‘Lest We Forget’
by Evelyn McKechnie
When the First World War broke out in 1914, Glasgow volunteers queued up in their thousands to join, and those working on the Glasgow trams were eagerly first in line.
In the first 14 months of the war, over 10,000 tram workers had become soldiers, part of Kitchener’s New Army. Whole regiments were made up of the ‘Pals Battalions’, the name given to groups of men from the same area or workplace who joined up together.
The City of Glasgow Corporation raised the 9th Battalion, (The Glasgow Highlanders – Lowland Division, which formed part of the Highland Light Infantry). The HLI Glasgow ‘Pals Battalions’ were the service battalions, the 15th (Tramways), 16th (Boys Brigade), and the 17th (Chamber of Commerce). Their regiment is the Highland Light Infantry, which is a bit misleading because they were Glasgow regiments not Highland ones. Also a Glasgow ‘Pals Battalion’ was the 18th HLI, the ‘Bantams’, men of small stature who were approximately five feet tall.
James Dalrymple, who was manager of Glasgow Tramways in 1914, became one of Scotland’s most prolific recruiters. By October 1914, 12 divisions with over 20,000 men had enlisted at the recruiting office in the Gallowgate in Glasgow. There was such a rush to join up many of the men had no uniforms or equipment.
The 15th Battalion (Glasgow 1st) was officially formed on 2nd September 1914. They fought throughout France and Flanders and it was at Thiepval they held the line on the Somme.
On July 1st 1916, the attack by the British Army on the German lines throughout the 18-mile front left 57,000 casualties, with 19,000 dead. It was one of the worst disasters of the whole war for the British Army. Some of the ‘Pals Battalions’ who were two years in the making were destroyed in just minutes, especially the Northern Pals battalions of Leeds, Bradford and Accrington at Serre on the Somme.
Of those dying on the battlefields of World War One, 50% would have no known grave. Approximately a million British and Commonwealth soldiers died and there was no repatriation of the dead even when they were found. Only a very few at the beginning of the war were ever repatriated. This left so many of the bereaved who could not afford to go the Commonwealth War Grave cemeteries in France or Belgium, and for some, there was no grave to go to at all.
When the scale of the losses became known, especially for those in the Pals Battalions, cities and towns started to raise funds for their memorials to remember their loved ones. A local memorial where they could go to and grieve. That is why in every island, town, and city there are memorials to the Great War Dead and latterly additions for the losses in World War Two.
The 15th Highland Light Infantry had their memorial unveiled at the then Tramway Offices in Bath Street on April 9th, 1933 by Mrs Watson, whose husband was the very first member of the battalion to be killed. Also in attendance were Major John Grant and the Lord Provost Mr A B Shaw.
The old tramway offices are gone but you can still view the memorial plaque, it was removed to the Museum of Transport in Glasgow. It bears over 1000 names on it and has the inscription,
In proud and affectionate remembrance of the Officers, Warrant Officers, Non Commissioned Officers and men of The 15th Battalion, Highland Light Infantry, City of Glasgow Regiment (Tramways Battalion) who made the Supreme Sacrifice for their King and Country in the Great War 1914-1918. Also of those members of the Battalion who died serving with other units.
Local tramway depots had their memorials to their fallen comrades. At Parkhead Depot, there were now four memorials collected from depots that are no longer operating – Newlands, Langside, Dennistoun and Whitevale. A wreath was laid at the memorials on Armistice Sunday at Parkhead Depot by the Transport and General Workers Union. Sadly that depot is now no longer there and I will have to investigate to find out where the memorials are now. If anyone knows where they are now, please get in touch.
On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1st July 1916, the 16th and 17th HLI were just east of Authuille facing the formidable Leipzig Redoubt. They stormed the redoubt and went on to take another trench, the Hindenburg Strasse, but came under machine gun fire from the Germans at Wunder Work which is just south of the Thiepval Memorial. They sustained 469 casualties.
The 16th HLI (Boys Brigade) attacked where the wire had not been cut in front of the trenches and they were caught in crossfire from the Wunder Work and from Thiepval Chateau. They were relieved eventually on 3rd July having sustained 554 casualties.
There is a small plaque in French below the HLI plaque, the last line reads
“Ici fleurira toujours le glorieux chardon d’Ecosse parmi les coquelicots de France”
which basically translates as
“The glorious Scottish Thistle will always flower here among the poppies of France”.
There were nine Victoria Crosses awarded on the first day of the Somme, one recipient was Sergeant James Turnbull VC, of the 17th Battalion Highland Light Infantry, (Chamber of Commerce). He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions at Leipzig Salient and killed that first day. He was 32 years old. He is buried at nearby Lonsdale Cemetery Plot IV, Row G, Grave 9.
Another Glasgow battalion suffered severely during the First World War. The 9th Battalion HLI (the Glasgow Highlanders) saw 192 fall within 150 yards of their attack on High Wood, near Longueval at the Somme on 5th July 1916. Their memorial is a cairn located at High Wood in France not far from their unfortunate assault on the German lines. Today, it is so peaceful and pretty it is hard to imagine the horrors of that attack.
In 1972, the Memorial cairn was unveiled by the owner of High Wood, Madam Mathon. It has 192 stones, one for every soldier lost; each brought over from Scotland from Culloden battlefield and built to a height of 5 feet 7 inches, the minimum height requirement for the battalion. The top stone on the cairn is a Glasgow street cobble stone. The cairn is especially poignant because apart from those lost forever on the battlefields of World War One, there is a small section of High Wood that is forever Scottish.
Another quite magnificent memorial is to the 51st Highland Division, (the kilted soldier) at Beaumont Hamel Newfoundland Park, again on the Somme. This memorial to the Scots is affectionately known as the ‘Jock on the Rock’.
This memorial park is preserved with trenches and shell craters. What is astonishing are the distances between each front line, sometimes only a few yards. So many perished over such a small area, it is quite hard to comprehend.
Of the half-million of Scots who volunteered 125,000 were killed in action or died on active service. This number is approximately one-sixth of the total British and Empire casualty list.
Scotland gave a lot, and Glasgow was first in line. For many, it was a great adventure, the first time away from home, but it was mechanised slaughter on the grandest of scale, fours years of filth and disease. The final toll of casualties for all nations was 31 million, with over 2 million British wounded and nearly one million dead. Glasgow shared a great loss with many throughout Scotland.
To find out more about the history of the Glasgow regiments and especially the Highland Light Infantry, you can go to the Royal Highland Fusiliers Museum, at 518 Sauchiehall Street, near Charing Cross, Glasgow.
The museum has undergone a complete refurbishment. It traces the history of the three separate regiments – the Royal Scots Fusiliers, the Highland Light Infantry and the 74th Highlanders – from which the Royal Highland Fusiliers are descended. There are wonderful displays from 1678 onward, with artefacts, uniforms, weaponry, video film from World War One, and it’s free.
On Remembrance Sunday and every day, we must never forget the sacrifice made by so many, and for the volunteers from the Tramways and the other Glasgow Pals battalions. I will leave it to the voices of long ago, the Pals Battalions of Glasgow – their message still as profound today as it was then:
“From a hundred lonely graves in that foreign land – from the spots where they fell, and which now are sacred spots for us – our dead are asking us when we mean to erect that monument.
From trench and shell hole where death found them, their voices call – young, musical voices, the voices of boys still in their teens, the voices of martyrs on life’s threshold.
Scarce a wind can blow that will not waft to you these voices. And they ask a better Britain as their monument. They ask it of you and me. Shall we not go from this place resolved to build it?”
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