The First World War took a devastating toll of Scots who put on uniform and served in the armed forces and risked their lives for us, they made up 13 per cent of the volunteers of 1914-1915. The Regular professional British Army was already Scots-heavy. There can be no doubting that Scotland did its bit in the Great War, and more! Every major battle of those war 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.
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.
The very first Victoria Cross awarded in World War One 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.”
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.
We should all spare a thought for all the courageous people who have served and are serving for Scotland. St Andrew’s Day should be about celebrating the great Scottish spirit, which is reflected through our very colourful military history.
Forces War Records has 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 military relatives.