Remembering those who fought and died for us

Bill Gemmill standing, George Snow seated, Robert Weir (Dalkeith High) laughing, John Morgan leaning on ballastrade
Bill Gemmill standing, George Snow seated, Robert Weir (Dalkeith High) laughing, John Morgan leaning on ballastrade

La a’Blair s’math n Cairdean. This Gaelic phrase appears on the impressive and imposing memorial to the 51st Highland Division at Beaumont Hamel in France.

Translated it means “friends are good on the day of battle”, a sentiment with which anyone who has ever faced the enemy in battle would agree. Ninety-nine years ago this week, the men of the 51st Highland Division steeled themselves for battle at Beaumont Hamel on the Somme.

It had stood resolute and virtually untouched since the opening day of the Battle of the Somme and thousands of men had lost their lives attacking it. Many men from the local area would see action in this battle.

Planning for this attack was meticulous, with every care taken to minimise casualties. It may surprise those who are aware of the legendary fighting prowess of the Highland Division to know that they were thought to be unreliable and christened Harpers Duds, after the commander General Harper.

Just behind the lines, however, the officers of the 8th Royal Scots enjoyed some last-minute rest. This photograph (right) was taken in the grounds of a country house not far from Beaumont Hamel.

The lad on the wrong end of the haircut is Lt George Snow from Peebles, the “barber” is Lt Colonel Bill Gemmill, from Haddington, his commanding officer, and among those having a laugh are Major James Tait from Penicuik and Lt Robert Weir, a former teacher at Dalkeith High School.

At 5:45am on November 13, 1916 the earth shook as a ferocious bombardment dropped on the German lines, and the Scots went over the top aided by thick mist and fog which hid them from the enemy.

Despite substantial losses, the 51st stormed Beaumont Hamel and achieved the seemingly impossible.

It was to earn them a reputation as one the elite assault divisions on the Western Front.

The fighting, however, was far from over. It dragged on for several days in rapidly deteriorating weather.

The 8th Royal Scots were sent forward into the captured German trenches to begin the process of reversing them, as all the fire steps and dugouts were facing the wrong way.

This was a time-consuming and dangerous job, and was allocated to Lt Weir and his men.

On the evening of the 16th they came under intense shellfire. Lt Weir ordered his men to take cover and made his way into one of the captured German dugouts. He was not long inside when a shell flew straight in the door and killed him instantly.

He was buried in Beaumont Hamel Cemetery but his grave was subsequently destroyed. There is a special memorial to him in the cemetery now.

So what of the other men in the picture? George Snow was an eccentric young man, who had a theory that it was safer to stand bolt upright under shelling as it made you a smaller target. Sadly he was killed by a shell during the battle of Arras in 1917.

Bill Gemmill continued to lead his men into battle until April, 1918 when he was killed by a shell leading his men forward.

Lt John Morgan the medical officer, leaning against the railing, was wounded on the same day as Bill Gemmill. He was invalided home and survived the war.

Which leaves us with James Tait. He served with great gallantry and determination for the rest of the war. He returned home to Penicuik where he ran his building business for many more years.

When the war ended on November 11, 1918, the 8th Royal Scots were rapidly reduced in size. Most of the men were coal miners. With the onset of another winter and Britain’s industry and homes desperate for coal, they were demobilised as soon as 

For those still in France there was no celebration, no great elation. They were granted a day off and carried on pretty much as normal.

However, on a cold December day they returned to Warlencourt, the scene of some of their fiercest fighting, in the spring of 1918, and erected a cross to their fallen comrades.

Unbelievably, the men you see here in this photo (above) are all that remained with the battalion out of more than 1,000 men who left Scotland four years earlier.

It’s a pitifully small band of men and reminds us of the scale of loss sustained in the Great War. During the course of the war the 8th Royal Scots lost 209 men killed, 87 died of wounds.

Another 76 were posted missing, a further 17 wounded and missing plus 1280 wounded. A total of 1669 men, a staggering number. But by First world War standards thought to be relatively light.

In this week of Remembrance, as you go about your daily life, please spare a thought for our forefathers who fought and died for our freedom which we all enjoy today.