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The Horrors Stayed With Him

The Horrors Stayed With Him

Thursday November 8 2018

Thomas Baldwin hears the remarkable wartime story of a son of the manse

At first glance the little red botany textbook, published in 1908, seems unremarkable.

But this particular copy tells a more dramatic story than the authors, Joseph W Oliver and W B Grove, ever intended.

The book is water damaged. A handwritten note on the first page ruefully attributes this to ‘the rain and trench water that soaked everything’. And on the inside cover, in different handwriting, is the owner’s name, Pioneer A C Stephen; the date, June 1916; and a note that it had been carried through an unclear location.

Alexander (known throughout his life as Alastair) Stephen, serving in the Somme, had been gassed and presumed dead, only to wake up in the mortuary. His daughter, Jean Morley, who now has the book along with some of his other wartime memorabilia, says she presumes the mysterious writing in the book is from the man who took her father’s ‘body’ to the mortuary.

Alastair (right) was a son of the manse from a country parish in The Mearns, Aberdeenshire. A student at Aberdeen’s Marischal College when war broke out, he enlisted in the Royal Engineers and was sent to France, and took some of his textbooks with him.

After being gassed he was sent back to the UK, where his recuperation took nine months. He returned to France in time to see action at Ypres before, in February 1918, it was decided that as a young scientist he could best serve the British war effort at home.

After the war, he completed his studies in zoology at Aberdeen and went on to a distinguished career as a marine biologist, keeper of the Department of Natural History in the Royal Scottish Museum, president of the Royal Physical Society of Edinburgh and the Astronomical Society of Edinburgh, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Also among the effects that have passed on to Jean are a Pocket Prayer book For Men on Active Service, and a Soldier’s Calendar, both published by the Scottish Churches’ Huts Committee, a joint endeavour of the Church of Scotland and United Free Church of Scotland which ministered to Scottish soldiers at the front.

The prayer book in particular makes for difficult reading with modern sensibilities, including as it does prayers ‘before action’ and ‘for grace to die’.

Jean, who is a member of Cramond Kirk in Edinburgh, recalls: “Later in life, if my mother or I wore anything red he would ask: ‘what do you want to wear that colour for? It’s the colour of blood!’ The horrors of what he saw on the battlefield stayed with him for the rest of his life.” 

A longer version of this feature appeared in November's Life and Work.

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