Family say confusion surrounds plans for a memorial stone to commemorate brave Edinburgh soldier

The family of a war hero say they are disgusted after plans for a commemorative stone marking 100 years since he was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) were left up in the air.

Monday, 8th October 2018, 12:12 pm
Updated Monday, 8th October 2018, 12:17 pm
James McPhie Corporal VC story

Born in the shadow of Arthur’s Seat, Corporal James McPhie was awarded the country’s highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy after extreme acts of bravery in the First World War while fighting in France.

As part of the centenary celebrations, the UK Government announced in 2014 that a stone be laid on the 100th anniversary of the action for which the VC was awarded and sited somewhere that would have had resonance with the VC recipient, such as outside a house that they lived in or near an old school.

Richard Colhessy and his wife Elaine, who is the great, great, great niece of Cpl McPhie, contacted the council in August last year to suggest appropriate locations for the stone but with only six days to go until the stone is to be laid, they still haven’t been told a location or time.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Victoria Cross

“It’s beggars belief,” Mr Colhessy said. “Victoria Cross recipients are not ten-a-penny.

“It’s unbelievable that they haven’t got this organised.

“I asked the question 14 months ago. They should have had all this in hand. It’s just not good enough and shows a complete lack of respect for what James did, and lack of respect for the man and for his family.”

Cpl McPhie was born at 31 Salisbury Street, which was flattened in the 60s and replaced by Dumbiedykes. His mother Elizabeth, who was widowed, then moved to 112 Rose Street, the address that appears on James’ will.

The 23-year-old was a corporal in the 416th (Edinburgh) Field Company, Corps of Royal Engineers during the First World War when action just 28 days before the end of the war ended in him being mortally wounded.

Mr Colhessy and family were hoping a ceremony where friends, well-wishers, Legion Scotland representatives and members of the public would be able to gather as the stone was laid to mark such a poignant and important date.

But with such short notice the family are worried many won’t be able to attend and it won’t be the occasion it deserves.

“The date the anniversary of him being killed falls on is a Sunday, a day when people can travel to get here. I contacted Edinburgh Council in August 2017 asking what the plans were.

“But when I contacted them recently they told me it may not be possible to hold it on the 14th and the Lord Provost would not be able to attend.

“They haven’t told us virtually anything as to what is going to happen, what the ceremony will entail or where it will be placed. And now they have said it won’t go ahead on the day of the 100th anniversary – the day he died.

“For all the family there’s only one date it can be.”

Initial council correspondence stated the family’s suggested site of Rose Street would not be possible as the stone had to be sited at the, now non-existent, place of birth. However, government guidance states the location as simply “a place of resonance”.

Each stone was to be delivered one month before the anniversary but Edinburgh Council said they just received it on Friday.

The council maintained preparations are underway to site the stone and details would be confirmed today.

A City of Edinburgh Council spokesperson said: “Preparations have been made for James McPhie and the Lord Provost will be represented at the ceremony.”

Despite memorial plans on home turf remaining uncertain, the town and residents of Aubencheul-au-Bac, near to where Cpl McPhie died, have organised a commemoration event for all of the fallen and a special wreath laying in memory of Cpl McPhie and his comrades.

A representative reached out to find someone to represent Edinburgh at the ceremony and former Leith Academy pupil and Royal Engineers Captain Alan Hume, based at Redford Barracks, heard the rallying call.

He arranged a contingent of veterans and serving soldiers to travel to France and lay wreaths, crosses and pay their respects on October 14.

“I will be attending this commemoration with other Royal Engineers because Cpl James McPhie VC was an Edinburgh man and it was through an Edinburgh Evening News online article posted on social media that I became aware of this commemoration.

“The local community were trying to ascertain links in Scotland and when I saw the post I started to join the dots.

“We’ve also had support from the Royal Engineers Association, the descendant regiment of 71 Engineer Regiment.”

Michel Prêtre, the Mayor of Aubencheul-au-Bac, will also host the visitors at a special meal as well as the commemoration ceremony.

Cpl McPhie, who joined the Territorials in 1912 when he was just 17, was said to utter the words “it is death or glory work which must be done for the sake of our patrol” as he urged his fellow sappers (engineers) to save a floating bridge at the Canal de la Sensee not far from Aubencheul-au-Bac in 1918.

Only days before, the troops had received special training in the use of cork-float bridges.

At first light on October 13 they launched such a bridge in a bid to attack the enemy on the opposite side of the canal. Under heavy shell and sniper fire, the troops who landed were ordered to retreat – but such was the vulnerability of the bridge, that it broke, leaving many trapped on the enemy side.

Sniper fire made it impossible to rescue the stranded soldiers, so during the night Cpl McPhie, and a group of sappers repaired the bridge.

But the bridge broke again. McPhie and another sapper jumped into the canal and held the broken sections of the bridge together, helping more men to cross, but the sun had risen, and fully aware that the far bank was almost entirely in the hands of 
the enemy, he led the way, axe in hand, on to the bridge, and was at once severely wounded.

McPhie was shot in the face and fell into the canal. Sapper CA Cox was hit in the leg and arm, but managed to drag McPhie on top of the bridge. This time the enemy opened up with machine gun fire killing McPhie. His body was rescued and he was buried four miles from Cambrai – his brother John, a Lance Corporal in the same unit, who had not taken part in the operation, helping to lay him to rest.

His posthumous VC for “most conspicuous bravery” was presented to his widowed mother Elizabeth by King George V in the ballroom of Buckingham Palace on April 3, 1919.

The city of Edinburgh also rallied round with a subscription fund being raised on behalf of Elizabeth McPhie presented to her by the Lord Provost.

After the war a plaque was also unveiled in St Giles’ Cathedral in memory of all the Royal Engineers who died in the war, and in 1963 a wooden bench was placed in Princes Street Gardens in James McPhie’s memory.