Shetland Remembers

by Alastair Hamilton -

Like other communities around Europe and elsewhere in the world, Shetland has marked the hundredth anniversary of the signing of the armistice at the end of the First World War.

The islands, and their men and women, played a crucial role during both world wars. In the First World War, Shetland was the base for the 10th Cruiser Squadron which, throughout the conflict, enforced a blockade in the north Atlantic that sought to deny Germany vital supplies.

Meanwhile, up to 3,500 men from Shetland – prized for their seamanship, just as they had been, a century before, by the Press Gangs – joined either the navy or the Royal Naval Reserve. A disproportionately large number of them became senior officers.

Many also continued to serve in the Merchant Navy; indeed, some of the first prisoners of war were Shetland seamen whose ships happened to be in German harbours on 4 August 1914, when war was declared. Others were aboard ships that became trapped in Russian Baltic ports; some of them managed to escape via neutral Sweden.

Thanks to British naval superiority, Germany was forced to rely on supplies from neutral countries, carried by neutral shipping, to sustain itself. The role of the 10th Cruiser Squadron was to intercept suspect ships. If, after inspection, they were believed to be on passage to Germany, they were taken to Lerwick for a closer examination. When suspicions were confirmed, the cargoes were then discharged at one of several UK ports. The vessels used were initially naval cruisers, but by the end of 1914 they had been replaced by 24 converted armed merchant ships. Their base was at Bustavoe, an inlet in the north of the Shetland mainland.

Though the majority of Shetland service personnel were at sea, many Shetland men did join the army and served on the western front. One of them, Robert M Greig, was a reporter with the Shetland Times, and after he returned home he wrote a series of articles for the paper, documenting his experiences. The late Alex Cluness brilliantly edited and introduced these articles for publication in Doing His Bit: A Shetland Soldier in The Great War. Cluness wrote:

He seemed motivated by the desire to cut through the grand talk of the day, the whitewash about gallant sacrifice bringing the world to peace and liberty, etc. It was a similar sense of distaste that fuelled the despair of Wilfred Owen.

Greig was far from alone in writing his memoirs and, over time, such accounts served gradually to change the perception of the war. His writing captures the utter chaos and horror:

These trenches – lines of shell-holes and scraped-up earth – were, when I was there, in a nice, slimy condition. If one touched anything…some of the mud stuck, and soon one had a large collection of Ypres mud all over one’s person. To add to the pleasantness of the prospect, all around were dead men in all stages of decomposition, and even bits of men were strewn here and there. Some of these had never been buried, some had been, but their last rest had been disturbed and a shell had unearthed the body or part of it.

Back in Shetland, substantial defences had been established. Large guns were installed at Swarbacks Minn to guard the Cruiser Squadron’s base, and on the island of Bressay to protect Lerwick’s harbour. Over 9,000 seamen were involved in the cruiser squadron and many troops were stationed in the islands. To serve the needs of all those combatants, Shetland businesses had to step up production to meet basic needs for things such as bread and meat. A bakery was established in Voe which still operates today. Fishermen sold their catches to the fleet.

In Shetland as elsehere, women played crucial roles, establishing what came to be known as the Home Front. They did, in the words of the song, keep the home fires burning; and they looked after the land, continuing to produce food from hundreds of crofts. But – this being Shetland – they also produced more than 15,000 items of knitwear to keep men warm on the high seas or in the trenches. They served, too, as nurses or in communications. That said, although Shetland women did move into new roles, they had always played a central part in the rural economy, particularly in agriculture and fish processing.

And they had to cope with the aftermath of the war. More than 600 fathers, husbands, brothers, sons and grandsons never returned, a loss that was felt for many decades. Many more were injured or shell-shocked. In terms of the proportion of the population serving in the forces and the casualties, Shetland’s contribution to the war effort was substantially greater than the average community’s.

In 2018, the usual remembrance commemorations were held on the 11th at Lerwick’s war memorial and at other memorials and in churches throughout the islands. On the northernmost island of Unst, a beacon was lit, one of 1,000 across the country.

There was also a very moving Festival of Remembrance in the Clickimin Centre the previous evening; it was accompanied by an extensive exhibition, based on years of research by local history groups, that brought together photographs, artefacts and personal stories.

Images of many of those who served from Shetland were projected onto the walls of Lerwick Town Hall on the evenings leading up to Armistice Day.

Shetland also participated in Danny Boyle’s ‘Pages of the Sea’ project, which was, as he explained, about reconnecting on a more personal level with the people who left, over the sea, to battle.

The Shetland beach chosen, one of 32 in the UK, was St Ninian’s Ayre, in the south mainland. Several hundred people attended the event, which was produced by the National Theatre of Scotland with local assistance. During the afternoon, hundreds of silhouettes of soldiers were created in the sand, to be carried away by the incoming tide. Copies of Carol Ann Duffy’s poem, The Wound in Time, were handed out.

This short video offers an impressive aerial view of the event, which was a poignant and fitting complement to the other forms of commemoration.

Much has been written about Shetland and the First World War. The most substantial volume is Dr Linda Riddell’s excellent and very thorough Shetland and The Great War. In addition to the writings of Robert M Greig mentioned above, other works include Dr Ian Tait’s Blockade 1914-1918: How Shetland Won The War; Safely Wounded: Shetland Letters from the First World War, edited by Angus Johnson and Isabel Sinclair; and Shetland Merchant Mariners in the Great War, by Laughton Johnson. This BBC Shetland news story is also well worth reading.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

From For the Fallen, by Robert Laurence Binyon (1869-1943)

Posted in: Heritage