USAREUR officer pays bagpipe tribute at grave of fallen WWI ancestor 102 years after his death
By DAN STOUTAMIRE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 5, 2017
WIESBADEN, Germany — With the ongoing centennial observations marking America’s entry into World War I, and in the wake of the British royal family’s visit to Ypres to mark the 100th anniversary of the bloody third battle there, one U.S. Army Europe soldier made the trip to the battle site to visit the grave of his great-uncle, a British army private slain there in 1915.
Lt. Col. Robert Gunther, an operations officer with USAREUR, recently discovered that Pvt. Walter Young Gibson of the 1st Battalion, Royal Scots Regiment, who fell in battle in 1915, was in fact his maternal great-uncle.
“I felt an automatic connection to this person, being related, being half-Scottish and being in the military,” said Gunther, whose mother is from Edinburgh, Scotland. “For me, the whole reason was to understand his story and really get to know about this.”
In May of this year, armed with a bit of knowledge and a subscription to a Scottish genealogy website, Gunther dove in, hoping to confirm that Gibson was in fact related to his mother’s family. Finding birth certificates, census records and other documents confirmed his hunch. Getting in touch with records housed at Edinburgh Castle, Gunther found a photo of Gibson.
“He is a spitting image of my uncle Robert, to a ‘T’. The chin, everything,” Gunther said.
Gibson enlisted in August 1914 at the outset of hostilities in Europe, and was killed in less than a year. He had three young children at the time, and even after his death, it took the British government more than half a year to begin paying his widow his death pension. Hailing from a working-class neighborhood in Edinburgh, Gunther thinks it’s unlikely Gibson’s family was ever able to personally visit his grave.
“They wouldn’t have been able to afford a trip to London, much less across the Channel,” he said. “I am fairly sure that I am the only family member in 102 years that has been able to visit his grave.”
While touring the gravesite in Belgium on August 2, Gunther said it just felt right to be there.
“I felt this peace, that this was something that I had to do,” he said. “I felt a connection with this person.”
While there, Gunther, a hobbyist bagpiper, felt compelled to play a final tune for his ancestor. It is unlikely that Gibson war buried accompanied by the sound of bagpipes — a Scottish military tradition — because he was initially interred as an unknown soldier.
“He deserved a piper at his funeral, because he was in a Scots regiment and he was a Scotsman,” Gunther said.
Gibson was one of four brothers — not including Gunther’s grandfather, who was too young to serve — who took part in the Great War. Gunther said he will continue to do research on the others as well, and to learn more about Gibson’s life and service.
“I’m not done doing research,” Gunther said. “I’ve got a lot more to go.”
A headshot of Pvt. Water Young Gibson, a member of the 1st Royal Scots Regiment who fell at the second battle of Ypres in 1915. Gibson's great-nephew, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Robert Gunther, discovered his relation with Gibson in May and recently visited his gravesite in Belgium.
COURTESY OF ROBERT GUNTHER