By Elizabeth McQuillan
Picture: Jenny Downing
Winston Churchill famously said that “Although an Englishman, it was in Scotland I found the three best things in my life: my wife, my constituency and my regiment.”
Before he was famous for his fat cigar and drawling radio speeches as Prime Minister in the Second World War, the young Winston had actually commanded Scottish troops in World War I. But not before he had played his part in one of the greatest cock-ups in the First World War.
Winston came up with the disastrous plan at Gallipoli to create another front that would force the Germans to split their army still further, as they would need to support the badly rated Turkish army. He reckoned that when they went to help the Turks, it would leave the German lines weakened in the west or east. It did not go to plan. About 480,000 Allied troops took part in the Gallipoli campaign. The British had 205,000 casualties (43,000 killed). There were more than 33,600 ANZAC losses (over one-third killed) and 47,000 French casualties (5,000 killed).
By way of a smack on the wrist, Winston was removed as First Lord of the Admiralty, and sent to the Western Front in 1915 to command the 6th Battalion of Royal Scots Fusiliers. Whether the actions of a very brave individual, or the foolhardy acts of a man attempting to salvage his trampled reputation, Lieutenant-colonel Churchill fought bravely with as many as 36 forays across no man’s land. One might ask how the dour Englishman gained acceptance with his Jock troops, but it seems he insisted upon dry socks for sentries who had been standing out in the rain, and thus earned the respect of his men.
Before Winston’s arrival, the Scottish regiments had already shown their worth on the Western Front and had spearheaded The Great Push. In fact, the enemy, terrain, living conditions and poor direction from their commanders had pushed them to breaking at the Battle of Loos.
The Scots have fought at the forefront of many wars and, some might argue, have sometimes been sacrificed as pawns in the face of tactical and political manoeuvring. Whether in the trenches of the Western Front, at Flushing and Dunkirk or in Iraq, there are many sacrifices to be remembered. Armistice Day gives us an opportunity to consider the absolute fear, despair, horror and confusion that young soldiers must endure in a war zone. remember is a small ask.
Each war, past and present, has brought unique challenges for the soldiers and countless acts of bravery in the face of death. The most prestigious medal for gallantry is the Victoria Cross, which can be awarded to a British soldier of any rank. It was instituted by Royal Warrant in 1856: “It is ordained that this Cross shall only be awarded for most conspicuous bravery, or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy”.
Interestingly, until 1942, the medals were forged from the bronze of cannons captured from the Russians in the 1854 Crimean War.
Robert Dunsire from Buckhaven was awarded the VC for conspicuous bravery at the Battle of Loos on the Western Front. This is an exert from his letter home (courtesy of methilheritage.org.uk): “I was sitting on the parapet of the trench looking over the battlefield of Hill 70 when I noticed a man crawling over the parapet of the ridge which separated our parapet from theirs.
With the glasses I made out he was one of our lads so I made a dive out of our trench. Got him on my back, and brought him in. I had not been back a quarter of an hour when I noticed another lad.
“This time it was worse than the first, as the shells were bursting all around, and when the snipers saw me they kept up a continuous fire.
“I can’t tell you how I escaped being hit, as I was a good target, running about 100 yards with a man on my back. I was still in the firing line when the Colonel of an East Yorkshire regiment shook hands with me and told me I was a brave lad. I told him anybody would have done the same.”
Another Scottish hero was Robert Gordon McBeath who was born in Rosehearty, Aberdeenshire, in 1898. Aged just 16, Robert lied about his age and was accepted into the Seaforth Highlanders. Two years later he was fighting in France at the Somme and it was during the Battle of Cambrai that his actions earned him the Victoria Cross.
Pinned down by German machine guns the Seaforths were taking heavy casualties. L/Cpl McBeath volunteered to attack the guns alone, armed with Lewis gun and revolver. Storming one machine gun nest after the other McBeath succeeded in driving the Germans back into the shelter of a bunker where he captured thirty soldiers and three officers.
On Thursday 11th Of November, at 11am, take some time out of your day to remember to remember the bravery of soldiers past and present.