Memorial to war heroes in new fight

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HE WAS 17 years old. Charles D Whittet Jnr, plucked from his job amid the bustle of the massive North British Rubber Company in Dundee Street where they churned out airship cloth and welly boots, had been plunged into the raging furnace of war.

On 28 June, 1915, somewhere within the Dardanelles – the narrow strait that connects the Aegean to the Sea of Marmara, better known as Gallipoli – young Charles' brief 17 years on earth came to a sudden and probably hellish end.

Confirmation of their loss took six months to arrive at his parents' home at 9 Wardlaw Street, just off Gorgie Road.

For 11 days before Christmas The Scotsman carried the briefest of details: the young man who had joined the 1/5th Battalion of the Royal Scots – a squad of local men raised in Forrest Hills, known as the Queen's Edinburgh Rifles and part of the Lothian Brigade – had died at the Dardanelles.

Did he perish mercifully quickly on the end of an enemy bullet or blast? Or did Charles succumb screaming in agony, frightened and alone in a makeshift field hospital, a victim of one of the myriad illnesses that swept through the Allied forces in the scorching heat of that blood-soaked Turkish summer?

More likely than not, he was buried alive under a collapsed trench, his final resting place unknown.

Just 200 metres away from what was once his family home in Wardlaw Street, stands Gorgie War Memorial Hall. When Charles D Whittet Jnr marched off to war, locals knew it as "The Little Church in the Field".

But by July 1928, and after nine determined years of fundraising by a still grieving local community to buy it, the hall had become a memorial to its fallen sons, with a fine wooden trio of panels atop a marble base at its heart.

Charles' name is carved into the wood alongside dozens of others – young men, brothers, fathers and sons whose loss was felt throughout the tight Gorgie community which had resolved never to let their memory fade.

Today, toddlers whiz along the hall's wooden floor in their ride-on cars, oblivious to what the wooden panels on the wall behind them mean.

They have come to the hall with mums, dads and child carers for the daily morning session of the parents and toddlers' group.

On a sunny day someone will throw open a side door and unleash them to burn off energy in the hall's garden – one of the few patches of grass visible among the tenement blocks, businesses and shops that line Gorgie Road.

Some afternoons, the grey-haired ladies of the carpet bowls club arrive, roll out their mat, play a few ends and drink some tea. For some it's one of their very few outings of the week, a chance to chat and just get out of the house.

And some evenings, the wooden memorial stands sentry over the energetic forces of kick- boxing, the more subtle and relaxing practice of yoga, and keeps silent watch on the dieters from the Scottish Slimmers group.

The hall is open seven days a week and youth groups, children's art sessions and church meetings all gather in the shadow of the memorial bearing the names of the area's fallen.

The hall has served the community like this since 1928. But soon, under controversial proposals from Edinburgh City Council, its doors – along with those at five other thriving community centres – will slam shut for good, raising questions not only about the future of the groups which use it but what might become of that Great War memorial to Gorgie's dead.

At least those who use the hall have inherited the fighting spirit of those whose names bear down on them.

Next to the memorial is a noticeboard plastered with comments from the hall's users angry at the closure plans. "A disgrace," says one. "Where will my son go when the hall closes?" asks another.

One notice is written on behalf of the kick-boxers: "Since we have been here," it says, "we have produced boxing and kick- boxing champions, kept people out of jail, got people fit for the jobs they wanted and kept them that way. We have influenced people's careers.

"It would be sad to bring such a positive local venue to an end."

Ina Bonnar, from Stenhouse Avenue, was born in 1928 – the year the war memorial was finally unveiled after nine years of ardent fundraising.

Like her friends from the carpet bowls club, she believes closure of the hall will simply lead to the end of their get-togethers. There will be nowhere else, they argue, to go.

"It's because of the bloomin' trams," she sighs. "They're spending all that money for trams and it's the likes of us that are paying for it."

The council suggests the new Tynecastle High School will become a community hub, with room space for some of the groups affected by closure.

Ina and her friends shake their heads. The rooms will probably be too small for bowls and, besides, who's to say they will even get a room when they want it?

The people that use Gorgie hall – from yoga teacher Lesley Hay, 58, from Colinton, to Dalry childminder and hall secretary Tracey McKellican, 29 – also have doubts that decamping to school buildings is a solution.

Tracey juggles son James, two, on her knee. "Besides, this isn't just a hall," she explains, "it's a war memorial. That they want to close it is a disgrace.

"It was dedicated to people who died and that's important – especially as we're almost at the centenary of the Great War.

"No-one seems to be saying what's going to happen to the memorial if the hall closes.

"It is shocking that they'd even think about taking it away from Gorgie."

Meetings called to discuss the issue have been packed. There is a 2,000-plus signature petition in circulation and further plans to stage protest gatherings.

Campaigners argue potential financial savings from the hall's closure are tiny – they say figures from the council have varied widely – and warn the impact on the communities they serve would be a far greater cost.

But simmering beneath the surface is a fierce political row, too.

The Liberal Democrat/SNP-led council announced in February that Sighthill, Longstone and Colinton Mains community centres, along with Gorgie Memorial Hall, Platform Adult Learning Centre in Wester Hailes and the numeracy tuition centre, The Number Shop, on the Pleasance, were being axed.

It didn't take long for someone to notice that five of the community centres are within three council wards in the south-west of the city: Sighthill/Gorgie, Pentland Hills and Colinton/ Fairmilehead.

Of the ten councillors representing the three wards, there is only one Liberal Democrat and two SNP councillors.

Disquiet in the area has been heightened by other recent community losses – the local community newspaper, the Gorgie and Dalry Gazette, and the Better Gorgie and Dalry Campaign closed after losing council funding.

It's prompted an angry response from political opponents. MSP Sarah Boyack and Gorgie councillor Donald Wilson speak strongly in favour of its importance to the community. "Groups meeting around the Memorial keeps the memory of the names recorded on it alive," he says.

Former Lord Provost Eric Milligan grew up in Gorgie. One cherished photograph shows him 55 years ago as a child enjoying a community event with his sister Irene, mum Amy and grandmother Isabella.

"What makes this place special is that it is a war memorial," he argues.

"Gorgie used to be like a little village and all these names are a roll call of honour for the people who went to fight from here.

"People chose to make their memorial here. Where else could it go?

"We are just a few years away from the centenary to mark the outbreak of the First World War, and Gorgie's story is an important part of it and this hall is an important part of the heritage and history of the city."

&#149 A motion aimed at halting community centre closure plans was rejected by Edinburgh City Council's administration during Thursday's full council meeting. The proposal will now go before the Education, Children and Families committee on 18 May.

'Nothing is set in stone yet'

EDINBURGH City Council announced plans to close six of the city's 43 community facilities in February in order to save 120,000.

The savings would help cut five per cent from its Community Learning Development (CLD) budget over the next three years.

Instead, individual learning "hubs" are to be established within local neighbourhoods – such as at the old Westburn Primary School in Sighthill, which is to become a community campus and where it's proposed the Platform Adult Learning Project and Sighthill Community Centre would be.

The council argues that closing the Gorgie War Memorial Hall would save 34,000 – a figure disputed by local campaigners.

A council spokesperson said the authority is prepared to look at proposals from the hall committee to keep it open. "We are waiting on the group coming forward with proposals to us.

Nothing is set in stone yet," he said.

Hall management committee member Aidan Murphy said campaigners would prefer the council to simply retain the hall. "We want to keep it under CLD running because they have the expertise and the background in running a centre. If we became a charity we'd need to go and find professionals to help us run the hall and fundraise."

POIGNANT REMINDERS OF PAST HORRORS

BEHIND each entry on the war memorial within the Gorgie hall lies a poignant reminder of the horrors of war.

Alexander Gerard was 19 years old when he was killed in action in France on 1 August, 1918. "They miss him most who loved him best" read the death notice inserted by his "sorrowing" parents of 4 Wheatfield Street.

His name appears on the Soissons Memorial in France, commemorating nearly 4,000 British soldiers who died during the Battles of the Aisne and the Marne in 1918 and who have no known grave.

Alexander Acquroff was one of six children born to Robert and Janet, of 134 Gorgie Road. He must have been just 16 when he joined the 5th Battalion the Royal Scots in May 1912.

From March 1915 to March 1916, he witnessed the horrors of Gallipoli as part of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force. It prepared him for April 1916, when he transferred to the 55th Btn Machine Gun Corps to fight in the trenches of France.

He was a corporal in October 1917 when the King awarded him the Military Medal for gallant and brave conduct to wear alongside his Star, Victory and War medals.

He had been promoted to sergeant in March 1918 and still just 21 when his war ended – death from gas poisoning.

William McDonald had been missing since September 1914. A year and three months later, his family received the dreaded news that he had been killed.

William had already served seven years with the Camerons before returning to work at the Granton gas works beside his father. Home was 223 Gorgie Road. He was still just 26 when the First World War broke out. He would not return home.