Belgian teacher keeps memory of Scots soldier alive
Published on 11 November 2022 5 minutes read
A Belgian woman has dedicated herself to keeping alive the memory of a Scots soldier who died during the First World War.
Major James Lawson Mitchell of Pitlochry is buried in Vlamertinghe Military Cemetery near Ypres and Marijke Vandevyvere is likely to be his only visitor on Armistice Day.
The 38-year-old teacher lives nearby and regularly visits his grave to pay her respects following a chance visit to Pitlochry Parish Church in August 2018.
Inside the building is a brass wall-mounted plaque in memory of Major Mitchell, the only son of Pitlochry solicitor Hugh Mitchell and his wife Elizabeth.
Mrs Vandevyvere was very moved by his story and the fact that he is buried more than 600 miles away from home and vowed to regularly visit his grave.
Born in the Highland Perthshire town on the 13th of April 1883, Major Mitchell was educated at Ardvreck School, Crieff, Fettes College in Edinburgh and the Royal Military College in Woolwich, London.
He joined The Royal Field Artillery in 1901 and was later deployed to Belgium with the Expeditionary Force and volunteered for the Flying Force.
Major Mitchell was killed in action at Ypres on the 16th of March, 1916 at the age of 32.
In a letter sent to his parents following his death, a Brigade Major wrote: "I can't tell you how much we all feel his loss, he was absolutely fearless and devoted to duty."
Major Mitchell's service batman wrote: "He was looked up to and loved by the officers, NCOs and men under his command, as a ‘father to all'.
"He was a gentleman and soldier of the best type."
Explaining why she visits Major Mitchell's grave, Mrs Vandevyvere said: "I was born in Moorslede, a small village next to Passchendaele and grew up in Flanders fields, between cemeteries and memorial sites.
"Bombs and shells are regularly removed during excavation works so the war has made many scars in our region and is quite present in our daily lives.
"I teach Dutch and human and society subjects at a secondary school in Ypres and explain the importance of this history to my students.
"My husband Davy Glorie and I visited Scotland in August 2018 and we spent a few days in Pitlochry.
"I visited the parish church and I saw a memorial brass tablet dedicated to James Lawson Mitchell.
"Vlamertinghe Military Cemetery where this young lad is buried is not far from where we live and I made a promise to visit him when we returned home and so I did."
It is understood that prior to the war breaking out in 1914, Major Mitchell lived in Japan with his Japanese wife and child and was fluent in the language.
They remained there when he returned to Europe to fight and emigrated to Canada following his death. Some of Major Mitchell's descendants have visited Pitlochry.
Mrs Vandevyvere said she visits the soldier's grave at least twice a year and the first time she paid her respects, she placed a thistle that she brought home from Pitlochry next to the headstone.
"Sometimes I bring flowers, other times I just have a moment of silence to reflect and on this Armistice Day I will definitely stop by as we remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice," she added.
Mrs Vandevyvere said the inscription on Major Mitchell's headstone was very faded when she first found it but it has since been restored.
The teacher, who keeps in touch with several people in Pitlochry, revealed she was involved in a Remembrance sculptural art project called Coming World Remember Me between 2014-18 to mark the centenary of the First World War.
She was one of thousands of volunteers from around the world who made 600,000 small statues from clay.
Mrs Vandevyvere said: "These sculptures represent the number of victims who fell on Belgian soil - civilians and soldiers - during the First World War and they have a place on a field near Ypres.
"As a teacher, I was very closely involved in this project from the beginning, together with some of my students and arranged for statues to be sent to a primary school in Pitlochry, the parish church and I placed one by James's headstone.
"It's wonderful to remind ourselves that we don't exist in a vacuum of time and in some ways, we are connected to previous generations.
"Keeping James's memory alive is an important link in this unique chain of remembrance as we remind ourselves how deadly this war was and how it still gives birth to special friendships across the miles."
Pitlochry Parish Church is holding a special service on Remembrance Sunday and a minute of silence will be held and the national anthem will be sung.
Wreaths will be laid at the town's war memorial on which Major Mitchell is named.
Pitlochry Parish Church session clerk, Ginnie Wilkie, said: "We get a lot of visitors to the church in the summer but the chance of having someone from Belgium who has really taken to heart the story of a chap from a well-known local family who died during the First World War is amazing.
"We have tried to keep up with Marijke ever since her visit and it is wonderful that she regularly visits Major Mitchell's grave when no one from Pitlochry could easily do that.
"We are very grateful to her."
The solicitors' firm that Major Mitchell's father Hugh founded, J&H Mitchell WS, is still in business today.
Mr Mitchell was a session clerk at Pitlochry Parish Church which also has a plaque in his memory.
Duncan Thomson, a former partner at the law firm and member of the church, said: "James Mitchell didn't want to follow in his father's footsteps and become a solicitor and joined the army instead.
"His short life was an interesting one and it is wonderful that Marijke keeps his memory alive.
"We are reminded that each of the 97 names from the two world wars on the war memorial in Pitlochry is of a real person with family and loved ones and that the freedoms and relative peace that we enjoy today are partly thanks to their sacrifice."