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uncle alex and the sands of time

black watch soldiers marching in mesopotamia, wwi

when i was growing up, there was a photograph that hung in the landing of our staircase. i saw it every time i went downstairs to play in our [mostly] finished basement, which was pretty much every day, usually more than once. the picture was a black and white of a dark-haired, bearded man in full highland regalia. i knew early on that this was "uncle alex", although it took me a while to realise that he was my father's uncle and not mine. i knew that uncle alex had died in the first world war, supposedly at gallipoli with many, many, many other soldiers. i was probably the only seven year old to know what a "gallipoli" was.

as an adult, when i developed an interest in genealogy, one of the first things that i did was look for information about uncle alex. i quickly found out that he was buried with his parents in the cape breton town where the clan had lived since they were driven out of scotland in the 19th century. his epitaph was not elaborate, but it did give his date of birth and the date and place of his death: january 21, 1916 at the "battle of mesopotamia", as well as the fact that he was a member of the "2nd black watch".

right away, this information threw a wrench in my established narrative: the date of his death corresponded with nothing to do with gallipoli, which had been evacuated much earlier. but nor was there any record of the "battle of mesopotamia" in the annals of wwi history. i don't blame my father for this, although he is one prone to exaggerating his proximity to important events. he would not have heard about his uncle until decades after the man's death. his father, alex's younger brother, would have been in his sixties by the time he related it, and who knows how good the information received by the family was to begin with? the date inscribed on the grave, however, did give me a good lead on the actual circumstances of his death.

information from macdonald family grave

january 21st, 1916 was the battle of hanna, an ill-fated effort by british forces to liberate fellow soldiers from the now iraqi city of kut, where they had been trapped by the ottoman army. by the time the battle of hanna took place, it was already pretty clear that things were not going to go well for the brits. at the beginning of the month, a group of 19,000 had left the british army's mesopotamian theatre headquarters in basra with the aim of relieving the 10,000 soldiers trapped in kut. they'd hardly set foot outside the base when they came up against a faction of 22,500 turks. in the end, they survived chiefly because the opposition simply disappeared; the ottomans packed up and left for reasons that remain mysterious. but when i say the british soldiers survived, i mean that most of them survived. 4,000 didn't.

convinced that they had gone about things the wrong way, the british regrouped and found another 19,000 men, mostly indian soldiers pressed into service for the king. they marched off and made it farther than the group before them, but on the 13th, they suffered a massacre at the hands of the better-equipped, numerically superior and battle-hardened ottomans. the force of 19,000 was reduced to 9,000 in one day of fighting. if the entire town in which uncle alex had grown up had been eliminated, it still wouldn't have come close to equalling the number of men he saw killed that day. he was lucky. he lived to fight another day. but one week later, his luck ran out.

despite the disastrous events on the 13th, the command from basra was that the force was to continue towards kut,  mostly because the british failure to liberate their men from the "inferior" turks [the same sort of rationale that had spurred the idiocy of gallipoli] was getting bloody embarrassing. on the 21st, the 10,000 soldiers remaining came up against 30,000 ottomans at hanna. things did not go well.

whether or not it would have made any difference, the british came shockingly close to their goal. hanna is close enough to kut that the soldiers there could hear the sounds of the battle taking place. as the day wore on, however, it became obvious even to them that things were not progressing as they had hoped. the sounds remained distant. their rescuers were coming no closer.

the british losses at the battle of hanna were actually less than those suffered the week before. still, 2,700 men died and one of them was my uncle alex. on the other side of the world from where he had spent the vast majority of his life, he fell alongside thousands of indian soldiers, who must have seemed terribly exotic to him, on a landscape unlike anything he had ever seen.

thus did i close the story of the man i looked on every day for years. except that, as i looked into it more, things weren't quite so simple. as i mentioned, the great bulk of the soldiers at hanna came from two indian divisions. descriptions do note that there were "some others", without generally getting specific about who they were. after more searching, i did find that the 2nd battalion of the black watch contributed 225 soldiers to the rescue effort, 75 of whom died at hanna. and yet still, the case is not closed.

the black watch that contributed those soldiers, you see, was a british division. there's no evidence at all that there were any members of canada's black watch present. in fact, the official website of the canadian black watch doesn't mention any battles in the middle east in which they participated. they don't even have a 2nd battalion. why would uncle alex have joined a british division? had he moved there before the war? if so, why? none of his family ever left the tiny town where he was from. the easy answer is that he was moved over there by the army, but that would mean that he had been in the canadian army and then somehow got transferred to the british after he'd been stationed in scotland. not exactly standard procedure.

a perusal of canadian military records reveal 155 men with the first or second name 'alexander' and the surname 'macdonald'. not one of them died at the battle of hanna. now, the those records aren't complete, so the fact that his name doesn't appear doesn't prove anything. the aim is to have all records digitized by the end of 2018, and until then, there's nothing that's absolutely certain.

records for the british army require a paid membership to access. you can take your chances and pay for a single record, but with a name as common as alex's, it's a real gamble that you'll end up with the right one.

the man in the black and white photograph, so stark against the earthy colours of the seventies-era decor that was my childhood, is as remote to me as he was then. i believed i knew more about him, but everything i've learned has made his story more confusing, and at the same time more fascinating. uncle alex was not a soldier fresh off the proverbial farm. [or any farm, for that matter, his father was a ship's master who never worked a field in his life.] he would have been forty at the very beginning of the war, a rather exceptional age to be serving on the front lines. i'd been told that he'd been a soldier most of his life, but during that time, he seems to have progressed only to the rank of sergeant, so if he was a career soldier, he wasn't very good at it. he never married and never had children. [in fact, of the four brothers in the family, my grandfather was the only one who ever had children and even then, he was in his forties by the time even the eldest of them was born.] his grave says that he died in a battle that history says he could not have participated in. and with thousands of bodies to account for, it can't be ruled out that another person was mistaken for him, especially given the commonness of the name. uncle alex headed off to fight in the war, and even the circumstances of that are unclear. if he communicated with his family after that point, none of it has survived. years later, his family was told that he'd died in the desert, valiantly fighting a doomed battle, trying to rescue a group of her majesty's soldiers.

as for those soldiers, they never did receive their reinforcements. they managed to hold out in kut until april, five months since they had found themselves penned in by the enemy, and on the 29th, they surrendered to the ottomans. in 1929, the british erected a memorial to the more than 40,000 soldiers who died in the mesopotamian campaign and whose graves are not known, known simply as the "basra memorial". in 1997, due to political instability in the region, saddam hussein moved the memorial 32 kilometres, to a location where he felt he could keep it safe; a massive undertaking given the size of the structure. [unfortunately, with hussein gone, no such protections have been given. crime in basra has been a huge issue, since the army was pulled out of the region in order to fight isis. it's unclear if the memorial even exists anymore.]

the basra memorial in better times

in that memorial is one final, tantalizing clue: among the thousands of names listed there is one "sarjeant alexander macdonald", member of the black watch royal highlanders- the canadian black watch. if that's so, then uncle alex has two graves, neither of which contains his body. his death in the iraqi sands is a matter of guesswork, process of elimination as the shellshocked remains of the army tried to figure out who was still with them in the wake of the bloodbath. if he did die in hanna on the 21st of january, he was separated from his supposed home regiment, apparently on loan to another. if he didn't, it seems like the army simply lost track of him, and that he probably died in some other battle, with someone else's name attached to him. if he did manage to somehow wander off the field and not die in the wilderness, he was content to allow his family to believe him to be dead.

some day, i'll inherit the picture that haunts me so [it's still in my father's possession]. i fancy i'll hang it somewhere where my great-uncle can continue to taunt me with his peaceful, knowing expression and that that will drive me all the harder to find out who he was and what happened to him. i'm counting on it. 

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