Archive for the ‘WW1’ Category

A few days ago I called in on the Aviation Preservation Society (APSS) workshops down at East Fortune in East Lothian, naturally enough people were a little bit down regarding the death of their Patron Captain Eric (Winkle) Brown, one of our finest ever aviators.

I spoke to APSS members about the Sopwith Strutter project and the news is very encouraging, the work is picking up pace rapidly and they’re waiting the arrival of the special wing tension wires from the Wiremill in Musselburgh. Once these arrive and a suitable work space is found the aircraft will be assembled for inspection. Once it has been passed the aircraft can then be covered with fabric, not the original Irish linen, but a modern more durable alternative.


APSS replica MGs

Replica Machine Guns

The apprentices at McTaggart Scott Engineering are currently hard at work manufacturing a Scarfe ring  for the rear cockpit onto which will be mounted the magnificent Lewis Gun replica made by APSS member John Guy, who also made the magnificent Vickers gun which will sit up front in front of the lucky pilot.

The beating heart of the aircraft, the Rotec radial engine, all the way from ‘Down Under’ is ready to be installed and looks very impressive indeed. I filmed a short video with Ken Sharp and Mike Harper who gave me a run down of the progress.

So keep your eyes on the East Lothian sky later this year, you never know what you might see.



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I’m delighted that James Mattocks from the Aircraft Preservation Society of Scotland has taken  time out to answer a few of our questions about the exciting Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter Project.

Q. What is APSS ?
APSS is the Aircraft Preservation Society of Scotland, we are a group of aviation enthusiasts helping preserve the history of aviation and associated skills. Over 30 working members are actively involved in various projects.

We are based at the National Museum of Flight at East Fortune, part of the National Museums Scotland and recently celebrated our 40th Anniversary.

Q. So James, when did the project begin and who’s idea was it?

“It started back in 2001, Evan Pole and I approached Adam Smith, the Museum curator at the time, about building a replica Bleriot. He came back and said he already had an idea to build a Sopwith 1 ½ Strutter, an aircraft which represented an important stage in the development of military aircraft, which saw widespread action in fighter and bomber versions and which was

Q. How many people are involved in the project?

“Initially there were 12 people in the team, this has varied over the years and sadly two have passed away since the inception of the project. Six of the original team are still involved in the build and we now have 14 members working at least one day a week on the Sopwith.”

Can you describe a typical team member, if there is such a thing?

Ted Tootell working on a bracket - Photo APSS

Ted Tootell working on a bracket – Photo APSS

“We have a wide cross section of people with exceptional skills in their field. We have 9 who are, or who have been pilots, Bernard McGinty and Evan Pole who are both retired professional engineers. Tim Rayner of LAA is our inspector, checking every piece of work. I still work on as an ordinary member, mainly due to the growing complexity of the project.

Any welding has to be done by a CAA certificated welder. Fortunately we obtained the services of “Stoorie”Muir who travelled up frequently from Prestwick, and still does when required, to do the necessary work.

The early work was mainly woodwork and proceeded rapidly because the group is graced by members with good woodworking skills.”

Q.  What’s the most difficult job to date?

“The wing rigging wires are very precise indeed, and are a time consuming job. They have to be extremely accurate in length or the wing will warp.

Also we have outgrown our current workshop and accommodation in building 32; we cannot keep putting the Strutter  together then dismantling and putting her back on the bench. When the engine and propeller, fuel and oil pipes and  electrics are fitted the fuselage will have to remain on its undercarriage with the only  items removable being the wings.”

Beautiful craftsmanship, seems almost a shame to hide it under fabric. Photo APSS

Beautiful craftsmanship, seems almost a shame to hide it under fabric. Photo APSS

Q.  Will the Sopwith have any modern equipment or will it have WW1 style gear?

“As far as is possible the Sopwith will be built using the same techniques and materials as it’s WW1 predecessor, we have used modern aviation glues etc for safety reasons and we are using a brand new engine. This has arrived and it was an exciting day when it was fitted into the airframe.”

Q  The Lewis gun looks very real, is real or a replica?

“It’s a replica, but it looks very real, it a lovely piece of work by Joy Guy.”

Fantastic replica Lewis gun for rear mount - Photo APSS

Fantastic replica Lewis gun for rear mount – Photo APSS

Q How is the project funded?

“ The original budget estimate was £34,000, in money of the day, but not including the engine. £4000 per annum for the airframe was to be supplied by the Museum of Flight, the rest to be found by APSS.  It was to be powered by an original rotary engine which was to be supplied and paid for separately from the airframe budget, by the Museum of Flight.

Sadly after the initial funding the Museum withdrew from the project and we as APSS have continued with the project since then. Total spending so far is around £34,000 and we estimate the project will cost around £43,500 when it’s completed.

We have funded this by selling valuable assets such as the Brantley helicopter, the Taylorcraft Auster AOP5, and the Miles M17 Monarch, and the De Haviland Chipmunk.

The engine purchase was looked after by our Chairman, a retired business man of much experience, it was obtained at a good price but nevertheless was a major item of expenditure.”

Q When do you anticipate the aircraft being ready?

“In the light of my one time prediction of completion by 2006, I have to be careful here.  The airframe is largely complete but there is much work to be done still in making and fitting tanks, piping, instruments, flying wires and then covering and painting.

Instinct tells me that this will be complete in two years time but since my instinct has in the past proved to be somewhat optimistic, I am going to double that and say June 2017.”

Q Can the public see the Sopwith at the Museum at all?

The Sopwith has been on public display in the Concorde Hangar, it’s been an enormously popular exhibit and we have had people come back time and time again to get updates on our work. We estimate we have had over 2000 people visit the Sopwith this year and thank everyone for their interest and support.

Taking shape - The 1 1/2 Strutter in the Concorde hangar Photo Alex Duncan

Taking shape – The 1 1/2 Strutter in the Concorde hangar Photo Alex Duncan

Q Will the 1 1/2 Strutter be used at air displays or based at East Fortune?

As to where it will fly, there are no fixed plans at present, but fly it will.  Over the years, various ideas have been suggested, such as a local Lothian syndicate, a Perth Airport syndicate, or Shuttleworth. In the meantime we press on to ensure that our late production Sopwith 1 ½ Strutter takes to the skies.”

Q Will the aircraft take part in WW1 commemorative events?

It would be lovely if it was to be involved, a lot is dependent on the timescale for completion. Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutters were based at East Fortune, which was a Royal Naval Air Service Station during WW1 and involved in the protection of shipping in the Firth of Forth.

Q  What’s your overall impression about the project?

“One thing comes to mind here and it is that throughout all these years, although this has been a absorbing and at times technically demanding project,the great friendship and companionship and cohesion of the team has never faltered.

The skills and dedication of the team have increased and refined over the period of build. We have all been involved in an important educational exercise designed to show to new generations the skill and dedication of our early aircraft designers and manufacturers, and we have thoroughly enjoyed it. “

A replica Strutter in it's element.

A replica Strutter in it’s element.

Looking fantastic the Sopwith begins to evolve - Photo Alex Duncan

Looking fantastic the Sopwith begins to evolve – Photo Alex Duncan

Thanks James, I for one am looking forward to the day the Sopwith takes to the air again. It’s a fantastic project and I take my hat off to those involved. It’s fantastic to see craftsmanship like this still exists.

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Ninety nine years on from the start of World War One there is a group of men who’s service has long since been forgotten about, these men were Eastern European immigrants from Russia and the Baltic States who had settled in Scotland.

So how did these men come to settle in Scotland?

Many of them were escaping the clutches of Czarist Russia’s Army, where they would serve many years for little reward. In the 1890s many decided that enough was enough and left Russia, Lithuiania, Latvia and Ukraine with the intention of moving to the United States.

At this time there was an active trade between German and Baltics ports and ports such such Leith on the east coast of Scotland, with coal being a prime export from Scotland. One of the main exporters was the Lothian Coal Company with numerous ships to and froing.

Rather than come back empty, the filthy coal ships offered immigrants cheap passage to a new life, which the immigrants thought would be in the USA. To their horror they were deposited in Leith (Port town of Edinburgh) without a job and homeless.

The Lothian Coal Company was not slow to take advantage of their situation, the Lady Victoria Colliery had just opened in Newtongrange, many men were needed to man it’s new and highly productive coal seams. At first Scotish families moved through, mostly from Lanarkshire, however their numbers were insufficient and the Eastern Europeans were offered a job and and a house, many, especially those with a wife and family,had no choice other than to accept.

They settle in two main areas, the bulk in Bellshill, Lanarkshire and the rest in Newtongrange. Most came from Suwalki which lies in the NE of current day Poland and SW Lithuania.

And so my  village of Newtongrange became home to several hundred ‘Russian Poles’ as they were christened. Coming from all walks of life, few if any had ever been down a coal mine, most spoke no English, and a number were illiterate. Most settled in their new home and by 1906 there were around 200 Lithuanians and a number from Latvia and Ukraine living in the village, by the outbreak of war around 800 or about 1 in 5 of the population of Newtongrange were immigrants.

Technically they were Russian citizens at this time, and as such ‘friendly Aliens’ who had to register with the Police and had certain restrictions on their movements. Unlike the Germans and Austrians in the community there were still free to live and work in the village.

Many men from the village enlisted in the Army, including a group of around 25 Lithuanian miners, who wished to join the famous McCrae’s Battalion, the 16th Royal Scots. They were initially accepted by were sent home shortly after as they could not read or write in English.

Not all were rejected however, men such as the Mikolajunas brothers Jan and Stanislaw were accepted into the Royal Scots and the Lancashire Fusiliers, Ukrainian Vasily Nikitenko boarded the bus into Edinburgh where he enlisted in the Royal Garrison Artillery. This pattern continued through 1916 with the occasional man enlisting, but most remaining in the coal mining industry.

This was about to change however, conscription had been introduced in early 1916 for British citizens, ‘Russian’ citizens were not subject to conscription, at least that was until 1917 when a treaty was signed between Russian and Great Britain allowing both to conscript each other’s citizen into their Army.

An ultimatum was issued to the Eastern Europeans, they were to make a choice, enlist in the British Army or return to Russia to fight for the Czar. Around 2/3rds of them decided to return, believing they were fighting to preserve their national identity. Not a single man who chose to fight for Russia was ever seen again, shamefully their families were rounded up and deported, again many never to be seen again.

As the for the others, well most were sent in job lots to Infantry regiments, from my research I have identified groups sent to the Royal Scots, Kings Own Scottish Borderers, Scottish Rifles and the East Yorkshire Regiment, My theory is that they tried to keep the men in groups to overcome the language barrier, with an English speaking man in each group.

160 Siege Artillery Battery

160 Siege Artillery Battery 1916, Vasily Nikitenko rear row, 5 from right.

In 1917 the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia sent shock waves through the Allies and many of the ‘Russian Poles’ were viewed with much suspicion as potential ‘Reds’ and were removed from Infantry battalions and sent to unarmed Labour battalions. However many of the men who had proved themselves reliable under fire remained with combat units until the end of the war.

Inevitably some became casualties and a number made the ultimate sacrifice, mostly in 1918.

If you take a walk through Newtongrange Park you will come across the war memorial on which are these names

Pte Klemis Poliskis, Scottish Rifles, Pte Juozas Sanalitis, Kings Own Scottish Borderers, Gnr Stanaslaw Scortolskis, Royal Field Artillery, Pte Justinas Tutlis, Royal Scots all of whom were Lithuanian.

In 2007 I successfully campaigned to have another name added to the war memorial, it was that of Gunner Vasily Nikitenko, who if you recall, volunteered in 1916.

In 1918 Vasily was awarded the Military Medal for gallantry during the German Spring Offensive, sadly he did live long after the award, on the 28th May, 1918 he was manning his gun when a stray shell landed killing him and wounding a number of others.

I was also able to assist Geraldine Bruin, the Great Neice of Zigmas Vilkaitis to have his name added to Glenboig war memorial in Lanarkshire, you can read his story here

After the war most of the Lithuanians moved away from the area, mostly to the United States, the majority of those that remained took British nationality and adopted British names, men such as Jan Mikolajunas, who became John Nicol. There is no little trace of the Lithuanian community in Newtongrange or elsewhere in the district, I estimate that around 100 Eastern European men served in the Army and would welcome contact from anyone related to them.

John Duncan – Honorary Board Member of the Scottish Lithuanian Community

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James Collins DCM & Bar MM &Bar

James Collins DCM & Bar MM &Bar

James Collins was born in Pitullie, Aberdeenshire and moved to Newtongrange as a teenager where he settled and became a fireman (shot firer) with Lothian Coal Company on leaving school. He married and settled at 48 Abbeyland , Newtongrange and was a member of the St Mary’s Masonic Lodge. In May 1915 he enlisted in the 7th Seaforth Highlanders and went to France where he commenced a distinguished military career.

On 16th July,1916 the 7th Seaforths, part of the 9th (Scottish) Division were at Delville Wood, the scene of some of the bitterest and bloodiest fighting on the Somme. James, then a Lance Corporal and a stretcher bearer, went out under fire several times  and  rescued 13 men who were badly wounded, in doing so he was wounded himself 4 times.

He was shipped home to recover from his wounds and whilst home he heard that he had been awarded the recently introduced Military Medal.

When James returned to France he was transferred from the 7th Seaforth Highlanders to the 6th Battalion, part of the crack 51st Highland Division.6th Seaforth clearing trenches On 9th April 1917 the 51st were engaged in heavy fighting in the Arras offensive. James was in the thick of the fighting and distinguished himself as a Lewis gunner in an attack near Vimy Ridge.

For this, he was awarded a Bar to his Military Medal.

By late 1917 James  was a highly respected member of the Battalion and was about to be decorated for a third time.  The 51st Highland Division had been heavily involved in the capture of Bourlon Wood , where the Highlanders were to attack with the assistance of tanks, sadly the tanks never arrived, the attack went ahead anyway and was a great success despite very heavy casualties. James was in the thick of it and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for gallantry.

His citation for the medal

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. After his platoon commander had become a casualty, he led them with great skill and gallantry to their objective, which he consolidated under heavy machine-gun fire. When hostile fire caused his platoon to cease work, he immediately led four of his men to a position from which he could enfilade the enemy machine-gun, which he and two others then rushed and captured, having killed two of the team by rifle grenades.

James was sent home on special leave to Newtongrange as a reward for his bravery and promoted to Corporal.

In September of 1918, the writing was on the wall for the Germans, but they continued to fight on with great stubbornness and bravery. On 26th August,1918 the 51st were back in action at the Chemical Works at Rouex, after 5 days of savage fighting it captured the strong points at Roeux, Greenland Hill and Plouvain.

James, who was in charge of a section of men, was heavily involved through this period of fighting, he again performed in an exemplary manner and was awarded his 4th decoration, a Bar to the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Trench clearing 1918

Trench clearing 1918

Here is his citation

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. Throughout a week’s fighting this N.C.O. set a fine example in organising the men in trying situations. He rallied a platoon of another unit which was withdrawing leaderless, and put it in position. He reorganised fragments of another brigade. By a personal reconnaissance he obtained good information and placed troops to cover the flank. He brought a wounded man out of action on his back, and on every occasion used his rifle with good effect.

Corporal Collins became Sergeant Collins and he was presented with his Bar by General Harper the Divisional Commander of the 51st Highland Division. His reputation in the Division was sky high. He returned home to Newtongrange on leave shortly thereafter where he was the guest of honour at a dinner in the Masonic Hall and presented with a magnificent gold watch.

The war ended a couple of months later and James returned to his job at the Lady Victoria pit in Newtongrange, a quiet and unassuming man.

To put his achievement in to perspective in World War One around 6 million men served in HM Forces, the Victoria Cross was awarded 628 times.

Only a handful of men, perhaps as few as 6 or 7, won the Military Medal and Bar, Distinguished Conduct Medal and Bar.

To the best of my knowledge James Collins is only Scotsman to achieve this and was undoubtedly a very brave man.

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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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