Lochnagar Crater at La Boisselle
From the great Lochnagar Crater at La Boisselle it’s only a few hundred yards across Mash Valley to the cemetery on the rising ground at Ovillers where lies not only the body of Captain John Currie Lauder, beloved son of Sir Harry Lauder, but also a mystery which has attached itself to his memory. First, however, before we become embroiled in the myths, speculations and maybe even some facts about John’s death, let’s have a look at who he is, or, rather was, and to do this we shall begin with his father.
For those readers too young to have any knowledge of Harry Lauder, it might come as a surprise to find out that he was, without any doubt, the first international superstar of popular entertainment. He was also acknowledged at home as not only Scotland’s best-loved entertainer but also its most despised. This paradox, as we shall see, would have a significant effect on how his son’s death on the Western Front has since been regarded on his native heath.
Harry was born in Portobello, just outside Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh, in 1870, into relatively comfortable circumstances, a situation which was to change with the death of his father. After a spell in Arbroath on Scotland’s east coast where he worked in a flax mill and attended school part-time, Harry moved in 1884 to Hamilton, near Glasgow, to work in the coal mines. During this early period of his life, though, he kept his eye firmly upon his real goal of succeeding as an entertainer. Experiments as a light comedian and singer in the English mode having proved unsuccessful, Harry changed tack radically and went all-out to exploit his Scottishness. Out would go the conventional garb of the young man-about-town and in came the tam o’ shanter, kilt, sporran, pipe and fantastically crooked walking stick. He became, in fact, the nightmare of every would-be Scottish sophisticate, if that’s not an oxymoron. He also, dear reader, became very rich and famous not only in his native land but also abroad.
By dint of good fortune and a great deal of hard work, Harry found himself in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. His heyday was during the first three decades of the twentieth century, a time when technology and circumstance combined to offer him a worldwide stage on which to strut his stuff. The technology was the pioneering advancement of recorded sound via phonograph rolls and, later, shellac records, and the circumstance was the Scottish diaspora which had begun in the nineteenth century and was still proceeding apace.
Thousands of Scots had over the decades stiffened the backbone of the British Empire both militarily and in the workplace. While Scottish bayonets kept unruly natives in far flung outposts conveniently in their place, Scottish muscle laboured in the factories of the USA, broke the prairies of Canada and brought the farmlands of Australia and New Zealand into production. So there was a ready-made audience for all things Scottish. However they didn’t want to be told why they had had to leave behind their often miserable lives in their homeland. No! They were only too eager to devour what Harry Lauder and his successors right up to the present day were only too willing to give them – an idealised vision of a Scotland steeped in the tartan and the cosy croft and positively knee-deep in heather. All this went down a bundle ‘abroad’, including even England. It also stirred the first signs back home of that anti-kitsch resentment still ongoing today. However, for his fans, and there were millions of them, Harry could do no wrong.
Though his stage persona was of the wee, pawky, eternally resilient Scotsman of precarious means, Harry Lauder became fabulously wealthy and gratifyingly famous. Beginning with a hugely successful London debut in 1900 when he unleashed ‘I Love A Lassie’ on to his adoring English audience, he went on to tour the USA and Canada twenty-two times along with frequent visits to the Antipodes and anywhere else that Scots had settled. But what made Harry a superstar was the fact that his appeal spread far beyond Scotland and Scots people into the rest of the English-speaking world which he had reached through the phonograph. His tunes were catchy and his lyrics, though sung in a pronounced Scottish accent, were understandable and appealed to an audience already well versed in Victorian sentimentality. He was one of the pioneers of the recording medium and was the first British entertainer to sell one million units. Exploiting his success on disc, Lauder toured endlessly both at home and abroad, offering performances that were never less than highly satisfying to his millions of fans. Many years ago I had personal experience of Lauder’s enduring international appeal and, if I may indulge my nostalgia, I shall share this with you.
In July, 1963, I rolled, courtesy of Greyhound Buses, into Nashville, Tennessee, on a tour of the USA that might be described, at best, as that of an innocent abroad. About ten at night I checked into the YMCA (OK, I was that naïve!) where the desk clerk, noting my accent and address, hauled his work-sharing colleague downstairs to meet me. Said colleague was a gentleman of 63 years who, believe it or not, hailed from my home county in Scotland. He’d emigrated to Nashville just after the Great War and was only too eager to talk of Scotland and ‘the good old days’. What emerged from our chat was that the greatest thing he’d seen during his ‘exile’ in America was Harry Lauder's visit in the 1920s to the Athens of the South when he was accorded the honour of the kind of ticker-tape parade reserved usually for returning homegrown American heroes. At the time I must admit that this all came as a bit of a shock, to put it mildly, but gradually over the ensuing decades it has begun to make sense. Where better for Harry Lauder to be feted than Nashville, the home of country music which owes so much of its appeal to its roots in the melodies, rhythms and sentiments of the music of Scotland and Ireland? My slightly derisory attitude to Lauder, by the way, was typical of most young Scots of that time and, as we grew older, it became, unfortunately, enshrined in the Scottish psyche. In essence, Harry Lauder and his legacy were bad for Scotland at home and abroad and his image had to be erased from the blackboard of Scottish culture. This attitude is still very prevalent today, making it easy for those with an axe to grind about supposed Scottish dignity to do so against the offending bony knees of Harry Lauder.
If you’re beginning to get my rather obvious drift, a head of steam which continues to hiss away today was beginning to build amongst many Scots who were either ashamed of Harry Lauder or, more importantly, jealous of his success. Scots in general have difficulty in acknowledging that one of their own can dare to become successful and popular, especially away from their home turf. This attitude, defined by the Australians as the ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’, still exists else the tabloids would sell very few copies. People, not just the Scots, love to build up their idols, regarding them almost as personal creations, and then to tear them down at the first sign that they might ‘be getting above themselves’. This particular Rubicon was crossed by Harry Lauder when, in 1907, he bought a large mansion in Dunoon, an upmarket holiday resort on the Clyde coast, in search of some peace.
He called it ‘Laudervale’ and built a wall round it for privacy, perhaps the first signs for those who chose to see them, that his ‘man of the people’ facade was beginning to crack. Moving with Harry to his Argyllshire Shangri La were, naturally, his wife, Nance, whom he’d married in 1890, and their only son, John, in whom Harry, like many a proud father before and since, invested all his dreams and pride. And it was through that beloved son and the supposed ‘mystery’ of his death that some Scots would be able to get their revenge, then and now, against the father.
Understandably, Harry doted upon John, ensuring for him the best education that money could buy, first at the City of London School and then Cambridge University. Just to make sure that John’s future was completely assured, Harry bought the local estate of Glenbranter for his son. Unfortunately for John, his impending lairdship might have had quite a bearing on his eventual fate, the suggestion being that some of his future tenants in the ranks of his company might be harbouring deep resentment against their prospective landlord. It should be noted, however, that the final purchase of Glenbranter with surrounding properties including an island in Loch Eck was not finalised until November, 1916, barely a month before John’s death. Whatever, these prewar plans for John’s future would assume less significance with the outbreak of war in August, 1914.
John, an accomplished pianist who sometimes accompanied his father, was actually in Australia on tour with him when war broke out. Immediately upon hearing the news, John, as a dutiful reserve officer, set sail for home to prepare to contribute to the war effort. What was this young man like and how had he become part of the peacetime army?
With Laudervale in Dunoon as his home base, Harry made sure that he established himself as a pillar of the local community, the high wall notwithstanding. As his son, John also became involved in the social whirl and enlisted, as would be expected of him, as a subaltern in the 8th Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (A&SH), the local Territorials, in 1912. As a Territorial John retained his civilian status but was expected to attend training sessions and, especially, the annual summer camp. He seems to have thrown himself into his new role with great enthusiasm if this postcard depicting him, kilt flying, leading his grinning men in a mock charge, is anything to go by.
The men whom young Lauder commanded were from the immediate locality around Dunoon, bound together by strong bonds of kinship, friendship or common experience. John, unfortunately, could lay claim to no such ties being an incomer, separated further from his men by his father’s wealth and reputation and by his own education. Nevertheless John’s military career seems to have progressed satisfactorily from part-time training prior to 1914 to fulltime soldiering with the outbreak of war. Indeed, by 1916, he had been promoted to Captain.
In the summer of that year of the Somme he had become engaged to Mildred Thomson, a joyous event for the Lauders, and it was this union which had prompted Harry to buy the aforementioned 20,000 acre Glenbranter Estate for John and his fiancee.
Unfortunately, neither the marriage nor the lairdship was to be consummated. Captain John Lauder was killed, aged 25, on 28 December, 1916, near Courcelette on the Somme. And thereby hangs the supposed mystery. Did he fall in the course of doing his duty at the front or was he pushed by one of his own men? Was it a bullet from the rifle of a German sniper, a mine explosion or a shot in the back from a disgruntled Jock which cut short his life?
Though I’d been aware of Harry Lauder all my life, the fate of his son was completely unknown to me until 1996 when “Empty Footsteps”, a novel by Lorn McIntyre, was reviewed in the Scottish press. And it is to this book and author that most of the current controversy, if controversy there is, can be attributed. In fact, so far as the present is concerned, all roads lead to Lorn. This being the case, it might behove us to have a look at what he says.
First though, a word of caution. I fully understand that ‘Empty Footsteps’ is a novel, a work of fiction, and should be judged on its merits as such, a job which is outwith my compass. However, when an author uses a real person as a character then he/she must take some responsibility for the impression made by this character on the reader. This is especially true in the case of John Lauder in ‘Empty Footsteps’ where McIntyre’s creation and his suggested fate is a major thread of the book.
We first meet John Lauder at the annual battalion sports day in Dunoon prior to the outbreak of war where he is revealed to be a junior officer keen to throw his somewhat light weight about in an attempt to appear manly before his fiancée and assembled guests. Described as “the slightly built lieutenant with dubious eyesight”, he appears frail, especially when contrasted with one of his men, Mr Life-force himself, Dochie McDougall, a worker from Glenbranter Estate. Lauder is depicted from the outset as unable to relate to his men not only because of his personality and upbringing but also by the fact that most of the soldiers are bilingual and not above using the Gaelic to exclude those, like their lieutenant, whom they see as ‘outsiders’. Somewhat sadly John states, “I joined the Territorials to make friends…” something, if the author is to be believed, he completely failed to do.
The growing conflict between John and his men is exacerbated by the prospective purchase of Glenbranter. John’s plans for the future of the estate hinge on his intention “to buy a lot of sheep”, something that would enrage his men, especially those who are his tenants. McIntyre here plugs into one of the great perceived injustices of Scottish history, the Highland Clearances of the 19th century, when the “great sheep” replaced people over vast swathes of the Highlands.
So from the beginning we have John on the other side of the cultural fence from the men he will be leading into battle. To compound matters he is also shown to be rather inept with women unlike the aforementioned Dochie who relates in a very positive way to anything presentable in a skirt. Indeed the whole scenario centres on this division between the almost effete Lauder and the robust common soldiery under his command, who often come across, though I’m not sure that this is the author’s intention, as little more than bullies. By the time they arrive in the trenches, the relationship between officer and men has not improved and Dochie is presented as an ever growing threat to Lauder, describing him as “a weed”.
The author also has an axe to grind about Harry Lauder, portraying him as a jumped up nouveau riche, described by one of the more sympathetic of the characters, Hector Macdonald, the piper, as “the bugger with the crooked stick”. Meanwhile poor old John seems to go from bad to worse as the war and the novel progresses. Even when he’s wounded he receives no sympathy, especially, as might be expected, from Dochie who describes his officer as “a lazy bugger” with the hope that “the bastard” is “kept at home for good”. By this time it is becoming clear that Dochie is assuming the role of Lauder’s nemesis and we all know where that one leads.
To be fair to Lorn McIntyre, his largely unsympathetic portrayal of Captain Lauder is tempered by the suggestion that the young man desperately wants to succeed as a soldier and as a man, a wish thwarted by circumstances and what we are shown to be his personal shortcomings. However I’m pretty sure that by now you can see the path down which the author has been leading us. John Lauder, disliked by all and despised by some, is about to ‘get his’, one way or another. And the opportunity arises at Courcelette on the Somme in late December, 1916, most probably but never definitely, courtesy of Dochie, who conveniently has his head blown off the following year. Although the author allows the reader to make up his or her own mind as to the cause of Lauder’s death, sniper or assassin, the ‘evidence’ definitely leans toward the latter scenario. McIntyre, himself from Argyll, claims that it is common knowledge there that John Lauder was shot by one of his own men.
Similar in tone and, I suspect, based largely if not totally on ‘Empty Footsteps’, is the Scottish website ‘first foot.com’. Choosing to go down the sensational route, the writers set out their stall from the very beginning with the title,
Captain John C. Lauder
(Exit Stage Left 1916)
When they go on to describe the stage act of Lauder Senior as "demeaning" and the man himself as "this jumped-up music hall singer who got rich ridiculing his country men", it quickly becomes obvious what side these particular punters are on. They declare that Harry used his influence to get John a commission in the Territorials, "a fitting position for a laird's son", without stopping to consider that John, with his education and position in local society, would have been expected to assume the basic officer rank of Second Lieutenant without any backroom work necessary by his father. (We'll deal with the matter of John's wartime promotion later.) Further, John is described as "a haughty disciplinarian....and ....disliked intensely by his men...." without a shred of evidence being put forward. His death is implied to be mysterious being the only one on the 28 December, 1916, when there were no enemy attacks. No consideration is given to the fact that snipers were a constant threat throughout the War, especially during such quiet periods as late December 1916, near Courcelette. These men, the snipers, were the pros of the Western Front, capable and skilled and always on the lookout for their next score. Why should one on December 28 not have been at the expense of John Lauder? The website entry finishes with the insinuation that he was killed by his own men but employs the get-out clause of "Although there are no official records, the story is strongly entrenched and part of local folklore in Argyll…." This is followed by the question, "Is it true? Did J. C. Lauder get what was coming to him?" The compilers then refer to ‘Empty Footsteps’, stating that “the story has also since appeared there” implying, I think, that this gives it, the story, some sort of authenticity.
These two sources may well be true or have some elements of truth contained within them but I feel that before their ‘revelations’ sully the Lauder name further, some delving in the mud of memory and evidence might be in order. And where better to begin than in Dunoon itself, the town John came to regard as home.
In autumn 2006 I visited this onetime ‘Jewel of the Clyde’ where Captain Lauder’s name is just one of many on the town war memorial. The lady at the local tourist office was very pleasant, revealing that her grandmother had been a very close friend of John’s mother, Nance. She knew a great deal about the Lauders in Dunoon but nothing, apart from the official version, 'Killed In Action', of the manner of John’s death. Extending my search, I went to the Castle Museum, which, by the way, is well worth a visit if only for, and there’s a little touch of irony here, its exhibit on Harry Lauder. There I met with three locals, habitues of the museum. Pleasant, friendly chaps in their fifties, they stated quite categorically that John Lauder had indeed been shot by one of his own men. No messing. Definite. “Common knowledge” (that phrase again) “in the area,” they said. The evidence? Some of the local survivors of the 8th Argylls had “opened up” to their families shortly before they died after years of a conspiracy of silence on the subject. Unfortunately I’d just missed Lorn McIntyre who had been lecturing in Dunoon on the Lauders and the possibilities of John’s demise just a few days previously. They seemed, genuinely, to be totally convinced. But on what grounds? Hearsay evidence and whispers inspired by any number of motives, some of which we touched on earlier - but no actual names.
And now we come to the crux. There is, as might be expected in the absence of a court martial, no documentary evidence to substantiate any of the allegations of murder. There is, however, quite a bit of well-documented speculation about Lauder’s death, investigation of which might prove more fruitful than local legend and a work of fiction – or should that be ‘faction’?
What, if anything, is known for sure? The only solid facts that I’ve been able to dig up are contained in the mud-stained pages of the Regimental Diary held in the museum at Stirling Castle. These reveal that December, 1916, had been a relatively quiet time in the Courcelette sector and the 28th of the month conformed to that pattern. The terse ‘Summary of Events and Information’ states,
A & D Companies in trenches. Captain J. C. Lauder killed.
One O.R. wounded.
Because there is no further ‘official’ evidence, just this simple report of an everyday occurrence on the Western Front in the war diary, the conspiracy of silence theorists and assorted others have had their field days ever since. The first of these in print, at least so far as I can detect, was the ever-gregarious Jack House, ‘Mr Glasgow’ himself.
Twenty years before the publication of ‘Empty Footsteps’, the subject of Captain Lauder’s death arose in the Diary column of the Glasgow Herald in connection with House’s biographical play about Harry Lauder which premiered at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, on May 11, 1976. This time the cause of John Lauder’s untimely end was alleged to be due to nothing more than his own overweening arrogance.
While researching his play, House claimed to have been visited, separately, by two ‘independent’ witnesses to the shooting of John Lauder whose stories matched. The gist of their accounts was that John Lauder insisted that, when an enemy trench was taken, all its occupants were to be shot and this was what had happened just prior to his death. He had led a successful assault, presumably had all survivors shot and, delighted with his success, was dancing a Highland Fling on the parapet when he was downed by a German sniper. Well, at least it was a Hun who had done the deed, not one of his own. But young Lauder still comes out of it, or, rather, didn’t come out of it, looking a proper Charlie.
Objection Number One – Why would any officer order total annihilation of prisoners when everybody knew that they were in great demand as sources of intelligence with consequent kudos to said officer? Also such a policy would bring with it inevitable and reciprocal retaliation by the enemy. Undoubtedly prisoners on all sides were shot out of hand but this was in the heat of combat. You only have to study the many photos taken at the time of German prisoners being used as stretcher bearers and in other non-combatant roles on their way back to the British rear areas to realise this was not a general policy. Was Lauder so much out of touch with reality that he was waging his own, personal war with his own rules? Highly unlikely.
Objection Number Two - John Lauder may or may not have been an unpopular officer but he was definitely an experienced one and dancing about on battlefields would not be part of his repertoire. Playing the piano in the rest areas, maybe, but jigging at the front…..?
So what are we to make of this ‘evidence’? I’m quite happy with the German sniper bit but common sense dictates that the leaping about is a bit far-fetched. Good publicity for the play, though, and wasn’t it Jack the Lad himself who stated that he “never let a concern for facts get in his way if there was a good story to be told "?
Nevertheless, some good did come from setting this particular hare running. At least the culprit had been identified as a German sniper, not one of the 8th Argylls. There followed some lively correspondence in the Herald which revealed how different witnesses can interpret ‘facts’ in totally different ways especially when they’re enveloped in the twin fogs of war and failing memory.
James McWhirter, 83 years old in 1976, was in the 6th Battalion A&SH in the same sector as Lauder. He contended, probably accurately, that ‘shot by your own men’ is a soldiers’ myth revived in every war. Such acts might happen but surely only when bullets were flying all around ensuring that the perpetrator would not be identified. He also dismissed as fantasy the idea of Lauder’s war dance. Unfortunately his own information that Lauder was killed with several of his men by the detonation of a German mine just does not stack up against the bare facts stated in the regimental diary – Captain Lauder killed, one O.R. wounded. No other casualties in the section on that day.
Through the rest of May, 1976, information on the subject kept cropping up in the paper. In that very first article, there is a reference to Harry Lauder’s distress that a rumour had begun that John might have been shot by one of his own men. It’s interesting to note that the first veteran to come on board, Mr McWhirter, dismissed such a theory out of hand and even more interesting to discover that no further ‘evidence’ to this effect would appear in the ensuing correspondence. Further suggestions as to the cause of John’s death were, however, proffered.
Charles Black, a private in Lauder’s ‘A’ Company on the fateful day, stated quite definitely in the Herald of May 21, 1976, that John Lauder was sniped by the enemy. According to Charles and other sources there had been a post-Christmas lull in the fighting in the Courcelette-Pozieres sector at this time, probably due to the bitterly cold weather. Apart from the occasional shell being fired just to remind the troops on both sides that there was a war going on, little was happening. It was Lauder’s bad luck that one of these rounds landed nearby and failed to explode. Realising that it was a dud, he went out to bring it in. Just at that point, nearby troops decided to lob a rifle grenade at the Germans in retaliation for their breach of the peace, an action which, in turn, attracted the attention of the resident sniper. As Lauder was the only available target, he was duly put away. This, by the way, is the version that Sir Harry would eventually accept as the truth.
“Ah,” I hear you ask, “What kind of idiot goes out to bring in a dud shell? Surely this is taking souvenir hunting to a new level?”
So thought I until I contacted Richard Gardiner of Liverpool, a tour guide well-versed in the minutiae of the Great War. Richard informed me that Captain Lauder was merely doing his duty in retrieving the shell. Orders were in place that any such misfires should be retrieved in order that the timing fuse in the nosecap could be studied by British Intelligence. They could then calculate the position of the gun which had fired the device and bring down retribution upon it. So, far from being an idiot, Captain Lauder was doing his duty, choosing to take the risk upon himself rather than expose one of his men to danger. This account was confirmed in the same issue by Alistair Meighan, whose father was the medical officer who tried to save John Lauder’s life.
John Macleod of Skye, a Seaforth Highlander in a nearby position, claimed in a later letter to the Herald in 1986, that he had actually seen an officer of the A&SH in the open wearing his officer’s light-coloured trench coat, which would be ‘just jam’ for a German sniper. Normally officers would not be so foolish as to wear such a garment at the front but John Lauder was set to go on leave and so might well have had it with him to wear on the journey home. With the cold as intense as reported, it’s quite likely he made the unfortunately fatal decision to wear it over his other clothing. Why the subject of Lauder’s death had been returned to ten years after the last flurry of correspondence, I was not able to confirm. Perhaps it was the last testament of a very old man who wanted to tell the truth as he had seen it. Whatever the reason, John Macleod was convinced that a German sniper had shot John Lauder.
For me, the most convincing account of John’s death comes from a very significant eye witness, his batman, George Tait, a Dunoon man, who would, presumably, be aware of the resentment among local men about the Captain, if indeed it existed. Tait confirms the unexploded shell/German sniper story though he states that Lauder had merely left the trench “to have a look”, not to retrieve the shell. According to William Wallace in his book ‘Harry Lauder in the Limelight’, Tait’s version of the incident never varied. "This is the story always given by George Tait who returned to Dunoon and he maintained it to his dying day." That Tait was very aware of the alternative version is obvious from the following "…there were others who circulated the false rumour that Captain Lauder was unpopular with his men and one of them had shot him. This nasty and malicious tale grieved Harry Lauder very much and upset many of John Lauder's friends, most of all batman Tait."
So what are we left with? The strongest of probabilities that Captain Lauder was shot by a German sniper while doing his duty. The only ‘mystery’ that presents itself is the possibility that he was unpopular due to his snooty and bullying manner. So let’s see what kind of character references we’re left with after we extract the contributions of Lorn Macintyre and those supposedly ‘in the know’ in Dunoon today.
First of all, John loved being in Dunoon, “enjoying”, according to Wallace, “the contrast from the Cambridge campus”, which suggests that John felt at home in the area. Surely if he was disliked or even hated by all and sundry he would have ensured that any visits he made to Argyllshire would have been infrequent and short. And he certainly would have been unlikely to have joined the local Territorials when he could have realised any martial ambitions he might have had in the Cambridge University O.T.C. The postcard already mentioned showing him leading what appear to be his merry men is not indicative of a deeply disliked junior officer. John also seems to have been accepted by his fellow officers at the front, accompanying their singsongs on piano during breaks in the fighting.
Second, the available evidence suggest that John Lauder was, at the very least, an efficient officer who had certainly seen action. According to army records, John was promoted to Lieutenant in April, 1914 and to Captain in October, 1915. Much has been made of the fact that John was promoted due to his father’s influence. The facts are as follows. His original rank on joining the Territorials, Second Lieutenant, was the normal entrance rank to the military for one of John’s social class. His promotion to Lieutenant in 1914 suggests satisfactory progress in the Territorials while his advancement to Captain confirms that, as a soldier, he was doing the job correctly. If John Lauder had been incompetent or unable to manage his men it is highly unlikely that he would have reached the rank of Captain as a frontline officer. Rather he would have been kept back and given a job where he could do as little damage as possible. This, I have been told by military sources, was the recognised but unofficial procedure. Ironic really that incompetence or failures in man management could keep you relatively safe. This was not the case for John who, after convalescence in 1916, was sent to bombing school where he became an instructor, not a role bestowed upon dummies I would have thought.
Shortly after John had been promoted to Captain, he had been invalided home suffering from shrapnel wounds, dysentery and shell-shock. Despite being, according to his father, severely debilitated by his experiences, he returned to the front later in 1916, eager, once again according to Harry, to get back to his men. Lest one reads into this home leave some kind of preferential treatment being accorded John on account of his father’s influence, this pattern of recovery, if indeed recovery occurred, was common for officers. Their men, unfortunately, were more likely to have to rely on a slightly more serious ‘blighty one’ to get them back to Britain. Which brings us to the question of Harry’s supposed influence.
There seems to be among the anti-Lauder faction a general belief that John’s continuing promotion was largely due to his father. In fact this kind of influence cut little ice after Haldane's Army Refoms in 1908. Just look at the struggle Kipling had to get his own son, ironically also named John, into the forces at all, never mind a commission. Promotion to Captain would not have been given to an officer just because daddy wanted it, especially in the dire circumstances of WWI. The upward path might have been widened by the horrendous toll of frontline officers by 1915 but influence of any kind was irrelevant. Unfortunately, as we have seen, John, not long after receiving his captaincy, was to become just another statistic.
Obviously, after all the time that’s elapsed, I’ve no real idea what kind of man or officer John Lauder was but going on what I’ve been able to discover I’m pretty sure he was not shot by one of his own men nor was he celebrating a massacre of the enemy. I’m sorry to disappoint the conspiracy theorists out there but the available evidence points in a completely different direction, one that leads to the conclusion that John was just another victim of the insatiable war machine, simply killed at the front like thousands of others before and after. And what about that ‘after’? What happened once John was laid to rest in the cemetery at Ovillers, not far from where he died? John’s story didn’t just stop with the sniper’s bullet, at least not for his father. Or for Mildred.
At the London hotel where he was residing during his hugely successful run at the Shaftesbury Theatre, Harry was told of John’s untimely demise on New Year’s Day, 1917. His wife being in Scotland, he was joined in his grief by Mildred, who lived with her parents in the capital. At first Harry felt he couldn’t go back on stage but, trouper that he was, he honoured the old showbiz adage, “The show must go on”, and returned to the boards only three days later. Too much money and too many people depended on him. Predictably, emotions ran riot both with Lauder and his audience, especially when he broke into the hit number from the show, ‘The Laddies Who Fought and Won’ and even more so when he introduced 'Keep Right On To The End Of The Road' into his act shortly afterwards.
Later in 1917, once the London run was over, he embarked for France on a mission to raise the morale of the men at the front. His work-rate was prodigious. Not only did he complete a gruelling tour, often in danger from shell-fire, but he also found time to write a bestseller about his experiences, ‘A Minstrel in France’, which was published early in 1918. And, of course, he also found time to visit John’s grave at Ovillers.
We set out across a field that had been ripped and torn by shell fire. All about us there were little brown
mounds, each with a white wooden cross upon it. All over, the valley was thickly sown with white
crosses.....And my own grief was altered by the vision of grief that had come to so many others.....
In the presence of so many evidences of grief and desolation, a private grief sank into its true
perspective. It was no less keen, the agony at the thought of my boy was as sharp as ever. But I knew
that I was only one father.....God help us all!
No matter what your opinion of Harry Lauder or his son might be, his description of his visit is extremely poignant, especially as he nears the military cemetery where his son lies. Any of you out there who have undertaken grave visits either for or with descendants of the fallen will recognise the feeling of anticipation and dread as the site comes ever nearer. For us, the feeling is one of a task completed and a debt fulfilled, especially if you know that yours is the first visit to have been made to that particular grave. Imagine then what must have been the experience of a ‘first generation’ visitor like Harry Lauder.
So we came, when we were, perhaps, a mile from the Bapaume Road, to a slight eminence, a tiny hill that rose
from the field. A little military cemetery crowned it....Five hundred British boys lie sleeping in that small acre
of silence, and among them is my own laddie. There the fondest hopes of my life, the hopes that sustained and
cheered me through many years lie buried.
And then the climax, far greater than anything the theatre could offer, the final reality for so many parents, wives, lovers, the end of a quest and yet the beginning of a lifetime of remembering and grieving.
I went alone to my boy’s grave and flung myself down on the warm, friendly earth...I was utterly spent.
He was such a good boy!
And that my friends, says it all, I think. As Harry remembers John as an infant, anyone who has ever cared about a child can feel for him and be almost glad that he had found there, on a hillside in France, “a sort of tragic consolation”. However, just as he was finding this consolation, Lauder was also beginning to be aware of rumblings of the rumour that would torment him for years to come.
In the years immediately following John’s death, soldiers who had served with him were to visit Lauder, now Sir Harry in recognition for his efforts in France and also in raising money for disabled Scottish servicemen. And all of them told him the same thing -
......that there was not a man in his company who did not feel his death as a personal loss and bereavement.
And his superior officers have told me the same thing.....All that we have heard of John's life in the
trenches and of his death, was such a report as we or any other parents would want to have of their boy.
Sir Harry’s assessment of his son’s popularity and character reflects, as one might expect, very favourably upon 'his boy'. However, if only a small part of it is true, it rather contradicts the picture painted in other sources, especially ‘Empty Footsteps’.
John never lost his rare good nature. There were times when things were going very badly….but at such times
he could always be counted on to raise a laugh and uplift the spirits of his men.
And perhaps most significant :
He knew them all; he knew them well. Nearly all of them came from his home region near the Clyde and so
they were his neighbours and his friends.
Hardly, in other words, the kind of men who would want to take a shot at their officer.
One incident, reported in his diary by a “friend and fellow officer”, Hugh Munro, describes how John, in July, 1915, when “the spirit of his men was dashed”, found a piano in a ruined house at La Gorgue and played and sang some of his father’s songs to amazing effect. Munro also reveals how he and other officers had “a hilarious night” in an old schoolhouse, an event which would no doubt have proved to be a welcome relief from the dangers faced in the nightly working parties of which John was a regular member.
Other stories reflecting favourably upon John emerged from the visits paid by his former trenchmates to Sir Harry :
Many soldiers and officers of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders pass the hoose (sic) at Dunoon….
None ever passes, though without dropping in for a bite and sup….to tell us stories of our beloved boy.
OK, so some of those might have just been visiting for a free dram and a bit of shortbread plus the sovereign liberated from the clutches of Sir Harry’s sporran on receipt of a favourable report but the majority must have been genuine. Why? The men of the 8th Argylls mostly came, remember, from the surrounding area, where such visits would be well known and the ‘liars’, if indeed they were such, would be held in contempt.
Sir Harry himself accepted fully the account, substantiated by John’s batman, of his son’s death – killed by an enemy sniper. But just to make sure and to confound the damnable rumours he employed private detectives to seek out contrary evidence, if any existed. None was discovered.
So what are we left with?
John Lauder shot by one of his own men? Logic and the available evidence tells me, “No!”
John Lauder an unpleasant authoritarian bully? Unlikely, but who knows?
Perhaps he was just an ordinary young man thrust, like thousands of others, into extraordinary situations by the Great War, situations for which nothing could prepare them. Who knows how he would react? But remember, John was promoted to Captain and given charge of a company, hardly the mark of an officer unable to handle his men.
Sadness hadn’t finished with Harry Lauder in 1916. His beloved wife, Nance, died in a post-operation relapse in 1927 delivering to him a blow almost equal to that of the loss of his son. From then until he came to the end of his own particular road in 1950, he lived a quiet life at Lauder Ha’ in Strathaven, well removed from the sadness and failed hopes of Glenbranter. During these twilight years he became almost a guru to the folk in showbusiness and many famous entertainers, especially Americans, paid him visits, eager to touch the hem of the kilt of one of the greatest of them all.
Mildred never married. Three years after her death in 1975, the Lauder-Thomson Ward was opened at Erskine Hospital which cares for disabled ex-service personnel. It was paid for by Mildred in memory of the man whom she’d loved but never had time to wed.
Throughout her long life, she, like Harry, would “never be far away from the little cemetery hard by the Bapaume Road”.
Mildred, John and Ma Lauder
THE FINAL CURTAIN
Though John would never have the chance to prove himself as laird of Glenbranter, he’s remembered there to this day. On a hillock overlooking his beloved estate is a tiny graveyard in which lies the body of Nance close by the memorial erected to John by his father.
Ironically, for a man so close to his family in life, Harry is nowhere near to them in death. He’s buried in Hamilton, the town where he’d worked in the mines, met and married Nance and first trod the boards as a serious entertainer.
So there you have it – John at peace on a hillside on the Somme, Nance surrounded by nature on a little hill in Argyll and Harry, far from the ones he loved so much, in the impersonal vastness of a communal cemetery in a town which has seen better days. Like those when Harry was starting out.
An eBook is a wonderful beast! You can edit, correct, expand and update as fancy and the demands of historical accuracy take you. With this in mind, let me share with you the following very interesting information which was brought to my notice on March 17, 2009, when I was contacted from New York by James Marturano to whom I offer my heartfelt thanks for his generosity. What immediately follows is his e-mail in a slightly edited form. Bob Bain, who is referred to by James, is the Secretary of the Scottish Music Hall and Variety Theatre Society, formerly the Harry Lauder Society. He is also an extremely interesting and pleasant gentleman with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Scottish Variety Theatre.
I was referred to your eBook by Bob Bain and was much interested to read your chapter on John Lauder. As Bob
will tell you, I am a big fan of Sir Harry Lauder and I found your chapter on him to be a very honest and clear-
eyed examination of both Sir Harry and his unfortunate son. Neither saints nor sinners - like most of us.
My reason for writing to you is to see if you would be interested in transcriptions of two of John Lauder's letters
to his fiancee, Mildred Thomson. One of the letters is, I believe, the last letter he ever wrote, dated 26 December,
The letters were obtained a few years ago from a London man who purchased some of Miss Thomson's
furniture in an auction sale. At the time of the auction he had been told that all of Miss Thomson's letters from
John Lauder had been destroyed, apparently on the wishes of Miss Thomson and he thought no more of it. Some
time later he took some drawers out of a small nightstand and these four letters fell out from behind. This was in
the late 1970s and he kept them these many years. Apparently he took them to the Imperial War Museum where
he was told they were authentic but the Museum was otherwise not interested in them.
When I returned home and actually read the letters I must confess I began to feel ill at ease. I did not like having
them. They seemed too personal and I do not know what to do about them. I feel it is wrong to have them because
of Miss Thomson's wishes but also I do not think it right to destroy them because they are part of history.
Naturally I jumped at the chance to have access to such fascinating and moving documents, the only surviving remnants of yet another love story torn asunder by the Great War. I have taken it upon myself to edit the two letters as some phrases, due to the ravages of time, are impossible to decipher. However I can reassure you, the reader, that I have not altered in any way their substance.
The first letter, written during John's first tour of duty, reveals something of his existence at the front and also his obvious fondness for Mildred to whom he is not yet engaged. Although some of John's opinions might strike us in these politically correct times as definitely non-PC, it's more than likely that they are pretty typical of most young British subalterns trapped by duty in the muddy fields and shattered villages of Picardie.
Still in the same place in France,
I have never been so jolly delighted to have a letter from anyone as when I got yours yesterday – it was my first (and only) communication from friends at home.
Sorry I had to miss writing to you yesterday but I had time only to write to Father and Mother. I have never been so busy in my life – absolutely fed up with work in every form and guise…….If you can find time to write every day I shall be glad, as it is nice to hear from you.
It is rather curious being here, able to hear the guns and knowing that every now and then some men are being sent to perdition – without any ceremony and perhaps incomplete at that!
The country is marshy and absolutely alive with frogs of the croaking type.
Our food is not very excellent. The water here is filthy and must be boiled before use – the natives are a dirty lot (and) wash all sorts of things in their water supply! Our staple diet, as I have told you, is bully beef – at times we get ham, the same as issued to the men, and once we have had fresh meat(?)!
This morning I was up at 3.45 and “stood to arms” until 5.30 am. It is 2.15 pm now and I have been on the move ever since.
Today is not so warm and the rain has kept off.
You can write as long letters and as many as you like – there is no censor to fear!
Our letters are censored, though, as a matter of fact, our word is accepted that there is nothing of military importance therein.
I may find time to continue this letter later but, in case I do not, shall conclude.
With fondest love,
Well Darling, it is now 5 pm and for once I believe I shall have an hour to myself. But even now I have been working, with hour breaks for breakfast and lunch, for 13 hours!
It has begun to rain again, just a little. It is rather annoying, as one cannot empty one’s valise and sort of settle down for a while.
By the bye, this ink I am using is made from ink tablets. It is improving as I write – fortunately.
I have the rather disagreeable job of censoring my Platoon’s letters. The O.C. Coy. ought to do it but there are such numbers that we each have to take our own men’s.
There is little information any of them can give as they scarcely know what part of the world they are in. One of my NCOs has just asked me if I will accept his word that there is nothing stated in his letters…….and would I pass them without reading them.
I am glad to know you are attending church. Your attendance may help to counteract the evils of my life. Living in a stinking village with smelly people and no pyjamas to soothe my army blanket…….and having to get up at 4 am and eat bully beef…….all tend towards the downward path.
In your letters, just say anything you want to………it will all go to making a nice long chatty epistle.
I am hoping to have another letter from you this evening! Shall I? I have not heard from my people yet.
Glad to know your spring cleaning is over for another season: you will have no excuse for overworking for a while. Tell your father I will write to him one day soon. I shall not be able to answer all his questions!
Shall close for the day.
The second letter shows, I think, a deepening of John’s feelings for Mildred. They had, after all, become engaged in the early summer of 1916 prior to John’s return to active service from his convalescence at home. He obviously was living the life of what I would guess was a typical young officer, better than that of his men but certainly not without a fair share of their discomforts and dangers. What is most significant and touching about this letter is that it is, so far as we know, the last time John would touch home base. Interestingly, from my point of view at least, it corrects the supposition advanced by John Macleod in 1986 in his correspondence to the Glasgow Herald that John was about to go off on leave when he was killed and was therefore wearing his officer’s coat ready for a quick getaway to the train. The letter clearly shows that no such leave was imminent.
I have just had breakfast in bed and am waiting for my shaving water to come. My, if only I had hold of you now, I should squeeze and cuddle you something awful!
Xmas has passed and now New Year is rushing down on us. The days go by very rapidly; nevertheless it is ages since I saw you last, slowly fading from view, waving a white kerchief. I felt jolly sad that night. My shaving water is present and correct so I shall carry on.
Later, Sweetheart, until later in the day.
The present 2nd in Command is going on leave today and is then going as instructor at a CO’s school at home for several months. I hear that Major Lockie, the permanent 2nd in Command, is not likely to return for a while, so I am wondering whether I am to be taken on as 2nd in command. It seems quite likely as this morning, when the CO was away for a while, he told me to answer for him.
It seems uncertain whether I shall be 2nd in Command. At present…….a still more junior Captain, who has been out all the time, has the job. But I have to go in the trenches in this wet spell (tomorrow) and shall be i/c of the firing there – 2 Coys. in. There are only 2 Captains in the Battalion now and the other one, at present 2nd in command, will likely have to go in with the remaining 2 Coys. when I come out. Then perhaps I shall get the job. It does not matter very much really, but it is rather a disagreeable thing to have a junior officer put over one and being only a kid of 21 or 22.
It is raining again and we do not look forward with much glee to going in tomorrow night as the line is just the same as it was last time.
I am fairly busy getting things ready for the line – there are many things to look after. “Gum boots, thigh, men for the use of” as they are termed, gas respirators and food etc, etc. I believe this is the worst part of life on the 13th front just now, and that means something. However we are all looking forward to the much needed Div. rest, which is more or less promised about January 13th 1917 – NOT 1918!
This letter consists of spasms today and so may be somewhat disjointed. It is still raining and does not look like improving tonight at least. Dinner is announced so I must away again.
Must close Darling as it is after midnight – I have been very busy this evening.
All my very fondest love and kisses.
PS I may not be able to write to you for 2 or even 4 days but, of course, if
possible at all I shall do so.
All my love
There they stand, testaments of a time long gone. Make of them what you will. My own impression is that they show a young man desperately trying to stay in touch with the reality of everyday life and clinging on to future hopes as a means of staying sane in an otherwise crazy world.
JOHN LAUDER’S BOX
During the course of my research on John Lauder I had occasion to use the Scottish Theatre Archive at the University of Glasgow. There, among all the paper-based evidence, was one very solid wooden artefact, a box which had been presented by Harry Lauder to John on the occasion of his 11th birthday. Let me describe it to you.
It’s made of brown wood, probably a light mahogany veneer.
Its dimensions are 15 inches (wide) x 10 inches (broad) x 9 inches (deep), approximately.
There are brass protectors on all four corners (top) with bands of brass anchoring the sides near the bottom.
There is a small brass plaque on the top bearing the following inscription –
Handwritten in ink on an interior lid, made of plywood, are these words –
To My Son John for his 11th Birthday
From his Papa
With Dearest Love
The handwriting is ‘educated’ - firm, clear, precise.
Under the writing are three drawings of plants coloured in with, I think, wax crayons. Presumably these were added by John.
The interior lid opens up to form a writing desk with a navy blue velvet inlay.
There are three slots for a pen, ink bottle and pen nibs.
The pen is still there with its ink-stained wooden ‘shaft’ and a cork ‘grip’ into which the nib is inserted. The nib is badly bent almost as if someone had been trying to play darts with it!
The interior opens further to reveal a compartment containing one sheet of writing paper with a watermark of a pseudo-heraldic device and, in German, the word ‘Gohrsmuhle’, presumably the trademark and name of the manufacturer. ‘Muhle’ is ‘mill’ in German.
It’s very hard to express how I felt handling these links with the past. Sad, privileged, excited – and sad once again.
I don’t know whether or not John had this box with him at the front though I suppose it’s possible since officers carried with them all sorts of extras denied to the ORs.
The box is in the Harry Lauder Archive which was left to the University by Jimmy Logan, one of the great figures of the Scottish entertainment scene in the latter half of the twentieth century. During the 1980s he toured very successfully with his self-penned show ‘Lauder’ and it was during its run at a local arts complex that I met him – standing patiently in the queue waiting for his turn to be served at a local fish and chip shop! He was a great chap and is sadly missed.
Lastly, here are two images which bring us closer to John Lauder, courtesy once again of James Marturano of New York.
The first is a view of Dunoon sketched by John from 'Laudervale'. I don't know when it was done but I'd like to think it was during his last home visit in 1915/16.
The second is an envelope addressed to Mildred from France, postmarked twelve days prior to his death.
Not his last message home but near enough, near enough.......
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