On Tuesday the Caldwell Society were delighted to welcome Old Boy and former Scottish Editor of The Times and Scotsman, Magnus Linklater.
Mr Linklater was delighted to learn that the Society had been named after a former Headmaster of Belhaven, Mr Caldwell, whom he saw as a marvellous role model and someone who left a large impression upon him as a young man.
He began his talk with his memories of Belhaven – which he said were as vivid today as they were at the time. He remembered the names of staff and what impact they had upon him as a young boarder at the school, including those who had - what we might be consider today - interesting teaching. He recalled how there were only 59 boys in the school and how he would get the steam train from Edinburgh to Dunbar everyday, which called into every station en-route. It was clear that Mr. Linklater had a great time at Belhaven and could still recall many of his friends, all of whom were only referred to by their surname, and many of whom he still keeps in touch with. This led very nicely to his topic on Remembrance, as he then talked about his father who had served in the 1st World War.
His father altered his medical records – on account of his poor eyesight - and his age so he could join up in 1917, which is all the more remarkable considering that by then many knew the horrors which awaited them. Mr Linklater then mentioned how his father – like many of that generation – never talked about the war, and how his family only gradually pieced together his time at war. Much of his talk revolved around action seen by his father at Ypres in 1917 and a small village that was lost and retaken time and again at great cost – his father was in the Black Watch, a regiment that had been diminished from the original 900 to barely 30.
Mr Linklater then spoke of how his father was very badly injured in this battle and read from his father’s account of the action. We listened intently as his father wrote of almost seeing the white of the Germans’ eyes as they charged at their shallow trenches and how, after firing his rifle until too hot to handle, he had been ordered to retreat. It was now, as he did so, that he was hit by a terrific thud in his helmet, knocking him unconscious. As he came to he was aware he was bleeding and somehow managed to put an unwrapped bandage onto the back if his head, trapping it between his damaged helmet and rear of his head. He stumbled back towards his regiment’s lines, scarcely aware of his progress, until he came across kilted friends. It was only then he realised that the back of his head had been taken off by the bullet, including much of his skull, and yet somehow his brain had not been damaged - by what could have only been a matter of millimetres! He spent much of the next two years in hospitals trying to rectify the severe damage and Mr Linklater said how as a child they would try to place letters in the furrow at the back of his father’s head where his skull had once been. It was a remarkable story made all the more remarkable when Mr Linklater told us that his family had taken the very helmet his father had worn during the battle back to the very spot where it saved his life to commemorate the event.
He moved seamlessly onto the 2nd World War – a war his father knew had to be fought to stop the Nazis – and his father’s efforts as a writer during that war. He mentioned how in 2006 he had visited Scots soldiers in Helmand Province in Afghanistan. The soldiers had some dreadful backgrounds – crime, drugs, poverty – but out there they all banded together to look out for one another and obeyed every command of the young officers who looked little more than young boys - a real ‘Band of Brothers’. He was amazed at the stories they had – including the young ‘squaddie’ who showed him a bullet stuck in his helmet after a patrol – one that would have undoubtedly, on another day, killed him. Magnus was surprised and shocked at such a similar story to his father’s, and the soldier’s response - it was his job, little more than that. It is important that we should remember such people, just as we should remember those special occasions in our own past.
The talk ended with questions from the children – many revolving around Mr Linklater’s own memories of Belhaven – the cold bath every morning where you had to be fully submerged, to the dreadful lumpy porridge for breakfast when there was no sugar! Others asked about his father and the World War, and they could have gone on for much longer had not the call for supper come to end the proceedings. Without a doubt it was a talk that shall remain with the children for a long time – if nor longer - and made them aware of just how important the act of remembrance is!