MORNING had dawned over France, the skies were bright and clear, the air crisp and fresh. A perfect day, perhaps, if not for the bloody nightmare of war.
Young 2nd Lt Ian Gilmour Cameron from Loanhead had slipped into the front seat of the small, single engine two-seater biplane. It was just after 8am, the Battle of the Somme was nearing its conclusion but today, November 9, 1916 – precisely 95 years ago – the teenager’s mission for the Royal Flying Corps was to soar into the skies over northern France, bombs loaded on board to pound the Germans below.
Higher the little plane soared. Lt Cameron – just 19-years-old, the handsome son of a well-respected doctor, a strapping rugby player, winning shot putter and enthusiastic Sandhurst officer – leaned over the open cockpit of the BE2c Royal Flying Corps aircraft number 2506, eyes peeled for signs of the enemy.
Whether he and the pilot sitting behind him were aware they had company, only they ever knew.
What is certain is that Manfred Von Richthofen, the Red Baron, Germany’s “ace of aces” did not go on to earn his reputation for being deadly accurate without good cause – with typical stealth and fatal precision, he’d fly his distinctive red biplane, adorned with its black Iron Cross, above and behind his unsuspecting prey, often with the sun behind him, sneaking up until close enough to blast them from the skies.
By the end of his war, the results of the fighter ace’s prowess in the skies over France would lie shattered on the ground below in the shape of 80 planes downed by his steely eye and rapid reflexes. Among the debris, the corpses of brave allied airmen, their bodies later committed to lie forever on foreign soil.
And on this crisp November morning in the blue skies of northern France, 1916, it would be 2nd Lt Cameron’s turn.
His plane went hurtling down around 10.30am, according to the few records that remain of the fateful incident.
Lt Cameron, pictured not long before he left for France dressed in spats, a jaunty top hat and with a cheeky lopsided grin, who’d won a rugby blue and was school shot put champion, had been shot down.
With his fellow officer’s lifeless body slumped behind him and no doubt pursued by the Red Baron himself, pilot Cameron somehow battled to land the biplane. It’s thought he survived but only to end up caught by his German foes and taken prisoner.
For the Red Baron, flying proud in his distinctive Albatros D11 491/16, it was just another scalp, his eighth in what would be a long and bloody career.
Later, he’d order a silversmith in Berlin to make a cup engraved with the date and details of his Scottish victim and pin the plane’s number – 2506 – alongside other war trophies on the walls of his bedroom in his parent’s home in East Prussia, a ghoulish shrine to his killing prowess.
As for 2nd Lt Cameron, his parents, the widely respected Dr James Cameron and wife Mary, received the dreadful news at their home in Hawthorn Gardens, Loanhead.
Today, his remains lie in a Commonwealth War Grave at Achiet-le-Grand cemetery in the Pas de Calais, a final resting place for 1526 fellow fighting men.
Closer to home, his name is one of 91 inscribed in stone at the entrance to Loanhead Memorial Park. Highly visible, the memorial graces the park’s gateway as a constant reminder to visitors of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.
But while the memorial bearing the name of the Red Baron’s victim is strikingly obvious, until now only a few to pass under it could surely know who Ian G Cameron really was. Or, indeed, any of the no doubt equally moving and tragic stories behind the names of the fallen etched into stone, copper and in stained glass war memorials scattered around Midlothian.
However, as the clock ticks down to the poignant centenary in 2014, marking the start of the “war to end all wars”, Midlothian Council has embarked on an ambitious challenge to track down as many of the war memorials within its modern boundaries as possible and bring them vividly to life by unmasking the people and the stories behind the names.
Already, researchers from the council’s Local Studies office have unearthed fascinating and long-lost details – some thrilling and dramatic, like the Red Baron’s encounter with Ian Cameron, others deeply moving in their simplicity, such as the brief but poignant story behind Andrew Watson of the Royal Scots, whose name also takes its place on Loanhead park’s memorial. “He was just an ordinary young man of his time,” says Ken Bogle, Midlothian’s local studies officer and archivist. “He worked in the local paper mill and was a committed Christian, who sang in his church choir and taught Sunday school.
“He joined the Royal Scots and went to Gallipoli in 1915 where he lasted less than two weeks. His body was never found. Like thousands of others, he never stood a chance.”
The briefest of details of Andrew’s fate emerged in a postcard found by a collector in Stirlingshire and forwarded to Ken to help with his research.
That, and the picture of the young man, posing in his Sunday best, a flower in his buttonhole, his dark hair carefully parted and a solemn look on his face – perhaps etched with concern for the hell that lay before him – help paint a vivid picture of the real people whose lives were sacrificed in the name of freedom.
As does the heartrending story behind two names that appear one after the other on Dalkeith’s war memorial.
George and Mary Allan of the town’s High Street sent three of their sons to war.
Robert was severely wounded in action. As for Tom and Willie, news of Willie’s death arrived in the morning post and the same evening came the telegram informing the grieving parents that Tom, too, was dead.
Likewise, the striking stained glass window that serves as a war memorial within Crichton Parish Church holds a similar story of family anguish. Brothers Charlie, John and Willie Flynn, who lived at Crichton Mains farm, were all killed.
Imagine, too, the heartbreak for the parents of Royal Scots privates David and George, and Corporal Tom Webster, brothers named together on the Glencorse war memorial.
“Stories like that are very moving to read,” says Ken. “To lose three sons would be terrible but, of course, not unique. It happened across the country.”
So far, the team has drawn up names from around 60 memorials located in the district, including one from Penicuik Co-operative Society, which was rescued from a skip and efforts made through researching historical documents, old newspapers and records to piece together at least a little background to the person behind each name.
The aim, explains Ken, is to ultimately create a Midlothian Roll of Honour.
And with some memorials now long forgotten, lost or hidden from public view in private buildings, it is hoped the public can provide vital information to help track them down and make the roll as comprehensive as possible.
One memorial known to have existed but now lost once honoured the dead at Bonnyrigg Town Hall. Another, long gone, used to grace the entrance of Dalkeith High School – no doubt listing the names of former pupils and staff who gave their lives on the field of battle.
“We’d like to find out more about the people named on the memorials, who they were, where they lived, how they died,” says Ken.
“Did they play football for a local team, what schools they went to? Maybe a photograph – we know people have stuff in the attic, it might be what we need.”
The question for some – even in this most poignant of weeks when the nation pauses to honour those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for freedom – might be “why?”
“Of course, there is no one left alive from the First World War but it’s not really consigned to history, it’s still very much alive and very poignant,” says Ken.
“It’s the sheer scale of sacrifice and the fact that so many people were affected.
“Every family has some story or connection with the First World War, so everyone is involved in some way. It had such a huge impact.”
* Anyone with information about lost memorials should contact the Local Studies team on 0131-271 3976.