Archive for the ‘8th Royal Scots’ Category

The Thiepval Memorial on the Somme is one of the most distinctive memorials to the fallen on the Western Front. towering dramatically above the surrounding countryside, it bears the names of 72203 British soldiers who lost their life on the Somme and have no known grave.

Thiepval Memorial

Thiepval Memorial

Amongst those men is Pte Alexander Meek 10/11th Highland Infantry from the village of Newtongrange, Midlothian where I live, one man amongst many, so what, if anything makes Alex any different from the others.

The story begins back in Newtongrange, Alex Meek was an old soldier in the 8th Royal Scots, the local territorial battalion, at the outbreak of war he re-enlisted in the 3/8th Royal Scots, a Home Service Battalion to help train the younger soldiers, and prepare them for the front.

The Meeks were a patriotic family, in 1914 his son Robert was in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, Charles was a Royal Engineer, John was in France with the 1/8th Royal Scots and his son-in-law David Hill, a former policeman in Newtongrange, was serving with the Cameron Highlanders. Later in the war Robert was badly wounded and awarded the Military Medal whilst serving with the Machine Gun Corps, his brother John was also awarded the Military Medal for rescuing an injured comrade.

Alex Meek however was restless and even though he was 54 years old, and a Grandfather, he decided that training soldiers was not enough for him, he wanted to take the fight to the Germans. Somehow he managed to pull a few strings and following the opening of the Battle of the Somme when many thousands of men were killed, he was transferred to the 10th/11th Highland Infantry of the 15th (Scottish) Division and went to France in September of 1916, along with a number of other local Royal Scots.

Alex was sent directly to the front, and pitched straight into the battle of Flers-Courcelette on 15th September,1916. The 15th Scottish Division were tasked with capturing the village of Martinpuich, it would be a tough nut to crack. At the whistle’s blast men from 46th Brigade went over the top, the 10th  Scottish Rifles, 7th & 8th  Kings Own Scottish Borderers, 10/11th   Highland Light Infantry and 12th Highland  Light Infantry.

Alex Meek was one of those men, he had only  got a few yards when he and his work mate from the pit, 36-year-old Robert Barton from Newtongrange were hit by a shell, they were never seen again.

The village was taken but other objectives were not, British and New Zealand Casualties were over 29,000.

It was thought at one time that Rupert Inglis an army chaplain and a former International rugby player was the oldest man on the memorial  at the age of 53.

He was killed while helping a party of stretcher bearers bring in the wounded.

It may well  be that a miner and  Grandfather from Newtongrange is actually the oldest man on the Thiepval Memorial, rest in peace Alex.

Since I published this article I have been contacted by Geoff Sullivan, an expert on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database amongst other things. Geoff agreed that Alex is one of the oldest, but not the oldest man on the memorial. That dubious honour appears to fall to William Sanders. Spookily he is also a local man, living in Musselburgh, but born in Dalhousie.

Incredibly he was 60 years old when he was killed in action on the 2nd of July, 1916 whilst serving with the Royal Scots Fusiliers, quite remarkable that he was allowed to enlisted at 20 years over the normal maximum.

Alex Meek's  death notice in Dalkeith Advertiser

Alex Meek’s death notice in Dalkeith Advertiser


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As the winter of 1914 / 15 drew to a close the time came for the British to take the battle to the Germans. Plans were drawn up and in March of Neuve Chapelle took place, it was not a pleasant experience for the lads of the 8th, they spent most of the battle holding the line and being shelled.  One of those killed was Private James Kitching,(21) a married man with a young child from Penicuik.

He was in possession of a watch once owned by the late Sgt Dick Peacock from Newtongrange, it would appear that the watch was cursed, as James fell in action on 14th March, shot dead by a sniper, just as Dick Peacock had been. The watch was sent home!

James Marchbank however was spared the worst of the fighting, he was part of the Brigade transport, and befriended a pit pony from Newtongrange named Ginger.

In May though, during the Battle of Aubers Ridge, James moved in to the front line and saw at first hand the carnage of the modern battlefield, this was surpassed by the Battle of Festubert, when the 8th Royal Scots took heavy casualties, James had good luck and escaped uninjured, that is until late in May, when a shell burst overhead and hit him twice in the hand and once on the side.

James was sent home to recuperate and he became quite a local celebrity with tales of his adventures appearing in the local newspaper, the Dalkeith Advertiser.

James Marchbank with mum and brother William

James Marchbank with mum and brother William

James was home in Dalkeith on 9 days leave, when he returned he found that the Battalion had been transferred over to the famous 51st Highland Division and that they were to be their Divisional Pioneers.

This in modern terms would be a combat engineer, working in, and in front of the trenches, repairing wire, digging dugouts and a 101 other jobs.

The opening day of the Somme offensive ,on 1st of July,1916, was the blackest day in history of the British fortunately the 8th were not directly involved in the fighting, evidence of the fighting was everywhere and James recorded in his diary, that on a ration run there were “plenty dead”.

In the middle of all this, James bumped into his older brother William, a gunner in the Royal Field Artillery, near Mametz, where his guns were in action. Given the number of men involved in the battle, it was quite a coincidence.

In November 1916 James took part in the attack on the seemingly impregnable Beaumont Hamel, which had proved impossible to take previously.  However by clever use of new tactics and great courage, it was taken by the 51st Highland Division, sealing their reputation as first class assault troops.

Christmas 1916 was spent in the Arras area, it was James’ third Christmas away from home, it was a dull and driech affair, a bit like the weather.

On April, 9th 1917 a major offensive was launched by the British and Canadians at Arras, they made huge advances on the first couple of days before being ground to a halt with massive casualties.

It was during this battle that a telegram arrived for James, it brought bad news, his father had been killed in an accident in the Lady Victoria pit in  Newtongrange. James went to see his Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Gemmill, he was sympathetic but unfortunately could not spare a single man. James sent home his reply, it read “Not coming”. It would have been hard for anybody, but for a 16 boy, it must have been doubly hard.

James for a brief spell left the 8th Royal Scots, and spent his fourth Christmas of the war in Italy, the British sent troops they could ill afford to lose to bolster their allies, who had suffered a series of defeats. The threat averted, James returned to his own battalion where he was met by Sgt Felix McNamara from Dalkeith. Felix was a postman and a keen footballer before the war in Dalkeith, he  had recently been awarded the Military Medal, and liked to keep a fatherly eye over James.

In March of 1918 the Germans launched a massive offensive against the allies in the west using reserves of men freed up following the surrender of Russia. The 8th Royal Scots were caught up the thick of battle around the River Lys, making a series of heroic stands which delayed the German advance, taking many casualties in the process. Communications were vital and James was appointed a battalion runner, a dangerous and difficult job, with a low survival rate. In the space of 36 hours James carried important messages to and fro between Battalion and Brigade Headquarters, by my reckoning he ran about 30 miles / 45 km often under fire, as a result he was awarded the Military Medal and promoted to Lance Corporal, he was still only 17 at the time.

James Marchbanks with service stripe on sleev

James Marchbanks with service stripe on sleeve

The Germans were stopped but at great cost, James’ mentor Felix MacNamara was killed, as was Peter Cornwall from Gorebridge, Willie Scott from Bonnyrigg and many more.

It seemed that James had a charmed life, to survive from 1914 to 1918 but an unexpected foe almost killed him, Spanish Flu. James was hospitalised in September 1918 and sent to the Military Hospital in Barnet, he was still there recovering when the Armistice was signed on 11th November, 1918.

James was one of the lucky ones and recovered from the flu, he was sent back to France but never made it there, he was processed around various camps and sent home just before Christmas 1918, he was sent back to Barnet and on 23rd February 1919 he proudly recorded in his diary “The Day I put my civvy suit on.” He was 18 years, 8 months and 1 week old, he had spent 4 years and 7 months on active service, he had earned his right to put his suit on.

James lived the rest of his life in the area, and died just short of 76th birthday in Dalkeith, where he is buried.

His story may form part of the BBC Centenary programme on Boy Soldiers, it’s quite a story, I hope it does.

If you would like to hear James Marchbank talking about his war, just before his death, you can do so on my website.

Interview with James Marchbank

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James Meldrum Marchbank was born on 14th June 1900 in Dalkeith Midlothian, he was one of a large family (7 children) and the son of a miner.

In 1913 he joined the local Scout troop in Buccleuch Street, Dalkeith and due to the influence of his Scoutmaster, an ex Indian Army officer, he joined the local territorial company of the Royal Scots, the 8th as a drummer and bugler. Despite his tender years and slight build he took to soldiering and enjoyed his time with the Territorial Force.

One year on having just turned 14 he left school and began a job delivering rolls and a paper round in the evening.

James’ life would soon change for ever, on the continent the storm clouds of war were gathering, at the 8th Royal Scots camp at Stobs near Hawick, rumours of war abounded, every man was ready to do their bit.

On the 4th of August, 1914 war was declared and James was served with his embodiment notice to join, it read

“Embodiment notice to join 4585 Boy J M Marchbank, 8th Royal Scots. The Army Council, in pursuance of His Majesty’s Proclamation, has directed you to attend for enlistment immediately. Bring rations and fuel light to last 24 hours. Here is the actual notice.

James Marchbank's Embodiment notice from 1914

James Marchbank’s Embodiment notice from 1914

And with that James was off to France with the rest of the battalion to fight the Germans, or so they thought. Instead they went to Haddington to undertake further training and recruit more men. None the less on the 4th November, 1914 the 8th Royal Scots set foot on French soil.They had the honour of being the first Scottish Territorial battalion to land in France to join the 7th Division of the British Expeditionary Force.

For James his first experience of the French was far from favourable. At the docks a young French boy offered him the services of his sister, James declined but gave the boy 2/6d (12 1/2p) which an old lady in Southampton had given him as a gift. The boy was to get him bread with the money, instead poor James saw the boy thumb his nose at the corner and he was gone. Welcome to France.

The first casualties were not long in coming. Sgt David Grieve, who had played for Newtongrange Star, was killed by a sniper in their first stint in the trenches at Bois Grenier on 15th November,1914. He was followed by Sgt Dick Peacock from Newtongrange on 20th November, who also fell at the hands of a German sniper.

The lads got their first taste of battle on the 18th of December when they supported an attack by the Warwickshire Regiment and lost Lt Andrew Burt and three men killed. On Christmas Day 1914, the legendary truce took place when the Germans and British met in no mans land as brothers.

In the case of the 8th Royal Scots it appears that fraternisation was minimal, a few men went out and shook hands, and fags changed hands, James’s diary merely records “Christmas very quiet”. At any rate most men confirm that by lunchtime the shooting had started again. New Year’s Day was very different however, the pipes were played and the men in billets at Rue Batelle had a “Merry evening.”

The winter of 1914 was a bitter one, the main focus went away from fighting to just keeping warm and staying alive, many men were sent home with frostbite or trench foot, painful and debilitating conditions. This picture taken by Captain James Tait from Penicuik gives an idea of the dreadful conditions the men lived in.

Trenches with brazier

Life in the trenches Winter 1914 -15 Courtesy Royal Scots Museum

For James at least, the war was still a bit of a Boys Own adventure, as the picture below, taken at Armentieres shows, he just looks like a wee boy, which is of course is exactly what he was.

James Marchbanks 1915

James Marchbanks 1915

Early in 1915 he went back under fire to recover his bugle. The bugle remains in his family to this day.

In doing so however James picked up slight wound from a shrapnel ball and was sent home for a short while to recover.

You may be wondering what on earth was the recruiting Sgt thinking allowing James to go to France, clearly even if he lied about his age, it would be pointless, looking as young as he did.

The reality is the Territorials were allowed to recruit a number of boys into their ranks at the age of 14. There was no need to lie, everyone knew their age and young Master Marchbank when with the full blessing of his parents, indeed he suggested when interviewed in the 1970’s, just before his death, that they might have been happy to have one less mouth to feed.

However James did blot his copybook on one occasion though. One very cold and frosty evening James was on sentry duty in the front line trench. The Germans were very close, less than a hundred yards away, and in the still of the night James began to whistle the first bar of the Lorelei, a popular German folk song. In the distance his German counterpart whistled the second bar and James joined in. His Sgt got wind of this and he was severely reprimanded, despite his age.

And so ended the first 6 months of World War One, I will bring you more of ‘Marchbank’s War’ soon.

You can listen to James Marchbank talk about his war on my website.

James Marchbank interview


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On Friday 19th April, 2013 the Royal Regiment of  Scotland was given the Freedom of East Lothian. This was accepted on behalf of the Regiment by 1 Scots, the Royal Scots Borderers.

It’s fitting that they did so, Haddington was a number of years a garrison town for the 8th Royal Scots and drew it’s men from East and Midlothian and Peeblesshire. 1 Scots stills retains this recruiting area and is still retains the title of First of Foot in deference  to its position as the oldest Infantry Regiment, being formed in 1635.

It was that almost 99 years after the 8th Royal Scots marched away from Haddington to WW1 on a horrible rainy day, their modern counterparts marched around the town in brilliant sunshine, amidst cheering crowds.

I am proud to  say that I was there and witnessed the stirring site of the lads marching with the colours, bayonets fixed and bands playing. it was sight to remember and these are some of the photos I took.

Pipe Band & Bandmen with Crauchan the mascot

Pipe Band & Bandmen with Crauchan the mascot

Right Dress

Right Dress

Asembled at the dias

Asembled at the dias


Marching along Court Street, Haddington

Marching along Court Street, Haddington

The officer with Capt Walter Barrie's place in ranks vacant

The officers with Capt Walter Barrie’s place in the ranks vacant

The Jocks of the 1st of Foot

The Jocks of the 1st of Foot

The Colours carried with great pride

The Colours carried with great pride

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Pte Tommy Douglas 8th Royal Scots

On 24th February, 1915 Pte Tommy Douglas from The Square, Newtongrange, was shot by a sniper whilst singing for his comrades, here is a letter sent to Mrs Douglas by Lieutenant J. S. Pringle.

“Your son Thomas, was shot on Tuesday evening about 5pm, and died in hospital this morning at 7.45am the followng morning . He was hit in the head by a bullet while he was at his post in the trenches. He suffered no pain, and he was unconscious from the moment he was hit until he died, the bullet having entered the brain. Poor fellow, I feel, and all the company feels, his loss very much, he was always so ready to do his duty and always so cheerful over it. At the moment he was struck he was singing a song. It was men such as he that makes us feel the price those at home have to pay for it. I feel very much for you, and you have my deepest sympathy in your loss.

From what I know of the boy as a soldier, I feel he must have been a very dear son to you. He is to be buried at Sailly by a

Protestant clergyman, and two of his chums have been granted leave to attend the funeral” .

Tommy Douglas lived in the house next door to mine, he had been adopted by the Douglas’ as a very young child and was 19 when he died, he was much loved by his adoptive parents.

He was a lovely singer, sadly it cost him his life.

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Many of the East Lothian lads in the 8th Royal Scots were exponents of the oval rather than the round shape ball. Haddington RFC was founded in 1912 and the official opening was postponed due to the death of the King.  Many of the club, including the Captain, Francis Burnet, were also soldiers in A,B Companies of  the 8th TF Royal Scots and were on a parade to mark the passing of the King.

One of the mainstays of the club was a man called ‘Dod’ (George) Nisbet  who was a Sgt in the Signalling section, and it would seem he could wangle the time away for men playing.

Haddington RFC, just before the Great War

So what became of the team during the war?  Well the answer is in common with many teams, it suffered badly.

Lt Francis Alexander Burnet was wounded on 11th April,1918 fighting a desperate rear guard action against the Germans near Paradis. He had to be left behind as the stretcher bearers could not get to him due to the overwhelming German advance.

He was never found and is presumed to have died that day from his wounds.

Lt George Reid, another of the founder members. He survived the fight that day but suffered an identical fate the next day in fighting around Pacaut Wood, Paradis. His body was never recovered either and he is commemorated on the Ploegsteert Memorial, he was 25 years old.

The first man  in the photo to fall in action was Private 473 Alexander Faunt, he was  a member of the 8th Royal Scots Battalion machine team and was friends with the Souness brothers John and George who are the Uncle of Newbattle at War member George Souness.He was killed on 1st March,1915 aged 22 years and is buried in the Cabaret-Rouge British Cemetery at Souchez. However he was not the first person that had played for the club to die Capt Thomas Todrick who had played as guest, died in December,1914 with the 8th Royal Scots.

2nd Lt John George Sandilands 11th Royal Scots, was killed in action on 23 March,1917 in the Arras Sector, his body was never found and he is commemorated on the Arras Memorial.

2nd Lt John William Hutchison, is listed as an officer in the 1/8th Royal Scots but had been transferred to  another unit as he was killed in the fighting for Jerusalem, where he is buried. He was 23 years of age.

Pte 30103 Robert Goodall, Depot Royal Scots Fusiliers. He died at home possibly of diabetic coma, brought on by shrapnel lodged in his body, on 14th September,1919 he is buried in the cemetery at Haddington.

And of the rest of the men?

Walter William Henry Romanel served as an Lt with the 8th Royal Scots in the last year of the war. He survived the war.

Pte 1112 Alexander Paxton went to France on 5th November,1914, with 8th Royal Scots,one of the originals. He appears to have served until at least 1917 when he was invalided home. He survived the war.

Pte 1175 Peter Ormiston was another of the originals like Alex Paxton, he served with the 8th Royal Scots until at least 1917 when he was commissioned as an officer into the Kings Own Scottish Borderers. He survived the war.

Pte 330107 George McNeill Clapperton served with 2nd, 8th and 9th Royal Scots, survived the war

A C Stevenson maybe Pte 8688 Alexander Campbell Stevenson, that being the case he was kiled in action December, 1914 whilst serving with the Royal Scots Fusiliers.

Of the rest, their fate is unknown, but one thing is for sure, when their country called, this team answered.

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James was born in June 1900 in Dalkeith Midlothian one of a large family (7 children) and the son of a miner. In 1913 he joined the local Scout troop and due to the influence of his Scoutmaster joined the local territorial company of the Royal Scots, the 8th as a drummer and bugler. One year on having just turned 14 he was off to France with the rest of the battalion to fight the Germans. You can read more about him, and hear an interview with him on my website Newbattle at War.


James Marchbank and 'Ginger'

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