The impact of World War One affected communities everywhere and the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and its members were no exception. As the centenary of WW1 is marked across the world it seems fitting that we acknowledge and remember some of the RSGS members and council who fought and lost their lives in The Great War.
Alastair Geddes, born in 1891 in Dundee, was the son of Professor Patrick Geddes and Anna Morton Geddes. Patrick was a famous polymath, planner and educationalist, and an RSGS Council Member during the 1890s and Alastair was a well-travelled and adventurous early member.
Alastair gained a BSC from the University of Edinburgh in 1914, then in July 1915 joined the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) as a temporary flight sub-lieutenant, before being posted to No.6 Kite Balloon Section RNAS in the autumn. Alastair was promoted to the rank of Major in the Royal Flying Corps, Balloon division, a highly dangerous role, with high mortality, sitting as they were in balloons taking aerial drawings or photos of the enemy lines, but open to sniper fire and attack by fixed wing planes. The average flying life of a Royal Flying Corps pilot was just 18 hours in the Arras region.
In April 1918 whilst up in the observation balloon Geddes survived an attack by an enemy fighter plane, he and his companion were able to parachute to safety after their balloon was destroyed by fire. Rather ironically after having survived attacks on his balloon, Geddes, aged only 26, was sadly killed by a shell while on the ground as bad weather had prevented him from flying. As the most senior British kite balloon officer to be killed in action, Geddes was awarded the Military Cross and the Cross of the Legion of Honour.
A. Schomberg Byng, his friend and commanding officer wrote a poignant letter to notify his father of Alastair’s death.
“Map reading and accurately placing on the map what is seen from the air is our chief work and you will understand that came readily to him with his knowledge of maps. His devotion to duty and care of his officers and men made me put his name forward for promotion at an early date.
Did I tell you that we buried him very simply as I knew he would have liked. Mears, (Alastair’s brother in law) another officer and myself, were present, a Scotch Clergyman read a very nice service and then as if they knew, the guns, that had been ranged so well, boomed out on all sides, as if to pay him a last tribute.”
Rather sadly, Patrick’s wife Anna was gravely ill and Patrick could not bring himself to tell her of Alastair’s death and continued to read her the last letters that Alastair had sent from the front. A little over two months later Anna died as well unaware of her son’s demise.