The youngest islander claimed by the Great War

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“The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime,” sadly murmured Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey on the eve of Britain’s declaration of the Great War in 1914.

It was an insightful observation by a man who was only too aware that the coming struggles would not be resolved quickly and not without significant losses.

The metaphor is fitting to any number of families who gave up so much and lost so many in the War – nearly 1300 from Lewis alone made the ultimate sacrifice in the First World War.

Sir Edward’s prophetic turn of phrase was keenly felt by the Macleod family of 39a Balallan where light turned to darkness for a local family which lost four men in service for their country including a grandson who at only 15-years-old was the youngest serviceman from the Western Isles to have fallen in the Great War.

Left behind to tend the family croft alone was the blind and widowed Marion Macleod who must surely have never imagined such a sacrifice would be made by her family.

The pages of our own title, The Stornoway Gazette, made reference to the plight and struggles of Marion Macleod on November 23, 1917.

In a note titled ‘A Hard Case’ it read: “Widow Macleod, 39a Balallan, who is totally blind, is now left quite alone in the house, her last son Roderick, having been called up to join the Colours.

“She has another two sons serving in France, while another son Roddy Dan was killed in action. It is understood that the neighbours are making strong representations to the authorities in London on her behalf, in order that one of her sons may be released from service.

“Part of her crops are still unharvested, and the cattle and sheep are left untended.

“The helpless widow, who is in a sad plight, is left entirely to the mercy of the neighbours.

“Is this as it should be asks a correspondent?  The case is now in the hands of the Ministry for National Service and it is earnestly hoped some humanity will be shown.”

The age carved on his gravestone at Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery in Belgium shows Donald Macleod Sneddon was taken far too young and serves as a permanent and poignant reminder of the price of war.

The teenager embarked for war with the 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers, reg 17780, having joined up on 10 April 1915, and took part in the battles fought against the advancing Germans.

At just 14-years of age, when most of his age would be in school, Sneddon was fighting in the trenches on France before he was killed in service having being wounded on 18 January 1916.

How the 15-year-old was fatally wounded was not recorded but the Regimental History states that: “During the last month of 1915 it (1RSF) had held part of the front in the Ypres Salient; the beginning of 1916 was occupied with training behind the line.”

Fighting in this sector does not seemed to have resumed until 8 Feb 16 – so it looks as though Donald was wounded during training.

It is believed he embelished his real age to the legal required 18-years and his enlistment form is barely legible, but it would appear this was not spotted by the authorities.

Details obtained from The Royal Highland Fusiliers Museum give an insight into his military career which lasted 287 days.

Having signed up in Ayr on April 10, 1915 he was posted to RSF but within three months he suffered 28-days detention by his CO. This detention was made by the Adjutant 3 RSF – this was a reserve/training battalion in Ayr – so clearly he was sent back for his court martial and then returned to France for active service, awarded four days remission and returned to duty.

He was back in bother before the end of the month again when he was awarded 21 days for using obscene language in the Company hut on August 31.

On November 17, 1915 Sneddon was posted to Expeditionary Force in France, and within days of arriving on the continent he was in close arrest followed by court martial for sleeping at post while on active duty – awarded 2 years.

His sentence was confimed on December 20, 2015, before his sentence was commuted and he returned to active duty on January 13.

Just a day later he was tragically and fatally wounded in action and he passed from his injuries on the 18th.

Sneddon, whose name appears as Snaddon on his service records of which 10 pages have survived, lived in the Lochs village of Balallan, 17 miles southwest of Stornoway.

His lineage has been traced back to Roderick Macleod (born 1792), son of Donald Macleod and Catherine Mackay, and who went on to marry a Catherine Macarthur (1801). The family moved to 39 Balallan in the 1850s.

One of their children was named Donald (born 1837). Roderick and Donald split the croft between them, leaving Donald on 39A Balallan. He married Marion and had nine children, among them a daughter, Mary, born 1870.

Mary married William Snaddon and lived in Glasgow, but two of their sons lived in Balallan. One of them was Donald, born 2 June 1900; his brother William was born in 1897.

Born at Govan on 3 June 1900, he was in the trenches with the 1st Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers at 14 years of age and killed at 15, the youngest Western Isles victim of the war.

A nephew of the three Macleod brothers, he had been raised latterly in Balallan like a brother to them by his grandparents and attended the local Balallan School.

His father was a plumber from 28 Castle Street, Alloa and his parents lived at 20 Burnbank Terrace, Glasgow.

He is buried at Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, Poperinge, West Vlaanderen, Belgium where he is one of 10,755 war fatalities buried in that cemetery.

His medal card reads: 1915 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal.

Lost from the same house were three brothers, Sneddon’s uncles, Donald, John and Roderick Donald Macleod.

Born on 15 October 1878, Donald was a pupil teacher at Balallan School pre-war. He was with the 32nd Sanitary Section of the Royal Army Medical Corps in France when he died of a fractured skull six days after a serious accident at the age of 39.

He was a Quartermaster with the unit, attached to the Tank Corps. He had hoped to return to Balallan where his blind and widowed mother lived alone.

Son of Donald and Marion Macleod (nee Macleod), he was interred at St Pol British Cemetery, St. Pol-sur-Ternoise.

John Macleod was born on 20 October 1881. He emigrated to Victoria, British Columbia and enlisted with the 67th Battalion Canadian Infantry.

A piper, he was wounded in France in January 1918 and succumbed a year later at Victoria after he had been invalided back to Canada. He had attested on 1 December 1915 and had served four and a half years with the 7th Scottish and nine months with the Gordons before emigrating. He was interred at Victoria (Ross Bay) Cemetery.

Roderick Donald Macleod lost his life at 25 and he was the youngest in the family following his birth on 15 August 1890.

Roddy Dan was killed in France serving with the 11th Battalion Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders. He died three days after an assault on Hill 70 at the Battle of Loos. Roddy Dan had settled down in business in Glasgow shortly after leaving school and had enlisted at Govan.

His remains were buried initially but were not recovered and therefore his name appears with the missing on the Loos Memorial.

A fourth brother Roderick survived the war, having served in the Labour Battn.

Roddy Macleod, who serves with SASRA, is a great grand nephew of the Macleod’s and he is familiar with the tale although he reveals he is keen to learn more.

“I have recently written to the Fusiliers museum in Glasgow which might bring more information onto the story,” he explained.

“There was a lot of loss in our family through the wars. My grandfather lost two brothers and his cousin, who was Sneddon. My father lost two brothers in WW2. So five or six altogether.

“And one of my Mother’s uncles was on the Iolaire and his body was washed up in Crossbost where he came from.

“Unfortunately I have little information as they just didn’t talk about these things, but we hope to learn more from the Fusiliers museum as to what happened.”