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Brothers in arms paid high price

Alexander Cruickshank, 1st Battalion
Alexander Cruickshank, 1st Battalion

The horrors of the Great War saw thousands of British families torn apart by bloodshed.

Across Britain, the same story was repeated – people of all backgrounds never saw their fathers, sons and brothers again.

Brothers Alexander and Edward Cruickshank would both survive the conflict, but they too would never see each other again.

The boys were born to John and Margaret Cruickshank, who had a croft in Skene, near Aberdeen – Ebenezer in 1890 and Alexander in 1895. Now demolished, the house stood on the main road between Westhill roundabout and Elrick.

Ebeneezer did not put roots down in Scotland and at the age of 20, he emigrated to Australia where he settled in Mount Crosby, a suburb in Brisbane. In 1902, the boys’ mother died and their father remarried two year later.

Alexander, who was just seven years old when Margaret died, did not get on with his stepmother and left home at the earliest opportunity – working as a farm labourer in the Skene area. At the time of his father’s death in 1913, he lived at Wester Ord Farm, Skene. Following the outbreak of war, Alexander was to leave his rural life behind for the front line. A short time later, his brother would do the same.

Bill Lynn, from Westhill, Alexander’s grandson, pieced together their story by researching his family history.

“My grandfather came from a family of 10. He and his brother Ebenezer were the youngest,” Bill said.

“As far as I’m aware, my grandfather never saw him again after he moved away to Australia. But they were probably within a few miles of each other when they were fighting in the trenches.”

In November 1915, Alexander enlisted at the King Street Barracks, today the site of the First Bus headquarters. Posted to the 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders, he fought on the Western Front during 1916/18, part of the 3rd division fighting at the Battle of Passchendaele.

It was one of the war’s most deadly battles and saw 250,000 casualties over four months of battle. Characterised by mud and misery, the terrain not only had an effect on the morale of the troops, but made the fighting extremely difficult for infantry and nearly impossible for tanks.

Alexander would survive, but he would not escape the war without horrific injuries. Just months before the war ended, he was severely wounded in trenches at Wancourt-Guemappe, near Arras in Northern France. His right arm was amputated and he was discharged from the Army in 1919.

Despite moving to the other side of the world, Ebenezer would also find himself in the trenches. Having changed his name to Edward on arrival in the continent he would now call home, he signed up to the 7th rifles of the 4th Australian Pioneers Battalion Queensland.

He arrived at Plymouth in 1917. During that time, there had been major changes in the Australian armed forces. Five pioneer battalions were formed in 1916 – one assigned to each of the existing divisions – to act as a labour force.

The men dug and repaired trenches, built dugouts, repaired roads, bridges and railways and moved munitions and stores. But when necessary, they put down their picks and shovels, took up their rifles and served as infantry.

Having arrived at Plymouth in 1917, Edward went on to fight in France and Belgium. But like Alexander, he would also lose one of his limbs. His right foot was severed in 1918 – again just months before the war ended. Surgeons amputated his leg at Cambridge Hospital in Aldershot and he returned to Australia having been discharged from the Army in 1919.

The brothers would never meet again.

Bill said: “My grandfather lived to a great age and he was a well kent face in Aberdeen as the lodge keeper at Grandholm Estate. He never spoke about the war, so everything that I know I’ve found out through researching my family history. They were lucky to have both survived – the war memorial in Skene has more than 20 names on it and for a small village, that’s a horrendous number. Most of the men were in the Gordon Highlanders.

“It’s a rather ironic story given that they last saw each other around 1912, and they were both injured near the end of the war. If they’d made it through another six months uninjured, they probably would have had completely different lives.”

In 1924, Alexander – now aged 29 – married Christina Dewar, a 19-year-old dairy shop assistant from Granton-on-Spey. At the time, he worked as a storekeeper at J&J Crombie in Grandholm Mill.

The couple, who had three children – Margaret, William and Alexander – remained in Aberdeen for the rest of their lives. Edward lived out his life in Brisbane as a single man.

Most likely because of his amputation and his unmarried status, it appears he lived all his working life as a labourer in boarding houses in Brisbane. He died in Queensland in 1959.

The brothers’ cousin Isabella Cruickshank, however, did not survive the Great War. Isabella, from Newhills, died while serving as a nurse on the ill-fated HMHS Salta in 1917. Once a steamship, it was converted by the Admiralty in to a British hospital vessel in 1915.

Tragedy was to strike in 1917 – while returning to pick up wounded men from a French port, the ship hit a mine left by the German U-boat UC-26.

A huge explosion breached the hull near the engine room. Once water had engulfed the ship, she sank in less than 10 minutes. Help arrived quickly, but the majority of those on board lost their lives.

Conditions at sea and the strong winds hampered the rescue operation and of the 205 passengers and crew members, nine nurses, 42 members of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and 79 crew drowned. The British patrol boat HMS P-26 attempted to come alongside to assist, but also struck a mine and sank, with the loss of 19 people on board.