Service marks centenary of the Somme this Friday

McCrae's Battalion- Raith Rovers Players Standing James Todd (Killed), James W.M. Gourlay Sittting: George McLay (Killed), William Lavery, James Scott (Killed) and James H. Logan

The sacrifice of two Edinburgh battalions which were among the hardest hit at the start of the Battle of the Somme will be remembered at services in Edinburgh and France on Friday. It will be one hundred years since the 15th and 16th Royal Scots went into action during the allied advance on 1 July 1916. The battle saw 20,000 killed and 40,000 wounded in the space of an hour on the first morning and the Somme a byword for the horrific slaughter of World War One.

The Edinburgh battalions lost more than three quarters of their strength on the first day. Those who survived regrouped at the French village of Contalmaison, where a Scottish cairn was erected in 2004. A memorial service will take place there on Friday morning at 9.15am French time. Highlights of that event will be relayed to a civic service which will follow at 12.30pm at St Cuthbert’s Church on Friday afternoon.

The St Cuthbert’s service is being organised by the McCrae’s Battalion Trust and will be led by Army Padres. The 16th Royal Scots became known as ‘McCrae’s Battalion’ after the charismatic Lieutenant-Colonel Sir George McCrae, who rallied the men of the Edinburgh to enlist beside him. It is also known as the Sporting Battalion after a group of Heart of Midlothian players joined up. They were followed by professionals from other football and sporting clubs, and their supporters.

One of the organisers of the service is Janice Todd, an elder at St Cuthbert’s church and who’s uncle Jimmy Todd was one of the players who signed up. The Raith Rovers player was the first footballer in the battalion to be killed, falling in action before the Somme. You can read more about her story here. She says

I think this event is important because in a few years the immediate family members of the men who served and made the supreme sacrifice won’t be here to remember them and WW1 will, inevitably, be relegated to the history books. We, in St Cuthbert’s Church and McCrae’s Battalion Trust, want people to know about this unique service so that they can come along and remember the fallen with us.”

St Cuthbert’s elder Janice Todd’s uncle, Jimmy Todd, was killed fighting in France.

The Chair of the McCrae’s Battalion Trust, Major Gary Tait will be attending the Contalmaison service on Friday with around 250 pilgrims and associates who are joining him on the journey to France. The service at the Scottish cairn is one of five major commemorative events in France. It is being covered by broadcasters including BBC, STV, Forces TV, and French TV. Also attending will be the author Jack Alexander, who instigated the building of the cairn and wrote official history of the battalion. He says

“The Somme is particularly poignant because so many of the lads who went over the top were civilian volunteers. We made a covenant with them that they would enlist and defeat the German Kaiser, but so many of them died trying to do that. Many of them were very young. We have a responsibility never to forget them. In my youth I used to know and chat to veterans of the First World War. Now when I speak to people who have served in Afghanistan it’s the same stories the old boys told me. The Somme is as relevant today as it was 100 years ago.”

The service in Edinburgh will be led by Rev Cole Maynard, Deputy Assistant Chaplain General, HQ 51st Infantry Brigade. Civic dignitaries will attend, as will representatives from Heart of Midlothian, Hibernian, Falkirk, Dunfermline Athletic and Raith Rovers football clubs whose players enlisted. The public are welcome to attend.