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Brothers In Arms - The Gillespie guns

May 2023
Brothers In Arms - The Gillespie guns

In the run up to the Great War, Dickson's made a number of guns that would sadly never be used, or in some cases, never claimed by the men that ordered them. We have just acquired a gun of a young soldier with such a story, but twice as harrowing for his parents as they were to lose their other son in the same conflict less than a year apart. He too, was a Dickson gun owner.


Second Lieutenant Alexander Douglas Gillespie was born in Woollaston, Gloucestershire on the 13th June 1889, the elder son of Thomas Paterson Gillespie and Elizabeth Chalmers, of Longcroft, Linlithgow. Thomas Paterson Gillespie was a very successful paper manufacturer and merchant in Edinburgh. Alexander was also the elder brother of Thomas Cunningham Gillespie.

Alexander was educated at Cargilfield Preparatory School, Edinburgh and went on to Winchester College in September 1903. He became Prefect of Chapel and won the King's Gold Medal for Latin Verse, the King's Silver Medal for Latin Speech, the Warden and Fellow's Prizes for Greek Prose and Latin Essay and the Duncan Prize for Reading. Alexander was elected in 1908 to a Scholarship at New College, Oxford, and took his degree in 1912 with a First Class in Classical Moderations and a Second in Literae Humanitores.

For his 21st birthday it was only right for him to receive a best Scottish gun, and so Alexander took delivery of Dickson Round-Action No. 6240 on the 2nd August 1910.

Alexander was reading for the Bar when war broke out, and volunteered his services at once, obtaining a commission in the 2nd Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. He went to the front in February 1915, spending the evening of the 20th February at Winchester College. 'Hutchie (2nd Lieutenant R.H. Hutchinson, 8th Black Watch, Winchester College 1903-1909, killed in action October 1915) and I had a very cheerful dinner with the Headmaster'. The sector in which his Battalion found itself was quite quiet and he had the time to write many letters home. He visited friends in other units; the mother of one of his best friends, Isaac Bayley Balfour (killed in action at Gallipoli), sent him a book on botany and he even managed to grow flowers from seeds sent from home.

His most famous letter, dated the 14th June 1915 and published after his death in The Wykehamist of the 1st December 1915, was written to his Headmaster and it was subsequently picked up by the national press for its vision of what might be done with the Western Front after the War. Gillespie's idea was for a Via Sacra, 'these fields are sacred in a sense, and I wish that when the peace comes, our government might combine with the French Government to make one long avenue between the lines from the Vosges to the sea, or, if that is too much, at any rate from La Bassée to Ypres. The ground is so pitted and scarred, and torn with shells, and tangled with wire, that it will take years to bring it back to use again; but I would make a fine broad road in the No Man’s Land between the lines, with paths for pilgrims on foot, and plant trees for shade, and fruit trees, so that the soil should not be altogether waste. Some of the shattered farms and houses might be left as evidence, and the regiments might put up their records beside the trenches which they held all through the winter. Then I would like to send every man, woman and child in Western Europe on pilgrimage along that Via Sacra, so that they might think and learn what war means from the silent witnesses on either side. A sentimental idea, perhaps, but we might make it the most beautiful road in all the world'. This idea certainly inspired his old housemaster, MJ Rendall, in his ideas for a war memorial at Winchester and the War Cloister was Rendall's own 'via sacra'.

Gillespie went into the attack at Cuinchy on the 25th September 1915 as part of the first day of the Battle of Loos, and was killed while leading a charge against an enemy position: he fell as he reached the German trenches. According to survivors, he was the only officer to get that far. With no known grave he is commemorated on Panels 125-127 of the Loos Memorial.

A volume of his letters entitled Letters from Flanders was published by Smith, Elder, in 1916. It contains a brief memoir of both brothers by the Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Rev. Hubert Burge, Headmaster of the College during Gillespie's time. In it Alexander Gillespie describes his search for the chateau where his brother Tom spent his last night before going into action and his reaction to the news of his death. Gillespie's idea for a 'Via Sacra' has been realised in recent years with the creation of the Western Front Way, a long distance walking and cycling route from Switzerland through France and Belgium to the Channel Coast. See www.thewesternfrontway.com for more details. 

Alexander Douglas Gillespie gun has stayed in the family and is now offered for sale through Dickson's here

Lieutenant Thomas Cunningham Gillespie was born in Alvington, Gloucestershire on the 14th December 1892, the younger brother of Second Lieutenant Alexander Douglas Gillespie.

Like his elder brother, Thomas was educated at Cargilfield Preparatory School, Edinburgh and went on to Winchester College in September 1905, and was in Kingsgate House, one of the founder members of the house. He became a Commoner Prefect, rowed in School IV in 1910 and 1911, was President of Boat Club in his last year, played in Commoner XV and took a leading part in the work of the Natural History Society.

Thomas left Winchester in the summer of 1911 for New College, Oxford, and rowed in the College VIII for three years, when they were twice Head of the River and was a member of the New College eight which won the silver medal for Great Britain rowing at the 1912 Summer Olympics in Stockholm. He was also a leading member of the University O.T.C. and intended, after taking his degree in 1914, to enter the Regular Army. 

For his 21st birthday it was only right for him to receive a best Scottish gun, and so Dickson Sidelock gun No. 6587 was made for Thomas Cunningham Gillespie, but he was likely deployed in France when the gun was ready for collection on the 13th July 1914. 

Thomas was gazetted to the 2nd Battalion King's Own Scottish Borderers within a few days of the outbreak of the war and left for the front almost immediately. He served as a Lieutenant in the First Battle of the Aisne and after a few weeks of continuous shell-fire orders were given to try and advance eastwards across the La Bassée Canal. Thomas was killed near La Bassée on the 18th October 1914, aged 21. His body could not be recovered, and with no known grave, he is commemorated on Panel 15 of the Le Touret Memorial.

We do not know where this gun has been for the majority of its life but it has recently found a home in North Shields, England, in the hands of a Dickson Owners Club Member.

The Gillespie brothers were the great uncles of BBC television's Countryfile presenter Tom Heap, seen here opening a new AstroTurf pitch at Cargilfield School, which was named to honor the brothers.