Captain the Reverend James Kirk MA MC CF
At a meeting at the end of April 1915, the Presbytery of Dunbar learnt that one of their number, James Kirk, had decided to become a Chaplain to the Forces and was set to leave for France. Reverend Kirk explained that he had considered volunteering at the outset of the war but that the pressure of work in Dunbar, which hosted a large volume of troops, had made that impractical. The Presbytery agreed his request and noted that he was the first Church of Scotland minister without a prior Regular or Territorial position to become a military chaplain.
He was Gazetted on 30 April 1915 and very quickly thereafter went to the front in France via London, Southampton and Rouen. He became Chaplain to a regular army regiment, the 2nd battalion Seaforth Highlanders. Kirk’s battalion quickly took him to their heart and he became an integral part of the battalion. When he joined they had suffered heavily and he was a stabilising force as they rebuilt, so much so that he was asked to return to the same battalion after his first tour. The role of the army chaplain was pastoral, but a good chaplain tended to interpret that widely and take an interest in all manner of concerns. With no comabtant front line role or responsibility they frequently accompanied their units into the line rendering aid and assistance. One of their heaviest tasks was to assist battalion officers write to the families of casualties.
Despite his labour at the front, for which during that second tour he was awarded a Military Cross in the field (4th June 1917; he also received a Mention in Dispatches), Kirk also wrote a weekly letter to his home congregation. The letters were addressed to each elder in rotation and were read out in Church. In January 1918 during a brief period at home he published a series of lectures about George Home, earl of Dunbar, whose monument is still in the Church; he then left to rejoin his battalion for a third time.
Kirk’s last letter home concentrated on the work he and his fellow divisional chaplains were doing to prepare both themselves and their men for life after the war – what he termed the ‘Social Problems of Home’ and ‘Social Reconstruction after the War’.
Badly wounded on 29th March 1918 as his battalion was engaged near the Scarpe in the Arras sector, he died in hospital at Wimereux on 1st April leaving a wife and daughter. Despite his short time in Dunbar he had plainly won his congregation’s affection: so much is clear from the tributes published in the press and the memorial services held in and around the town.