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First blood to the RAF.

Monday 16th October, 1939 2.30pm it’s a quiet Autumn afternoon over the Lothians, the Second World War was in it’s infancy, Scotland was still untouched by the carnage that had already seen Poland fall to Nazi Germany.

This was about to change, a flight of 9 German Junkers 88 bombers flew out from their base at Sylt on the northern most tip of German and headed over the North Sea and towards their target, the Royal Navy on the Firth of Forth.

The bombers somehow managed to evade detection, and they were only spotted as they flew up the river. An anti-aircraft battery was drilling with practice rounds and hastily reloaded with live ammunition. Their firing alerted other units and ships along the estuary.

The Luftwaffe were to sink HMS Hood if she was at anchor in the river. As it turns out she was not, several ships were in dock but the bombers were under strict instructions not to bomb them at anchor in dock to avoid civilian casualties.

Jock Kerr from Dalkeith

Jock Kerr from Dalkeith

Instead they turned their attention to the ships lying at anchor including the Cruiser HMS Southampton and the Tribal class destroyer HMS Mohawk, who’s crew included Dalkeith man ,Able Seamen Jock Kerr.  I had the pleasure of meeting Jock in the late 70’s when we worked at Rowntree’s in Edinburgh.

They were totally unprepared and the first warning of attack came as lookouts sounded the ‘Action Stations’ alarm. All hands scrambled to their positions, Jock made his way to B gun deck, the upper deck and to his horror saw a Ju88 bearing down on the ship, bomb doors open, ready to attack.

The German aircraft dropped two bombs, Jock recalled in later life that he could still see them “clear as day” , big and black,falling through the air and striking the water either side of the ship.  Although they did not hit the ship they showered her with huge chunks of shrapnel and caused terrible casualties, 16 men were killed and 44 wounded. Jock looked down from his position and described is as “horrible, there was blood and guts everywhere.” He remained very critical of the lack of warning about the attack to his dying day and felt they could have fought off the attack with adequate warning.

HMS-Mohawk-crew-at-funeral

Their job done and now under heavy fire the Germans turned for home but got separated, 602 City of Glasgow Squadron was already in the air, and 603 City of Edinburgh Squadron were scrambled to intercept them. Both Squadrons were Auxiliaries (Reservists) and equipped with brand new Spitfires, they were desperate to engage the enemy and put them to the test.

Pilot Officer Pat Gifford 603 Squadron

Pilot Officer Pat Gifford 603 Squadron

Barely in the air 603’s Spitfires bounced three Ju88s at 4000 feet scattering them in all directions, the Spitfires latched on to one of the aircraft and chased it inland, reports from the Dalkeith Advertiser of the time describe how they arrived over Bonnyrigg without warning, (no sirens had sounded) the peace was shattered by the roar of engines and a blast of machine gun fire from the pursuing Spitfires sending spent cartridges down on to Bonnyrigg High Street.

The Ju88 weaved and turned it’s way back towards the coastline in an attempt to shake off the Spitfires, but to no avail. Taking it in turns to attack they poured hundreds of .303 rounds into her unit Pilot Officer Pat Gifford administered the ‘coup de grace’. The German bomber plunged towards the sea about 4 miles from Port Seton, a local fishing boat saw it go in and picked up the survivors. Pat Gifford is officially credited with shooting down the first enemy aircraft in WW2 in UK airspace but it was a close run thing.

602 City of Glasgow Squadron engaged the Germans at much the same time and attacked them over Fife. Flt Lt George Pinkerton and Archie McKellar pounced on the Ju88 piloted by Hauptmann Helmut Pohle, he was at a grave disadvantage, during his diving attack on the ships at anchor, he had lost his canopy, leaving the crew exposed to the elements.

Attack after attack came in until Pohle lost control, crashing into the sea off Crail, almost hitting a small ship. Pohle was the only survivor, the other three crew were killed.

602 Squadron (City of Glasgow)

602 Squadron (City of Glasgow)

To this day 602 and 603 Squadrons maintain a healthy rivalry as to who shot down the first German. Pat Gifford was shot down and killed during the Battle of France in 1940.

The surviving Germans were taken to Edinburgh Castle until they recovered from their wounds, then sent to a POW camp. Their crewmates were buried with full military honours in Joppa Cemetery, Edinburgh, they were re-interned post war in the German Military Cemetery at Cannock Chase, England.

Luftwaffe crew members funeral at Joppa

Luftwaffe crew members funeral at Joppa

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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

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.

On the night of 12th July, Lancaster LM311, better known as L Lizbeth, lumbered into the air from Bottlesford airfield in England. She had apparently acquired her name from the fiancée of one the crew, she served as a WAAF on the base, another version of the story is that she was named after the mum of the youngest crew member,Sgt Patrick Donlevy, a 19-year-old Wireless Operator from the small village of Pathhead near Dalkeith in Midlothian.

The aircraft although ‘Australian’  was mainly crewed by Scotsmen, the pilot Sgt Cedric Chapman was the only Aussie onboard, the others were Sgt Norman Smith, Bomb Aimer (21) from Edinburgh, Sgt Jack Greenwood, Flt Engineer (25) from Yorkshire, Sgt William Buchanan, Gunner (20) from Glasgow, Sgt Albert Edwards, Navigator (20) from Glasgow, Sgt William Bruce, Gunner (22) from Renfrewshire and Pat Donlevy.

Lancaster Liz'beth and crew (Pat Donlevy front & left)

Lancaster Liz’beth and crew (Pat Donlevy front & left)

The target for tonight was a distant one, the Italian city of Turin it was their 14th sortie with the Squadron and their first to Italy, the rest had been against heavily defended German cities such as Dusseldorf, Cologne, Dortmund and Essen.

The flight to Turin was fairly uneventful, however on the bombing run itself ‘Liz’beth’ took a direct hit from an anti-aircraft gun which caused damage to the tail section. After checks were made, the pilot decided that he could fly the damaged plane back to England. Back at Bottlesford the aircraft appeared back at base one by one, X-Ray, Able and Yorker flew back in rapid succession until all  were back bar L-Liz’beth.

Just as dawn was breaking, a voice was heard over the intercom in the Ops Room at Bottlesford, it was Cedric Chapman, “Liz’beth to Bedrock, over.” The operator responded “Liz,beth aerodrome 1,000 over”  – “Liz’beth to aerodrome, 1,000, I have no elevator control, am flying on trimmer, over”

This was a serious problem, it meant the pilot had very little control of his height. Chapman gave his crew the option to bail out, but they had already decided to stay together as a crew, it was the RAF way.

The pilot decided that despite the damage he could land the Lancaster at Bottlesford, it was really his only option anyway, as he was down to the last 15 minutes of fuel.

The tension in the control tower could be cut with a knife, Chapman asked for permission to ‘pancake’ or land.  He received the reply “Bedrock to Liz’beth , you may pancake, over” Chapman responded “Liz’beth to Bedrock, Roger thanks. Out”

It would be the last words he would utter, as the Lanc lined up on the runway Chapman went through all his pre landing drill, everything seemed fine, Wheels-check, Gyro – check, Mixture – Check, Flaps – Check. Just as the flaps lowered a shudder went through the aircraft and to their horror, they felt the tail of the plane break off, sending it into a vertical dive from a few hundred feet, a parachute was seen to come out the tail just as she struck the ground, it was too late.

L-Liz’beth struck the ground and exploded in a massive fireball. The crash alarm screamed out across the base and fire engines descended on the burning plane, sadly it was obvious no one could have survived the impact or the fire.

After the fire was doused the bodies of the men were recovered and sent home for burial.

One of those men, Patrick Donlevy, was my mum’s cousin, an only child his parents never got over his death.

Patrick was buried with full military honours in Dalkeith Cemetery where he lies at rest.

His story is typical of so many young Bomber Command airmen, who risked their lives night after night over occupied Europe, and died before their life had barely begun.

Patrick and the rest of his crew are remembered at Bottlesford where this picture of them hangs in in the Council Chambers.

Pat Donlevy and his crew mates

Pat Donlevy and his crew mates

Back row left to right:- Sgt. Norman C. Smith  Sgt. Jack Greenwood, Sgt. William S. Buchanan

Front row left to right:- Sgt. Patrick Donlevy,  Sgt. Albert E. Micheals, Sgt. Cedric A. Chapman, Sgt. William Bruce.

Between January 1942 and April 1945, 467 Squadron flew 3,833 sorties in Avro Lancaster heavy bombers and suffered heavy losses – 760 personnel were killed, of whom 284 were Australian, and 118 aircraft were lost.

SAS Who dares wins

The famous SAS winged dagger cap badge.

William Dodds from Newtongrange enlisted in the Royal Engineers in World War 2, he proved to be a good soldier, and a result he was approached to join the fledgling Special Air Service (SAS), the brainchild of Scotsman David Stirling and Irishman Paddy Mayne.

Being an Engineer, William had been trained in the use of explosives and demolition, skills which were much sought after, and of good use in the type of hit and run tactics employed by the SAS.

During the evening of 7th January, 1944 William Dodds was one of a four man team (Raiding party 5)  dropped by parachute in German occupied Italy (Italy had surrendered in 1943, many anti-fascists now fought with the Allies). Leading the party was Captain John Gunston, the others were Bombardier Albert Pugh and Private Herbert Loosemore. When they landed they found to their horror that the snow was 3 or 4 feet deep.

Their mission, codenamed Operation Maple (Driftwood) was to sabotage the train line running between Urbino and Fabriano, in support of the landings up the coast at Anzio beach head, once this was done they were to evacuate by sea on the night of 25th / 26th of January.

On the evening of the 25th the Royal Navy turned up but there was no sign of the raiding parties.

The mission was running over due to the weather and other factors, in early February, Private Cook who was making good his escape from the enemy bumped into Captain Gunston near the village of  Fermo, Captain Gunston said he still had one more task to complete, then he intended evacuation by sea.

This task was subsequently carried out and on Captain Gunston and his party of 8 parachutists (they had been joined by Party 6) were seen on the 4th of February at Fermo. They had stayed in the area for far too long and the chances of capture increased by the day.

Despite this it was not until the 7th of March that an attempt at escape was made, at Porto San Giorgio, 35 miles to the South of his area. Captain Gunston and his men including William Dodds were seen borading a 22 foot boat, very small indeed, and the weather was poor, a Force 6 wind was blowing and large waves pummeled the boat as she made out to sea,

To make matters worse the Commandos did not carry wireless sets, so contact with the navy was impossible, also Hitler had decreed that any Commando captured was to be executed, Rommel had refused to carry out this order in North Africa, but there was no such reluctance on  mainland Europe.

Unbeknown to the men orders had been given to the Royal Air Force to treat any shipping in the area as hostile and to attack at will. This was not passed on to the SAS men.

Sadly this was the last time any of the men were seen alive, their fate is shrouded in mystery, some believe that the boat was swamped in heavy seas and that all drowned, another theory paints an entirely different more sinister picture. A German intelligence report was read stating that Captain Gunson, Sgt Benson (Party 6) and Private Looseman had been captured and interrogated, if this is this case they were subsequently executed and their bodies disposed off as they were never seen again.

The mission was deemed to be of limited success and ‘lessons were learned’.

William Dodds and his comrades are commemorated on the Cassino Memorial in Italy.

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

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