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Remembrance and St Andrew

A French and Scottish Tale


Mike Claridge - November 2012

Roundabout - November 2012

St Andrew's, West Bromwich

Remembrance Sunday is 11th November itself this year, 94 years to the day from the signing of the Armistice in 1918. Later in the month is our own Patronal Festival of St Andrew (30th November). My reflection this month draws on the theme of both.

In July I cycled from London to Paris for Christian Aid. Part of the route passed through some of the battlefields of World War One including The Somme itself. There are many poignant memorials in that area. One in particular that caught my eye was in the village of Contalmaison.

Alongside the church in Contalmaison stand two flagpoles. On one flies the French Tricolour while on the other flies the Scottish Saltaire, or flag of St Andrew. Alongside is a memorial, a large cairn of Scottish sandstone. Behind it lies a poignant story.

Back in 1914 the Liberal MP Sir George McCrae, a textile merchant from Edinburgh, was a volunteer soldier. This was before the introduction of conscription. In November of that year he raised his own Battalion, designated the 16th Royal Scots. McCrae commanded the Battalion himself but what made this unit remarkable was the background of it’s soldiers. Among the first volunteer recruits were no fewer than thirteen members of the Heart of Midlothian FC playing squad. Hearts were top of the Scottish League at the time. Soon they were joined by players from Hibernian FC, Raith Rovers FC, Falkirk FC and Dunfermline FC. It wasn’t just players either. A recruitment technique was for McCrae or others to visit clubs on match day and, in a passionate speech at half time, encourage spectators to step forward and enlist. The 16th Royal Scots soon became known as McCrae’s Own and, after training, were deployed to France.

Another Battalion, the 15th Royal Scots, would find themselves deployed alongside the 16th. They were also founded from Edinburgh and were known as The Lord Provost’s Battalion. Despite their Scottish roots, the 15th was almost half composed of men from Manchester, most of whom were Manchester City supporters.

On 1st July 1916 McCrae’s Own and The Provost’s were on the edge of the village of Contalmaison. That day would go down as one of the bloodiest in history. It was the first day of the Battle of the Somme. By the end of the day British casualties alone would exceed 19,000 dead, 35,000 injured, 2,000 missing and 600 prisoners - in all 20% of the entire British land forces then deployed - while Empire, French and German casualties were equally as appalling. Of the Royal Scots McCrae’s and the Provost’s together lost around 550 men on that one day. Later evidence revealed that McCrae’s Own had penetrated further into enemy territory than any other unit.

The Memorial Cairn at Contalmaison to the 15th and 16th Royal Scots was erected in 2004. An earlier proposal to erect a memorial to the 16th alone had fallen by the wayside. It is now the site of pilgrimage by Scottish football fans and other organisations. Wreaths, and the memorial itself, bear insignia not just of the military units but also the football teams from which the soldiers were recruited. The Saltaire, the flag of St Andrew, flies alongside as a reminder that particular corner of a foreign field is forever Scotland.