There can be no doubting that Scotland did its bit in the Great War, and more! Every major battle of those five years, whether in Loos, Arras, Cambrai, Ypres or the Somme, involved one or more Scottish regiment, and at the close of each conflict the death count rose and the nation mourned all over again. By 1918, 688,416 Scots, or half the male population between the ages of 18 and 45, had borne arms. That being the case, it’s no surprise that many Scottish families have ancestors that they are proud of, and who they’d like to find out more about. Now they can, thanks to an injection of £75,000 worth of Heritage Lottery Funding into the ‘Scotland’s War’ initiative that will allow the project to be rolled out nationwide. Initiated by the University of Edinburgh in 2008, it aims to paint a fuller picture of Scotland’s contribution to the war and support the creation of a national digital archive.
Service in the military is traditional in Scotland, especially in the Highland and Hebrides, and as soon as war was declared there was a rush to sign up. ‘Loyal Lewis Roll of Honour 1914 and after’ notes that the islands in particular sent more than their share of men into the forces, especially the Navy, the Royal Naval Reserves and the traditional Scottish regiments, including the Gordon Highlanders, Cameron Highlanders, Ross Mountain Battery and the Black Watch. Some 250 men of Lewis extraction also entered the Canadian army. Men became quite scarce in the region, and Lewis' soldiers ‘conspicuously distinguished themselves’. The toll of life, too, was exceptional. Out of a population of just 30,000, 4,320 men volunteered in the first year of the war alone, in other words 15% of the population and over 33% of the males. Over 300 died that same year, with many more coming home maimed or mentally battered.
Almost every Scottish regiment, including the Royal Scots Greys cavalry regiment, the Scots Guards, the Royal Scots, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, the Scottish Rifles, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and many of the previously mentioned regiments, were thrust straight into action at the Battle of the Mons in August 1914. The Seaforth Highlanders were hard on their heels, arriving as reinforcement days later at Le Cateau. It was in this first battle that the 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders was isolated and surrounded, with all but one Company killed, wounded or taken prisoner. It was a body blow to every patriotic Scot, but the nation refused to be phased, and eager reinforcements soon made up the ranks of the decimated unit.
The Gordons were of course not the only ones to suffer rapid losses – the 1st Cameron Highlanders, for example, lost 17 officers and over 500 men at the First Battle of the Aisne, and a further 5 officers and 30 men just a fortnight later when their battalion head-quarters were blown up – but there were early tales of great Scottish heroism too. The very first Victoria Cross awarded in the conflict went to a Scotsman, Fraserburgh-born Lance Corporal Charles Alfred Jarvis of the Royal Engineers. It was given “for great gallantry at Jemappes on August 23rd in working for 1 ½ hours under heavy fire in full view of the enemy, and in successfully firing charges for the demolition of a bridge.”
By the end of the war, no less than 73 other Scots would have been awarded the prestigious gallantry medal. One of the most colourful acts of gallantry was that of Piper Daniel Laidlaw, of 7th Battalion, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, who earned his Victoria Cross “for most conspicuous bravery prior to an assault on German trenches near Loos and Hill 70, France on 25th September 1915. During the worst of the bombardment when the attack was about to commence, Piper Laidlaw, seeing that his company was somewhat shaken from the effects of gas, with absolute coolness and disregard of danger mounted the parapet, marched up and down and played his company out of the trench. The effect was immediate, and the company dashed out to the assault. Piper Laidlaw continued playing his pipes till he was wounded.”
It wasn’t only the Scottish soldiers who did their bit. As ‘The Great War Part 189, March 30th 1918’ explains, the North and East of Scotland hosted massive naval bases, while the country's ship yards produced vessel after vessel for the Admiralty, 757,000 tonnes in 1913 alone. Enginery and munitions, too, were manufactured in the Scottish Midlands (including aircraft, Torpedoes and range finders), and Scotland provided many a naval recruit, thanks to its rich supply of mariners and fishermen. By 1917 Scotland could boast both a Scottish First Sea Lord in the Armed Forces and a Scottish First Lord of the Admiralty in His Majesty’s Government.
The Scottish contribution to the war effort was certainly a great one, with both the relative percentage of Scots volunteers and the death rate of the Scottish Regiments exceeding those of the English equivalents. The willingness with which this sacrifice was made is captured in the introduction for the ‘Loyal Lewis Roll of Honour 1914 and after’, written in August 1915: “To all of us the abiding consolation remains that those who never came back have laid down their lives in one of the greatest causes in the history of mankind.” Thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund Grant, generations to come will know what their Scottish ancestors did in the Great War.
Forces War Records has exclusively transcribed ‘The Union Bank of Scotland Ltd. Roll of Honour 1914-18’ and ‘The Seventeenth Highland Light Infantry 1914’ collections, and apart from many more general WWI army and navy named record collections boasts an extensive historic documents library with many Scottish resources, including ‘Glasgow University Roll of Honour 1914-18’, ‘The Loyal Lewis Roll of Honour 1914 and after’, ‘History of the 9th (Scottish) Division’, ‘The 51st Highland Division at War’ and many others. Visit www.forces-war-records.co.uk to see if you can find out more about your relatives.