20 February 2014
In this centenary year of the Great War, television, radio, the media and of course the World Wide Web will be abound with documentaries and articles detailing one of history’s most bloody conflicts.
This wealth of information will focus on the earthshattering global events which took place, and perhaps will open up the subject to a whole new generation of war enthusiasts.
However, what remains to be told is the more localised events, the personal stories, which when put into context contribute massively to the overall history of the conflict.
One such story focuses on Newport-on-Tay situated on the north-east coast of Fife.
Located in a small walled enclosure halfway along the B946, stands the Newport War Memorial.
Engraved on the bronze plates attached to the obelisk are the names of over 120 men who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country during the First and Second World War.
There is one name however which was not added to the list until a later date -Private Peter Black, Black Watch (Royal Highlanders)
During the period 1914 until 1918, 306 British soldiers were shot at dawn for what was deemed as desertion; these men were eventually pardoned in 2006 some 90 years later.
Peter Black was one of these men.
Peter was a local lad and a member of the pre-war territorials.
When war eventually arrived, Peter along with his childhood companions John Spark and John Squibb enlisted full time.
In February 1915 the three men embarked for France.
Here, during conflict, John Spark received serious wounds and was transferred to The Royal Flying Corps.
Peter continued to serve the war effort; unfortunately, he began to attain a history of being absent without leave.
It was reported that he had went AWOL on 12 separate occasions.
It was also rumoured that Peter had a history of mental illness.
Whether this was a symptom of the war, we simply do not know.
As a result, in September 1916 between the border of France and Belgium, Peter was executed for the crime of desertion.
Sir Robert Lorimer, the architect responsible for Edinburgh’s National War Memorial, was tasked with designing and erecting the Newport monument.
However, local bereaved parents wrote letters of concern to Sir Robert refusing their son’s names to be inscribed on the memorial if Peter Black’s name was to be included.
Sir Robert in a letter to the Works Department of the Imperial War Graves Commission recommended that Peter’s name be omitted from the memorial due to it being unsuitable for a Roll of Honour.
The decision created a public outcry, not from Peter’s family but from ex servicemen who were determined to see Black’s name inscribed.
Sir Robert received an anonymous letter suggesting that if Peter’s name was not included on the memorial, `they (a group of ex servicemen) will wreck the monument.`
The Letter went on to request a ruling on the matter, unfortunately Colonel Durham, spokesman for the IWGC could not offer the servicemen the news they wished to hear.
Durham went on to say that if the monument was damaged in any way it would become a police matter.
The threat made toward the memorial was not an empty one.
Two local men had stole gelignite from a Fife quarry; they were later identified as John Spark and John Squibb, Black’s childhood friends.
The two men made it exceptionally clear (anonymously of course) that unless Black’s name was inscribed on the monument they would ensure that `the whole lot` would end up in pieces in the Tay.
A public meeting was called in Newport’s Blyth Hall, in the hope a resolution could be found. Over 300 people attended.
It was decided unanimously that Peter’s Black’s name should be proudly included on the Newport on Tay war memorial.
Peter’s story highlights the tragedy and misery of war, made even more poignant by the fact that he was executed by his own country for what was deemed as criminal behaviour.
We may never know the full reason for Peter Black’s repeated absences, but we should utilise his example and the many others like it of how we must take the time and effort to appreciate what is really going on.
Resilience as witnessed by the heavily attended public meeting in regard to Peter’s plight demonstrates that society, even in the midst of turmoil, exists as a force for the good - then as it does now.