Stan Buchan reports and reflects on a recent trip to the battlefields of Belgium and France
On Wednesday 20th February 2019 an intrepid group of Watsonians and a former Boroughmuir team doctor assembled at Edinburgh Airport and departed via Ryanair to Belgium to pay our respects to all those from GWC and subsequently WFC, who fell during the Great War. In addition we were also part of the 'Auld Alliance' celebrations that now appear to take place every time Scotland and France meet at sport, in this instance at the Stade de France in Paris on Saturday 23rd February during the Six Nations rugby tournament. Just over 3,000 pupils from George Watson's College took up arms in the conflict and 609 did not return, amongst this number were several members of the team which won the last unofficial championship before the War in season 1913-14.
The first night was spent in Ieper/Ypres or 'Wipers' as it was known to so many who passed through here on their way to the front line in the notorious Ypres Salient. The historical part of the trip began the following day when under the knowledgeable guidance of Graham Sinclair (Class of '78) we explored the Southern section of the Salient, beginning at Black Watch Corner followed by Sanctuary Wood (James Pearson fought here) and Hill 62 before going up to the Messines Ridge and taking in the Irish Peace Park, the Bayernwald trench system (German) and Plugstreet Wood before driving over to Orcq where local historians have published a book on events in Orcq during the war and have tended graves including one belonging to a relative of Donald Wynn (Class of '92). The party then headed across Picardy to spend the next three nights in Amiens, home of a marvellous Gothic Cathedral and several interesting watering holes! Friday was spent on the battlefields of the Somme, taking in Beaumont Hamel, Newfoundland Park, the Ancre (resting place of W G Brown), Lochnagar Crater, Contalmaison, Ulster Tower, Longueval and Delville Wood where we took part in Auld Alliance commemorations to remember our own Eric Milroy, Scotland Captain in 1914 and the French Captain of that year, Marcel Burgun. The ceremony then moved over to the imposing Lutyens designed Memorial to the Missing at Thiepval where we laid a wreath in memory of our former pupils. A rather sombre party returned to Amiens before restoring our spirits at the Quai Saint Leu, a bit like the Grassmarket on the Somme but with less drunks!
Saturday was an early start for 4 of the party as we left early to drive up to the Canal du Nord to pay our respects to one of the Carmichael family who lies at rest here. Tears aplenty as the 'Flowers of the Forest' echoed out across a field in France and a small tribute was paid by Phil Carmichael (Class of '77) before we drove back down the front line to the town of Villers-Bretonneux, unfamiliar to many but not to Australians who paid a high price here in stemming the German Spring offensive of 1918. The cemetery, the tower and the new Sir John Monash Visitor Centre are well worth a visit but leave plenty of time if you go into the Centre (free) as it is spellbinding. A dash back into Amiens saw us abandon the vehicles and employ local taxis to take us to Amiens RFC where we were warmly greeted by our hosts and the sunshine. Prosecco was flowing which we thought was strange in France until we learned that the president of the Club owns a vineyard in Italy!!!! Beer and red wine were also available and we reciprocated with some of our country's finest distillations with not a bottle of Buckfast in sight! The Mayor of Amiens gave a speech as did several others including your reporter which strangely wasn't greeted by jeers from our French hosts. We turned up and entertained, unfortunately our country didn't but c'est la vie as the French would say with a shrug. Lots of friends were made over a glass of wine or two and a piece of cheese. Mixing it with straight malt probably wasn't a good idea but hey-ho.
Sunday saw us depart Amiens and we drove north to Arras and from there to the German cemetery at Neuville St Vaast and then to the French National Memorial at Notre Dame de Lorette. There is a modern piece of architecture here called the 'Ring'. It contains the names of 580,000 combatants who died in this part of France only, not the Somme or Verdun or the Chemin des Dames, just this one small corner! Very sobering before going up to Loos where our own Capt Sandy Morrison fell in September 1915. We ended up at Vimy Ridge, scene of a nation defining victory for the Canadians in April 1917 before driving back to Ypres to participate in the daily Menin Gate ceremony. Monday 25th was our last day and we started at Essex Farm where John McCrae penned the poem 'In Flanders Fields' before moving on to Vancouver Corner, Poelkapelle, Crest Farm and Tyne Cot. All places now enshrined in what history knows as the Third Battle of Ypres but known to the World as Passchendaele. Some of the party now left to pick up last minute gifts in Ypres but the Wynns (father and son), Graham Sinclair and your reporter departed for Lijssenthoek Commonwealth Cemetery to pay our respects to members of the family who rest here. A quick drive followed and with Scott Hastings (Class of '82) driving what else would you expect, to Charleroi and flying home to Blighty.
Our thanks go to Scott Hastings for the enthusiasm to get this trip in place and especially to Graham Sinclair for a detailed roadmap around the Watsonian experience in Belgium and France. Without him the trip would have been much the poorer as would our understanding of a conflict which has probably has a profound effect on Scotland as a nation. This article is not in-depth primarily because I hope it sparks an interest in visiting the battlefields for yourselves but also because it would take up too much of the newsletter. People are already talking about doing it again in two years time but it has to be said that the weather was very kind to us while we were over there and depending on the date of the fixture in two years, you may find the fields covered in snow and so get a very different perspective. I would also ask people not to visit Vimy Ridge on a Sunday as it appears every man and his dog are up there walking, cycling, parking (badly) etc.