With between 400,000 and 500,000 casualties, of which at least 250,000 were allies, it is considered to be one of the costliest battles in the First World War.
The Third Battle of Ypres, known as Passchendaele, after the village the allies were trying to seize, began as an attempt from the British Commander Sir Douglas Haig to destroy the submarine bases on the Belgian north-east coast.
However, the British and Canadian troops were not only fighting the Germany army but in the torrential rain, swamps of thick, heavy mud which swallowed up men, horses and tanks.
A service was held last Monday at the War Memorial outside West Lothian Civic Centre to mark the 100th anniversary of the battle, which lasted over 100 days ending on November 10. 1917.
The service was led Rev. Nigel Anderson, Legion Scotland Livingston Branch Chaplain, who said the opening prayer. Closing the service West Lothian Council’s Armed Forces Champion John McGinty read the poem – On These Fields Of Passchendaele.
Provost Tom Kerr said: “It is vitally important that we mark the First World War. Reading the words from James Philip from Westfield, a soldier who took part was incredibly moving.”
James worked at the Westfield Paper Mill before enlisting soon after the war began in 1914. At Passchendaele he was only 21 years old. He was interviewed by local historian Sybil Cavanagh in 1991 where he shares his gruelling experience. He died aged 95 in Bathgate two years later.
James said: “We went forward and it was murder. I never thought I would see daylight and there were many lives lost. We were there for a long while in the mud of the trenches. And we had nothing to eat, so the boys ate whatever the dead Germans had. I didn’t take it.
“When I made to get out of the trench, my legs wouldnae go. I crawled in the mud, and lost contact with the rest of them and here I was left by myself. There was nothing but dead... my heart lifted when I noticed one man on his knees, clutching his rifle. When I touched him he fell down.”
He grew up with another soldier Atholl Stuart whose parents owned the mill James worked in.
Atholl joined the 10th Royal Scots before the war and remained with the 10th for two years in coastal defence, becoming Captain.
He transferred to the 11th (Service) Battalion, and went abroad on May 21, 1917. Wounded in the hip leading his men, he was then killed by shellfire while being carried to a dressing station on October 12.
Only three days earlier he had sent a letter home to his father. It said: “My dear Dad, sorry I haven’t been able to write to you sooner but we have been moving along to another place quite near the one we left and so have had a lot of trouble getting ourselves together as we were very much scattered in our last place.”
The letters home were very vague and lacked detail in case they were intercepted by enemy lines.
There are many more examples of soldiers from the area who made the ultimate sacrifice.
William Wright was a Bridgend boy. He was 18 and just like his friends had heard Lord Kitchener’s call and set off to train in Aberdeen with the Gordon Highlanders.
His engineering training allowed him to qualify as a machine gun instructor and was sent to the Western Front in July 1917. He survived the initial stages of the battle but on October 27 was killed. His body was never recovered and is commemorated today on the Memorial to the Missing at Thiepval, France.
Linlithgow historian Bruce Jamieson will be telling the stories of him and other men like these in his presentation “Lest We Forget” to be staged in St Michael’s Church on the evenings of November 10 and 11 later this year.
It will follow the course of the Great War from 1914 up to the unveiling of the town’s war memorial in the church in July 1922. Bruce said: “Linlithgow life will be vividly recreated through the sights, sounds and smells of the time: the actions of the provosts and councils, the gas works, conscription and the arrival of the black-edged telegrams. The home front will not be forgotten.”
*Background information was provided by West Lothian Council’s Archives Unit. More information and how to access the archives service is available online: www.westlothian.gov.uk/article/2052/Archives.