McCrae’s Battalion: Somme sacrifice to be marked, 100 years on

McCrae's battalion. Picture: Jack Alexander
McCrae's battalion. Picture: Jack Alexander
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THE horror is unimaginable – thousands of young men who had volunteered to serve their country mown down in a bloody 60 minutes on the battlefield.

It’s nearly 100 years since the Battle of the Somme, one of the largest battles of the First World War, which eventually saw more than a million men killed or wounded.

The Somme. Picture: PA

The Somme. Picture: PA

Entire battalions of pals, brothers, neighbours and workmates were wiped out.

But in July, Edinburgh ex-servicemen and relatives of the fallen will be among those heading for France to join the centenary commemorations, determined the soldiers will never be forgotten.

SEE ALSO: McCrae’s Battalion piper memorial unveiled

For many of them, the focus will be at Contalmaison, a village which the British aimed to capture on the first day of the battle, where a 14ft memorial cairn was unveiled in 2004 to the 16th Battalion of the Royal Scots, known as McCrae’s Battalion, which included 11 professional footballers from Hearts, plus players from Hibs, Raith Rovers, Dunfermline Athletic and Falkirk.

It was the First World War that made us disgusted with war. At the Somme, 20,000 died and 40,000 were wounded in the space of an hour on that first morning.

Jack Alexander

The cairn also includes a plaque in memory of the men of the other Edinburgh battalion, the 15th Battalion of the Royal Scots, which was dubbed the Lord Provost’s Battalion.

SEE ALSO: McCrae’s Battalion at heart of Somme commemoration

Hearts legend John Robertson – who serves as the club’s ambassador to the McCrae’s Battalion Trust – will be part of the Capital contingent attending the centenary commemoration at the Contalmaison Cairn, as will Bailie Norman Work, representing the city council.

A few weeks before the centenary, Hearts will also unveil an 8ft bronze statue of a First World War soldier in a ceremony at Tynecastle.

Sir George McCrae, who founded the 16th Battalion of the Royal Scots.

Sir George McCrae, who founded the 16th Battalion of the Royal Scots.

Bailie Work said: “The cairn firmly cements Scotland’s links with France and the Somme, and now the annual pilgrimage ensures the many men whose lives were lost are never forgotten.

“This year’s event will be particularly poignant as we mark 100 years to the day that McCrae’s Battalion was destroyed. Thousands of people will pay their respects.”

Ceremonies are held on the Somme battlefield every year, but this year’s centenary commemorations will see more people than ever taking part.

The biggest event on July 1 – the anniversary of the first day of the battle – will take place at Thiepval, about seven minutes’ drive from Contalmaison, where a massive memorial designed by architect Sir Edwin Lutyens is engraved with the names of the nearly 75,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers who fell during the Somme and who have no known grave.

The Queen and a large number of visitors and VIPs are expected to attend the Thiepval ceremony.

But despite the Contalmaison memorial being unveiled just over a decade ago, the ceremony at the cairn has now become the second best-attended of the day.

Draft plans for the memorial were drawn up after the final days of the war, but a lack of finances prevented it being built.

The cairn was designed by historian Jack Alexander, who has written a book on the story of the McCrae’s Battalion, and unveiled at a ceremony attended by 700 people in November 2004.

The 40-tonne cairn made from Scottish sandstone was the biggest to be built on the former Western Front for more than 80 years.

Mr Alexander said there would be a larger group than usual going from Edinburgh to this year’s commemoration.

“Many of those who come out with us are related to people who served,” he said.

“The Somme is particularly poignant because so many of the lads who went over the top were civilian volunteers. We made a covenant with them that they would enlist and defeat the German Kaiser, but so many of them died trying to do that.

“Many of them were just 14, 15 or 16 years old. We have a responsibility never to forget them.”

He said some people tried to argue that after 100 years it was time to stop the commemorations. But he said: “The McCrae’s Battalion Trust believes we have to continue to remember their sacrifice. If we don’t it will happen again.

“It was the First World War that made us disgusted with war. At the Somme, 20,000 died and 40,000 were wounded in the space of an hour on that first morning.”

He said that toll included about 500 from Edinburgh, the Lothians and Fife who were killed and up to 800 wounded.

In his youth, Mr Alexander used to know and chat to veterans of the First World War. “Now when I speak to people who have served in Afghanistan, it’s the same stories the old boys told me.

“The Somme is as relevant today as it was 100 years ago.”

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com