injury which seems to have given him sufficient on-going pain that he continued to spend periods of time in hospital for years afterwards.

While I’m sad that there is so much I will never know about my  great grandad, I feel lucky to have memories of him and stories that I can share with my son. And this particular search has made me all the more grateful for every shred of documentary evidence I do find about my ancestors; for every piece of information that puts flesh on the skeletons of the past.