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Remembering Alex Bremner - Part I

SOMETIMES WHILE RESEARCHING and writing my family history I find a person whose story resonates with me. This is one of those. Alex Bremner didn't leave any direct descendants to remember him, but as Remembrance Day is nearly upon us I thought it fitting to share what I have written of his story so far, so we can all remember him and the other men and women who sacrificed. #LestWeForget


 

"I know now where the naughty people go. It is Salonika and not the place beginning with an H.”


Photo of a young girl and a man in soldier uniform
Alex Bremner with his cousin, Anna Inkster, at 16 Windsor Street, Edinburgh while on leave, c. April 1917.

Born in 1890 at the North Roe Schoolhouse, the third son of schoolteacher, Mr. Bremner, Alex Bremner was familiar with hardship. His mother, Isabella Inkster, died in childbirth when he was just 5; then, at the age of 8 his two older brothers died of diphtheria, thrusting him into the role of big brother to brother Josie and sister Bella. Although these tragedies would influence him – he would later become a beloved doctor in Sheffield specializing in childhood diseases – he led "an adventurous and unselfish life," serving in two world wars, all the while maintaining a cheerful outlook.


Alex left North Roe to attend the Anderson Educational Institute in Lerwick, then studied medicine at Edinburgh University from 1908 to 1913. While there, he would live with his uncle, Dr. Robert Inkster at No. 16 Windsor Street. He fit right in, sharing stories of North Roe and Shetland. It was to this family he would write during the war, a lifeline to home.


By April 1917, Dr. Alex Bremner, Temporary Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps, had encountered – and helped many men survive – some of the most challenging battle conditions of eastern World War I.


At Suvla Bay, shells exploded around him and his 31st Field Hospital stretcher bearers as they carried thousands of wounded from the firing line to the beaches and the hospital ships anchored in the bay. After just two months of fighting nearly 75% of his 10th (Irish) Division would be killed or wounded.


After the failed Gallipoli Campaign, he accompanied the redeployed 10th to Salonika in Macedonia. It was October 1915 and the unprepared troops in their summer uniforms fell victim to the snow and frost of the harsh winter. By December a further 300 would be dead and 800 wounded or taken prisoner in the mountains.


The intense damp summer heat was equally harsh: dysentery became widespread, but the malaria was even worse. In August 1916 alone, his division reported more than 7,000 cases of the disease. Throughout 1917, 63,396 out of 100,000 men in the Salonika Campaign were admitted to hospital for malaria. Alex himself contracted the disease, which would reoccur; he would later devote his life to studying tropical medicine and hygiene.


Transporting sick and wounded soldiers through steep mountain terrain was gruelling. The Royal Army Medical Corps devised relay parties of stretcher-bearers, travois, litters and cacolets, to convey the wounded back to the dressing stations.


Alex was well-liked by his men. He was not one to stay back and send his men into action on their own. Instead, he accompanied them; he wouldn’t have them do what he wasn’t willing to do himself. Although Alex didn’t discuss it in his letters, he was mentioned in dispatches when he managed to get his wounded patients out of Serbia through the mountains, sheltering them in caves.



Torn enveloped addressed to Miss Inkster, 16 Windsor Street, Edinburgh


Alex did describe his rude accommodations to his young cousin, Anna Inkster:10 August 1916: “I live in a square hole dug into the ground and covered in with corrugated iron and sandbags, so you can imagine what a fine place it is. It is quite comfortable and dry even when there is a thunderstorm.”


His letters to young Anna, were often silly and loving, but at times revealed his exhaustion and longing for home:


15 October 1916: “I’ve just got a magazine from you and it had an article from Shetland in it and I liked it. Do you know that I got it when we had a “strafe” on. The strafe was a bad one although we won. I don’t like fighting now. I lost my way and got strafed from our own side as well as the enemy so I got a shock. I don’t want any V.C.’s now; what I want is PEACE. When I get home I want a good long sleep and nothing to do. Wouldn’t it be nice.”


17 October 1916: “I’ve got through one bad week all right, and things are quiet now, but I don’t know for how long… I was in hospital for a short time but am all right again and was just in time to be with the regiment during the fighting. I was glad I didn’t miss it although I’m not keen on war now…”


13 December 1916: “I thought that I might get home [on leave] but there’s very little chance of it now, but I’m living in hope…. I am enclosing three bad snapshots – one in front of a shelter, the other in front of a tin hut and the third is with my orderly in a dressing station which was called ‘shrapnel corner’ by the men. It was a horrible place as you will see by the mess that the side is in. You’ll see a box in the side which we filled with earth to stop a hole. I was glad when we were relieved. There is no news to tell you that I am allowed – that’s funny grammar but I am too lazy to think of grammar. Another Xmas in the army. What a thought. I think it will be better than the last…. Just now as I’m writing I can hear shelling somewhere but as long as they don’t come here I don’t mind.”


In April 1917, Alex was finally able to get leave and travelled to Edinburgh to spend time with his uncle and family. He then travelled to London. He had signed on for a limited time, and with only four months left in his R.A.M.C. commitment, he hoped to convince the army not to send him back to Salonika. But in this he would be disappointed.


18 April 1917 [Jermyn Court Hotel, Piccadilly Circus, London]: “No luck at the War Office. I spent over five hours there and saw dozens of Brass-hats and each one was a bigger idiot than the other. I told them I shouldn’t sign on again so you’ll probably see me in four months time if I don’t get it in the neck before. Cheer up. I’m always lucky. I went down to Deal and saw Josie. Saw Aunt Anna and now am off to Salonika. I know now where the naughty people go. It is Salonika and not the place beginning with an H. I don’t think there’s any news I can tell you. My cold’s away but I had a “go” of malaria yesterday owing to the cold weather. I can’t write any more now. You’re nearly grown up and I write only love letters to grown up girls so there you are. Love from AlexI wish I were back in 16 Windsor Street.”


So, by April 1917, he had already faced hell, but little did he know what was yet to come…



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