Islanders were willing and active participants in the First and Second World Wars, signing up in the droves, and before that a large body of men took the king’s shilling and served overseas, returning with hair-raising tales and in some cases blindness and injury.
We have a good quantity of information, particularly about individual soldiers and sailors, which will accumulate here. Meanwhile we begin with a list of the known Old Soldiers of the 78th Seaforth Highlanders, over the page.
World War One
[singlepic id=49 w=300 float=left] The Great War had a tremendous impact on the population of the Western Isles, despite its remoteness from the theatres of battle. On Sunday 2 August, 1914, virtually the whole able-bodied male population of Lewis was called to join up immediately; after their departure, on the following day, the island was never the same again.
The long absence of the workforce interrupted forever the traditional crofting and fishing patterns that had sustained the islands. Many never returned and a final, bitter blow was struck on 1 January 1919 when, with the sinking of the Iolaire, two hundred returning sailors were lost within sight of their homes. The men were all naval reservists coming home on New Year’s leave or demobbed from the Royal Navy apart from a few Mercantile Marine seamen.
In Scotland’s War Losses, Duncan Duff writes:
The island of Lewis lost 1,151 men out of 6,712 serving. This was not an excessively high proportion of deaths from the number serving – a little more than 17 per cent – and in many Scottish districts in was exceeded. To realise the full significance of the figures, however, it must be remembered that, to an extent unknown in the industrial centres, practically every fit man in the island was early in the forces, or 6,712 out of a total population of 29,603 men, women and children. If the ratio of the killed to the total population be considered, the island paid twice as much as the rest of the kingdom in its sacrifice. What, indeed, had Lewis gained from its association with the Empire that it should be called on to pay so high a price? Though the above examples have been taken from the North, the South suffered no less, and in pastoral Tweeddale, the County of Peebles was, for its population, but a fraction behind Lewis in its war losses.
See the Highland News report of the call-up, and war news from the Stornoway Gazette. A strange episode early in the war was the capture and internment of the Naval Brigade [link]
A further result of the Great War was another wave of emigration from the islands. Many of those who had volunteered to serve overseas had been promised that, on their return, no man would be denied land. After the war, the reality was different. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin appealed to “Imperialist sentiments” and urged the men to find their land abroad, in the colonies. In the early 1920s some 3,000 men emigrated from Lewis, compounding the war costs to the island, and similar losses were felt throughout rural Scotland. The Metagama was one emigrant ship that came to represent this wave of departures.
World War Two
Large numbers signed up in 1939 too, and the war also came to Lewis, with RAF and Radar stations in Uig, Ness, Point and at the aerodrome. For now: