Edinburgh council cancels trip by Deputy Lord Provost to honour city soldiers killed at Somme

Plans for Edinburgh's Deputy Lord Provost to join ex-servicemen on a visit to France as part of the annual pilgrimage to honour soldiers of McCrae's Battalion killed in the First World War were called off the day before the trip.

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Lezley Marion Cameron was due to represent the city at the sombre ceremony which takes place at Contralmaison in northern France every year on July 1, the anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, when a total of 20,000 British troops were killed and another 40,000 wounded in the space of an hour.

The 16th Royal Scots, known as McCrae’s Battalion after the charismatic Lieutenant-Colonel Sir George McCrae who rallied men from the Capital, including a group of professional footballers from Hearts players and other clubs, lost 12 officers and 573 men – more than three-quarters of its attacking strength – during its advance on German defensive positions.

In 2004 a memorial cairn was erected at Contalmaison, the village where those soldiers who survived the battle recuperated, and this has become an important focus for the annual commemoration.

A senior figure from the city council normally travels to France with members of the McCrae’s Battalion Trust to attend the ceremony. For the past two years the pilgrimage from Edinburgh has had to be cancelled because of Covid restrictions, so this year’s trip carried extra significance as the first to take place since 2019.

The council had already paid for Cllr Cameron’s place on the bus to France and for her accommodation while there.

But after council officials discovered the bus was leaving on Wednesday, which would have meant Cllr Cameron missing the full council meeting on Thursday, they cancelled her trip on Tuesday and asked the trust to lay a wreath on the council’s behalf.

The war memorial at Contalmaison.

The council did not give an exact amount for the money spent but estimated the cost to the council of the cancelled travel and accommodation at "hundreds" of pounds.

But one council source said: "It seems very odd the Deputy Lord Provost’s trip was cancelled so late on, especially when the full council date was known well in advance. It's disappointing when the council has been represented in previous years that it wasn't this year. And regardless of whether it was hundreds of pounds or thousands, it's still taxpayers money that has been spent to no purpose."

A total of 420,000 British soldiers were killed in the Battle of the Somme, which continued until November 2016, along with around 200,000 French and up to 445,000 Germans.

A council spokeswoman said: “It is customary for a representative of the Lord Provost to attend the annual pilgrimage to Contalmaison in the Somme Battlefield. This year was to be no different and the usual booking was made with the McCrae’s Battalion Trust.

"However, on this occasion, the event arrangements coincided with both Royal Week in Edinburgh and a meeting of full council, so apologies were submitted and a wreath was laid on behalf of the city by the trust.”

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