The Glasgow Pals Regiments on the Somme

by Evelyn McKechnie

In the tiny hamlet of Authuille, on the old front line of the Somme, is a church. On the front door of this church is a memorial plaque. It commemorates the Pals battalions of the Highland Light Infantry raised in Glasgow – the 15th (Glasgow Tramways), 16th (Boys Brigade) and 17th (Glasgow Commercial) Battalions.

Église Saint-Fursy d’Authuille

The marble plaque was dedicated at Glasgow Cathedral on 24th June 1996 before being taken over to France. It was unveiled on the eve of the 80th Anniversary of the Somme by the Deputy Lord Provost of Glasgow Alex Mosson.

The text of the plaque reads,

To the eternal memory of the officers, NCO’s and men of the 15th (Glasgow Tramways), 16th (Boys Brigade) and 17th (Glasgow Commercials) Battalions of the Highland Light Infantry who fought and died near the village of Authuille during the opening days of the battle of the Somme on the first of July 1916.

There an additional 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”

HLI plaque on Authuille church, Somme, France

The outbreak of the war

When the First World War broke out in 1914, Glasgow volunteers queued up in their thousands to join, 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’, (these were groups of men from the same area or workplace).

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.

Reading a letter from home National Library of Scotland License: CC BY 4.0

After the war, 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.

Glasgow Highlanders musketry training By The Amalgamated Press Limited –
The War Illustrated Album de Luxe Volume 4 Page 1317, CC BY-SA 4.0,

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.’ 

 Glasgow Transport Museum First World War Tramway Memorial. Credit: ©Glasgow City Council Stephen Hosey

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). Also a Glasgow ‘Pals Battalion’ was the 18th, the ‘Bantams’, men who were approximately five feet tall.

Highland Regiment – National Library of Scotland License: CC BY 4.0

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 in Glasgow, 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.

The Somme

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.

Aerial photograph of Thiepval bombardment 25-09-1916

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 VC 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.

Royal Highland Fusiliers Museum, Glasgow

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.

Lest We Forget

We must never forget the sacrifice made by so many, 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?”


                      Comments and a share would be greatly appreciated. Thank You, Evelyn

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