Trust Curator Tom Wright describes his visit to the annual commemorative ceremony at Contalmaison.
A few weeks ago I 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 soldiers of the 15th and 16th Battalions of the Edinburgh, Lothian’s and Fife Royal Scots who took part in the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
The tiny village of Contalmaison was the objective of the Royal Scots on the first day of the battle, a target sadly that was not reached, hundreds dying in the attempt. Also present at the ceremony were representatives from Raith Rovers, Falkirk and Dunfermline as well as supporters of Heart of Midlothian with wreaths laid on behalf of the Scottish Football Association and Scottish Rugby. MSP Keith Brown represented the Scottish Parliament, Baillie Norman Work the City of Edinburgh, the ceremony also attended by dignitaries from the French government and members of both the French and Canadian Armed Forces. The latter would later be attending a ceremony at nearby Vimy Ridge to commemorate the Canadian soldiers who died during the conflict.
The Cairn at Contalmaison
During the visit our party stayed in the town of Arras. Arras had originally been occupied by the Germans in 1914 until forced out by the Allies, and was later almost totally destroyed by bombardment from both land and air during the British offensive in the Second Battle of Arras that took place between April and May 1917. The battle would result in the largest advance since trench warfare had begun in 1915, and although the progress had been significant the British forces had been unable to break through the enemy lines and a later German recovery would result in a costly stalemate on both sides.
On a front stretching from Vimy Ridge to the North, which was eventually taken by Australian forces, to Bullecourt to the south-west of the town, the intensive fighting would eventually end in the allies suffering over 160,000 casualties, the Germans almost 125,000.
During the fighting, the British forces had made extensive use of the maze of tunnels or ‘Boves’ that lay 30 feet under the ground that had been constructed over a thousand years before, which literally became an underground city. Tens of thousands of British soldiers lived and worked underground safe from the action taking place above. Today the tunnels are a popular tourist attraction, the graffiti scratched on the soft stone by the soldiers at the time still clearly visible.
During the visit trips were made to several of the Commonwealth War cemeteries that surround the area including the one at the village of Roeux. It was at the battle for Roeux and the nearby Greenland Hill in 1918 that the Hibs player Alexander ‘Sandy’ Grosert would win the Military Cross for his actions in the face of the enemy. His citation reads, ‘Awarded the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry in charge of a platoon during the operation near Roeux on 27th August 1918 When the troops on his left flank and the enemy made a determined bombing attack on his position he continued to go over the open ground under fire from one post to another directing and encouraging the men. He held on until only four of the men were left and he was almost surrounded.’
EACH ARMISTACE SUNDAY A REPRESENTATIVE FROM 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.
In November 1914 the former Liberal politician Sir George McCrae had assembled a battalion of the Royal Scots, the men from Edinburgh and the surrounding areas eagerly answering the call. Leith born Grosert, a pre war signing from Leith Amateurs in 1911 and a registered Hibs player throughout the entire campaign was among the many Hibs supporters, including the future chairman Harry Swan, who enlisted in what became known as the McCrae’s Battalion, but by 1915 he had transferred to the Machine Gun Corps attached to the Gordon Highlanders.
Although severely gassed and wounded, Second Lieutenant Grosert, who had taken part in the Scottish Cup Final against Celtic just a few months before the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, would return to Easter Road after the war, finally ending his playing career with Dunfermline in 1924 after service with Aberdeen. As at all clubs Hibs had played its part during the conflict, three current and seven former players losing their lives, including the American born Robert Wilson who was killed in November 1918 just days before the end of the war.
On the final day the party visited the small Belgian cemetery at Outtersteene which lies just a few miles from what was then known as Ypres (Iepre) where I laid a wreath on the grave of my great-uncle Tommy Angus who had been killed almost exactly 100 years before during the attack on Polygon Wood in the Battle of Passchendaele. Tommy and his two brothers had been avid Hibs supporters and I left a small cross bearing the club crest at the graveside. Later in the day the party visited Ypres (Ieper) nicknamed ‘Wipers’ by the British soldiers, to see the impressive Menin Gate that had been constructed after the war as a memorial to the more than 60,000 Allied soldiers who had died in the immediate area and have no known grave, before making our way back to Scotland.
Tom Wright at the grave of his great-uncle Tommy Angus
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.
Written by Tom Wright