This blog post is going to be about Sergeant John Erskine VC whom I have always been aware of because he is both on the war memorial and named on his family’s headstone in the graveyard in Cairneyhill. I will be looking at John Erskine’s family and his pre-war life, his war service, his Victoria Cross and his death.
Here is the side of the family headstone which names John:
John Erskine’s family and his pre-war life
John Erskine was born on 13 January 1894 at 6pm at 30 Bridge Street, Dunfermline to William Erskine a master draper and Elizabeth Erskine ms Dick.
In 1901 the family were living at 32 Bridge Street, Dunfermline and the family consisted of: William Erskine aged 50, a draper who was born in Carnock, Fife, Bessie Erskine, William’s wife, who was 33 and born in Dunfermline and their children, John aged 7, William aged 5 and Bessie aged 3. The children were all born in Dunfermline and in 1901 John was attending school.
In 1911 the family (excluding William Erskine senior who had died in 1908) were living in Eskbank, Park Avenue, Dunfermline and the household now consisted of Elizabeth, 43, the mother (who was calling herself Bessie in 1901) and children John 17, William 15, Bessie 13, David 9, Gilmour 7, Stuart 3 and Harold 2. John was already working as a drapery apprentice (see below for further information on who John worked for).
John Erskine attended Dunfermline High School and was then employed as a draper with Robert Maule & Son, Edinburgh (again, see below for a quote from Robert Maule) and also with Pettigrew & Stephen in Glasgow. John was following in his father’s footsteps – William Erskine senior was a partner in the Dunfermline drapery firm of W & J MacLaren & Co of Bridge Street, Dunfermline.
John Erskine’s war service
John Erskine joined the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) first of all as a private and was then promoted to a sergeant. To be specific he was in the 5th/6th Battalion and he was in D company. John enlisted in Glasgow and he first arrived in France on 5 November 1914 so he must have enlisted pretty soon after war was declared. John’s regimental number was 7064 and then 20047614. The medals that John was awarded were the Victory, British War and 1914 Star medals which are the 3 standard medals for people who saw overseas service during WW1 plus the Victoria Cross (see next section). Unfortunately John’s WW1 service record is among the 70% that didn’t survive a bombing raid during WW2 so we are unable to discover any more information about John’s war service.
John Erskine’s Victoria Cross
The Victoria Cross is the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the presence of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Common wealth Forces.
In my opinion, the best way to convey John Erskine’s bravery is simply to quote directly from the citation for John Erskine’s Victoria Cross as published in the London Gazette on 4 August 1916:
‘For most conspicuous bravery whilst the lip of a crater caused by the explosion of a large enemy mine was being consolidated, acting Sergeant Erskine rushed out under continuous fire with utter disregard of danger and rescued a wounded sergeant and a private. After seeing his officer, who was believed dead, showed signs of movement, he ran out to him, bandaged his head and remained with him for fully an hour though repeatedly fired at, whilst a shallow trench was being dug to them. He then assisted in bringing in his officer, shielding him with his own body in order to lessen the chance of his being hit again.’
The war diary for the 5th/6th Battalion confirms that the officer was a Lieutenant Stevenson.
I find extremely poignant the reaction of John’s mother as reported in The People’s Journal on 12 August 1916:
‘I know my laddie deserved the VC which his majesty has been pleased to award him for he always worked hard and tried to do his duty happily and carefully even when things looked their blackest’.
I also like the reaction of John’s former employer Sir Robert Maule as quoted in the Courier on 19 August 1916:
‘To me the character of his exploits seems to touch the very highest pinnacle of courage and self-sacrifice’.
John Erskine’s Victoria Cross medal is now in the Cameronian’s museum in Hamilton, Lanarkshire.
John Erskine’s Death
Unfortunately John died on 14 April 1917 near Arras in France without ever having been personally given his Victoria Cross. To make this even more tragic, John has no known final resting place.
John is commemorated on the Arras memorial, on his family headstone in the graveyard in the village of Cairneyhill, on the Cairneyhill war memorial and on the Dunfermline war memorial.
Here is the other side of the family headstone:
Here is the official reaction of the Dunfermline provost as reported in the Dunfermline Journal on 19 May 1917:
‘The provost said that they had now a very different and unexpected sequel to that period of rejoicing which was seen in the town when the news first came regarding the heroic action of the young man. The act of bravery was typical of unselfishness, he (the provost) was satisfied that the act of bravery for which the honour was given would have gladdened the heart of Mr Carnegie for it was one to save the life of others’.
‘Mr Carnegie’ is Andrew Carnegie, a Dunfermline-born steel baron and philanthropist.
I am gong to finish this blog post with the reaction of John Erskine’s mother on being presented with John Erskine’s Victoria Cross by the King and Queen on 2 June 1917 at Hyde Park as reported in he Courier on 4 June 1917:
‘The King and Queen showed particular interest in her (Mrs Erskine) especially the latter who patted her on the hand when Mrs Erskine showed signs of emotion on the record of her son’s bravery being read out’
A painful sensation was created in Cairneyhill (Fife) United Free Church on Sunday. The last hymn was being sung, and Mrs Beveridge, the wife of Mr Beveridge, farmer, Crombie, was officiating at the organ, when she suddenly fell forward.
She was conveyed to the manse, where restoratives were applied, but she died in the evening.
Mrs Beveridge was a daughter of the late Rev James Young, minister of Queen Anne Street United Presbyterian Church, Dunfermline, who also died very suddenly, having dropped down dead at a curling match.
Apart from the villages in and around Crossford, Charlestown, Carnock, Limekilns, Cairneyhill etc, the wardens’ service in Lochgelly and Dunfermline county districts is at full strength. In the village areas named there is a shortage of some seventeen wardens, but as large deficiencies in Cowdenbeath and Lochgelly have recently been made good, it should not be beyond the villages rapidly to follow suit. Only another two to three persons are needed in each village, but applications are wanted now.
Women and men are still required for first aid, however, chiefly in Lochgelly, Auchterderran and Kelty, while rescue parties at Inverkeithing, Milesmark, and Aberdour, and decontamination squads in Inverkeithing and Milesmark are not yet up to establishment, plus reserve.
Total enrolments in the two districts and total deficiencies are:-
Lochgelly district enrolled 1212, still required 78.
Dunfermline district enrolled 721, still required 85.
Although the deficiency appears small in view of the total enrolments, it does represent a weak spot in the County’s Civil Defence Scheme, and everyone who has not yet enrolled is asked to consider what forms of service he or she can best perform and to offer to help at once. Any ARP volunteer will tell you what to do – the chief thing is to ask now.
[I’m sure all such volunteers would have been familiar with the anti aircraft gun battery which still survives in Cairneyhill although rather deteriorated].
Presentation of a silver salver and 580 sovereigns to the Rev Mr More
On Wednesday a series of services took place at Cairneyhill, to celebrate the 50th year of the Rev Mr More’s ministry in the United Presbyterian Church there, and for the purpose of presenting him with a testimonial from his congregation and a number of the friends of Mrs More and himself. The services were opened at midday by a sermon by the Rev Dr Johnston, Limekilns, who preached an eloquent and peculiarly instructive discourse from Ecclesiastes 7:10 – ‘Say not thou, what is the cause that the former days were better then these? for thou dost not enquire wisely regarding them’.
At half-past three, about 80 gentlemen sat down in the school-room to an excellent dinner, which did great credit to Mr Turnbull of Dunfermline, who purveyed it. The Rev Dr Johnston occupied the chair, and amongst those present were – the Rev Mr Young, Dunfermline; Rev Mr Reid, Lochgelly, Rev Mr McNab, Rothesay; and a number of other ministers; Provost Whitelaw, Dunfermline; Dr Morris; Mr Wm Mathewson; Dr Kirk, Linlithgow etc. Letters of apology were read from the Rev Dr McMichael and the Rev Mr Jarvie, Dunfermline; the Rev Mr Gilston and the Rev Mr Johnston, of Carnock, who both wrote expressing their regret at not being able to present, and their good wishes for Mr More’s happiness and prosperity; the Rev Mr Gilfillan, of Stirling and the Rev Mr Mathieson, of Alloa.
This week, 2 reports on Cairneyhill War Memorial, one on the maintenance of the Memorial and one on the upkeep of the Memorial.
For interest, the Dunfermline Press dated 17 September 2020 had an article on the maintenance of the War Memorial, in that a bar has been fixed to the Memorial to keep wreaths attached.
Sunday Post 17 December 1922
Cairneyhill (Fifeshire) War Memorial was unveiled yesterday by Mrs Wm Erskine, mother of Sergeant John Erskine, Scottish Rifles, one of Dunfermline’s VCs, who was killed at Arras in 1917.
[My plan is to publish a blogpost on John Erskine in the near future].
Fife Free Press and Kirkcaldy Guardian 21 May 1932
With regard to the proposed upkeep of Cairneyhill War Memorial grounds, the Council [Dunfermline District Council] approved of a recommendation by the local representative, who discussed the proposal with the secretary and another member of the Village Maintenance Committee. The recommendation was that they be asked to continue the work of attending the grounds and be given a grant of £5 for expenses incurred, the position to be reviewed at the commencement of next year.
John May, grocer, Cairneyhill, was charged with having on Saturday the 24th of February, with exciseable liquor on his premises and this was the second offence. Mr May pleaded not guilty and was defended by Mr Macbeth.
Inspector Napier deponed to having gone into a back-room in John May’s premises in Cairneyhill, and seen James Fotheringham, senior, James Fotheringham, junior, John Anderson and John Philp. He saw a half mutchkin measure, a glass of whisky, two empty quart bottles, and a tumbler of small beer placed on the table. He saw no money pass.
John Manclark, labourer, Cairneyhill, deponed – on Saturday 24th February, I was in a room in John May’s house with James Fotheringham, senior, James Fotheringham, junior, John Anderson and John Philp. We were supplied with exciseable liquor. We had been invited into the house by James Fotheringham, junior. We paid nothing for the drink, and did not promise to pay anything.
Cross-examined by Mr Macbeth – we all had been at a teetotal lecture together – (laughter) – delivered in the schoolroom by Mr Dunnachie. We left between 9 and 10 o’clock, and proceeded homewards through the village. When we came to the house of John May, James Fotheringham, senior, went in as he haad some business to transact with May, and the rest of us stood at the door waiting for him. After standing some time, James Fotheringham, junior, asked us to come into his room in May’s house. We all went in, and Fotheringham, of his own accord, brought in the drink and treated us. While we were drinking Inspector Napier came in, and he was told we were really there as friends.
John Philp was examined in corroboration of this evidence, and the previous conviction against Mr May was admitted by Mr Macbeth, who stated the offence had been committed during an election period.
James Fotheringham, junior, was the first witness examined for the defence. He deponed – I am a carter in Cairneyhill. About three years ago I was married to niece of John May, and have lived in a portion of his house ever since. I have a room in the house, in which I live, and into which I have the power of taking my friends. On Saturday 24th February last, I was at a teetotal lecture, and left shortly after nine o’clock with my father, John Manclark, John Philp and John Anderson. We all lived to the west of the school-room, and we all proceeded west-wards through the village together. I invited them all into my room in John May’s house, and gave them a dram and two bottles of beer. I do not think that when I left the room and went into the shop for the drink any one of them knew what I left for. I did not measure the whisky. When we were drinking the beer, Inspector Napier came in. There was nothing said abut paying for the beer; it was purely a friendly dram. My wife and I have occupied this room exclusively for three years. I pay a rent for the room.
By the bench – I paid nothing for the beer, but will require to pay for it.
James Fotheringham, senior, was also examined by Mr Macbeth on behalf of the accused.
Mr Bremner and Mr Macbeth then successively addressed the court, and
Mr Spowart said – the bench has given your case its best consideration, and is of opinion that the charge against you has been proved. To some persons there may appear some hardship in this case, but we are here to administer the law as we find it. We have, therefore, mitigated the penalty to £2 10s, the lowest possible, with £1 0s 6d of expenses.
Mr May – if a stranger come to my house, am I now allowed to give him anything I please at my own fireside?
Mr Spowart – I am afraid we can give you no advice in this matter. we are only here to judge.
A two days’ bazaar in connection with the Cairneyhill United Free Church was opened in St Margaret’s Hall, Dunfermline this forenoon by Mr Thomas Shaw, KC, MP. The purpose of the bazaar is to assist the funds of the church and raise sufficient funds to carry out much needed repairs. The amount aimed at is £500.
The following, along with the assistants, have charge of the various stalls:
Cairneyhill No 1: Mrs Forbes, Mrs Stevenson, Miss Lindsay and Miss Robertson.
Cairneyhill No 2: The Misses Lamont, Mrs Beveridge, Miss Flint, Mrs Robertson.
Crossford stall: The Misses Anderson, Miss Donald, Miss Walker.
Dunfermline stall: Mrs D Gilmour, Mrs D D Blair, Mrs William Erskine, Mrs William Bald.
Refreshment stall: Mrs Stark, Miss Calderhead.
Fruit and flower stall: Messrs J Low and J McDonald