Honouring our dead

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THE WAR memorial in the small Borders village of Coldstream stands, like many hundreds of others throughout the United Kingdom and beyond, as a monument of remembrance to the servicemen who left to serve King and country in the World Wars of last century, never to return to their homes and families.

For communities, large and small, the memorials provide an important link to the past, a means of remembering the men and women who grew up locally and who died in action. The lists of names often read like a who’s who of local families. Many of their descendants still live in the town or village and lay wreaths every year at Remembrance Sunday.

The memorials were erected after the massive loss of life during the First World War. Official lists of the dead, mostly provided by individual regiments and collated by the British government, were used as the main reference point for the names to be "honoured in stone".

But as the years have passed the identities of many of the dead have come to light, often "discovered" in remote war cemeteries in countries like France and Belgium or found by chance decades after they fell by the network of activists who strive to ensure that all memorials are complete. As a consequence the addition of names on war memorials seems a never-ending process.

The Coldstream memorial, a stone and brass tribute that stands proudly at the High Street, was unveiled in 1921 by Field Marshal Earl Haig. The Scottish Borders village has the distinction of being the only place in the UK which gives its name to a regiment of the existing regular British Army, has updated its memorial as new names have come to light but now faces a problem. Put simply, there are now too many names and not enough space.

Local historian Will Murray, who has unearthed the details of a number of "forgotten" Coldstream men who died in the 1914-18 conflict, was last year able to persuade the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to add the names of brothers William and Wellwood Johnston to the memorial . The two men, who had lived with their parents on the Hirsel Estate just outside the village, had for some reason "slipped through the net".

Both men died aged 25, Wellwood at the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign of 1915 in Turkey and William two years later at Passchendaele, Belgium. Their parents had erected a small stone in their memory in the nearby Lennel churchyard, it had become covered in moss and was discovered by chance by Murray 10 years ago.

The brothers will fill the last two remaining places on the Coldstream memorial plaque. Ironically William will become the first and only Coldstream Guard on the Coldstream war memorial. Wellwood had served with the King’s Own Scottish Borderers. Both names will be in place in time for this November’s Remembrance Day.

Now, however, the situation has become complicated by the discovery of yet another forgotten hero.

Murray was contacted early this year to be told that, on a headstone in Aubigny Cemetery in France, was etched the name of gunner Robert Elliot. Further investigation revealed that he had died, aged 19, while serving with A Battery, 51st Brigade, the Royal Field Artillery and that his parents were W.M. and I.M. Elliot of Coldstream.

“He must have come from Coldstream when he left to join the army and he should be on the Coldstream memorial but there are no more spaces,” says Murray. "I will have a word with the local council to see if anything can be done but I am sure they would balk at the prospect of further expense. It is a very difficult one, do we do anything in a case like this?"

Neil Griffiths of the Royal British Legion in Scotland said the problem was not confined to Coldstream. Many other communities had faced the same dilemma and even the Scottish National War Museum at Edinburgh Castle, which was dedicated to 100,000 servicemen when it opened in the late 1920s, now honours 148,000.War memorials are very expensive to keep," says Griffiths. "I think communities like Coldstream will have to accept that the list of names on the memorial is an appreciation of all those who died. Not all the names who deserve to be there may appear but there is no way round it, money is not unlimited. It is sad but it is a fact of life.

"We have to get philosophical about it and say that these names represent everyone who died. It is unfortunate but we just cannot keep adding to it," he says.