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The First World War, or the Great War, as it became known, started at Mons in Belgium in 1914.
When it ended four years later, it had been one of the bloodiest conflicts in the history of the human race. Ten million military personnel are estimated to have died in the trenches and on the battlefields when the veneer of civilisation collapsed in the quicksand of sucking mud, dysentery and slaughter.
Yet, despite the unspeakable carnage, acts of kindness and decency were shown on both sides. Compassion is a quality that is usually hard to come by in times of war. It is even harder to show it to the enemy. After all, how can you be nice to someone who might actively have tried to kill you?
Of all the experiences shared through the media this year commemorating the 100th anniversary of the ending of the Great War, probably the most well known is the unofficial Christmas truce of 1914 when both sides were able to remember that there were bigger, more important things, than killing.
The ceasefire lasted well past Christmas and even into 1915. It began with singing that drifted out over the debris-strewn waste of no-man’s-land, the swapping of small gifts of food and cigarettes and a game of football. It also allowed many soldiers to bury their fallen comrades.
There is another equally touching story closer to home but little known outside the family concerned. It began in August 1912 at Duart on the Island of Mull when MacLeans from all over the world gathered to celebrate the castle’s return to the family after 200 years.
Among the 700 people present were Alexander John Hew Maclean (1880-1930). 16th laird and chief of Ardgour and a high-ranking officer in the German army, whose family, the Macleans of Coll, had gone out there as mercenaries in the 1600s.
Two years after the Duart celebrations, Great Britain and Germany were at war.
Alexander Maclean enlisted in his local regiment, the 8th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. A few weeks after arriving in France in August 1914 with the second battalion, he fought at Le Cateau where more than 8,000 British soldiers died, including 44 men of the Argylls, attempting to halt the German advance after the Battle of Mons.
Alexander, by now a captain, was officially reported missing and not heard of until early October when his London bankers notified his family at Ardgour that a cheque, signed a fortnight before, had just come in suggesting he had been captured and was unharmed.
On November 24, 1914, confirmation of his incarceration came in a postcard from Torgau, a POW camp on the banks of the Elbe in north western Saxony, addressed to Thomas Maclean, ferry master and tenant of the Nether Lochaber Hotel, to whom he was related: ‘I am in good health but wish above all that I was back with the regiment.
‘This is a dreadful waste of time. I got one good day only, a fine fight with a fine enemy. Was very lucky not to be hit, but unlucky not to get away. I look forward so much to returning to my best friends and seeing you all
‘Beannachd [Blessing] ARDGOUR.’
By February 1916, Alexander was in Blankenburg prison near Berlin, whose commandant, by one of those curious twists of fate, was Rittmeister Archibald Maclean von Czerbienczin whose company he had enjoyed at Duart in 1912.
A second postcard to Thomas Maclean that year contained a hint of things to come: ‘My dear Thomas, your letter and card were most welcome, but I could have wished the label [advertising fine old Highland whisky] had been stuck onto a bottle instead of a postcard. However, it is a good view of the ferry [Corran] which I am glad to have up on the wall. I would write oftener if there was anything to say and did write to you once when I had a bit of news to give you.
‘But this life is wanting in interest. I was glad to get your letter telling me [that] the news you gave the best friends a man ever had, pleased them. May the time come soon when I shall bring home someone who will please them more. My health and spirits could not be better under the circumstances but as there seems no hope of a return to the front, I live in the future for a return home. God bless you and yours and all at Ardgour.’
That ‘someone’ was the Hon Muriel Burns, younger daughter of Lord and Lady Inverclyde of Castle Weymss, whom he met in 1908. Muriel had been a nurse at the front before joining the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD), a voluntary unit of civilians providing nursing care for military personnel.
The engagement was announced on August 17, 1918, by which time Muriel was at The New Hospital at The Hague in neutral Holland, prompting Alexander to ask his kinsman and captor, Rittmeister Archibald Maclean, if he would release him on parole for two weeks to allow him to get married.
Knowing him as a man of honour who would not break his word, the commandant readily agreed.
The marriage was celebrated from the British Legation at The Hague on Thursday, September 5, 1918 – 100 years ago yesterday. A civil ceremony, which was and still is necessary in Holland, took place in the town hall. The witnesses were Pieter Maclean Pont, representing an old Dutch branch of the Clan Maclean, and Thomas Dale, the director in Holland of Kodak Ltd.
The Rev Herbert Ratford, chaplain to the legation, officiated at the religious service at the Anglican Church of St John and St Philip. As the couple left the church, 10 regimental pipers played them to their carriage to the tune of The Highland Wedding.
The brief honeymoon was spent sailing on the Frisian lakes. There were many wedding gifts, including a silver jug from Her Royal Highness Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll and Honorary Colonel-in-Chief of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
Two months after the wedding, Alexander was repatriated and reunited with his regiment and ordered to join the staff at Scottish command headquarters. He left the regular army in 1922 and was promoted Lt Col on the Reserve of Officers in 1924.
He and Muriel returned to Ardgour where they raised five daughters. Alexander died very suddenly in 1930 of a heart attack outside Kiel House, Ardgour, aged 50. Muriel passed away in 1976. On the death of her father, their eldest daughter, Catriona, became the 17th laird and chief of Ardgour and was succeeded by her nephew Robin, the present chief.
At his funeral, Alexander was described as an officer and a gentlemen in
every sense of the term. It was said that he was loved and respected by every officer and man of the 8th Argylls. Pipe Major John McLellan DCM, Dunoon, who had served with him, later composed the popular pipe tune, Colonel Maclean of Ardgour, one of the best 2/4 marches ever written.