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Alexander Comrie Cowan

My grandfather Alexander Comrie Cowan, known as Comrie, was born on 30 April 1896 in Scotland.  His family were prosperous and locally influential businessmen whose wealth was based on their ownership of what had become the largest paper-making firm in Scotland, Alex Cowan and Co, based in Penicuik just south of Edinburgh.

In July 1914, Comrie was preparing to leave school and go to Cambridge University, after which he would have joined the family firm.  All that changed when the First World War broke out and Britain declared war on Germany late on 4 August 1914.

Within a few hours, Comrie’s older brother Charlie – a Cambridge undergraduate – had enlisted as an officer in the local regiment, the Royal Scots.  This was easy to do, as the regiment’s depot at Glencorse Barracks was only a couple of miles from his home.

One of his cousins joined the Royal Scots the next day, 6 August, and Comrie followed on the 7th; another cousin enlisted at about the same time.  All this was before the main flood of volunteers – Lord Kitchener issued the first of his famous appeals on 7 August – so the Cowans were among the first of the millions of men who joined the army during the war.

Comrie went to the front in November 1914, with a different regiment, in the Ypres sector.  He didn’t last long, as he contracted flu after a month and was invalided home in January 1915.

He next went out in August 1916, as a company commander in 16th Battalion The Royal Scots, part of 34th Division.  The division had suffered very heavy casualties in its first major action on the opening day of the battle of the Somme (see p. 23 of Holding Out), and Comrie was one of the replacements, succeeding an officer who had been killed on 1 July.

Comrie was with this battalion till the battle of Arras in April 1917.  On 7 April, two days before the battle started, he was ordered to lead a reconnaissance raid at night to identify the enemy opposite.  The raid achieved this objective by capturing a soldier of the 25th Bavarian Infantry Regiment, but Comrie was hit by a piece of shell in the leg and captured.  Because of the British bombardment preceding the infantry assault, the Germans were not able to evacuate him and he was held in a dressing station close behind the front.  Men of his own company found him there during the successful advance on the first day of the battle.

He was first taken to a hospital in France, where his leg was amputated, and then evacuated to Britain.  By then he had won the Military Cross for his service in France, and in June 1917 he was awarded a Bar to the MC for the success of the raid he had led.

He spent much of the next two years or so in and out of hospital, and he seems never really to have recovered from his wound.  In all, the family had suffered terribly from the war.  Charlie Cowan and both of the cousins who had joined up in August 1914 were killed; Ronnie, Comrie’s younger brother who served in a sister battalion of the Royal Scots, was wounded, though less seriously.

Nevertheless, Comrie led a full life after the war.  He married Nell Finlayson in 1918, and they had two children – my father Alan (the photo here shows him as a young boy with Comrie, perhaps in about 1929) and his sister Barbara.  Comrie became the London director of the family firm, and he and Nell spent much time travelling round overseas branches and affiliates.  Comrie even managed to play golf, and a letter to The Times described how he used to discard his crutches and hit the ball powerfully down the fairway.

Comrie died on 8 November 1937, aged 41, and there is little doubt that his early death was due to the side-effects of his wound twenty years before.