Wigtown’s World War One hero Louis McGuffie, who was awarded the highest military honour for bravery, the Victoria Cross, was remembered in a discussion last Wednesday during his home town’s book festival.
‘The World of Louis McGuffie’ was recreated through words and film in the Scottish Power marquee thanks to the knowledge of the panel - historian Jack Hunter, military historian Trevor Royle, author of ‘Forgotten Voices of the Great War’ Max Arthur, and chairman Anne Black.
Jack Hunter began by taking the audience back over 100 years to the Wigtown that Louis McGuffie would have grown up in. Born in 1893, Louis’ family would probably have shared a house with another family, in a one up, one down.
The town’s population density was “pretty high” at the time, explained Mr Hunter, with a population of 1300 compared with 1100 today and far fewer houses.
Wigtown was the administrative hub of local government. It also had an inland revenue office and it was the judicial headquarters.
As a youth, after finishing his basic education, Louis had a wide range of local industries to seek employment from, including a creamery and distillery at Bladnoch and a potato mill producing a wide range of ‘tattie’ based products, including farina and even champagne. In Wigtown itself there was a small brewery, a coachworks and a foundry. Townspeople had a busy social life, with organisations like the aptly-named ‘Friendly Society’, Masonic and Oddfellows Lodges and the ‘drink is the work of the devil’ Temperance Society had hundreds of members.
Without the safety net of a social security system, the town had a clothing society and a coal fund that residents could pay into weekly.
Sport too was important in Wigtown, and Louis was known to be a keen footballer who played for Wigtown United. The bowling green was outside his front door and he could have been a member of the tennis or curling clubs.
But a settled life in his hometown was disrupted by the outbreak of war in August 1914, and Trevor Royle took up Louis’ story as this young man was now a soldier serving in the 1/5th King’s Own Scottish Borderers.
He was part of a tight knit “band of brothers” who formed H Company, drawn from Wigtown, Newton Stewart, Whithorn, Creetown, Kirkcowan and Garlieston.
As Territorials before the war, these men would have trained together regularly, and therefore went off to war as a well-trained, well-drilled cohesive unit, whose bonds of friendship and camaraderie would served them well in the heat of battle. For many, joining up was a very attractive prospect. Coming from large families often on the fringes of poverty they were suddenly well paid, enjoyed regular nourishing meals and heading for adventure.
Many regiments initially thought they would not even get to fight as it was widely believed the war would be a short one and be “all over by Christmas”. As the first skirmishes were underway, soldiers were deeply frustrated to see other units heading off to France before them. But the war did roll on, year after year, and in 1915 young Louis and the rest of his battalion were dispatched to Gallipoli. Conditions at the Dardanelles were incredibly harsh with searing heat, millions of flies and a stubborn Turkish army to contend with.
Trevor Royle touched on how much the basics of life meant so much to front line soldiers. The chance, once they were in reserve after a battle, to have a bath and a good scrub with carbolic soap, followed by a clean kit and especially the prompt arrival of hot food. These seemingly simple pleasures became crucial for morale.
McGuffie was injured at Gallipoli and after recovering he served in the middle east before being posted to the Western Front in Belgium in 1918. By this time Louis, thriving on the life of a soldier, was an Acting Sergeant.
The twenty-four year old’s bravery in the action that won him the VC is astonishing.
On September 28, 1918, near Wytschaete, during an advance, Sergeant McGuffie entered several enemy dug-outs and single-handedly took many prisoners. During subsequent operations he dealt similarly with dug-out after dug-out, forcing one officer and 25 other ranks to surrender.
During the consolidation of the first objective, he pursued and brought back several of the enemy who were slipping away and was also instrumental in rescuing some British soldiers who were being led off as prisoners. Later in the day, while commanding a platoon, he took many more prisoners.
McGuffie was killed by a shell a week later, never knowing he had been nominated for the VC. It was his mother Catherine who travelled to Buckingham Palace to receive her son’s medal, the first KOSB soldier to become a VC.
McGuffie is buried at the Zandvoorde British Cemetery, Belgium and a member of the audience spoke movingly of Louis McGuffie adding that he is revered in the small town of Wytschaete, where a huge portrait of the Wigtown man hangs in the local museum.
When asking the locals about the whereabouts of McGuffie’s grave, he was told: “If you are from Wigtown where Louis McGuffie was born, every door in the town will be open to you.”