Alasdair Geddes, Frank Mears, kite balloon observers, Patrick Geddes, Western Front, World War I
It has become a truism that the First World War deprived a generation of many of its most gifted representatives. One who can be counted amongst these is Alasdair Geddes, eldest son of the botanist, planner and sociologist, Patrick Geddes. Professor Geddes entertained great hopes that Alasdair would one day succeed him, taking forward his work in civics and regional survey. To this end, he devised a unique educational programme for his son. Geddes senior had little time for the dry academic curriculum provided by the schools of the time and so Alasdair was taught almost exclusively by his parents, with the emphasis on observation, artistic expression and practical gardening. His studies at home were interspersed with periods of work experience in various crafts and industries under the guidance of skilled practitioners.
His father’s insistence on imposing his own educational regime upon his children was frowned upon by the more conventional sections of Edinburgh society, but critics were confounded when Alasdair went on to enjoy a successful university career culminating in the award of prizes and research scholarships. He provided invaluable assistance to his father in many of his projects, organising the display of the influential Cities Exhibition in Dublin, Ghent and Madras, for example. At that time, he showed every sign of becoming an able successor.
However, like so many young men of his generation, Alasdair was to have his career brought to a halt by the outbreak of the Great War. He was outraged by the destruction of the Belgian and French towns which he had come to know and love during his travels on the Continent with his father and, in 1915, he volunteered for service with the Royal Naval Air Service. He was subsequently transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and served as a kite balloon observer on the Western Front. By the end of 1916 he had been promoted to the rank of Major, the youngest in that branch of the Army and, in recognition of his outstanding ability as an observer, he was awarded the Military Cross.
Kite Balloon on the Western Front
His brother-in-law, Frank Mears, served alongside him at this time and, after the war, wrote the following account of their experiences:
“When I went out to France in August 1916, our section went first to the village of Forceville near Albert, but I found myself almost at once transferred to Alasdair’s section which, fortunately, was only a few miles away, just South of Bouzincourt and west of Albert.
The section was in tents, living a peaceful life clear of any shelling and on clear ground. I was supposed to be on loan from my section (No. 18) in order to learn the job quickly and then go back to them. There was some jealousy, I think, in 13 and 18 Sections, about this alleged “nepotism” as at this time everyone was out for putting in as much time as possible in the air: a little later, ballooning ceased to be such a source of enjoyment. Balloons up to the Spring of ’17 were comparatively rarely attacked or shelled. They were only beginning to be taken seriously in the course of ’16, and wer few in number and widely spaced on the line. Later, when there were 50 or so on the British Front, they began to look like beads on a string.
Our work was comparatively simple, straightforward shooting at points, but Alasdair was beginning to get keen on “Counter Battery” work and was constantly in touch with the Corps CB office. As I look back, I feel as if he regarded it as a sort of club. He was always in hobnobbing with them. This work ws really very important. It consisted of marking down enemy batteries, by their flash, and reporting them either as, if already known, active, or as new positions, in either case to be noted by CB office for strafing. Sometimes we got one of our batteries turned on on the spot, and later this neutralisation became a very important part of balloon work. It was this sort of work which Alasdair liked, since it involved good observation of a more difficult order than that required for ordinary, straightforward target work. It its results were less immediate than the latter, this work counted for more in the end, since on successful countering of enemy batteries depended the success of operations on an attack day. Our batteries would register by trial rounds on the enemy positions and then on attack day would plaster them with shells and so try to stop them from firing. On occasion too, we would shoot up one of these enemy positions with a heavy howitzer battery.
Headquarters made a great boom of observations of Alasdair’s on Thiepval, on one of the first occasions when tanks were used. The balloons were too far back for observation of movements of men in the attack, but Alasdair succeeded on this occasion in following the fortunes, or rather misfortunes, of several poor tanks, and reported their course stage by stage. He was always very careful with his observations, checking and cross-checking each, and he had a very good memory for what had been, before shelling turned everything but a few landmarks into a sea of shellholes and mud. He also made a strong point of new observers going to visit batteries so as to get an inkling of the gunners’ point of view. During the Winter of ’16/17, we all had to spend a fortnight with a battery, in addition to ordinary visits on dull days.
Before this he had the problem of moving his section so as to get a better light for observation during the best part of the day. As a result of the attacks of July 1916, 13 Section Balloon had come to be in a position facing a salient with Thiepval at its apex. We were thus looking North Eastward, and rather along our part of the line instead of fronting it.
After some prospecting, he got permission for us to go into the next army area, and chose a site in a clearing in Fricourt Wood, three miles East of Albert. From this site we looked North with the sun behind us and, being in effect in advance of our Corps batteries, we were able to stay in this area until the Germans did their big retreat in March.
The place was far from delectable. Fricourt had formed a slight salient of the original German front line, the vallage resting on a little ridge with the wood behind it. Thus it had ample opportunity to get into a thoroughly filthy and shell bespattered state and, in the wet Autumn weather, we were pretty well surrounded by liquid mud. The village and chateau had disappeared but the trees remained enough to give shelter. We first had tents, but with indications of the beginning of night bombing and a railway near which drew shells we went in for semi-dugouts.
Although the surface was muddy, one could dig down four feet or so without much dampness. Two of the other men started a hole but got fed up and in the course of chat Alasdair and I, who had rather favoured tents, became involved in furnishing it. The work finally devolved mainly on me, since Alasdair was busier. It became a rectangular hole, eight feet wide by twelve or fourteen long.
I annexed some of the heavy timbers of the belfry of the destroyed church, some Germans having brought them into the wood. One stuck up at each end supported a great roof beam. Two tiers of ammunition boxes surrounded the hole forming a series of open lockers, and shhets of corrugated iron spanned over from the beam onto the thrown out earth on each side. An oil drum stove, moveable, could be used to dry one end, and then be moved to the other, and canvas was stretched from the beam to the sides, and hung as a dado to hide the earth sides. Altogether it wasn’t so bad, but would have been no use against a serious attack. However, it was never tested. We shared this hole for a time, but Alasdair was soon moved away on his promotion.
I think he first smelt powder here – as I did. One night, the Germans, about to retire, threw about a few speculative shells to get rid of them. We heard an endless long-drawn wail, followed by a crash one hundred yards away and, thinking it was a bomb, and so no more likely to fall near, we two went out to see if it had been too near our balloon. When we got near the place, we heard a fresh wail getting nearer and nearer and another one plumped down not very far away. We got under a half fallen tree till the rain of clods etc. ceased and then went home. These shlls had been fired at very extreme range and made a curiously tired sound in the air. They were quite active on arrival however.
We had a more strenuous experience one afternoon. When we got up, we found a heavy gale blowing and couldn’t do much owing to the tossing of the balloon. I was being sick over my end and Alasdair seemed intent on observation, if rather quiet; he was just showing his head over the edge, back towards me. I admitted, a little shame-facedly, to sickness, and then found that he was much worse than me and his observation had been mostly downwards. However, we soon had other things to think of, for a heavy high velocity gun began to explore our area, including ourselves. 9½ inch shells began to drop up and down the clearing and as we could do no work and couldn’t come down we sent the whole crew away to a deep German dugout (where they had their lights blown out by the concussion of one shell) and endured the performance by ourselves. They did some damage to our camp, pushing in one or two of the shelters, but no-one was touched. We could see the flash of the gun, at Fremicourt behind Bapaume, and then had to wait 57 seconds for the shell to arrive. I saw one coming; it must have passed just under our basket. We struggled at an early stage into our parachute harnesses (this was before the days when we wore them all the time) but we would have been over the line before we knew where we were, with that wind.
After a while the firing ceased, so we made shift to come down, but whether this annoyed them, or whether they had only adjourned for tea, they began again. An added annoyance was that our 9 inch railway gun was waiting to reply with its nose cocked up ready, but the observing plane which they had arranged for never turned up. They wouldn’t fire on our observation alone, not that we could have done much at that long distance. We were a sorry couple when we were finally hauled down.”
On a later occasion, the two men were forced to jump by parachute when their balloon was attacked by an enemy aircraft. In the evening of 3rd April 1917, Major Geddes and Lieutenant Mears ascended in Balloon FM 26 to a height of 2,800 feet. In the words of Mears’ subsequent report:
At 7.10 pm the order was given to haul down as anti-aircraft shots were heard and a hostile aeroplane was seen. This descended on the starboard side, flew behind and slightly above the balloon, went on for some distance and then turned sharply back and flew straight at the balloon firing a stream of incendiary bullets many of which pierced the envelope. The aeroplane then banked and swerved behind the balloon, turned again, and went in the direction of 18 Section.
After jamming with the first three shots, the Section gun got off a burst of 92 shots and jammed again. By this time the aeroplane was well over towards 18 Section’s balloon and it would have been useless to fire further. A good deal of rifle and machine gun fire was indulged in by troops in the vicinity.”
As soon as the plane turned to fire, the observers prepared to jump out. Alasdair Geddes was first to leave the basket. His parachute opened well and the balloon fell past him about 50 yards away. However, Frank Mears lost a few seconds in getting out owing to the violet swaying of the balloon which had burst into flames. His parachute came out of its case but became entangled with the balloon’s handling guys, and did not break loose until he had fallen for some distance with the burning balloon. When the parachute came free, some of its bridles were broken and others were tangled so that it did not open properly for some time. When it finally did so, the descent became normal and Mears survived unscathed.
Shortly afterwards, while returning on foot from a ground observation post, Alasdair Geddes was struck and instantly killed by a shell fragment. He was 25.
Captain Frank Mears
After the War, it was Frank Mears who served as Patrick Geddes’ principal assistant and he was to go on to distinguish himself by advancing the cause of town and regional planning in Scotland and giving practical expression to Geddes’ visionary ideas.
This article is based on extracts from the Geddes Papers held by the National Library of Scotland which are reproduced by kind permission of the Library’s Trustees.