Lord Kitchener's volunteers prepare for battle

Soldiers being issued with supplies on the eve of battle
Soldiers being issued with supplies on the eve of battle

Mention the Great War to most people and one battle that usually comes up is the Somme. Etched into the British psyche, it has become synonymous with the sacrifice of the 1914-1918 war, writes John Duncan (Newbattle at War).

Tomorrow (Friday) is the 100th anniversary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the blackest day in the history of the British Army.

But the story starts back in 1914. Lord Kitchener realised as soon as war was declared that the men of the regular and Territorial Army would not be enough to satisfy the demands of total war. He put out his famous appeal for 100,000 volunteers. Britons everywhere rallied to the cause and more than 300,000 enlisted in the New Army.

A popular notion at the time was that of a “Pals Battalion”, in which men joined up with their workmates and neighbours en masse. Swept along on a wave of patriotism, many men did exactly that. One such group worked for Alexander Cowan’s paper mill in Penicuik. Dozens of men volunteered and the bulk of them enlisted with a newly-formed Battalion of the Royal Scots, the 16th, known universally as McCrae’s after its Colonel, Sir George McCrae.

Mr Cowan himself had three sons serving in the Army as officers with the Royal Scots, and was very proud of his workers enlisting. Men flocked from far and wide to join McCrae’s but not all were successful. A group of 12 Lithuanians from Newtongrange were rejected as unsuitable as they were illiterate in English.

David Tait Jack was a medical student from Dalkeith, studying at Edinburgh University. He gave up his studies and tried to enlist. However, it was found that he had a heart defect and was rejected twice on these grounds. However, he persisted and it may be that his father, the Procurator Fiscal in Dalkeith, pulled some strings and he was accepted as a medical orderly whereby his medical training could be put to good use.

Henry Ledingham was the eldest son of Constable Ledingham, the village bobby in Newtongrange. At the outbreak of war he was working as a plumber in Ardrossan. He returned home and volunteered his services to the Royal Engineers. Due to his skills he was posted to the 1st Battalion of the Special Brigade, a unit that specialised in gas warfare, set up in response to the use of poison gas by the Germans. It was skilled and highly dangerous work.

Other men joined up because another family member had enlisted. This was the case with John and Alexander Laing from Penicuik. John was a baker in Penicuik, Alexander was a police constable with Leith Police. They joined up together in McCrae’s Battalion and became Lewis machine gunners. They were in good company as the men from Alexander Cowan’s were also in C Company as were Tom Webster and John Cleghorn, local gamekeepers.

After a year in training, on January 7, 1916 McCrae’s Battalion left their barracks for the last time, their destination, France.

In common with most of the newly-raised army, 16th Royal Scots were as green as grass and had to acclimatise to life in the trenches – living, eating, sleeping and fighting in this alien environment.

After a few months it was decreed that the Kitchener men were now fit and ready to face the Germans. The Royal Scots were posted near Albert on June 15. They were briefed that they would be taking part in the “Big Push” to end the war and told to settle their affairs. For most men this meant filling the pro-forma will in the back of their paybook. Andrew McNulty, a 27-year-old grocer from Penicuik, a pacifist, wrote several bequests including: “I don’t think there is anything more. But you will all ask my friends to think of me at my best, to remember the good in me and forget the bad.”

Andrew perhaps had a more realistic view of events that were to unfold. Many thought it be a walkover, but before then much preparation had to be done.

On June 24, Sgt Henry Ledingham was working on poison gas cylinders when one of them broke open, spewing out gas. Seeing a comrade writhing in agony, Ledingham jumped in and pulled him clear. Sadly, they both died shortly after.

A few days later on June 29, a party of 16th Royal Scots was sent out into No-Man’s Land to cut German wire in preparation for the big attack, now only two days away. They were spotted and shot at. David Jack from Dalkeith, seeing his pal Magnus wounded and stuck in the wire, went to his aid and was killed by machine gun fire trying to help him get free. He was just 20 years old.

So the scene is set for the “Big Push”. After two years of training, the sun rose on Saturday, July 1, heralding a beautiful summer's day. For many though it would be their last day on earth.

Part two next week.