Year of Stories – Unsung Heroes

In the latest of our features – contributing to Cupar’s Year of Stories in support of Scotland’s Year of Stories 2022 – we’re delighted to share a story from Andrea McMillan …

Cupar has a magnificent War Memorial with bronze plaques showing the names of the 188 men, and one woman, who gave their lives for their country in the first World War. One of these names is that of Company Sergeant Major John Lumsden, Black Watch.

John was a local hero, and he lived with his wife Jemima and their three young children at 13 Railway Place, Cupar. Before the war he worked at John Honeyman’s linen factory. He was awarded the Military Medal for an act of gallantry on 16th June 1915. Bravery must have run in the family as John’s brother, Tom Lumsden, also won the MM.

He belonged to the 7th Battalion Black Watch, along with several Cupar men. They took part in the attack on the Festubert-Givenchy front, and were tasked with holding the communications lines leading to the trenches, and later the trenches themselves.

Losses were heavy, with Lieutenant Alexander Westwood killed; and Captain Donaldson (from Falkland) wounded in the head by a sniper, losing an eye. John Lumsden carried the captain back, under heavy shell fire, from the firing lines towards the reserve lines. Just after they crossed a water-course, a shell burst behind them, wrecking the bridge they had crossed and cutting off a party of wounded men on the other side.

Sergeant Lumsden handed Captain Donaldson over to another man and hastily collected planks and other materials. With a few other men of his platoon, they, under heavy and continuous fire, restored the bridge and allowed the men on the other side to get across. Earlier that day he had apparently thrown a bomb out of a trench. Captain Donaldson was convinced that he owed his life to Lumsden’s gallant conduct. He was mentioned in dispatches in January 1916, and awarded a posthumous Military Medal in 1917.

John was killed on 30th July 1916, along with Lieutenant George Pagan, during the attack on High Wood. He was 26. He was originally buried together with five other soldiers (four of them were only identified as “Unknown British soldier”) in a smaller cemetery. At a later date the bodies were exhumed and reburied in an established War Grave Cemetery where the CWGC could ensure proper commemoration. This is the Serre Road Cemetery No. 2, France (pictured below – photo credit: CWGC).

I shared this story on the Cupar Facebook page in 2018, along with other War Memorial stories.

In 2020 I was contacted by another John Lumsden, the grandson of CSM Lumsden. He sent me some precious family photos, cards and documents, and this letter which fills in some of the gaps …

John and Jemima Lumsden in Memorium

Read with great interest the posting of my Grandfather’s wartime experience and would like to add the following to the history.

John had joined the local territorials prior to the outbreak of war and from cards sent home he was in France from early on in the conflict. By 1916 they had two children.

Tommy whose military career saw him join the 51st Highlanders and was a POW having been taken prisoner most likely at St Valery just after the Dunkirk evacuation and after the war lived and worked in Dundee in Cairds Department store. Wilhelmina (Mini) Bett worked in local government and finished her working life at the County buildings in Cupar.

My own father, Johnny, was born in the November after his father’s death and became an apprentice cobbler and settled and lived in Ayr.

When John was killed, his mother received the letter from the front line and the normal protocol would be to write to the immediate next of kin but suspect as it was a local regiment a request would be made to the Officer to write to his mother.

This is a transcript of the actual letter which was sent to me with other documents to scan (AMc)


Dear Mrs Lumsden,

It is with pain I write to let you know of the death of your son John, who was our Coy Sergeant Major.

He was killed by a shell alongside our Company Commander Captain Gillespie, who was also the victim of the same shell. They were both killed instantaneously, and it will be of some comfort to you to know that he had no suffering.

Your son was a splendid Sergeant Major, and had gained the esteem of both Officers and men. He will be deeply mourned by the whole company.

Yours Sincerely

Robert Beveridge 2Lt B. Coy

The letter was written with kindness and the comfort of a ‘killed outright quick death’ was some solace in the darkest of times … and his two brothers Tom and Jim supported this version throughout their lives.

Later came access to army records and these state that he ‘died of wounds’ and was treated at a field station. This was the kindest of deceptions and common practice throughout the conflict: it was a blessing that Jemima had passed away before the records were available.

By the end of the war Jemima would have been in her early twenties with her three children under six – with a widow’s pension of around 7/6 in old money. They lived in Railway Place and she was supported by her extended family in what must have been the harshest of economic times. The family folklore always spoke of the mysterious annual Christmas hamper and Jemima never revealed its source and the speculation … was it was perhaps an Officer who he had helped in the conflict?  (Captain Donaldson perhaps? AMc)

At the documented opening ceremony of the Cupar War memorial where his brother Tom formed the guard of honour for Earl Haig, there was a family account that my father Johnny played some part in the ceremony.

(There are certainly reports of school children taking part, but no names are available. AMc)

As a family we researched his wartime experiences with a visit to his grave at Serre Road Number 2 and a visit to Highwood where he fell. There is no access to Highwood as it is an enclosed private estate with no public access. There is a memorial on the edge of the wood dedicated to the Black Watch and the Cameronians.

The overriding memory of visiting the war graves – apart from the immaculate condition they are kept and the tranquillity of the countryside – is the ages of the fallen and, at 26, John was one of the oldest.

The other layer of grief for Jemima was he had no known grave effectively for 16 years. His name appears on the Thiepval memorial to the missing and the protocols mean that his name will be removed from this memorial in due course. I know that Jemima and Mini did get to visit his grave and think this was organised by the British Legion sometime after 1932.

During her widowhood of almost 70 years – as was the custom – she rarely spoke about John, and his surviving brothers filled in the gaps of his personality and character. Different times where emotions were suppressed and grief borne with a stoic dignity which never altered in the years I had her in my life.

I had two heroes of World War One. My Grandfather’s story is well documented and deserving of the status of a very local war hero who paid the ultimate price, but there is also my Grandmother’s undocumented one of a woman who bore her grief without bitterness and raised her children with fortitude grace and dignity.

The final words of this history are Jemima’s and have stayed with me from that day to this. She was at the end of her life in hospital and drifting in and out of consciousness and I was there with my father Johnny when she opened her eyes and he was very close to her side and she looked at him and said: ‘John you’ve come back’.


Need more?

You may also be interested in reading our Blog piece on Private George Buglass, a Private who served with the Royal Scots. On the 21st December 1941, George was killed in action. His name had only been commemorated on the far-flung Sai Wan Memorial in Chai Wan, Hong Kong … but that was put right in 2021. Click to read more.

Share your story …

Cupar’s Year of Stories is encouraging all to share stories on Cupar and our district – stories that may be from an individual, a company or organisation. They can feature the past, present … or the future. As long as they are linked with Cupar, we’d love to see them! You can click on the image below to submit your story. Once reviewed, we will publish on our Blog so they create an archive for the project.

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