Last wills of those who fell in First World War

Scottish soldiers return home from France in 1917. Picture: Getty
Scottish soldiers return home from France in 1917. Picture: Getty
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The last will of a teenage soldier from the First World War, written just hours before he was killed going over the top, is among thousands to be opened up to public view.

Eighteen-year-old Private John Wood, a Gordon Highlander from Portlethen in Aberdeenshire, made his will in a special page of his pay-book on the morning of 13 November, 1916, during the Battle of the Somme.

Private Wood died later that day as his battalion emerged from the trenches to attack German positions and he was caught in the crossfire.

Thousands of frontline soldiers were forced to jot down makeshift wills as they faced enemy gunfire in some of the fiercest exchanges in the First World War, and now 26,000 of them are to be made available online by the National Records of Scotland.

These include 2,584 from the Gordon Highlanders. As well as Private Wood, another Portlethen soldier, Private Alexander Craig, is among those whose wills are included in the archive.

Both simply stated that “in the event of my death I give the whole of my property and effects to my father”.

First Minister Alex Salmond said that the wills provided a “unique glimpse” into the lives of those who “fell for our freedom”.

He added: “This year, when we mark the centenary of the start of the Great War, we reflect on the sacrifices made by generations of service men and women, including those currently serving.

“The two wills are small but powerful documents. What we can see from this remarkable document is that Private John Wood poignantly wrote out his will on the morning of 13 November 1916, just before going over the top to attack the German positions.”

Both were born in Portlethen into fishing families, but when war broke out in August 1914, it was the army that they joined, along with many other men of this coastal community. They were just two of the more than 100,000 Scots who died during the war.

Wood served in the 1/5th Battalion of the Gordon Highlanders, while Craig was in the 1/7th Battalion along with many men from the district. In the autumn of 1916, these two battalions formed part of the 51st Highland Division, tasked with the capture of a section of the German line at Beaumont Hamel in the final phase of the Battle of the Somme.

The 1/5th Battalion lost 60 men and six officers, and the 1/7th about 74 men. The 51st Highland Division captured its objectives on 13 November and its success cemented the Division’s reputation as a fine fighting force.

The publication of the wills is among a range of events this year to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of war.

Brigadier David Allfrey MBE, chief executive of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo and a member of the Scottish Commemorations Panel, said: “Access to the wills of these young men will help current and future generations learn more about the soldiers, their families and circumstances at a pivotal time in our nation’s history.

“I have little doubt this will prove to be a particularly popular project as we commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.”

During that conflict, when a will was processed by military authorities it was sent to the Commissary Office in Edinburgh to be preserved in the National Records of Scotland.