Heriot’s pays tribute to pupils killed in action

George Heriot's School war memorial subscribed to by former pupils and relatives of the dead of the two Great Wars. Picture: Contributed

George Heriot's School war memorial subscribed to by former pupils and relatives of the dead of the two Great Wars. Picture: Contributed

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It was the bloody battle that saw more than 20 former pupils of George Heriot’s School killed in action – in just a single day.

Now a new exhibition is set to pay tribute to the brave men and boys who gave their lives during the First World War’s Gallipoli campaign – as well as examining the wider role played by the school during the hazardous war years.

Tommy Thomson', who died in 2003, lied about his age and saw action at the Somme. Picture: Contributed

Tommy Thomson', who died in 2003, lied about his age and saw action at the Somme. Picture: Contributed

George Heriot’s School and the Great War will launch later this month, shedding light on the often fascinating tales behind those who were caught up in the conflict – from members of staff taken prisoner to the 105-year-old who lived to tell the tale.

On June 28, 1915, no fewer than 23 ex-pupils of George Heriot’s were killed fighting in Gallipoli as members of the Royal Scots regiment.

The losses suffered by Heriot’s on that fateful day are thought to be the highest number from any school on a single day during the conflict – with the youngest victim, Alistair Johnston, just 18.

The oldest ex-pupil to die was 47-year-old Thomas Amos – a baritone singer and compositor at an Edinburgh printing press – whose two sons, Robert and Thomas, also fought in the same battle but escaped with wounds.

I’ve tried to throw some light on it, and encouraged people to come forward with their stories

Fraser Simm

But the story of the school’s war years extends far beyond the confusion and bloodshed of the Gallipoli peninsula.

Robert Herdman Pender, a teacher of modern languages at Heriot’s, left Scotland for a fortnight’s holiday in Germany in July 1914 – only to find himself trapped after war broke out.

The unlucky teacher would go on to spend the next four years in Ruhleben, a prison for non-combatants six miles west of Berlin, along with fellow ex-Heriot’s pupil James Dickson. The men were just two of 23 former pupils who became prisoners of war.

Elsewhere, Douglas Charles “Tommy” Thomson was one of thousands of boys to lie about his age in order to join the army and serve his country overseas. The 17-year-old enlisted in the Honourable Artillery Company in January 1916 – and even claimed to have previous military experience from his days in the George Heriot’s School Officer Training Corps.

Despite seeing action in some of the war’s bloodiest battles – including the Somme, where he described seeing dead men’s legs sticking out from the side of trenches – he survived the war unscathed and would later train as an 
electrical engineer.

Tommy Thomson died in 2003 at the grand old age of 105, reportedly remaining “feisty, coherent and charming” until the end.

Fraser Simm, the Heriot’s archivist behind the exhibition, said it was an attempt to bring “all these different strands” of war experience together. He said: “I’ve tried not to make it a monotonous record of who survived and who was killed.

“I’ve tried to throw some light on it, and I’ve also encouraged people in the community to come forward with their stories. I’ve tried not to make it sombre, but to make it interesting.”

The exhibition will run at the school from July 13 until August 7, from 10am to 4pm Monday to Friday. Adult tickets will cost £2, with children’s entry £1 and family tickets £5.