Help bring Biggar war heros medals home

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  1. Found in the local rag! Carluke Gazette

    Help bring Biggar war hero's medals home[marq=up]

    Asking price is about £4000

    WHAT price staging a symbolic `homecoming' for a forgotten Clydesdale hero of the Victorian era?
    Well, about £4000 in fact, the asking price for the historic set of medals won by a Biggar man who went from a rogue to a national idol following a series of acts of bravery and endurance almost without equal in Scotland's glorious military history.

    Don't feel guilty if you've never heard the name John Forrest.
    Few people alive today have but the Biggar Museum Trust hopes to finally give proper recognition to the man who was born in the town in 1820 in obscurity and died, almost toally forgotten, in London 63 years later.
    In between these dates, however, just for a brief while, John Forrest was a National Hero.

    Records of his birth are non-existent, his family probably belonging to one of the small, relatively short-lived Cessation churches that sprung up in Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries.

    He had a humble but probably not poverty-stricken childhood, old Biggar Burgh records showing that his family could afford to make donations of at least a few shillings each year to the local charity relief funds for the poor; it is possible his family were small traders of some sort.
    He is thought to have worked initially as a laborour until he joined the British Army in 1841.

    John Forrest would find the once mighty Forces of the Crown at a very low ebb at the time he joined; the glory days of the Napoleonic Wars were long past and the British Army - the Scottish regiments included - had fallen into the doldrums and suffered official neglect during the long peace between the Battle of Waterloo and the Crimean War.

    It was probably boredom rather than any cowardice, then, that led John Forrest to desert and go `on the run' for three years before the Army caught up with him and sentenced him to three months hard labour before re-joining the colours. There is also evidence that he also got into serious trouble at around this time in a civil law matter, the details obscured by time.

    John Forrest had, then, a far from glowing record when, in the mid-1850's, Britain went to war in the Crimea, John, despite being an `old hand' in his mid-thirties by this time, still being a private in the Royal Scots Fusiliers.
    It was that hellish episode for the British Army, not surpassed in suffering for the common soldier and stupidity among its generals until World War One, that made John Forrest a hero.

    The very fact that he emerged from the campaign alive was remarkable enough; if the battle casualties were horrendous, the losses to the Army through cholera and other diseases were even worse. The organisation of proper billets and medical treatment for men like John Forrest were almost non-existent and, as for the rations, today's animal lovers will just not want to hear what our brave soldiers had to resort to eating!

    However, not only did John Forrest come out the Crimea alive but also with an extremely rare set of medals, one in particular being the standard Crimean Medal given to all survivors of the campaign. What made his extremely rare was that it carried four clasps, one each for fighting in all of the four battles of the Crimea; the Alma, Balaclava, Inkerman and Sabastapol. He also won the Turkish-awarded Crimea Medal and a rare (for lower ranks) Distinguished Conduct Medal.

    Inkerman was the action where the Royal Scots Fusiliers really made their mark and men like John Forrest probably saved the whole British and allied French and Turkish forces from complete defeat.
    Don't try to look for a concise account of the Battle of Inkerman. There isn't one.
    Military historians have been faced with describing a `battle' which was actually a day-long series of disjointed, chaotic, vicious and mostly hand-to-hand actions fought by small units such as the Fusiliers or even by individuals.

    The start of it, on an early November morning, was fought in a thick mist in a jumble of gorse bushes with neither the Allies nor the Russians quite knowing who they were shooting at. `Friendly fire' casualties were colossal.
    John and his fellow Fusiliers were sitting, freezing and exhausted after night-time `picket' duty outside Sabastapol when they heard shooting coming out of the murk and descended down a hill to discover what was going on; they practically walked right into a huge Russian force, many times their strength and a six hour, savage fight for survival followed.
    Unlike most of the British Army, the Fusiliers had yet to be equipped with the new Minie rifle-barreled guns and still had old fashioned smooth-bore muskets. It hardly mattered at Inkerman, with bayonets being used as much as bullets. John was, with his comrades, involved in what is recognised as one of the `dirtiest' face-to-face actions in the army's history, the Scots holding on to a vital defensive feature called `The Barrier'. If the Russians had broken through the Fusiliers, the British army camps and supply bases would have lain virtually at the enemy's mercy.
    However, hold on they did, resorting to fists and boots and even throwing clumps of mud and stones at the Russians when the ammunition ran out and their bayonets snapped. They held on just long enough until relief arrived with a third of their number dead or dying.

    The news of the award of the four clasps to John Forrest's Crimea Medal reached home back in Biggar and he later received a true hero's welcome with a parade through the town and an official presentation from admiring townsfolk.

    As an active soldier, he was finished, having lost fingers in action so making the firing of a rifle an impossible task for him. It is recorded he received an Honourable Discharge and eventually entered the Chelsea Hospital to become one of their famous `pensioners' in 1870, dying there in 1883.
    happened to his almost unique set of medals after that is a mystery but, recently, the Biggar Museum Trust was tipped off that they had cropped up for sale at an auction in Yorkshire.

    They promiosed to pay the asking price from the collectors selling them of £3900 and are now collecting that money, through a grant from the National Museum of Scotland and from donations from Trust members and the public.

    More donations are needed to finally secure John Forrest's medals and bring them back for permanant display in Biggar, in one of the town's museums. The Trust hope to have a special display of Biggar-related militaria with Forrest's medals as its centrepiece as soon as next month.
    Anyone who wishes to make a donation to this should contact Brian Lambie on Biggar 01899 221497 and, after a break of 150 years, see John Forrest finally `return' to his home town, at least in spirit.