Gillespie, Alexander Douglas

2nd Lieutenant / Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders

1889 - 1915

Alexander Douglas Gillespie was born 13 June 1889, the elder son of Thomas Paterson Gillespie and Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Chalmers, of Longcroft, Linlithgow and elder brother of Lieutenant Thomas Cunningham Gillespie (K 1905-1911), King's Own Scottish Borderers, who fell on 18 October 1914 (see individual entry).

He came to Winchester College as a Scholar from Cargilfield School, Edinburgh 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. In his last year, 1908, he played in College XV.

Douglas 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.

Gillespie 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 20 February at Winchester College. 'Hutchie (2nd Lieutenant R.H. Hutchinson, 8th Black Watch, Coll.1903-1909, killed in action October 1915 - see individual entry) 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; see individual entry), sent him a book on botany and he even managed to grow flowers from seeds sent from home.

His most famous letter, dated 14 June 1915 and published after his death in The Wykehamist of 1 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 25 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 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 for more details. 

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