As the world commemorates the centenary of the Battle of the Somme stories of local men who fought in World War One are being told at  Dumfries Museum.

A current display features the McDonald brothers from New Abbey. The story of Robert Johnstone from Lochmaben came to light when his grandson Craig Johnstone donated several items to the museum in May 2016.

James, William, Robert and David McDonald were brothers from a family of eleven children born and brought up in New Abbey, seven miles from Dumfries.   These four brothers served in the forces during World War One and all four survived.

James served as a Trooper in the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. He had enlisted by Christmas 1914 and served until 1918.  He was transferred to a Machine Gun Corps, 7th Cavalry Division, and fought at the Battle of the Somme.

William served in the Royal Artillery.  He was a Saddler in the Machine Gun Corps, Infantry 75th Division, Machine Gun Battalion.

Robert was a Sapper in the Royal Engineers. Robert’s twin brother David was a Corporal in the Royal Flying Corps which became the Royal Air Force in 1918.

Photographs and souvenirs kept by the brothers have been kindly loaned to Dumfries Museum by Edith McDonald, daughter of James, and Elizabeth Weir, his great niece. They will be on display until the end of September 2016.

Also on display in the museum are the Roll of Honour from New Abbey United Free Church and the Roll of Honour of members of the Loyal Sweetheart Abbey Lodge No 5434, Independent Order of Oddfellows, Manchester United Friendly Society and amongst the names listed are those of brothers James, William, Robert and David McDonald.

Following reports of previous World War One exhibitions at Dumfries Museum, Craig Johnstone of Lochmaben got in touch with the museum in May this year. Craig researched the story of his grandfather, Robert Johnstone, and offered to donate the findings of his research as well as several items of memorabilia to the museum.

Robert Johnstone was born in Lochmaben in 1890. On leaving school he worked as a labourer, mostly on farms. In his late teens or early twenties he left behind his home and girlfriend and travelled, with a friend from Ecclefechan, to start a new life in Canada.

After the outbreak of World War One, Canada very quickly became an ally of the European Alliance led by Great Britain and France.  On 24 November 1915, at Regina, Saskatchewan, Robert enlisted with the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force. On 1 May 1916 he embarked at Halifax and set sail for Europe in the troop ship S.S. Olympic.

On 29 June he arrived at Le Havre and by 13 July he was at The Somme. He was part of the ongoing battle for almost ten weeks. On 16 September his luck ran out – he was wounded in the left knee by shrapnel and was hospitalised in France before transfer to the UK for further treatment.

Although Robert’s knee was described as weak, he was passed fit for return to active service in 1917. He is recorded as re-joining the 15th Canadian Reserve Unit on 13 April 1917, a day after the Canadian Expeditionary Force had won the battle of Vimy Ridge – an important turning point in the war. By the end of April, Robert was back with the 28th Battalion and involved in combat including an offensive on Passchendaele in August 1917.

A brief period of leave was granted in early 1918. Robert was late returning for duty and was fined four days’ pay! This was followed by further active service during which Robert was injured again – a superficial wound to his right thigh. After two months treatment and recuperation he was declared fit for service but never made it back to the front line. Mostly with the 15th Reserve Battalion, he was moved around different locations in the UK before being shipped back to Canada. On 14 January 1919 Robert was discharged from the Canadian Expeditionary Force. On his return to Balcarres in Canada, the people of the village and district presented him with an engraved watch and a certificate honouring his service; “appreciation of all you have done and suffered in the cause of Home, Empire and Humanity.”

After the war Robert returned to Lochmaben with the hope of rekindling romance with the girlfriend he had left behind years earlier, but this was not to be. Robert eventually married Janet Watson Wright, also from Lochmaben. Janet’s health was not robust and her family did not approve of a move to Canada. The couple made a life in Lochmaben where they raised 4 children. Robert worked at Corncockle quarry in nearby Templand.

Councillor Tom McAughtrie, Chair of Dumfries and Galloway Council’s Communities Committee said;

“I am glad that the stories of these brave men are being told and preserved for future generations by Dumfries Museum. It is timely that we think of them on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of The Somme. So many men were killed in this battle and we should always remember both those who died and also those who survived to tell the stories.”

In recognition of the centenary of The Battle of Somme, Dumfries and Galloway Council along with the Buccleuch and Queensberry Pipe Band will be host to the Somme Battlefield Pipe Band on Thursday, 28 July 2016.  The programme for this event will include an Open Air Service of Commemoration at the Plainstanes, Midsteeple, Dumfries followed by a Pipe Band Display and Parade of Colours.


Main Image shows Edith McDonald and Elizabeth Weir pictured at No 3, The Square, New Abbey where the McDonald brothers grew up.


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