AN “unknown soldier” who was killed in the final months of World War I has been named as a man from Thurso.
The body of Major Alexander Henderson Soutar – better known as Alastair – had been lying in a grave at Jonchery-sur-Vesle British military cemetery in the Champagne region of France where his headstone inscription was dedicated to an “unknown Major, Royal Engineers. Known Unto God”.
After painstaking research by David Tattersfield – who is vice-chairman of the Western Front Association (WFA) – the identity of the “unknown major” was firmly established and members of the Soutar family contacted for a rededication ceremony to take place at the cemetery on May 30.
Mr Tattersfield said: “With some research and a large slice of good fortune it has been possible to not only positively identify the soldier in this ‘unknown’ grave but also reconstruct a large part of his military service which ended at the Third Battle of the Aisne exactly 100 years ago.”
He went on to say how Major Soutar’s parents, prior to the war, lived in Glasgow and then moved to Thurso, where the father was a minister in the Free Church.
Some of Major Soutar’s exploits have been recorded in contemporary diaries and letters including a report from a Lieutenant Godson who was with Soutar when he was killed on May 28 1918.
In a letter to his parents, Lt Godson wrote: “Maj Soutar was carrying a rifle and I a revolver. About 300 or 400 yards to the left we met some Boche [German troops] and promptly fell on our faces. Major Soutar raised himself to fire with his rifle but received a bullet through the breast, which I think passed through the heart killing him almost instantly.”
The lieutenant was wounded and taken prisoner by the Germans and went on to say in the letter sent to Thurso how he “admired immensely” his fallen comrade and how “he was a man all through”.
Major Soutar’s surviving descendants have been contacted by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) after being informed of the research by Mr Tattersfield, and the son of Major Soutar’s great-nephew – also called Alistair – will attend with his father and read a poem by the graveside at the rededication ceremony on May 30.
The boy’s father, James Soutar, who works in the finance sector in Hong Kong, said he is “immensely proud” to be attending the ceremony with other family members travelling from around the globe.
James said that the news of the “discovery” of his great-uncle came out of the blue when his sister was initially contacted by the MoD in February.
“From looking into the details about the conflict it’s understandable how his name was lost,” he said. “It was a really chaotic time and there was a lot of pressure to get the bodies buried.”
He went on to say how grateful he was for “all the hard work that had been done on behalf of our relative” by the Mod and Mr Tattersfield of the WFA.
James said that apart from the family members a piper will be in attendance as well as various military personnel and later on a champagne toast will be raised to the memory of Major Soutar.
He said: “We thought that would be very fitting as we’ll be in the Champagne region of France.”