Trust Curator Tom Wright details his trip to the village of Contalmaison for the annual ceremony that commemorates the 15th and 16th Battalion of the Edinburgh, Lothians and Fife Royal Scots who fought in the Battle of the Somme.
During the summer I once again had the honour of representing Hibernian Football Club and the Hibernian Historical Trust at the annual ceremony in the French village of Contalmaison to commemorate the men of the 15th and 16th Battalion of the Edinburgh, Lothians and Fife Royal Scots who took part in the Battle of the Somme in July 1916.
Leaving by coach from Edinburgh, after an overnight journey on the Hull to Zeebrugge ferry, the party finally arrived at the historic town of Arras that had been almost completely destroyed by bombardment during the First World War.
Not far from our hotel was the Arras War Memorial that commemorates the almost thirty five thousand soldiers who lost their lives in the area during the conflict and have no known grave, including that of Second Lieutenant Walter Tull of the Middlesex Regiment. Tull was one of England’s first ever black players and was said to have been the first black officer to serve in the British Army.
After service with the top amateur side Clacton FC, he joined First Division Tottenham Hotspur but was then with the Southern League side Northampton Town, and was the first player from the club to enlist in the armed forces at the outbreak of hostilities in 1914. It is said that Tull had already agreed to sign for Glasgow Rangers after the war, but unfortunately he would be killed in action at nearby Bapaume just months before the armistice in November 1918, his body like thousands of others never recovered.
At the well attended ceremony in the tiny Picardy village of Contalmaison the following morning and the last of the centenary celebrations, wreaths were laid at the memorial cairn by representatives from both the Scottish and French governments, Edinburgh District Council, the Royal Scots and members of the French, Canadian and Australian armed forces. Others were laid on behalf of Hibernian, Hearts, Falkirk, Dunfermline, Raith Rovers, the Scottish Football Association and Scottish Rugby.
After hospitality provided by the villagers of Contalmaison, the party took time to visit the memorial to Clacton Orient FC, now better known as Leyton Orient, in the nearby village of Flers. Officially unveiled in 2011, the memorial commemorates the players, staff and supporters of the football club that served in the 17th (Service) Middlesex Regiment during the First World War, three of their players killed at the Battle of the Somme. Raised in December 1914, the regiment, like the McCrae’s in Edinburgh that had been formed several weeks earlier, would also become better known as the ‘Footballers Battalion.’
The afternoon was spent in the former Roman outpost of Albert that was famous for the legend of the ‘Golden Virgin’ statue atop the Basilica in the centre of the town that could be easily seen for miles around.
In January 1915 the statue, which was an obvious target for enemy artillery, was struck by a shell but remained in an almost horizontal position, later firmly secured by steel cables. A superstition among the British soldiers, who held the town at the time, was that whoever brought the statue down would lose the war while the Germans thought the opposite. The town was recaptured by the enemy in March 1918; the statue finally brought crashing to the ground by a British shell a few weeks later. Whatever the truth in the rumour, in July the Germans would be forced to evacuate the area and just a few months later the war would be over.
In 1920 the Basilica that had been almost totally destroyed by shellfire was completely rebuilt to the original design. The statue of the Madonna and Child however was never recovered and was replaced by a replica. Today the area is a popular destination for tourists.
Our trip to the battlefields that had cost so many lives finally concluded with a short stay in the Belgian town of Ieper. Known at that time as Ypers or ‘Wipers’ to the British ‘Tommie’s, the town like so many others in the area had been almost totally destroyed during the conflict. Many of the party took the opportunity to visit the famous ‘In Flanders Fields Museum’ which is said to be the best on the Western Front, before we finally made our way to the ferry at Zeebrugge on the first stage of the journey back to Edinburgh.
A representative from Hibernian Football Club has been invited by the Ancre Somme Association to attend a Remembrance Service at the Canongate Kirk in Edinburgh on Saturday 20th September 2018 to commemorate the centenary of the end of the Great War. The Canongate and surrounding areas was historically important to the football club in the early days in supplying a great number of players and supporters, and it is perhaps only fitting that it should be represented on the day.
Each Armistice Sunday, a representative of Hibernian Football Club lays a wreath at the Haymarket War Memorial as a mark of respect for those who made the ultimate sacrifice during the bloody conflict and since.
Written by Tom Wright