Campaign to honour Scots troops who fought at Arras

LESS than a year before the centenary of the battle which saw the largest concentration of Scots ever to fight alongside one another a fresh offensive has been launched to build a memorial at Arras.

Organisers of the project want Scotland to stand alongside other nations, such as Ireland Wales, Canada, America, Russia, Australia, South Africa and many more, who already have monuments to their fallen soldiers.

Battle of Arras

Photograph by: Imperial War MuseumBattle of Arras

“It’s hard to believe there is no memorial for the Scots who fought bravely and the many that died on the field of battle, said Ian Thomson,

“Other nations have memorials. When you consider Scotland suffered greater losses than most other nations it is important our men and women are not forgotten.

“We intend to remedy that situation by building a monument in the city of Arras in Northern France where so many Scots fought.”

The project, which is raising funds through public subscription, is supported by a large number of Scottish MPs who signed an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons praising the idea, and expressing hope that the Monument Project Group’s “relentless efforts in raising awareness and financial support for the advance of the project will yet bear fruit.”

The campaign for a Scottish memorial in Belgium comes amid a series of centenary commemorations to mark the events of the First World War, which started in August 1914 and finished in November 1918.

Destruction of Arras

Photograph by: George Washington LambertDestruction of Arras

By this time in the conflict 100 years ago the influx of volunteers who had rushed to enlist had begun to dry up and conscription was introduced in Britain for the first time in May 1916.

By the end of the war 584,098 Scots had served in the army of which 263,509 had been called up, a percentage of the population which would have a devastating impact on communities across the country, especially as casualty figures rose.

Throughout the war Scottish regiments took part in many of the most significant battles, as evidenced by the high number of killed and wounded.

In the retreat from Mons in 1914 the 1,000 strong 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers was reduced to just 70 men and a single junior officer while at the Battle of Loos, the biggest British offensive of 1915, Scottish losses were such that hardly any part of the country was not touched by grief.

The 9th Black Watch lost 680 officers and men in the first hours of battle while only 250 out of 950 men of the 6th Cameronians avoided the casualty list.

Out of 72 infantry battalions which took part in the first phase of the battle, at least half were Scottish; and of the 20,598 names of the dead on the Loos memorial more than one-third are Scots.

Gordon Highlanders erecting barbed wire

Photograph by: Imperial War MuseumGordon Highlanders erecting barbed wire

A year latter at the Somme the 9th, 15th (Scottish) and 51st (Highland) divisions, along with numerous Scottish battalions in other units, were thrown into battle on the first day.

Despite a week-long bombardment from 1000 guns intended to decimate German opposition the British armies suffered 57,480 casualties on the first day, many of them Scots.

Within hours of leaving the trenches the 15th (Cranstons) Royal Scots had lost 18 officers and 610 soldiers wounded, killed or missing. The 16th (McCraes) Royal Scots lost 12 officers and 573 soldiers, the 16th HLI lost 20 officers and 534 men and the 51st Highland division suffered 3500 casualties.

Up until this point the British army had been largely made up of volunteers, although not everyone had gone willingly.

In August 1914, at the start of the war, The Earl of Wemyss issued an order that all men between the ages of 18 and 30 employed on his estates would be put on half-pay and their jobs kept open if they enlisted. The Earl backed up his ‘genrous’ offer with the threat that those that did not join up would be “compelled to leave my employment” . For those married men with jobs that came with a home it also meant their families would lose a roof over their heads.

An appeal against conscription

Photograph by: National Records of ScotlandAn appeal against conscription

By 1916 the number of new recruits had fallen so dramatically the government was forced to introduce the Military Service Bill which compelled every able-bodied man aged 18- 41 to join up.

Only in Ireland, all of which was part of the United Kingdom at the time, was conscription not enforced for fear it would fuel support for Sinn Fein and Irish independence

By the time the battle of Arras took place in 1917 an increasing number of troops were conscripts.

On the first day of the attack on 9 April a total of 44 Scottish battalions and seven Scottish-named Canadian battalions took part, making it the largest concentration of Scots to have fought together.

By the end of the battle on 16 May one third of the 159,000 British casualties were Scottish.

Overall it is estimated that of the half-million plus Scots who fought in the First World War some 148,000 died on active service across all the armed services – more than one-sixth of the entire British and Empire casualty list. Glasgow alone lost 18,000 men, which accounted for 1 in 57 of the population.

For a country that accounts for little more than 8 per cent of the UK population the number of Scots killed was disproportionally higher per head of population (26.4 per cent) compared to other parts of Britain (11.8 per cent).

Although those called up for military service, or their employers, could appeal to a civilian Military Service Tribunal on the grounds of their work being of national importance, business or domestic hardship, medical unfitness or as conscientious objectors exemptions were rare.

Records giving details of around 6,000 Scottish men who appealed against conscription during the First World War were only recently made available online.

The records of the Lothian and Peebles Military Appeal Tribunal and the Ross, Cromarty and Sutherland (Lewis Section) Appeal Tribunal contain thousands of cases of men who appealed against their compulsory call-up for military service following the introduction of conscription. The reasons ranged from ill health, personal or family hardship and conscientious objection to claims for exemption because their work was important to the national interest.

HH30-13-8-43 p2 (detail)

Photograph by: National Records of Scotland

The online cases are all that survives of the many local tribunals that handled appeals throughout Scotland; many were destroyed in 1921 following an order by the Ministry of Health. The cases from the Lothian and Peebles Appeal Tribunal were kept as a sample, while the records of the Ross, Cromarty and Sutherland (Lewis Section) Appeal Tribunal survived by accident.

The records, which date back to 1916 and can be found on the ScotlandsPeople website, show appeals were made by men from all sections of society and reflect the deep impact of the First World War on the home front.

However, not all cases were against being called up. One such appeal, by Henry Drummond, a plumber in Loanhead, illustrates the weighing up of national and local public interests.

On 30 May 1916 the Local Tribunal had granted Henry Drummond a conditional exemption from military service by reasoning that his current employment as a Sanitary Engineer was in the national interests. At the time he was installing a new water supply to Roslin Powder Mills which was imperative for the continued production of munitions.

By 9 March 1917 he had trained with the Loanhead Volunteer Corps and applied for withdrawal of his certificate of exemption to make him available for the Army. However, the Local Tribunal considered that his continued exemption from military service was in the interests of the 3,500 people living in the burgh.

“This man is the only Plumber in the Burgh… The Public Health Acts have to be carried out, and any arrangement of the Sewage system – a choke for instance – might endanger the health of the Burgh. The recent weather and the number of burst water pipes is an indication of the necessity of a local plumber”.

The Tribunal decided that it was in the public interests for Henry to remain in his civil occupation and dismissed the case for withdrawing his conditional exemption.

*More details on the Arras Monument Project, including how to donate, can be found at

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