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First World War

Ewart Alan Mackintosh Project – 2015-2018

The E Alan Mackintosh project ( celebrated the life and work of the amazing World War One poet E A Mackintosh, and the centenary of his death at the start of the Battle of Cambrai 21 November 1917.  Brighton-born poet E Alan Mackintosh enlisted in the Seaforth Highlanders in the First World War.   He also served on the Somme and on Vimy Ridge in 1915 and 1916.

“Tosh” had strong family ties with the Alness area and learned both to play the bagpipes and to speak Gaelic. His poetry featured a wide range of themes, such as courage, fear, exhilaration, loyalty, sacrifice, loss, comradeship, duty, love, broken relationships, parody and so on. These themes are as vivid and compelling today as they were 100 years ago. His work deserves to be more widely celebrated, and this is what this project was all about.

In this I collaborated with Mackintosh biographer Colin Campbell (“Can’t shoot a man with a cold”), and in a 3 year project we created a website, trails, exhibitions and events, in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Elgin, Dingwall, and Thurso, collaborating with many other groups in Scotland and France, including the Scottish Storytelling Centre, with Lothian, Dingwall and Melvich Gaelic Choirs, and with the National Library of Scotland. We were also able to join the commemorations in France, where a more permanent chapel to commemorate Mackintosh is being created.

Colin Campbell and Linn Phipps
E A Mackintosh commemorative event at the National Library of Scotland, including Edinburgh Academy Choir conducted by Director of Music Angus Tully, who performed a new setting of ‘Cumha nan Gillean’ created by Ron Looker.

“.. And a voice in the wind that is silent for ever”

E A Mackintosh, The Waiting Wife

The First World War

I have held a special interest in the First World War for 50 years. In 2015, I produced a special event in Edinburgh to commemorate the First World War, involving a wide range of artists and performers, from the UK and Germany.

Imperial War Museum North Weeping Poppies Exhibition
The Tower of London Poppies October 2014

The Iolaire

I also participated in a project about the Iolaire, singing for performances in Edinburgh and Stornoway. The Iolaire was a ship returning to Stornoway on New Year’s Eve 1919, packed with homeward bound servicemen, which foundered on sharp rocks just outside Stornoway Harbour with terrible loss of life.

The loss of the Iolaire (“Eagle”) is like a metaphor for the First World War.  The Iolaire, originally a luxury yacht, and the regular ferry, the SS Sheila, both left Kyle of Lochalsh on New Year’s Eve of 1919.  The men they carried were mostly Royal Navy reservists who had been serving during the war.  Some men switched vessel to travel with brothers or cousins, which added to the subsequent tragedy.  In worsening winds across the Minch. the Sheila arrived safely, but the Iolaire arrived off Stornoway slightly, and critically, out of course, and was wrecked on the Beasts of Holm just 20metres off-shore. 

HMY Iolaire as Amalthaea in 1908

It was around 2am and pitch-black dark. Over 200 men were drowned, and only 79 survived. John Finlay Macleod, from Ness, helped save about 40 men by swimming ashore with a rope, which other men were able to use to pull themselves through the raging waves.

Iolaire outlined by illuminated stakes

Of the known dead, 174 came from Lewis, seven from Harris, 18 crew members came from all over the UK, and two passengers on route to the Stornoway Naval Base were also drowned. Very many Lewis and Harris families lost a relative in the disaster and the grief of the loss was so great that it could not be discussed for decades. The disaster was specially remembered at New Year 2019 and there are several books which have been written to increase understanding and remembrance of this terrible event.

Cambrai and Deborah

My great-uncle – my maternal grandfather’s only brother – was killed on 30 November 1917 at the end of the Battle of Cambrai. This was just 9 days after E A Mackintosh, in the very same ten-day battle, creating a personal link – as well as a fascination with the quality of his poetry – which had sparked my interest. I have paid homage to the losses of this particular battle through regular visits to the area, spanning decades now.

My periodic visits always take in the dawning of the day. I go to ridge crest where my great-uncle was encamped, a neat target for the start of the dawn German counter-attack. The ferocity of the bombardment is clear from the masses of large and contiguous craters, which remain clear to this day. His Battalion were obliterated. There was no body, not a button came home. He is commemorated on the semi-circular Memorial to the Missing at Louverval west of Cambrai, along with 7000 others who are forever “missing”. Please click here for my poem as part of the 14-18 Project “Letter to an Unknown Soldier”, written in honour of my Great-uncle.

Gilbert’s Field in snow and sunlight

Linn singing for Deborah

Over the many years of visits, a sequence of family members have sometimes joined my expeditions.  The owner of “Hotel Beatus” in Cambrai has become a firm friend, with his own special interest in WW1.  Philippe personally sought and excavated a partially-exploded and buried WW1 Mark IV tank (“Deborah”, D-51) from D Company and originally housed this in a barn in Flesquières.  He gave my son and me a personal tour over a decade ago and has since worked tirelessly to secure EU and official support for a museum for Deborah.

Philippe led arrangements for the 100 year commemorations of the Battle, and I was privileged to sing both at the Cambrai commemorative dinner and at the Memorial to the Missing: this was the singing of my life. The commemorations – with local events and tours – have since become annual. I contribute to the local dinner and the Flames of Memory commemorations, and it’s notable that the preference is always for songs in Gaelic – songs like Cumha Mhic an Tòisich and Cumha Mhic Criomainn, laments of course. It was also an amazing experience to sing at the new Museum for Deborah. I will however draw a veil over the stuck in the mud incident at Rue-des-Vignes – only too many people already know the story.

Thanks to Jean-Marie Caudmont for the pictures of the Flames of Memory, and of my performance at the special ceremony for descendants at the Memorial to the Missing, Louverval.

Afficionados will know that Wilfred Owen, the poetic star of my early life, was killed just one single week before the end of WW1, on the towpath of the SambreOise canal at Ors, east of Cambrai.  My visits to Cambrai have often included other places related to WW1 and particularly to Wilfred Owen.  My son and I were privileged to a private visit with mayor of Ors, Jacky Duminy, to the then-boarded-up forester’s house in Ors. This is where Wilfred Owen spent his last night: La Maison Forestière de l’ Ermitage, which has since been turned into a museum and art installation.

La Maison Forestière de l’ Ermitage
The grave of Wilfred Owen

“…But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

Wilfred Owen, The Parable of the Old Man and the Young


On holiday in 2017 and visiting the tiny coastal Inuit community of Rigolet in Labrador, we were astonished to find a WW1 exhibition, and that – of the eight men they sent to WW1 – 4 were killed, all of them in 1917.  Almost incredibly, two of them were killed in the Battle of Cambrai.  both of them were with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, and both were killed on the same day, 20 November 1917 – the start of the battle of Cambrai.  As part of our 100th anniversary visit to Cambrai to commemorate the 100th anniversary of my great-uncle’ death, we were able to visit the grave of one, and the commemorative plaque for the other as he has no known grave.  We sent pictures back to the community and it was a special honour to be able to do this, 100 years after the death of their ancestors.


Our family lost three great-uncles to the First World War, all in the latter part of 1917.  One at Rouen (died of wounds), who had a body and a headstone, one to the 3rd Battle of Ypres, at Poelkapelle (Passchendaele).  One third of all the British dead in WW1 died at Ypres, in the terrible mud.  What a bleak autumn and winter that must have been.  I determined that, as far as was possible, we should walk the line of the last day of each of them, exactly 100 years later.  The great uncle killed at Ypres has no known grave.  So many men died at Ypres with no known grave that the Menin Gate arch was not big enough for all their names to be inscribed.  Another two-thirds are listed at Tyne Cot outside Ypres – the biggest British military cemetery in the world.  He is commemorated at Panel 77.  When my husband and I first visited Tyne Cot, we assumed – with so many panels – that his must be near the end.  So, to find his name, we started at the end.  The last panel, with two high columns of names, was Number 164: so Panel 77 is in the middle, not the end.

My involvement with Cambrai introduced me to new friends – two amazing Belgians, Luc and Johan Vanbeselaere, who have recreated the WW1 tank that was the centre-piece of their Ypres village of Poelkapelle which you can see here:  In 2019 I was able to visit Ypres and join their special commemorations at Poelkapelle to sing at a number of events from dawn onwards.  Subsequently the pandemic made live 2020 and 2021 events impossible or inadvisable, but we hope that this will change in 2022.