- Guest blogger Val Hewson, from the Reading Sheffield project, tells the story of David Strachan, a Leeds librarian who died in the First World War. Val came across him by chance, in a 1923 article in the Library Association Record about plans for a memorial to librarians lost in the war.
One hundred years ago today, on 29 December 1916, Captain David Livingstone Strachan of the West Yorkshire Regiment died, a casualty of the First World War. He was one of around 670,000 British army personnel, and one of 10,000 people from Leeds, to die on war service. He is unique in being the only Leeds librarian to lose his life. He was 27 years old.
In 1914 David Strachan was an assistant librarian in the Central Library in Calverley Street. He worked in the Reference Library, then located in the 2nd floor room now occupied by Local History. The tables there today are apparently the original furniture, and Strachan presumably worked at them. Much of the research for this post was done at those tables.
Strachan was born on 24 March 1889 in Sheepscar, the second youngest of eight children. His parents, John and Annie, were Scottish and had settled in a part of Leeds where many Scots lived. On official forms John described himself as a bookseller or bookseller’s assistant. It’s tempting to think that books were valued in his family and led to his son’s profession.
David Strachan became one of the earliest Scouts in Leeds. In 1908 Baden-Powell published Scouting for Boys, advocating woodcraft and the like to train boys for adulthood, and patrols started up everywhere. Strachan established the 4th North East Leeds Caledonians in Harehills. The name reflects his and the community’s part-Scottish identity, as does wearing the kilt for uniform. ‘Scoutmaster Strachan’ was sometimes quoted in the Leeds Mercury, for example for instituting a domestic cookery test for his troop.
When Baden-Powell visited Leeds in June 1914 for a rally of 3,000 Scouts before the Town Hall, David Strachan and his troop were surely on parade. In his speech, the Chief Scout described the movement as ‘insurance for the country’, a way to ‘prevent human and inhuman waste’ and, he hoped, a ‘stepping-stone towards universal peace’.
But war came just months later, and Strachan joined the West Yorkshire Regiment (1/6th battalion) – an act recorded in Leeds Libraries’ 1914 report. [IMAGE OF 1914 REPORT] He was commissioned in June 1915 and promoted to captain in July 1916. The battalion travelled to France that year, to the Battle of the Somme, which left over a million dead and wounded on all sides. We have no record of Strachan’s role, but his battalion took its turn in the front line:
… On the left the 146th Brigade…did not do so well: most of the 1/6th West Yorkshire, being enfiladed by machine-gun fire … failed to force an entry into the German front trench… (Official History, 3 September 1916)
… casualties for the day were: officers wounded – 3, officers missing – 3, other ranks killed – 30, other ranks wounded – 172, other ranks missing – 33. (1/6th battalion war diary, 3 September 1916)
According to the Yorkshire Evening Post, Strachan was invalided home in late 1916 ‘as a result of his strenuous efforts at the front’. He came to the 2nd Northern General Hospital at Beckett Park, Leeds, where ‘his illness unfortunately developed’ and he died just after Christmas 1916. He was one of 226 reported deaths out of 57,000 patients. What killed him was meningococcal meningitis, a bacterial infection of the membranes around the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis can be fatal today, and was more likely to be so in 1916 when treatment was difficult. The Official History of the Great War records 393 cases, with a death rate of 35% for 1916. Meningitis could mean: delirium, photophobia, muscular rigidity, incontinence, sepsis, hydrocephalus and gangrene. The Official History clinically notes ‘agonising pain’. It was a miserable death.
On 2 January 1917, there was a military funeral at Lawnswood. Mourners included the Strachan family, brother officers, Leeds Chief Librarian T W Hand and, said the Leeds Mercury, ‘a large number of Boy Scouts [including] the 4th North Leeds Caledonians’. The grave, with its Celtic cross marker, is next to the War Graves enclosure where Strachan’s name is carved on the memorial.
David Strachan’s death was noted in the Leeds Libraries’ report for 1916. He is formally remembered by Clan Strachan and on the Leeds and Scouts Rolls of Honour, the Scottish National War Memorial and the Library Association memorial at the British Library in London.
But more touching are the annual memorials his family put in the Leeds Mercury and his Scouts’ decision to change their name to Strachan’s Caledonians.
If any member of the Strachan family reads this, please get in touch.
Thanks to Antony Ramm of the Leeds Local History Library and Richard Wilcocks, who wrote Stories from the War Hospital about Beckett Park, for their help; and to the staff of the British Library for letting Val see the Library Association memorial.
Leeds Local History Library has a wealth of material about the city’s First World War experience including newspapers, photographs, official records, books and maps. A research guide listing highlights from the collection is available on this site.
 Sometimes called the 4th North Leeds Caledonians.
 Yorkshire Post, 8 June 1914.
 Yorkshire Evening Post, 30 December 1916.
 History of the Great War Based on Official Documents, Medical History of the War: Diseases of the War, Vol I.