Veterans in emotional trip to the battlefields

Lance Corporal Alexander McDonald

Lance Corporal Alexander McDonald

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It WAS the wartime clash that saw the world’s first lethal gas attacks – killing hundreds of soldiers and often blinding those that survived.

Now visually impaired veterans from the charity Scottish War Blinded have made an emotional journey to the site of the Second Battle of Ypres 100 years after the conflict ended on May 25, 1915.

The trip to Belgium was part of the organisation’s centenary events programme, marking the founding of the charity a century ago in the aftermath of the gas attacks.

Among those who made the crossing was Derek McDonald from Morningside, whose grandfather, Alexander McDonald, served in the 2nd Battalion Royal Scots and was awarded the Military Medal for bravery on the Western Front.

The fearless soldier was part of a four-man patrol that crawled through a cornfield on July 15, 1917, looking for signs of possible enemy gas deployments.

The squad successfully captured four German soldiers who provided their regiment with crucial intelligence.

Despite being gassed at Ypres, Alexander survived the war and lived to the age of 62. Astonishingly, he even escaped unhurt from the Gretna Rail Disaster in May 1915.

Derek, 76, a retired civil servant who served with the Royal Signals for two years, said the visit to the battlefields of Belgium had been a “poignant” reminder of the struggles his grandfather endured.

He said: “It was so quiet and peaceful, it was difficult to imagine that 100 years ago this was a scene of death and carnage where hundreds of thousands of men fought and died for little gain.

“The men who fought here are all gone now, as are the trenches, the shell holes and the mud. Man and nature have healed the land and it is hard to believe it ever happened.

“As I stood there I thought of my grandfather – many of his friends lost forever beneath that beautiful countryside.

“It’s beautiful, but at the same time you are standing on a cemetery with thousands of graves.

“He never talked about it. He never said a word. All we knew was that my grandmother had said he had won a medal.”

And Derek, who is registered blind, said his own army experience had given him a special affinity with his grandfather’s struggles.

He said: “We had a four-minute warning and we could have been rushed anywhere at any moment. We trained for these things. You can’t recreate the fear of battle, but certainly crawling through mud and woods and doing the exercises – it was recreated to a point, without the fear.”

Scottish War Blinded members also visited museums and attended a memorial service at the Menin Gate, where they laid a wreath. The charity’s Rev Dr Bill Mackie, from Leith, produced an audio diary for members who could not make the trip to Belgium. He said: “I felt that this was something that needed to be done as a means of sharing the feelings encountered during the trip.”

alistair.grant@edinburghnews.com