As we commemorate the centenary of the Battle of Arras, it is important we share the stories of some of the brave men who made the ultimate sacrifice. Two of these men were Corporal John Connell and Lance Sergeant Ian Gowan.
Descendant Robert Connell is the grandson of Corporal John Connell and although Robert never met John, a remarkable collection of his grandfather’s memorabilia has allowed him to piece together his grandfather’s life.
Corporal Connell was born in 1879 in Barony, Lanarkshire, and later moved to Maryhill where he lived with his wife Agnes and four children. His military career commenced on 17th December 1897 when he enlisted in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, aged only 18.
Included in the memorabilia is a travel warrant dated 20th January 1915 that allowed Corporal Connell’s family a free pass from Bombay to Stirling, which suggests that John had been stationed in India prior to serving in World War One.
Sadly, Corporal Connell was killed by artillery shrapnel on 15th April 1917 during the Battle of Arras. It was discovered that tragically his family did not receive a telegram notifying of the death until over three months later on 26th July 1917.
His treasured possessions including a crucifix, rosary beads, a note book, pocket knife and remarkably his soldier’s box which he would have taken through the trenches were later sent home and have since been treasured by his grandson.
Robert also keeps a scroll from King George which was sent to John’s family after his death. It reads:
‘I join with my grateful people in sending you this memorial of a brave life given for others in the Great War.’
The second story to share is that of Corporal Ian Gowan who was born in 1897 to John and Margaret Gowan (nee Aikenhead).
Prior to enlisting, Ian attended George Watson’s College from 1904-1913 before he began an apprenticeship with the Commercial Bank of Scotland at its North Bridge Edinburgh Branch, which later became part of the Royal Bank of Scotland.
Ian enlisted as Private in the 9th Royal Scots in November 1914 and was promoted through the ranks to later become Lance Sergeant of his Battalion in 1916.
Sadly after a period of strenuous service in France, he fell age 19 near Arras during the attack on Vimy Ridge
Following his death a fellow soldier, Captain Arthur Graham-Nicolson VC, wrote to Ian’s mother in a moving tribute to his fallen friend. He spoke of how Ian was “a very big Highlander” and would often comically dance around to lift the spirits of his fellow comrades during times of misery brought on by great hunger and exhaustion.
He reveals how close he and Ian quickly became during their period of rest together before the Battle of Arras began, as well as how lovingly Ian spoke about his family and Scotland. He recounts another tale demonstrating Ian’s exceedingly kind and fun-loving character:
Extract from letter:
‘As we went home we heard some children crying, which made Ian say he must see what was up. We found half a dozen small kiddies on their way to school, terribly frightened by a cow, which was standing with lowered horns in the middle of the road. Ian disposed of the cow in a way that made me limp with laughter, and stopped the children’s crying. He made wild bounds at it, uttering the most appalling noises, and the cow bolted. Then he turned his attention to the children, picked up the two tiniest and set them on his shoulders, and went off with the other four clinging to his kilt. He sang cheerfully all the way to the school, and then could hardly induce the children to leave him until he had promised to come and fetch them after school. He kept his promise, for I met him on the way back carrying three and followed by the whole school. He chanted as he saw me, ‘Oh, I’m the father of a family!’’
Ian is buried at Roclincourt Valley Cemetery, north east of Arras, and his name appears on the George Watson’s College memorial and the Royal Bank of Scotland memorial tablet at the main branch in St Andrew’s Square Edinburgh. Ian’s Mother generously arranged the installation of a beautiful stained glass window at Morningside Congregational Church, now known as Morningside United Church, in memory of her son and other men who gave their lives in World War One.
Ian’s oldest brother Anthony Thomson Gowan (1885) emigrated to Canada and served with the Canadian Infantry, whilst his other brother, Alastair Aikenhead Gowan, at first served with the 9th Royal Scots alongside his younger brother, before transferring to the Canadian Infantry with his older one. Both were wounded but survived the war.