This is a very brief account of the lives of 4 young men from around a century ago; all members of the same Scottish family. The accounts are neither special nor representative and they form a tiny fraction of the story of what we call the First World War. They come from browsing a family history book which concentrates on family members who share the same surname and is therefore patrilineal by design; following the male line. While tracing such individual stories a different way would have provided a different selection, the meta-narrative they contribute to is the same.
In the year the war broke out, cousins Lyon, Lambert, Ian and Patrick were aged 26, 21, 20 and 21 respectively. Lyon, Lambert and Ian were more closely related, sharing a common great-great-grandfather, James (b. 1738) who had been Principal of the United Colleges of St. Andrews University from 1799 until his death in 1819. Lyon and Lambert’s great-grandfather was Surgeon-General George, Ian’s great-grandfather was George’s brother Hugh; provost of St.Andrews in the 1840’s and 1850’s. Patrick shared with the other 3 a more distant common ancestor, Robert (b. 1610) a tenant farmer from Coupar Grange in Angus, and the great-great-grandfather of Principal James.
Lyon George Henry Lyon Playfair (b.1888) was a captain in the Royal Field Artillery who went to France at the start of the war and served in the retreat from Mons and the battles of the Aisne and the Marne.
Lambert Playfair (b. 1893) was a Lieutenant in the Royal Scots who returned from India with his battalion at the start of the war. He joined the Royal Flying Corps and was sent to France. On 6th July 1915 he was signalling the positions for enemy batteries near Ypres when his aeroplane was attacked by 2 enemy planes. He and his pilot fought back, despite having only 5 rounds of ammunition left.
Ian Stanley Ord Playfair (b. 1894) saw continuous service at the front as a Lieutenant in the Royal Engineers. He took part in the battles of the Aisne and Flanders (1914), Ypres salient and Hooge (1915), Somme and Ancre (1916), Arras, Monchy-le-Preux and Ypres (1917), Arras and Bethune, Le Cateau and Landrecies (1918). He was wounded twice and mentioned in Despatches 4 times. He was awarded the Military Cross in June 1916, the Bar in September 1917 and the D.S.O. in January 1918.
Patrick Lyon Playfair (b. 1893) was at university in Cambridge when the war broke out and took up military duties as a captain in the Black Watch. He was in France in January 1917 and fought at Vimy Ridge and the battle of Arras where he was wounded in two places. He returned to France in March 1918 where he was again wounded on 11th April while holding a forward position close to Lestrem against frontal and flank attack until nearly all his men had fallen and he had fired his last cartridge.
Only one of these four young men remained alive by the end of the war. Lyon was killed in action on April 20th 1915. Lambert was shot through the heart and died in the aerial dogfight over Ypres in July 1915 and Patrick died in a German dressing station in April 1918.
Ian, who lived until 1972, was my paternal grandfather and is therefore the great-great-grandfather of my grandchildren. His survival around a century ago has allowed a further line of descent; from Ian to a new generation, following that from Robert to James and from James to Ian.
Like countless other young people of their generation, however, Lyon, Lambert and Patrick didn’t get the opportunity to live long lives or to be parents. They were destined to be remembered only as young men.
This terrible conflict blasted a gaping hole through the family histories of millions of people across the world. The long legacy of war, mass murder or genocide is always one of lives unlived, opportunities unrealised and human suffering extending far beyond the broken branches of a family tree.
These individual human tragedies are the minuscule particles of a great tragedy; tiny tears in the ripped fabric of a world. To understand a war, we need to understand the social and political forces which brought it about; to translate from the motives and actions of millions of individuals to the motives and actions of their states, societies and armies. The individual and the social are different levels but they are connected. So, where we can, we should also ‘translate back’ and remember some of the individual victims and the human stories which contribute to the meta-narrative of a war. This remembering is a necessary first step towards analysing and understanding – and then finding better ways to deal with conflict.
Lambert, Lyon and Patrick Playfair
Notes on the Scottish Family of Playfair by Rev. A.G. Playfair (1932).
Battle of Mons: 6,000 casualties.
First battle of the Aisne: 13,500 casualties.
First battle of the Marne: 500,000 casualties.
First battle of Ypres: 100,000 casualties.
Second battle of Ypres: 120,000 casualties.
Battle of the Somme: over 1,000,000 casualties.
Battle of Arras: 280,000 casualties.
Battle of Vimy Ridge: 10,000 casualties.
London’s francophone refugees (September 2016)