Brothers go to war

Stories handed down from generation to generation can be both important family histories and frustratingly light on detail.

My father told me the family story: there were three brothers who enlisted to fight for King and Country in the First World War. The brothers had to lie about their ages to enlist. After the war one brother emigrated to Canada, another to South Africa, and the third to Australia. The brothers never met again, but kept in regular contact through letters.

The brother who settled in Australia was my great-grandfather, Andrew “Andy” Stewart Duncan. Any detail about his brothers was lost. I wanted to learn more about this story.

Birth and census records on the ScotlandsPeople website soon found the Duncan family of 12 Duke Street, Newton on Ayr, Scotland.

John Duncan and Elizabeth Stewart had ten children, one of whom died in infancy. Including my great-grandfather there were four brothers, not three: John, Andrew, Anthony and Hugh. They were born in 1879, 1882, 1884 and 1893 respectively.

Which three brothers enlisted? 

Army records identified that John, Andrew and Anthony had enlisted.

  • John joined the British Army Reserve in January 1916, transferred to the 5th Army Reserve Scottish Rifles and later the Royal Army Veterinary Corps.
  • Andrew had emigrated to Australia in 1912. He enlisted in the 10th Infantry Battalion, Australian Imperial Force in August 1914.
  • Anthony had emigrated to Canada in 1910. He attested for the 74th Battalion, Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force in July 1915.

I found service records and Medal Rolls Index Cards for soldiers named Hugh Duncan and Hugh Stewart Duncan but could not connect any of them with my great-grand uncle. I was unable to determine whether Hugh had joined up or not.

Who lied about their age?

A common part of the narrative of the First World War is that underage lads added a few years to their age, so as not to miss out on going to war.

John, Andrew and Anthony were all in their 30s when they enlisted. And yet the family story was that the brothers had lied about their age to enlist. Where had that come from?

  • John had misrepresented his age, dropping it from 36 to 35 years
  • Andrew had lied about his age – but in 1899, at the age of 17, when he enlisted for the Boer War.

Who emigrated to South Africa?

Anthony had sailed for Canada.  Andrew had made Australia home. John survived the war and was back in Scotland to register the death of his father in 1922, and his mother in 1927. The only one unaccounted for was Hugh Stewart Duncan. There was no trace of him emigrating, or returning home.

There was no Duncan emigration to South Africa after the First World War.  Memories of Andrew’s Boer War travels had become mixed with later stories.

What happened to Hugh Stewart Duncan?

The launch of Scottish soldiers’ wills on the ScotlandsPeople website sent me looking again for confirmation of whether Hugh had enlisted. My query returned three possible wills. The first will I viewed had no connection to the Duncans in Newton on Ayr. The second will made me sit upright in my chair. It read,

In the event of my death I give the whole of my property and effects to my father Mr. John Duncan 12 Duke St. Ayr.


Pte. Hugh Duncan

No. 7029

1/5 R.S.F.

Hugh had joined the 1/5th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers. On 7 June 1915 he landed at Cape Helles on the Gallipoli peninsula, where he was critically wounded.

Hugh died on 23 June 1915 of wounds received in action. He was buried at Lancashire Landing cemetery not far from Cape Helles.

In searching for the truth behind the story of three brothers in the First World War I uncovered a forgotten brother. Hugh, the baby brother, died and was buried far from home.

Lest we forget.


Featured image: Lancashire Landing Cemetery, Cape Helles. Photo from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website

Andrew Stewart Duncan


Andy Duncan was born on 15 July 1882 in the family home at 9 Damside in Newton on Ayr, Scotland. He was the second son and the fourth of ten children born to John and Elizabeth Duncan (nee Stewart).

Andy’s world was working class, poor and built on coal. For generations the men of his mother’s family had been coal miners. His father had worked his way up from stoker to engine driver for the Glasgow and South Western Railway, operating locomotives between the Ayrshire collieries and the local industries hungry for coal.The local gasworks stood on the south side of Damside, the stink and soot from converting coal to gas a part of daily life.

Damside was a cobbled street of single-storey houses of brown-grey stone and thatched roofs. 9 Damside had been “Stewart’s Land” for several generations at least, and was the home of Mary Stewart, Elizabeth’s grandmother. Here the Duncans lodged along with Elizabeth’s sister Mary and her husband, engine driver William Cowan.

Between the two families there were nine children in the house when Andy was born. There would be sixteen children crammed around the Damside dinner table before the Duncans moved into their own home about 1890.

None of the Duncan children would take up work in the mines or on the railways. The industrialisation and urbanisation of Scotland opened up new and different employment opportunities, but did John and Elizabeth encourage their children to look away from the back-breaking and often dangerous work of their forebears?

Andy’s elder brother John worked as a boot finisher before moving to Clydebank to work as a machinist and driller for the Singer Manufacturing Company; his younger brothers Anthony and Hugh found apprenticeships as a baker and printer respectively.

Andy seems to have struck out on his own. By 1898 he had left Ayr for the booming port of Liverpool, where he worked as a labourer for a “Mr Stewart”. Was the Stewart name just a coincidence, or was there a connection with his mother’s family?

In 1899 when Andy attested for the South Lancashire Militia, his address was recorded as “Regin Street” Liverpool. Old maps of Liverpool don’t seem to include a Regin Street, but there is a Regent Street not far from the docks. Could Andy’s Scottish accent have been misheard by a Lancashire recruiting officer?


Statutory Births 

Scotland Census 1881, 1891, 1901, 1911.

Scotland Valuation Rolls 1885, 1895, 1915, 1920.

British Army Service Records. The National Archives UK. WO96/684/108 .

Featured image: The Twa Brigs, Ayr. Postcard. From the author’s collection. Copyright Andrew Palmer.