Gunner Thomas Irvine


Thomas Irvine, No 1096. No 6 Company, Orkney Royal Garrison Artillery

Thomas Irvine

Tommy Irvine was born on 7 April 1898, the oldest child of William and Jane Irvine. They lived at Sandside in Deerness, and had two subsequent children, Jane born on 3 June 1899, and William, known as Billy, much younger, born in 1911.

Mrs Irvine was from Holm, the daughter of David & Robina Esson (nee Oddie) and had been working in Deerness, at the farm of Gritley, prior to her marriage. She was 24 when she married and William was a ploughman aged 27 whose father worked the farm of Sandside. William’s mother was dead by the time William and Jane married.

Tommy Irvine went to school in Deerness, starting there on 16 May 1904, aged 6. A school photo from 1910 or 1911 has Tommy amongst the other boys of the parish, with their teachers Magnus Spence, Miss Eunson and Miss Tulloch. At some point, when he was about 12 years old both Tommy and his sister Jane had pneumonia.

After leaving school, Tommy was apprenticed to Leslie & Leonard in Kirkwall, as a bicycle maker/mechanic. Orkney still had very few cars, but bicycles were in common use and needed to be looked after, thus Tommy’s training. He lodged in Kirkwall, at 23 Main St. Given that his father farmed Sandside, and his brother Billy subsequently took over the farm, it’s interesting that Tommy left Deerness to pursue a trade. Maybe the plan was for him to come home with new skills and practice his trade in Deerness? Or his father was managing without him, but Tommy would return in time to farm Sandside? Or Tommy had plans for a future outside Orkney and his apprenticeship was the stepping stone to that?

On 4 August 1914 World War 1 began. Orkney, like every other part of Britain, responded with enthusiasm to the call to arms and young men joined the Army and the Navy, leaving Orkney for an immediate future of unimaginable contrast to their Orkney existences.

The lower age-limit for enrolment to the regular Army was 18. The age-limit to join the Territorial Force was 17. The Territorial Force was, like the TA today, the back-up to the regular army, made up of trained part-time soldiers, who would immediately become part of the Army ‘in case of imminent national danger.’ In Orkney young men in the Orkney Royal Garrison Artillery at the time war was declared in August 1914, were almost entirely retained in Orkney, unlike many other parts of Britain, where men from the part-time units were amongst the first to be sent to France and the other battle fronts of World War 1. See for example the story of part-time Gordon Highlander John McKenzie originally from South Ronaldsay who was the first Orcadian victim of World War 1.

But in Orkney the Royal Navy had already decided that Scapa Flow should be its main northern base. Orkney was therefore vulnerable to attack from the sea and its coastline was quickly the focus of defence, with great gun emplacements being built, which of course had then to be guarded. The regular army and navy were brought to Orkney in large numbers to man Orkney’s land and sea defences but a major role existed too for the Orkney Royal Garrison Artillery and many local young men served the entire war in Orkney, never going further afield.

In order to use Scapa Flow as its northern harbour, Britain had not only to protect it by gun batteries at all its entrances but had also to guard the routeways to get into Scapa Flow, around Orkney’s coastline. The effort of construction required manpower and that manpower needed accommodation and shelter for itself, and for all the incoming equipment and supplies required to turn Orkney into a hugely important base throughout World War 1. The Orkney Royal Garrison Artillery was therefore used in Orkney to guard and operate the guns, to help build the infrastructure of defence and to operate as look-outs on coast watch duties all over the islands.

On 23 November 1914, Tommy Irvine signed up in Kirkwall to No 6 Company, the Orkney Royal Garrison Artillery. His records state he was 5’6’’ tall, with a chest expansion of 36’’. He had average vision, good physical development and was considered fit for the Territorial Force. The surviving records don’t tell us more but a photograph of Tommy, in uniform, shows a serious young face, staring directly at the camera, very clearly still a boy, rather than a grown man.

No 6 Company, RGA, was specifically Holm, Deerness and Tankerness Company, and Tommy joined this Company rather than either of the Kirkwall companies, No 1 and No 7, despite living on Kirkwall. Signing up meant leaving his employment to become a full-time soldier, and of course that brought his apprenticeship to an end. He was putting his plans for his future into limbo, like all his contemporaries, not knowing when, if ever, he would put them back on track.

In March 1915, Tommy caught influenza, followed 2 days later by pneumonia. 5 days after that, on 23 March, he died, at 23 Main St, Kirkwall. His family was desolate and sure that if he had been sent home to them at Sandside, they would have nursed him back to health as his mother had done when he and his sister Jane had pneumonia as children. His sister Jane lived into old age and mourned her older brother every day of her long life.

Tommy’s Army records and his Commonwealth War Graves headstone, in the Deerness Kirkyard, tell us that he was 17 when he died. His family said he was 17 in the death notices they placed in both The Orcadian and The Orkney Herald. He wasn’t 17: he was 16, 2 weeks short of his 17th birthday when he succumbed to what today’s drugs could so easily treat. He had lied in the previous November, and Army Form 501, his attestation into the Army, does not ask his date of birth, just his age. It made it easy for boys to lie, and for the Army to accept the lie. It also suggests that in an island community where a few questions to the right people would easily highlight the lie, that there was complicity between recruit and recruiters to hide the truth of a boy’s age. And maybe, in these early days of the War, so gung-ho and certain of victory, the thinking was that the War would be over before he was old enough to be sent away from Orkney.

But Tommy Irvine never left his home island; he didn’t see the trenches of France; we don’t know what his duties in the Orkney Royal Garrison Artillery were, nor where in Orkney he was based to carry them out. What we do know is that a 16 year old boy wanted to serve, lied about his age to do so and when he became ill, he became so ill that that after only a week, he died of flu and pneumonia and left his parents, his sister and brother bereft by his loss.

He was the first loss to World War 1 from Deerness, to be followed by 12 more over the next 5 years. He was the youngest of the 13 men who died, now remembered on the Deerness War Memorial in the Kirkyard of St Ninian’s, the kirk by the shore which Tommy Irvine saw every day of his Deerness life from his home at Sandside.