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Great-uncle Duncan

I loved my Grandpa Donaldson.

He loved me and I know he cherished my interest in the Bible, and my love for Jesus. He was a wonderful story-teller. We grandchildren particularly enjoyed his stories of the “Magic Saddle” and “The Wee Red Bus.” His talent for engaging the young was honed at what were called “Children’s Meetings.” They were evangelistic gatherings and were all the rage when I was a wee lad in the early 1960’s. We sang choruses from a flip chart – “Goliath of Gath,” “Climb, climb up sunshine mountain” (!) or “The Bible is God’s Telephone” were some of my favourites, now consigned to history. Bible memorisation, quizzes, and Bible stories came alive on the flannelgraph or via home-made artefacts or domestic props like a bobbin of cotton thread. I loved these meetings – held al fresco in the summer months with upwards of a hundred children in attendance.

But, back to Grandpa.

He joined the Royal Army Medical Corp (RAMC) on 28 April, 1915 when he’d just turned nineteen. The oldest child of the family, he had been a coal miner for five years. He requested a non-combatant role due to his conscience regarding taking up arms, and was deployed to the Dardanelles as a stretcher-bearer, managing to survive the slaughter which took so many lives. He was redeployed eventually to France but on the War Office Daily List 5565 of 14 May 1918, he was reported missing. An anxious wait followed in the family home until 8 November 1918, when he was reported as a Prisoner of War.

Grandpa didn’t talk much about his time as a PoW, though he used to regale us with some German he’d picked up in the camp. He even brought back a loaf of bread from Parchim German Prisoner of War Camp in N.E. Germany. One thing he never mentioned was the loss of his younger brother Duncan (named after his father). I only discovered in October 2021 that Grandpa had lost his brother. I found out that Duncan was the third of four Donaldson boys in a family of seven children. He was born in 1900, enlisted in the Royal Scots in 1917, and was posted to France on 31 March 1918. On 21 April 1918, he died from wounds received in action.

Duncan was only 18 when he died and I had never been able to pay my respects because I didn’t know of his existence. I have since discovered his gravestone in the cemetery of Aire-sur-la-Lys in the Pas de Calais. My poor great-grandparents had lost their third child in April of 1918, followed by the news that their oldest boy – my Grandpa – was missing in action in May 1918. Imagine their relief when they found out that he was a PoW in November of that year, just before the end of the war.

During my research, the most moving discovery I made was a picture of my great-uncle Duncan’s gravestone. The inscription (at a cost to his parents of 3 ½ d per letter) included this text: “The Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2.20.

As a testimony to the faith of a young soldier, it is such a fitting text. For the grief, sorrow and pathos of his godly parents, who held on to their faith and hope in Christ, it speaks of their sincerity and faithfulness. For a brother who lived on, it is a tribute to his life, because the whole text (beyond the number of letters permitted on the headstone) says: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.’ For Grandpa Donaldson, this was deeply personal.

This Remembrance Day of 2021 will be very special for me as, for the first time, I will remember great-uncle Duncan and his faith. I will also reflect on the value of leadership in the home, on sons whose faith has passed down through the generations. These are men for whom I am eternally grateful. As it is written in Hebrews 13.7, “Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.”


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