Arras centenary has personal meaning for Mrs Barr

As thousands of Scots come together to remember those who fell one hundred years ago at the Battle of Arras in France, it will be an especially poignant time for the Moderator and his wife who are attending the official commemorations this weekend.

Mrs Barr holding photo of Pt David Wyllie
Mrs Margaret Barr holds a photo of her great uncle, Pt David Wyllie.

Mrs Margaret Barr plans to lay flowers on the grave of her great uncle who lost his life 100 years ago in the WW1 Battle of Arras. At age 29, Pt David Wyllie was one of 18,000 Scots killed in the six-week battle, one of the deadliest in the entire war.

On April 30 1917, North Berwick farmer Robert Wyllie was handed the telegram no father wants to receive.

“Regret” it began. “No 5640 Pt. David Wyllie 1/7 Black Watch reported 24 April died from gunshot wounds in No 41 Casualty Clearing station France. Officer in charge TF.Records, Perth.”

The soldier, who initially served with the 14th Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders before he was moved to the 1/7th Battalion Black Watch, had signed up to fight for his country on 23 June 1915 at the age of 27.

Just two years later he became one of the 18,000 Scots casualties of the Battle of Arras, which lasted from 9 April to 16 May 1917. One of the deadliest battles of WW1, with an average daily death toll of 4,076, the Arras campaign ended the lives of 159,000 allied soldiers.

Moderator to lead worship at Arras centenary service

Pt David Wyllie
Pt David Wyllie

This weekend, the Moderator will lead prayers at a special centenary service in Arras, France, to recognise their sacrifice.The service, one of five official centenary events this year, will take place at the Faubourg d’Amiens Commonwealth War Graves cemetery in Arras on Sunday morning.

Relatives of the slain will join school pupils from every part of Scotland, military personnel and representatives of the Royal Family to pray for and remember the young men who dared all and lost all in the Great War.

Mrs Margaret Barr will attend the service, not only as the Moderator’s wife, but also to remember Pt David Wyllie, the great-uncle she never knew.

“It’s a huge privilege to go out to Arras and represent the family, and to lay a wreath. It will be quite poignant. I will go and see his grave at Duisans Cemetery and lay flowers there.

“I think my father would be very proud and happy that one of his family will be there at the ceremony.

“It will be a very emotional day.”

Masses of WW1 war graves

Mrs Barr says she always knew about her great-uncle’s service but it wasn’t until she visited Tyne Cot War Graves cemetery near Ypres and found his name in the computer records that the magnitude of his sacrifice hit home.

“It is important. We always said we will remember them, but for my generation WW1 was almost forgotten. So I didn’t really connect it up until I went to Tyne Cot and saw his name on the computer.

“That was when it really hit home.

“There were masses and masses and masses of white stone. It was so big I could not take it in.

“If you read the history you get the immense feeling that people were just sent out there to be killed. It is very sad that soldiers died in huge numbers. And Arras had the highest death rate per day than any of the battles.”

Mrs Barr has carefully preserved photographs of her great uncle along with letters, records and the now very fragile telegram that told the family of his death.


Pt Wyllie answered the call

Relatives have told her that David volunteered to serve because he thought it would be an adventure.

Born in 1888, the eldest son of Robert and Jane Wyllie of the Heugh Farm in North Berwick, he did not have to enlist.

Farm workers were exempt from service because their labour was needed for food production. But with four younger brothers and a sister at home, David answered the call.

The family has only sketchy knowledge of David’s years in the service. Some of his military records were destroyed during WW11 when a bomb hit the Kew records centre.

He sent home postcards of quaint French villages with their names blacked out so they couldn’t be used by the enemy to target troops.

The only hint of the terrible conditions he must have experienced was a line in a letter that said he had just been in ‘bad weather and bad trenches so we had anything but a pleasant time of it.’

And replying to a letter saying the family now had two cars, he says, “I would not mind if I was at home again having a run around in them.”

Sadly, that was never to happen. On 23 April David was taken to a casualty clearing station 41 to get treatment for an injury to his foot. But on the way the group was again shelled and he sustained abdominal injuries. Pt David Wyllie died on 24 April at the clearing station.

You can remember him and the others who lost their lives in the Great War at 6:30 pm on Sunday April at Edinburgh Castle Esplanade where the Scottish National War memorial service will be broadcast ahead of the 7:30 pm Beating of the Retreat.

David’s name can also be found on the war memorial in North Berwick.

Find out more about WW1 centenary events