“No equivocation, no doubt” 1920
Getting your teeth knocked out for your 21st? Not likely! My mates have all done it but I’m hanging on to mine. Father didn’t argue with my decision – instead, he became quite nostalgic, recalling his own 21st. He then suggested that I mark this moment for myself by writing down what it feels like to be 21 in this year – something to pass on to my own children when the time comes. So here goes…
My birthday fell on Wednesday this week. Two years to the day since the guns stopped. Birthdays are supposed to be happy occasions but this one was tainted by association, and the thin smiles of my family as we hand round pieces of cake can’t conceal the grief etched so deeply on their faces.
Events have made mourners of us all.
I was conscripted in 1917 just two years after Johnny my oldest brother, the best hero a lad could have, was killed at Gretna as his train carrying the Leith battalion of the Royal Scots crashed. Killing one hundred and one young men of Leith. It was my turn to serve now and it looked like I wasn’t going to reach the frontline either.
We were sent to Ireland to prevent another rebel uprising similar to the one that took place in Dublin last year. Us squaddies thought we’d joined up to fight the Hun, not our own people. It was grim work protecting the thuggery of Britain’s conscript ‘Black and Tans’. I’ve never seen such monsters in uniform.
We were finally sent to France, but thankfully it was only for a few months until 11th November, my 19th birthday, brought that nightmare to an end. Those few months have left an indelible mark on me. When you’re having a brew with a fellow one minute and the next minute he’s lying at your feet with a hole in his head from a sniper bullet, well, life is never going to feel the same again.
Hopefully that Spanish flu is gone now. I was still in France when I heard the news that my wee brother Jimmy came back from the hospital in a horse and cart – the only one from his ward to come out alive. Quite a few of the lads and lasses I knew from Leith Academy got it and died too.
Then last year it spread to older people like my Aunt Alice. Seeing the alarming discolouration of her once pale complexion into horrific shades of Prussian blue and hearing the rasping desperation of her breath, is yet another memory from these last few years that stays with me.
Coming back from the front to be greeted by a plague-ridden homeland was almost too much to bear. Thankfully I’ve been mourning free this year so far. I’ve seen too much death.
So yes, this year has been a welcome relief, for the first time since I left school in the glorious summer of 1914 I feel more optimistic. Ever since I started my apprenticeship that year, the world’s been crazy. Could things be calming down now? Yes, I felt like I was finally back home again this year.
No more trenches, no more lice, no more Gretna and, hopefully, no more Spanish flu. That familiar buzz on the streets of Leith was back: everyone talking about the campaign to keep Leith independent and prevent Edinburgh from swallowing us up. As this momentous year draws to a close, I declare that I have never been prouder to be a Leither.
Winning the plebiscite in January – what a start! That feeling of elation outside the Town Hall when Provost John Lindsay announced the result: 6 to 1 in favour of independence. His victory speech, reported in The Leith Observer, had us cheering and singing into the night. And the following morning brought more speeches and messages of support from allies across Scotland and beyond. Our hopes were high that the bill before parliament would now be defeated.
The letters pages of the Scotsman, however, were alive with the Capital’s outrage. Edinburgh worthies claimed it wasn’t a valid plebiscite; that Edinburgh should have had a vote too, that it was the whole caboodle was consultative, not binding.
Down south they also turned a deaf ear until that grand champion of Leith, Lord Rosebery, persuaded the House of Lords to come on side and insist on another vote, which we again won this summer. Still to no avail however, the Edinburgh Expansion Act of Parliament was passed in July and we officially became part of Greater Edinburgh on 3rd November 1920. Just a couple of weeks ago.
On the same day we went to the polls yet again in the first ever ‘Greater Edinburgh Municipal Elections’. At least we got some revenge this time. Leith Citizens candidates swept the board winning all 10 of Leith’s municipal seats from Labour who, as we all know, had acted as the mouthpiece for our new Edinburgh masters.
Maybe our new Leith Citizen councillors will make a difference, but they are only 10 Leithers up against 50 from the Edinburgh side. Maybe us Leithers will regain our independence again; then again maybe not and maybe too we’ll be speaking in their ever-so-nice accents a 100 years from now… But I doubt it.
A stolen election victory won’t beat those whose motto bespeaks endurance, namely, ’Persevere’.
I learned a lesson this year: it doesn’t really matter who you vote for, those in power always remain in charge. If voting is supposed to be the alternative to war, then why isn’t the will of the people being respected?
It’s not just me expressing these thoughts either. Many of my squaddie mates are saying the same. Some of us are beginning to think that maybe those Russian Reds and Irish rebels have got the right idea after all.
That guy in Glasgow, John McLean, certainly thought so last year during the strike that brought the troops out on George Square. And there is fighting again in Ireland now. I hope they achieve their independence this time.
I read the stories of the Turkish massacres of the Armenians. Until last year some of our lads were still fighting in Russia on the side of the Whites against the Reds. Last year workers in Berlin, Bavaria and Hungary all declared themselves ‘workers soviets’, until the army stepped in. Why are the young men in these countries, soldiers like we were, turning their guns against their own people?
Maybe now that women have the vote things will change. Mother has certainly had the chance to use her vote this year. My sister Peggie is livid of course because she’s only 23 and under the new regulations women have to wait until they’re 30, that may change too and if so, we ordinary working people will be the undisputed majority in any election.
Something has surely got to change. Despite Labour’s betrayal of Leith this year, I still like the sound of their national leader Ramsay MacDonald. I respect the prime minister too. Lloyd-George is certainly making the Germans pay for starting the war and hopefully my children won’t hear a peep from the Hun again anytime soon.
Leith might be in my blood, but I’m determined to grab the opportunities of my adulthood with both hands. I’m getting ready to head off to pastures new after the bells have seen us into 1921.
The heavy industries are taking a beating up here, and too many of my former squaddie pals are still unemployed. I’m getting my new motorcycle next week, a second-hand Triumph Model H in pristine condition. Then it’s London for me.
I’ll say goodbye to my pals at the New Year Derby match at Easter Road. The Hearts beat us soundly back in August. I feel in my guts that we’ll get our revenge this time and the sun will shine once again on Leith, before I take the road south.
Postscript: Hibs did beat Hearts 3-0 at Easter Road on 1st January 1920
On the day we became part of Greater Edinburgh, Nov 3rd 1920, Leith Citizen candidates took all of Labour’s seats in the Municipal Elections