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Gary Thomson: The Dundee man with a mission to forever honour Tayside’s WW1 soldiers

Gary Thomson

Gary Thomson, from Dundee, works as a coastguard rescue officer helping to save lives around our nation’s shores.

But, as if that gruelling task was not enough, he has embarked on a mission in his free time to forever honour Tayside’s fallen after he discovered a long forgotten link to the trenches of World War One.

Retired firefighter Gary, 58, has helped build Great War Dundee, a digital roll of honour with biographies, pictures and other resources.

He said: “It is a labour of love. It started when we were clearing out my grandfather’s house after he passed away.

“We found these old pictures of a soldier. It turned out it was my grandfather’s uncle who fought in the Canadian army in World War One.

“I wanted to find out more about him and I wondered how many more Dundee boys out there who fought with the Canadians.

“His name was William Harvey and he emigrated in 1911, enlisted in 1914 and was killed in action in 1915.

William Harvey

“I was intrigued that a boy from Dundee ended up in the Canadian army but it turns out a lot more men did the same.

“At the last count, we found that around 2000 Dundee boys served with the Canadians and more than 300 died.”

A heavy toll

Dundee suffered a heavy toll during the Great War. By the armistice, more than 4,000 men had made the ultimate sacrifice.

Using Canadian army records, electoral rolls and other archies, Gary discovered a treasure trove of detail about his heroic long lost relative.

William was born at 10 Walton St, Dundee on February 17, 1881 to Robert and Francis Harvey. He was working as a mill worker when he enlisted at the age of 18 in the Gordon Highlanders in 1899.

William fought in South Africa during the Boer War before returning to the UK in 1903. In 1911, he emigrated to Canada.

During the war, he served in Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. He fought at famous battles such as Ypres and Polygon Wood before being killed in a ferocious German attack.

A contemporary account on the site records William’s death. It reads: “The men worked hard through the night trying to improve the defences of this new position, whilst this was in progress the Germans pushed forward their machine guns to within 200 yards of the ‘Pats’ position and began to rake the unfinished parapets with fire.

William Harvey

“The German artillery joined the fray at 9.00am. Heavy shelling continued throughout the day blowing in the forward lines. When the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry relieved the battalion on the evening of 4 May, The Patricia’s had lost 26 men and 96 wounded. These were the heaviest single day casualties suffered by the Regiment up to that date.”

William was one of the 26. His mother received a letter from one of his comrades Pte McDonald which read: “Being a friend of your son William, a Dundee man, I had promised in case of any accident, to acquaint you of the circumstances.

“I am sorry to say that your son was killed in action by artillery fire at noon on 4th May almost instantaneously.

“I merely promise you that he was taken care of, and was buried as a good, true British soldier deserved to be.

“His effects were gathered by me and will be forwarded to you as soon as possible. The rest of the men in the section join sending you their sincere sympathy.”

He was buried in the trench along with the other 25 men where they fell. The location was lost in the fog of war but William is remembered on the Menin Gate Memorial.

‘Vitally important we never forget’

Gary said: “It can be quite harrowing to read what happened to these men. The Canadian records are excellent and provide so much detail.

“Sadly many of the British records were lost in the Blitz in World War Two. It is vitally important that we never forget what happened then.

“A lot of men who came back never spoke about it. That’s just the way it was then. It is difficult to comprehend what those men and women would have seen on a day-to-day basis.

“All of the names on the roll of honour are someone’s father, son, brother, husband. They should be remembered.”

Photos of William Harvey courtesy of Great War Dundee.

Map shows details of Dundee's WW1 victims.

The 6,089 Tayside WW1 victims: Search their names, ranks and where they lived