Midlothian ‘polis’ swap blue for khaki and go to war

The unveiling of the police war memorial in Dalkeith 1921
The unveiling of the police war memorial in Dalkeith 1921

After leaving the Army many men opted to join the police, writes John Duncan (Newbattle at War).

It seemed a natural stepping stone and they were readily recruited into various forces including our very own Midlothian Constabulary.

They may have left the Army but they remained on the Reserve for several years, so when war was declared in August, 1914 a number of them were recalled to the colours. Men such as PC James Porteous from Dalkeith, or ‘Big Jim’ as he was known, along with PCs Lyle, Hill, and Mathieson left for their former regiments.

Initially police officers were forbidden from joining up, but pressure was growing for them to join the Army. Some chose to resign, but most put in requests to enlist. When it became apparent that the war was going to last some time it was decided that around 25 per cent of the officers would be given permission to enlist in February, 1915. This option was well received and in response PC William Anderson from Musselburgh (part of Midlothian at the time) and PC Ramsay Vickers, who had served at Bonnyrigg, Penicuik and Dalkeith, swapped blue uniforms for khaki. PC William Anderson was posted to the 1st Seaforth Highlanders.

On April 6, 1916 the 1st Seaforths formed part of a force to attack the Turkish lines at Kut in Iraq. The initial advance found the first Turkish positions empty and a decision was made to launch a full scale frontal attack without proper reconnaissance. What followed was an unmitigated disaster.

As dawn broke the men were caught in dense formation advancing against hidden machine guns. Shells land amongst the Highlanders. They were British shells. Men fell in large numbers. The war diary records that it was “a most disappointing action in which many valuable lives were lost for no purpose.” The casualty count was high – 312 men killed from various regiments, amongst them William Anderson, who is commemorated at the Basra Memorial. On July 18, 1916 the 10th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders wait in their trenches near Delville Wood, Longueval, on the Somme. An attack has just went in on the wood and the Germans unleash one of the most vicious counter barrages the Argylls have seen. Fortunately the bulk of it misses them.

As the barrage slackens the Germans advance towards the wood. The Scots open up on them with their weapons, driving them back and inflicting heavy casualties. Small pockets of men are dotted through the wood alongside South African troops. As dusk sets in the men of the Transport section prepare to bring up rations and ammunition. One of the sections is led by L Cpl Ramsay Vickers. As they prepare a new type of gas shell lands killing two officers and Vickers. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

So what of big Jim Porteous? His previous military experience was put to good effect. B the end of August, 1914 he was in Flanders and fought well during the retreat from Mons. His leadership qualities were evident and he was rapidly promoted to Sergeant fighting all through 1915 and was wounded in 1916 on the Somme which saw him invalided home for a while. In 1917 Jim was awarded the Military Medal for gallantry at Arras. In July of that year the fighting would switch back Flanders and on October 12 it centres on a village forever associated with the mud and misery of the Great War, Passchendaele.

Secret orders have been received and 26 Brigade including the Seaforths will attack and seize Westroosebeke.

The weather is absolutely dreadful, rain falling incessantly. Permission is given for the men to keep their greatcoats on until 30 minutes before the off. Smoking is banned adding to the men’s woes. On the right of the attack Jim Porteous’ platoon get ready for the off at 5.25am.

As the men steady themselves at 5.23 the silence is broken by barrage, two minutes early. Sgt Porteous leads his men over the top trying to follow the erratic shelling. Suddenly the barrage drops short killing Jim Porteous instantly. The attack fizzles out after fierce fighting. The Seaforths take some 240 casualties.

After the war a stone tablet was purchased and mounted on the wall of Dalkeith Police Station in 1921. When the new station was built in the 1970s the tablet was removed and mounted in the foyer of the new station.