19 - 21st May 1989
On the 31st October, 1914, The London Scottish went into action just outside the village of Messines, in Belgium. The first Battle of Ypres had begun twelve days earlier, as the German Army, desperate for its first conclusive victory, tried to cut the BEF off from the Channel Ports. Already the scale of the war had developed beyond the concept of the Regular Army fighting on its own, and all too soon the war was to become the province of the Territorials, Kitchener's Army and the conscripts. And as if to indicate to the world the working man's war it would inevitably become, it was The London Scottish, which, as the first Territorial battalion to he deployed, took, and held the Messines Ridge against a superior enemy.
On the 2nd November, less than half the battalion remained to answer the roll call, losses being reckoned nearly 400. Of that number, 88 were dead. Their names now stand for all time on the Regimental Honour Roll at "95". It was those dead, as well as the thousands that died in the years that followed, that we, the heirs and successors of The London Scottish came to honour, and, taking strength from their example, to declare our faith for the future.
This article is a diary of our visit made between 19th and 21st May last, both to remember the fallen, and to renew auld acquaintance with the people of Mesen and leper.
As with all trips of this kind, the party was made up of three distinct groups: firstly, 'G' Company, commanded by Major Keith Pearson, assisted by Sergeant Major Brian Welsh; secondly, the Pipes and Drums, with, as ever, Drum Major Brian Alderson and Pipe Major John Spoore in charge; and, thirdly, the Regimental Association. On this particular occasion the latter split into two separate and totally incompatible groups: Alan Morris and his high-ranking officers; and a bunch of boring young drunks, who nicknamed themselves the YOC's, or Young Old Comrades. (More can be read of their activities elsewhere in this issue.)
Having all assembled at '95' with 'G' Company looking as smart as sixpences in their natty slacks and blazers (though Mr Randall pushed his luck with the Rowing Club version) our coaches set off to catch the midnight sailing from Dover to Calais, picking up Corporal Martin and Clem Webb en-route. Needless to say, the last came equipped as if prepared to film a re-run of the Falklands Campaign! The crossing was made on a flat calm, a condition very conducive to the alcoholic indulgences necessary to fortify us for the long, sleepless night ahead. A fitful sleep did however intervene once we had reboarded the coaches at Calais and made our way across the chequered fields of Flanders, arriving at the medieval city of leper in the wee small hours before 'Reveille'.
An hour or so later a somewhat frowsty and fuzzy-faced party awoke in the Belgian Army barracks at leper to be greeted with the local delicacy, cold fried eggs, as well as steaming hot coffee; also a blazing sun shining out of a cloudless sky. We moved off to leper for the customary morning's sight-seeing and fraternizing with the locals. The YOC's, making a beeline for the Cloth Hall Museum, were brought up sharp by an over-zealous official, who, upon being tendered payment in a certain EEC currency by one of the party made curt refusal with an imprecatory 'Non!' The witless offender turned white with dismay, while his YOC sidekicks showed their boundless sympathy by bursting into hysterical laughter.
Otherwise the morning was spent fairly aimlessly, mingling with the crowds around the market stalls in the square, haggling with the traders over the price of oranges in execrable French, or as in the case of the Brothers Grimm and Determined, going off to the nearest Bank to exchange their Luxembourg money into local lolly, in order that the frequent penalties that would be imposed upon them by their YOC comrades could at least, be paid.
After lunch the party reverted to a slightly more military mode, as we set off in the coaches for Hill 60 and Sanctuary Wood, two of the local landmarks. At Hill 60 we were joined by two battlefield guides, Colonel Graham Parker and Major Bertie Whitmore, who led us on a most informative 'reconnaissance' of the area. When they had exhausted their store of knowledge, Paul Granger, who is himself a student of some authority on the Ypres/Messines battlefields, carried on to an attentive and admiring audience. No one there that afternoon could but fail to have been touched by the scene, and all the suffering and waste of life that was represented in this scarred and tumbled corner of the Flemish countryside.
Next we visited Hill 62, or Sanctuary Wood as it is also known, different to Hill 60 since the 'Musee de Tranches' here allowed us to get the feel of a real trench system. Private McLane tried exploring one of the saps, but to be doing this on such a lovely May day defeated the imagination as to what conditions must have really been like. There is a museum here, of which the trench system forms a part, and entry costs 40 francs. According to our guide the price has remained unchanged for many years. It was collected by a huge man, who, to the guide's knowledge, had never been on holiday. We all felt that he ought to be honoured in some way for helping to keep alive, in such vivid detail, this irreplaceable piece of World War One history.
Our final call that afternoon was to the Tyne Cot Military Cemetery near Passchendaele. This is the largest cemetery in the district, and to the first-time visitor, can be a very emotional experience. Here, we laid a wreath, as is our custom, and all stood in utmost silence for two minutes, with all the sounds and colours of Springtime in our midst; here in this lovely place, which nothing, for evermore, shall disturb the tranquility and peace. Scarcely a man left without signing the visitors book, and not a man from 'G' Company. To see the Jocks queuing patiently to perform this last simple act, was to see The London Scottish in as good heart and spirit as ever it was.
After a light tea back at the barracks 'G' Company divested themselves of their glad-rags and climbed into No 2 Dress. Very soon everyone's pulses were quickening, as the Pipes and Drums, always one jump ahead, began practising outside on the Square. The YOCS, after showering and suiting themselves up, discovered one of the advantages of actually being an Old Comrade - that when the Sergeant Major begins to shout you can just slope off for a beer and leave the military to get on with it.
The evening's activities were to centre on leper's Menin Gate, where every night since 11/11/1929 (except during the German occupation of leper between 1940 and 1944) the Last Post has been played in remembrance of the dead and missing of two World Wars. On this occasion, as in July 1984 'G' Company and the Pipes and Drums were to participate. The march-on from the coach park by St Martin's cathedral to the Gate was a wonderful sight, but the whole parade came within a hair's breadth of shuffling chaos as the police who were supposed to be in charge of crowd-control failed to move the spectators off the pavement under the arch, where 'G' Company were to stand, until the very last minute.
As it was they had to mark time for a considerable space until the gendarmerie got their act together. Once in position the Pipe Band took centre-stage and played a long set, marching and countermarching within the roomy confines of the great arch, whose acoustics lent themselves admirably to the quality of the sound. The sets played were, March: The Rowan Tree, Retreats: The Heights of Dargai, The Battle of the Somme, Archie MacKinlay, March: Caber Feidh, Strathspey: The Marquis o' Huntly, Reel: The Piper o' Drummond, Commemorative March: The Burning Mill at Messines, Slow March: The Skye Boat Song, March: The Liberton Polka. The Band marched off to a selection of marches which included "Scotland the Brave", "The 51st Highland Division", "The Black Bear", and other favourites.
Throughout all this the Jocks stood quite still, doubtless the results of CSM - Welsh's rehearsals on previous drill nights. With the musical introduction over, wreaths were laid by Colonel J. A. D. Anderson, TD, DL, Major T. R. S. Lyon, CBE, TD, and by W02 V. Lees (SPSI of 'G' Company) on behalf of The Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders. Col. Jock Anderson gave a short address during which he read out a message from the Honorary Colonel, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, The Queen Mother:
"I am delighted to learn that on the 20th and 21st May a contingent of The London Scottish will be visiting leper and Mesen.
To the burgomasters and citizens of each town I send my greetings and sincere good wishes, confident in the knowledge that the ties of friendship forged between our Regiment and the people of Ieper and Mesen in times of war are, despite the passage of some seventy-five years, still as strong as ever.
The London Scottish"
To mark the conclusion of the Parade, and in accordance with the long-established tradition, buglers from the leper Fire Brigade played the Last Post. And as the final trembling notes floated on the still evening air, scarcely a man there could stifle a swallow of emotion.
From the youngest recruit to the oldest veteran, every man now knew why he was standing here.
In order that The London Scottish character of the parade should not be forgotten, Pipe Major Spoore then launched into the lusty march of his own composition, 'The Burning Mill at Messines'. That over, 'G' Company then marched off, thus ending the formal part of the evening. 'G' Company coached back to barracks in order to change back into civvies - not jeans and T-shirts mind - but slacks, jackets and ties, thus demonstrating the high standards of their personal and collective pride.
The YOC's, who had been very placid for the last couple of hours, re-formed and occupied a local hostelry, 'Den Anker'. Before long their numbers had been swelled by the arrival of Messrs Ormiston, Felstead, Pendleton, Melton and White. This group had made their own way to Belgium and had spent the day visiting the Waterloo battlefield. Many, many drinks were drunk and a fine meal was enjoyed by all, though when Alan Fay ordered a mushroom jobby we all looked a big worried. Colin Granger then upset everyone by ordering seven strong beers called 'Briggoon', which was likened to drinking a sledge hammer blow to the head. Songs were sung and stories told. Steve Lovelock suggested that the South African National Anthem sounded bad because it is only played on the white keys! At about 0100 we moved on to another bar at Shrapnel Corner where the Jocks were in full flow. From here bed was thankfully only a short walk/stagger, and having walked/staggered back past the guardhouse (no Caber Feidh Hotels here!) we were soon asleep.
Sunday was to be devoted to the Messines parade, an occasion to be approached with the utmost seriousness. But first the removal of hangovers was necessary. Once the formality of breakfast was done with, bags were packed and stowed aboard the coaches as the barrack- square rang to the blood-curdling shrieks of CSM Welsh.
You could read the Jocks' thoughts: 'But he was as drunk as a skunk last night! How can he be doing this to me now?' Such is the quality of Brian Welsh, illustrating one of the many skills that is required of a CSM in The London Scottish. Even the YOCs contrived to shuffle along in step!
On arrival at Mesen, 'G' Company and Pipes and Drums shook themselves out for the march of a mile or so to The London Scottish Memorial. Once again it was a very hot morning, and the assistance of kilt pleats in ventilating those areas below the belt were welcome indeed, though many might have preferred a Wolseley helmet to a glengarry to shade their faces from the blast. We arrived at the Memorial, and after a newly invented drill movement was executed in which the local Standards were permitted to fly in the midst of 'G' Company ranks, a short service commenced in which wreaths were laid, as follows:
Our return to Mesen was something of a novelty, as we were led in by the local band, the Messines Fanfare Cornmunale, our Pipes and Drums having a rest on this occasion. On our arrival we paraded at the local War Memorial, where a large crowd had gathered. Wreaths were laid here by the Mayor of Mesen and on behalf of The London Scottish. At this point 'G' Company officers got a touch of the 'slute-itis', the problem being that only the second-in-command, Lt Wirgman, knew what the Belgian National Anthem sounded-like, so that every time he twitched the whole officer file saluted! In the end they just saluted every time the local band played.
The final item on a very long morning's agenda was a service at the local church at which no less than four priests officiated. To those of us who were either C of S, C of E, Wee Free or OPD this was something we could have well done without; but we were guests in this town, and it would never have done to have risked giving offence in any way, especially since a choir had come all the way from Bavaria to sing for us on this occasion, in a marvellous spirit of reconciliation. When it too was at last over we moved back into the streets where the 'Entente Cordiale' resumed in earnest at the local school. Judging by the spread laid out here in our honour, the townsfolk of Mesen had obviously been to a good deal of trouble and expense for us, and for which we were extremely grateful.
Then it was fraternizing and drinking for the rest of the day until the final call for the Calais coaches. Alastair Jordan renewed an auld acquaintance with the pretty young woman he met on our last visit in 1984; she now has two kids. It seems Alastair must have written some very lovely letters.
Sergeant Major Vie Lees. put down his video camera long enough to meet a lady who was a child when The London Scottish were billetted here in 1914. She was Marie-Louise Ghekiere, and aunt of our good friend Albert Ghekiere, a well known London Scotophile who also lives in the town. She was a wonderful old lady and we think that she took quite a shine to our Vie. Piper Blackledge took on the Gordon Skilling role of playing his pipes at the drop of a hat for hours on end unaccustomed to such adoring and appreciative audiences (ask the Pipe Major). Somewhere in a bar, where-ever else, the YOCs were having their inaugural committee meeting, and hammering out the rules and regulations of their association, an activity which was to continue for the remainder of the day.
All too soon it was time to depart, and it wasn't easy to tear ourselves away. We are certain that Sergeant Robbie Small wanted to take the barrel with him and that Mme Ghekiere wanted to keep Vie Lees as a souvenir. With Paul Granger departed for Germany we at last broke off our happy reunion with Mesen and commenced our retiral to the Channel Ports. This bit of the trip was a nightmare for David Groombridge; all he wanted to do was sleep but that man Fay came up with the 'no sleeping on tour' rule. Big Tommo and Steve Lovelock relived Scotland's historic past and Mike Crowley tried to stay on his feet, for whatever reason nobody seems to know.
Doom and gloom descended as the ferry berthed at Dover with the prospect of rough treatment at the hands of Customs and Excise. Clem Webb, for one, not anxious to meet a blonde female officer of a past encounter, removed his spectacles, and tried to imitate a drunken cockney. But much to our ill-concealed delight we all got through with nothing more than a cursory glance. Alan Fay was so pleased that he accidentally smashed his bottle of 'Bells' all over the Arrivals Hall floor. It's sad seeing a grown man cry! The 'no sleeping on tour' rule continued to be applied, though with ardour somewhat abated, for the remainder of the journey back to '95'.
The First Battle of Ypres would go on for another 10 days, but on the Messines sector ceased with the capture of the Ridge. The Germans began to strengthen their positions, which they were to occupy for the next three and a half years, until 7th June, 1917, when 19 mines, containing over a million pounds of explosives, blew them off it. But all that was in the unknown future as Colonel Malcolm's gallant command began to come to terms with its losses ... When a final headcount was made at La Clytte on 2nd November, it was established that losses totalled 394 of all ranks, over half the battalion.
So the weekend was over. It had been fantastic fun. The Pipes and Drums had played to their usual high standard, and 'G' Company were faultless in every respect, a credit to Major Keith Pearson as well as to CSM Brian Welsh. The YOCs had been raised, drunk and conked out as well they were at the end, but they too have something to contribute to this character which is the spirit of 'The Regiment'. Long may they prosper. To Colonel Jock, to Alan Morris, and all who had a part in organising this year's visit to leper and Mesen, not least of all to the good folk of both those places, we would all extend a sincere Thank You.
Last updated 19/4/03