Front Line by Carol McKay
She can’t know, but she imagines.
Died of wounds. The Enemy bombarded.
She’s entrenched in her widowhood.
Her friend’s letters shield her…
Creating the Centena
My family has few old photographs, but two stand out. One, taken in 1911, is of the Isabella McIntyre of my centena with her mother-in-law. Both women are wearing voluminous, ankle-length skirts and each has a baby on her lap. William Anderson – son, husband, father – left Scotland to find work in Canada, taking this photo of his family with him.
Isabella eventually joined her husband, but when war broke out William enlisted with the Canadian Infantry, Central Ontario Regiment, leaving his family in Verdun, Quebec. I have their address from his Attestation Paper, which shows he enlisted in December 1914. He was killed in action in June 1915, three months after the birth of their third child. I have a copy of the page from the Book of Remembrance which includes William’s name and rank. The Canadian authorities have digitised their records, and they’re fully searchable.
The second photo I have is from Isabella’s Canadian passport. It was bequeathed to me by that third daughter, who never saw her father. The photo shows my painfully young, widowed grandmother full length, in sunshine, wearing what looks like a white dress, her long hair secured demurely, and her hand resting on a bannister. It was 1916 and she was 28. It was to her mother-in-law, Margaret Anderson, that Isabella and her children returned.
Before the war, William had worked with a friend called Robert McLeod. Robert had a difficult early life: his mother died of tuberculosis when he was ten, and his father didn’t cope. Robert slept rough as a teenager, but William’s mother took him in. Glasgow’s 1911 census return shows Margaret Anderson living in a room and kitchen with her husband, four children, and two boarders, one of whom was 19 year old Robert.
Robert McLeod served four years in the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), earning a Military Medal in 1917. I knew he’d won that medal for bravery, but had never seen evidence of it, and the medal itself was lost. I visited the Cameronians’ museum to see their collection of medals and other artefacts. It’s managed by South Lanarkshire Council.
Robert’s service records are lost, but his medal card exists, a reference appears in the Edinburgh Gazette, and his name is listed in the regimental war diary. I adapted entries from that diary to bring gravitas to my centena.
In September 1918, Isabella gave birth to a son. In 1919, Robert returned from France and married her, welcoming the boy as his own. They went on to have another six children, one of whom was my father.
Documents record dry facts, yet through them we can intuit grief and loss, isolation and trauma, and, above all, resilience and our need for lasting emotional bonds.
I look at these pictures of Isabella and marvel at this generation who endured so much yet were able to raise us with love.
 Supplement to the Edinburgh Gazette, July 20, 1917, p.1454.