MY great-uncle Robert is 93. He arrives three times a week at my parents’ house for coffee and a chat. He always brings something: a relentless supply of fresh rolls, a book from a charity shop, tinkerings he’s crafted in his workshop like beautiful brass clocks in the shape of the wheel of a ship.

Robert is a true man of the Clyde, a skilled engineer who has circled the globe scores of times as a merchant seaman, a man who built engines and repaired boilers and welded exhaust pipes and who is now paying the price for it with asbestosis and other irritating ailments he dismisses as small. In our family, Robert is a giant of legendary kindness and generosity, who never arrives empty-handed and who loves to tell jokes and nip a brandy when he can.

He arrived a few weeks ago with a different gift, a sheaf of photocopied papers, and a story. This is the story of the Boyle brothers. Four brothers from Greenock who perished in the First World War – Samuel in 1914, Alexander in 1915, Robert in 1916 and David in 1917.

It sounds instantly to me like Saving Private Ryan, except none were saved. Robert holds my hand with his, fingers bending through years of hard, relentless work in rolling seas and graft in cold and draughty ships’ sheds. “You should tell this story luv. It’s a terrible story.”

Alexander Boyle was his grandfather.

Not much exists of the Boyle brothers – there are no letters or diaries, and only two photographs, both of Alexander.

But the Boyle family – mum Agnes and dad John with 11 children – must have sprawled through a bustling Greenock in the early part of the 20th century, seven boys and four girls born over the space of 20 years.

Agnes died eight days after the birth of the youngest boy, Robert, in 1888, and John later remarried. The four Boyle brothers who died in WWI were all grown men, all married themselves. Two of them had their

own children. They are memorialised in a single headstone in Lambhill Cemetery in Glasgow, on “one of the most extraordinary headstones I’ve seen in 20 years of working for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission,” says Peter Francis of CWGC. “I have never seen one that listed not just the war casualty but the tragic tale of so many brothers lost from one family. One can only imagine the terrible grief of a family torn apart by war behind those names on this one headstone.”

It is hard to imagine four of your adult children, two of them parents themselves, passing away in stunning acts of industrial violence on foreign soil, but their father John would have seen it all. There was no protection for siblings from the authorities. WWI history is littered with the worst kind of familial atrocity. Author and historian Julie Summers, who has researched special memorials for the CWGC, says “it wasn’t kind. The men went into service and there was no-one, no organisation, looking into whether whole families were involved. It is heartbreaking to think about it.”

THE Boyle brothers join the Smith family from County Durham and the Soul family from the Cotswolds, who each lost five of their six sons, and the Beechey’s of Lincolnshire whose eight sons saw action and only three returned. Amy Beechey was presented to Queen Mary in 1918, who thanked her for her immense sacrifice, to which she bluntly replied: “It was no sacrifice, ma’am. I did not give them willingly.”

The Boyle brothers died in places stretching across the theatre of war, far from home. Their stories are a microcosm of the conflict in which so many families suffered.

Private Samuel Boyle, 2nd Battalion Gordon Highlanders, October 30 1914, aged 30

SAMUEL had served in the Army before WWI – aged 18 he joined the 2nd Battalion Gordon Highlanders, and he remained in the Army Reserve until he was called up in 1914. That summer he married the fantastically named Hughina at St John’s Church in Greenock. Four months later, aged just 30, he was dead on the field of battle at Ypres. In October 1914 the 2nd Battalion were entrenched at Gheluvelt, with other regiments, under heavy gunfire and shelling. It must have been a supremely awful place on Earth to be.

After two weeks of heavy fighting their numbers had been reduced from around 1000 men to 200 – 180 had been killed and the vast majority of the others were wounded or captured. The Battalion War Diary notes that on October 29 in front of one platoon lay 240 dead German soldiers. On October 30 Samuel was killed in action.

The following day the British line was almost overwhelmed. However, the much reduced and desperate battalion “including clerks and cooks” joined together with other similarly depleted units, and they staged a successful counter-attack which restored the line and resulted in a large number of German dead, many killed by bayonet.

After a marriage lasting just a few weeks with Samuel, Hughina remained a widow for the rest of her days, collecting a small war widow’s pension and in receipt of Samuel’s medals: the British War Medal, the Victory Medal, and the 1914 Star with Clasps.

Stoker 1st Class Alexander Boyle, Royal Naval Division, June 4 1915, aged 38

ALEX, born in Glasgow in 1877, was an engineer and had six children with his wife Sarah. “A favourite with all those concerned in Clyde yachting”, Robert worked at Cockburn’s valve factory in Cardonald, and had served in the Royal Navy at the turn of the century as a stoker – a hard and hot and demanding job as the boiler keeper on board roiling Victorian ships. In September 1914 he became a Navy stoker again.

This time however he was asked to serve on land – the Royal Naval Division is not what it sounds: there were too many reservists and volunteers to be absorbed on to ships at the start of WWI, and the Navy created the RND to soak up men into the land battles that were about to rage.

Alex was killed less than a year later, after enduring weeks in trenches built 30ft high. On June 4 1915 at the third Battle of Krithia, under the baking Greek sun, he would have found himself as part of a futile attempt to capture the village of Krithia and a hill – the notorious Achi Baba – all part of Winston Churchill’s disastrous effort to open a second front to the war. The stalemate between Allied and Turkish troops went on for months, each side sustaining 250,000 casualties with 46,000 Allied troops and 65,000 Turkish troops dead.

Reported missing at first, Sarah was clearly desperate for news of Alex, and placed articles into the Herald and the Greenock Telegraph asking comrades to please get in touch to let her know what had happened to her husband at Gallipoli. One piece reports: “It is pathetic to note that he has six little children awaiting his home-coming.” His body was never found, and Sarah later received a letter confirming that he had died in action.

My uncle Robert says his dad, David, rarely spoke about his father or uncles. Somewhat incredibly, David signed up to fight in WWI himself aged 16 and just a year after his father’s death. You can imagine Sarah Boyle – her husband is dead, her teenage son has just signed up, one brother in law is dead, the others are away fighting and will later lose their lives. Alex and Sarah’s daughter Annie, aged just 10, died of rheumatic fever in 1918. Sarah died in 1925. She had suffered enormous loss.

“My Dad was a lovely man who rarely spoke about what he did during the War or what had happened to his father or his brothers”, Robert tells me. “The only thing he ever said was that his father had been machine gunned across the throat at Gallipoli. I don’t like to think of that.”

The impact of WWI on the Boyle family is enduring. “My father David had to serve as well, just a year after his father was killed. All of his uncles were killed. Imagine that. It’s terribly sad.

‘‘You can just imagine the family losing all of these sons, one after the other, and these are grown men, not boys sent fresh to go over the top. You would have thought, hoped, that somehow one of them would have survived, but they all died.

“There’s real love there. You can imagine the real love from a mother and a father to their sons, and to have them all gone … it’s terrible.”

Private Robert Boyle, 98th Brigade Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, July 30 1916, aged 28

ROBERT Boyle, the baby of the family of 11 siblings, signed his enrolment papers to the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in Glasgow on February 27 1915. That summer, as his sister-in-law Sarah desperately wrote to newspapers looking for news of his brother Alex, Robert married Agnes Honeyman. His signature is lovely on the page of their marriage certificate. Who knows what turmoil the family were going through at that point.

THE following summer Robert was killed on the Somme at the Battle of High Wood. A Captain Ross of the Gordon Highlanders later published an account of July 30, the day Robert died, which tells of thousands of men attempting to advance into a dense, booby-trapped forest in the face of tens of thousands of bullets. “The hour of zero was 6.15. At that moment the guns lifted, and the assaulting waves leapt over the parapet. They were instantly met by a well-sustained fire from trenches that seemed to be amply manned and plentifully munitioned. From the very beginning the attack was doomed to frustration. By those awful sheets of cross-fire men were mown down in swathes.

“The wood became each day a more and more sombre morgue. All living things within it seemed to be fated to extinction.”

Robert was posthumously awarded the British War Medal, the Victory Medal, and the 1915 Star.

Mercantile Marine David Boyle, August 25 1917, aged 49

DAVID, the oldest Boyle sibling, was married with a teenage daughter when he died in the cold North Atlantic in 1917. He was part of a crew of 11 men on board the S.S. Sycamore, a practically new ship which had only been in the water for four months, sailing from Baltimore to Liverpool with a cargo of copper, canvas and cotton.

Despite being defensively armed the Sycamore was torpedoed mid-morning 125 miles north-west of the coast of Northern Ireland on August 25 1917, by U-Boat 61. The bodies of David, a carpenter by trade, and his crew-mates were never found.

“The family wouldn’t have been told he had died, the ship wouldn’t have turned up in Liverpool and that was that,” says Dr Innes McCartney, a navel historian with the University of Bournemouth. “Unless they were part of a convoy the

U-boat would have gotten back to base and we have the surviving paperwork from that, but the ship would have been posted missing after it was obvious it wasn’t going to show up.”

The merchant navy had a huge role in WWI, transporting food, ammunition and equipment around the coast of Europe and across the Atlantic.

“Merchant ships were fair game in WWI,” says McCartney.

“Submarines were a weapon by which they could blockade Britain and by 1917 the Germans were absolutely using that as part of their efforts. You can’t see

U-boats, they were a stalking menace, and it would have been very frightening. They can get you night and day. They can get you in your bunk.

“The contribution of the merchant navy to WWI is inestimable. Alongside the fishing fleet, at times it’s a contribution which is perhaps not as recognised as it should be – they suffered grievously.”

Last week Uncle Robert, his daughter and grandson went to Lambhill Cemetery and placed poppies at the memorial to the Boyle brothers. They remembered, as we all can do today, their lives, their deaths, their places in a war which took so many fathers from their children, brothers from their sisters, husbands from their wives, sons from their parents. We can remember they were loved. Lest we forget.