Saturday, July 1, 1916 – Z Day. It’s 6.30am but already the day is very hot. Down in the trenches there is no breeze at all and the men of the 16th Royal Scots listen to the artillery barrage which has been going on non-stop for five days now. Incredibly it picks up in intensity. The Scots pity the Germans that have been on the end of that. Surely no-one can have survived it?
The men prepare their kit, carefully checking their rifles and grenades. Most of the older men are very quiet indeed. Only some of the “young bucks” joke and boast about what they will do to Fritz.
An officer peers over the parapet. Looking through his field glasses he can see that most of the barbed wire is intact. There are gaps but they are narrow. Alarmingly, German snipers are taking pot shots despite the barrage.
At 7.28am, two minutes before the off, a mine is detonated under the Germans. There is a noise like a passing train. The air swooshes past them and in the distance debris is hurled hundreds of feet into the air scattering over a wide area. Crucially though, they have missed the German trench.
The officers and sergeants encourage their men. Finally, the order is given, “FIX...bayonets!”
To a man they clip on the 18-inch bayonets to their rifles. Ladders are placed against the trench walls and men gather at the bottom, each in his own little world. It is eerily quiet now.
The silence is suddenly broken by the shrill blast of whistles. This is it, the moment they have trained for. To a man they cheer loudly and rise up the ladders and head out into No Man’s Land. Piper David Anderson, an Edinburgh policeman, leads them playing Dumbarton’s Drums. Above all the din another piper can be heard playing Blue Bonnet O’er the Border. He is from the Tyneside Scottish.
As they advance the unmistakable tack-tack-tack of machine guns can be heard. They are German, and many gaps start to appear as men fall down never to stand up. Amid confusion the lead elements of the battalion make it to the German wire. To their horror they find it is intact and a German machine gun in the newly-formed crater mows the men down like grass.
Eventually a way through is found. The German front line is taken. The occupants there are in no state to fight. They are confused, some are crying, others have lost their minds in the artillery barrage.
The 15th Royal Scots are now advancing towards the German second line. There are very few of them left it seems. The Germans worked their way behind them in the maze of trenches and shoot at them for every direction. They are cut off.
The order is given for the 16th to attack the second line. They make it there and vicious hand-to-hand fighting takes place. There was no quarter given. A German machine team leave it too late to surrender. They raise their hands and are shot where they stand. Others in dugouts are bombed with hand grenades. There are no survivors. Company Sgt Major Wiiliam Scott, from Penicuik, is wounded and seen to fall. He is never seen again.
The lads of the “Penicuik Platoon” in C Company, up until now have fared reasonably well. Most of the men are alive, as are all the officers.
Suddenly this all changes. As they exit a sunken road, three German machine guns spot them and open up with horrific effect, killing Pte Peter Cairns, a plasterer from John Street; Pte John Cunningham from Eskbank, a waiter at the Dalkeith Gothenburg; Lance Corporal William Davie, who had returned to Loanhead to enlist at the outbreak of war; and Pte Tom Falconer from Woodburn, who was a plumber with the Lothian Coal Company at Rosewell.
The firing continues and in quick succession Ptes Alfred Don, Charles Graham, Walter Peagam, John Speirs and Walter Inglis, a policeman from Leith, are all cut down.
Amid the carnage, Sgt David Lawson, from Newbattle, tries to rally the men. He is also cut down.
There is no hiding place. Under the blazing hot sun, men tumble left, right and centre.
Pte Thomas Sinclair, one of the original 30 men who joined from the paper mills is killed, as is Pte Thomas Webster, a gamekeeper from Penicuik.
Pte John Laing, who is one of the battalion’s Lewis machine gunners, desperately sets up his weapon and brings it to bear on a German gun. As he does so, he is killed, as is the man next to him, his brother Alexander, a policeman at Leith police station.
By the time they come out of the line, of the 21 officers and 793 men that took part in the attack, only nine officers and 169 men answer roll call. Lest we forget.