A fitting tribute for the soldiers massacred at the Somme

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It was the battle that was confidently expected to break the stalemate on the Western Front, but ended in catastrophic, bloody failure.

The first day of the Somme Offensive claimed 20,000 British lives and left 40,000 wounded.

Many units were effectively wiped out as the extent of the British high command’s epic miscalculation was laid bare.

The artillery deluge that was supposed to traumatise the enemy machine gunners and destroy the barbed wire failed to do either.

The waves of slowly advancing infantry - overburdened with equipment - were mown down in swathes by the waiting enemy.

The effort continued from July to November, and in modern times has for many become a byword for futility and waste.

But at Linlithgow’s St Michael’s Parish Church on Saturday the emphasis was heavily on the sacrifice made by many thousands of men, mainly young, who perished in a hell of high explosive, machine-gun fire and poison gas.

A further world war and many other conflicts have happened since, but “the blackest day of the British army” is the disaster even those with no great knowledge of past wars have heard of.

Saturday’s unique local commemoration of the Somme disaster was run by West Lothian Council and Ancre Somme Association Scotland (ASA), and was attended by dignitaries including Lord Lieutenant Isobel Brydie, Provost Tom Kerr, local MSP Fiona Hyslop and senior representatives of all three arms of the services as well as cadets, regimental associations and Royal British Legion Scotland.

There were powerful and moving contributions from Rev Dr Stewart Gillan of St Michael’s Parish, Rev Fr Paul Kelly of St Michael’s RC Church and Rev Christine Barclay, rector of the burgh’s St Peter’s Episcopal Church; and the Rev Richard Houston.

Provost Kerr recited the unforgettable “Walking Nightmare” by Robyn Beckett, and Tom Gordon (archivist, Royal Scots Museum) told the story of the 10th Battalion, Royal Scots – whose second battalion was later to be caught up in a murky campaign against the Bolsheviks in the frozen forests of north Russia.

ASA Chairman George Wilson read a soldier’s letter home, which “told it like it was”, while Kevin Gray MM, chief executive of Royal British Legion Scotland, read “In Flanders Fields”.

Mark Jameson, ASA parent chairman of Ancre Somme, read the poem “The Conflict” accompanied by flautist Tommy Davidson, and Gary Tait MBE told the story of the triumph and tragedy of the famous McCraes sporting battalion.

ASA menber Charles Kennedy read the poem “A Soldiers Cemetery” by John William Streets and – in one particularly eerie moment – Alan Hamilton MBE blew a whistle which belonged to his great grandfather, which had been blown at the Somme.

Most emotive of all, perhaps, was the reading by local youngsters of the names of six West Lothian men who died there.

Music played a large part in Saturday’s ceremony, from the desolate “Black is the Sun” sung by young Sam Malone to “Jimmy’s Gone to Flanders “ from Linlithgow student Julia Stevens. Violinist Sarah Gillan played the poignant “Ashokan Farewell” – originally composed for a TV series about the American Civil War .

Bugler Brian Alexander sounded both Reveille and Last Post. A solo piper played Flowers of the Forest.

The hymns were deeply traditional – for example “All people that on earth do dwell” and “O God our help in ages past”, in tune with the spirit of the occasion.

The final poetic recitals of the day were Binyon’s Lines, read by Cameron Davidson (“They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old”) and Kohima Epitaph by George Wilson.

The title alludes to the battle of Imphal-Kohima in the Second World War, where the back of the Japanese army was finally broken after an epic defence by British and Commonwealth troops.

The lines were inspired by poetry composed for the First World War:

“When You Go Home,

Tell Them Of Us And Say,

For Their Tomorrow,

We Gave Our Today” .

The day had begun with a civic reception in the Burgh Hall, and continued with a performance of classic regimental favourites – for example “Rowan Tree” – by the band of the Royal Scots Association before the parade to the church.

The same band played Highland Cathedral as the church emptied at the end of an extraordinary day of commemoration, while wreaths were laid.

The events remembered happened 100 years ago, but as Father Kelly observed the misery and inhumanity of war – as in Syria – continues today.