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Pocket knife handed into Castlehill Heritage Centre leads to family of World War I soldier being reunited with treasured possession

By John Davidson

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A knife with a mysterious name etched into it started a search that led to a fascinating World War I story, as Matthew Dever reports

The 1914 Duralumin War knife etched with '7799 J. McPheat, B Company'.
The 1914 Duralumin War knife etched with '7799 J. McPheat, B Company'.

A World War I knife hastily etched with a soldier’s name was re-united with the family of its owner after it was handed into Castletown Heritage Centre, sparking a search that unearthed the story behind the unknown soldier.

John Calder, from Castletown, handed the artefact to heritage centre volunteer Muriel Murray after a clear-out at his home, where his parents had lived previously.

Muriel said: “When John Calder comes into the heritage centre carrying a bag, we know that there’s sure to be something of interest in it. What caught our attention on this occasion was a pocket-knife. On one side the maker had stamped ‘War Knife. 1914. Duralumin.’ On the other side was scratched ‘7799. J McPheat. B Company. Ten RH’.”

A search online led Muriel to the Royal Highlanders and, using the army number, the owner’s name, Joseph Anderson MacPheat.

“We’re always looking for a local connection to make sure that we have a continuous story about things that come in,” said Muriel. “Things are always more interesting if we can attach a person to it.

“So, we looked for any information we could find about the owner of the knife. The regimental number was critical for it provided, quite readily on the internet, the full name, Joseph Anderson MacPheat, and the fact that he had been in the Black Watch.”

Muriel Murray at Castlehill Heritage Centre.
Muriel Murray at Castlehill Heritage Centre.

Muriel trawled through military history websites and eventually found that “some years ago someone was trying to locate Joseph MacPheat’s war medals” which had been lost to the family. “So, I knew at that time somebody else was interested in Joseph MacPheat,” she added.

The trail then went cold, but Muriel persisted with her research and eventually had a stroke of luck.

“A school in the north of England posted on their website that, as part of its Remembrance Day activities, one of their pupils had been doing research on her great-great-grandfather... Joseph MacPheat!”

Caitlin Jones, a year 9 (equivalent of S3 in Scotland) student at Penwortham Girls’ High School, in Preston, Lancashire, was studying the world wars. She discovered her great-great-grandfather fought in World War I and visited her great-grandad’s house to find out more about his story.

After doing some research, her family story was published online in the school’s newsletter. Included were photos, family knowledge and a touching letter of reference from his employer allowing Joseph to join the army at the age of 18 in 1914.

A few weeks later, after finding Caitlin’s piece through the internet, Muriel contacted the school. She said that it “may be of interest that we have the knife belonging to Joseph MacPheat,” offering to send Caitlin a picture.

“The family were delighted that we had a photograph of the knife,” she said. “Then we thought it was a bit churlish to hang onto it.”

John Calder handed the knife into Castlehill Heritage Centre in Castletown.
John Calder handed the knife into Castlehill Heritage Centre in Castletown.

When Muriel told John how the story of his donated knife had developed, they agreed to return the knife to the family of its original owner.

The knife was despatched to Mr Herbert, Caitlin’s history teacher at Penwortham, who took the knife to show Caitlin.

“It was just a great moment,” said Mr Herbert. “When I held it, like with a lot of historical artefacts, it gets you thinking about who’s held this or in what circumstances, and because the carving itself isn’t very neatly carved, it’s just, kind of, etched in with a nail or something like that, which makes it even more personal.”

Caitlin took the knife home that day and explained that it was an emotional time. “We decided to take it round to my great-grandad’s to show him. He just cried. It was a really special moment.”

Duncan MacPheat, Caitlin’s great-grandfather and the son of Joseph MacPheat, said his father did not speak much about the war after he returned.

A photograph of his father sits on the mantelpiece. The photograph was taken at Nigg.

Joseph Anderson MacPheat (seated) photographed at Nigg before service in World War I.
Joseph Anderson MacPheat (seated) photographed at Nigg before service in World War I.

Duncan said: “That’s where they were prior to going to Passchendaele. They then said if you’re fit enough, you’re on the boat. They collected them there – in the Black Watch – and they said, right, go to Passchendaele.”

Joseph was engaged in the massive effort to secure the town of Ypres, a strategic point which could block the German army from accessing the French coastal ports. In the early hours of the first day of the battle of Menin Road Ridge, in September 1917, Joseph was caught up in a shower attack. He sustained serious shrapnel injuries to his left arm.

Cut off from his comrades, he lay injured on the battlefield for nearly two days. Finally, he was picked up by Canadian troops from either the Pioneer Corps or the Expeditionary Force.

Joseph was taken to a casualty clearing station and eventually invalided home. He was awarded the 1914-15 Star, the War Medal and the Silver War badge as a soldier discharged through injury.

At some point after the war, Joseph left employment on a farm and became a French polisher. When he married Mary Smith, a childhood friend from Logierait, “he was living in an industrial area of Glasgow in the shadow of the Finnieston Crane,” Muriel explained.

“He died in 1936, leaving a widow and one son, Duncan. Joseph was typical of many thousands of young men from a very ordinary background who answered the call-to-arms and played their part in a war which changed the face of history.”

Caitlin with the knife at Penwortham Girls' High School.
Caitlin with the knife at Penwortham Girls' High School.

Duncan has visited the Menin Gate himself. “I stood there, and I looked at these names. There was this silence in between the bugle sounding off and sounding in the valley. I looked at these names and, on that monument alone, in the Menin Road, there’s 20,000 names and they don’t know where they are. It’s mind-boggling.”

Looking into the distance and then towards Caitlin, he added: “My father’s always with me. He always will be. And I hope that this dear young lady here will continue, just keep it alive a wee bit. Jo MacPheat – Joseph Anderson MacPheat – was a soldier. Badly wounded. Died a young man. He was only 40 when he died.”

Muriel suggests that it’s important for our young people to connect with these tangible links to the past: “There is so much more opportunity for doing it now than there ever was. When I learnt history at school it was a case of learning dates of battles and kings and queens, and now people have such encouragement to delve into social history.

“And it’s a history of people, not kings and queens, that is really important. The stories of ordinary people. And through the likes of Duncan, we have discovered of course the battles that were important, the failures, and the disasters, and all that war implies. But it all comes through one person.”

Muriel added: “Without the internet this story would never have come to light... Without the ability to make the links we would never have known about Caitlin, and consequently Duncan and his search and so on. So, it would have all been untapped territory.”

Joseph MacPheat is buried at Aberfeldy, and Caitlin planned to visit his grave after the experience of learning more about his life – all of which came about through the donation of a knife in Castletown, and some dedicated research from one volunteer at the centre.

Caitlin with Mr Herbert, associate assistant headteacher and history teacher at Penwortham Girls’ High School.
Caitlin with Mr Herbert, associate assistant headteacher and history teacher at Penwortham Girls’ High School.

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