Remembering WWI: The greatest honour came after death

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A total of 29 men from the Lothians have been in receipt of the enormously revered medal, which is cast from the bronze of two Russian Crimean War guns captured after the siege of Sebastopol in 1855 and awarded in recognition of exceptional gallantry, regardless of rank or grade.

The first was William Reynolds, born in Jamaica Street, Stockbridge, in 1827, who joined the Army at 17 and was one of the guardsmen from No 4 Company that supported the Scots (Fusilier) Guards' colour party at the Battle of the Alma in Crimea on September 20, 1854. He died playing a vital role in rallying the troops and ensuring they fought on, despite coming under increasingly heavy fire. His VC was awarded posthumously at the first such ceremony in 1857.

The First World War saw 12 VCs awarded to Lothian soldiers. Two were given posthumously to men who were killed just days before the Armistice. In the third part of our series marking the 90th anniversary of the end of the war, GINA DAVIDSON and LINDA SUMMERHAYES tell their stories

Died October 14, 1918

"IT IS death or glory work which must be done for the sake of our patrol."

He was only 25, but Cpl James McPhie uttered those inspirational words as he urged his fellow sappers to save a floating bridge when it began to break as British troops were crossing it under heavy enemy fire. They turned out to be among his last. Yet his actions in the moments following meant many British lives were saved.

James McPhie joined the Territorials in 1912 when he was just 17. The son of Allan and Elizabeth McPhie, he was born at Salisbury Place and attended South Bridge School before becoming an upholsterer.

When war broke out he first saw service with the 416th (Edinburgh) Field Company, Royal Engineers (TF) in Egypt, before he and his company were sent to France in April 1916.

By October 1918 the 416th were at the Canal de la Sensee near Aubencheul-au-Bac in France, under Canadian command.

Only days before, the troops had received special training in the use of cork-float bridges. At first light on October 13 they launched such a bridge in a bid to attack the enemy on the opposite side of the canal. Under heavy shell and sniper fire, the troops who landed were ordered to retreat – but such was the vulnerability of the bridge, that it broke, leaving many trapped on the enemy side.

Sniper fire made it impossible to rescue the stranded soldiers, but during the night Cpl McPhie, and a group of sappers repaired the bridge, and with an artillery barrage to cover the escaping soldiers the retreat began.

The bridge broke again. McPhie and another sapper jumped into the canal and held the broken sections of the bridge together, helping more men to cross, but, as the London Gazette later reported, this also failed, so: "Cpl McPhie then swam back, and having reported the broken bridge, immediately started to collect material for repair. It was now daylight. Fully aware that the bridge was under close fire and that the far bank was almost entirely in the hands of the enemy, with the inspiring words, 'It is death or glory work which must be done for the sake of our patrol on the other side,' he led the way, axe in hand, on to the bridge, and was at once severely wounded."

McPhie was shot in the face and fell into the canal. A second soldier, Sapper Cox was hit in the leg and arm, but managed to drag McPhie on top of the bridge. This time the enemy opened up with machine gun fire and McPhie was hit in the back. But Cox held on to McPhie. Another sapper then threw a line to Cox, and managed to pull him ashore, but he died two days later.

McPhie's body was also rescued, and he was buried four miles from Cambrai – his brother John, a Lance Corporal in the same unit, who had not taken part in the operation, helping to lay him to rest.

His heroic death came just 28 days before Armistice was declared. His posthumous VC for "most conspicuous bravery" was presented to his widowed mother Elizabeth by King George V in the ballroom of Buckingham Palace on April 3, 1919.

The city of Edinburgh also rallied round with a subscription fund being raised on behalf of Elizabeth McPhie, which came to 744, which was presented to her by the Lord Provost.

After the war a plaque was also unveiled in St Giles' Cathedral in memory of all the Royal Engineers who died in the war, and in 1963 a wooden bench was placed in Princes Street Gardens in James McPhie's memory, below the Scots Greys Memorial. His VC is now in the Imperial War Museum.

Died October 22, 1918

WHEN David McGregor left George Heriot's School in 1911, a successful future in banking lay ahead. His first job was as an apprentice at the Commercial Bank of Scotland and he intended to take exams that would see him become an associate of the Scottish Bankers' Institute.

The advent of war meant his ambition had to be put to one side, though, and McGregor, who had already joined the Midlothian Royal Field Artillery Territorial Force, volunteered for service abroad.

In 1915, when he was 20, Lieutenant McGregor, of Warrender Park Road, Marchmont, said farewell to his tailor father David and his mother Annie, and travelled to Egypt with the 6th Royal Scots.

In May 1916, McGregor transferred to France, trained as a machine gunner and was posted to the 29th Battalion.

On October 22, 1918, when in command of a machine gun section near the village of Hoogmolen in Belgium, his unit came under intense fire as they attempted to move the guns forward. War records in the Roll of Honour held at George Heriot's School in Edinburgh reveal what happened next.

They read: "Lt McGregor fearlessly went forward into the open to locate the enemy guns, and having done so, realised that it was impossible to get his guns carried forward either by pack or by hand without great delay as the ground was absolutely bare and swept by a hail of bullets."

Instead, the keen rugby player ordered his soldiers to follow a more covered route before he climbed on top of the gun trailer and lay down flat.

The trailer was being pulled by horses and he ordered the driver to leave the cover of the bank of a sunken road and gallop into the line of fire.

"This the driver did, galloping down about 600 yards of absolutely open road under the heaviest machine gun fire into cover beyond," say the records. "The driver, horses and limber were all hit but Lt McGregor succeeded in getting the guns into action, effectively engaging the enemy, subduing their fire and enabling the advance to be resumed.

"With the utmost gallantry he continued to expose himself in order to direct the fire of his guns until, about an hour later, this very gallant officer was killed while observing fire effect for the trench mortar battery. His great gallantry and supreme devotion to duty were the admiration of all ranks."

Lt McGregor, who died six days after his 23rd birthday, was buried at the Staceghem Communal Cemetery, Belgium. His bravery earned him a posthumous VC, presented to his parents in the ballroom of Buckingham Palace on February 15, 1919.

Two years later, the roll of honour for the George Heriot's School was published. Of 2657 former pupils, 461 had been killed in the conflict or had died of their wounds.

McGregor's VC was donated to the Royal Scots by a relative in 1976.


THE news of the Armistice hit the streets of Edinburgh at 10.45am on November 11, with a specially rushed-out edition of the Evening News.

Even as copies of the paper were being snapped up, arrangements were being made to have flags flown at the City Chambers and church bells all over the city rung out. In that special edition, the Lord Provost ordered that the blackouts in the city's windows be taken down so that on the first night of peace light would "shine forth" across the city.

For the last time, the paper marked the daily passing of the conflict with the line: "This is the 1561st day of the war."

The next day the paper described the celebrations the news had sparked. Around three-quarters of the city's population, it estimated, had poured out into the streets. "By eight o'clock Princes Street from end to end was filled with a happy, jubilant throng." Bonfires were burned in the streets of Leith, while at Waverley Market, a packed building shook to the sound of hundreds of voices belting out Rule Britannia and Scots Wha Hae.

But the human cost of the war was recorded too. A section headed "For Their Country" continued to run for weeks after the Armistice as those presumed missing became presumed dead and as injuries and flu claimed those who had survived the fighting.

Expressing themselves with poetry

THE city of Edinburgh will forever be linked to some of the most haunting poetry to come out of the First World War.

It was here, at Craiglockhart military hospital – now part of Napier University, but between 1917 and 1919 a refuge for soldiers suffering shell-shock – that two of the conflict's most famous poets, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, met.

The pair penned some of the most famous and poignant lines about the horrors of the war – the first draft of Owen's Dulce et Decorum Est was written at Craiglockhart.

Now, a new exhibition, Words from the Wounded, at Edinburgh Central Library, will celebrate the poetry of injured soldiers which was never published.

The idea came from Yvonne McEwen, Honorary Fellow at the Centre for the Study of the Two World Wars at Edinburgh University.

She explains: "The poems were written by sick or injured soldiers either in hospital or in convalescent homes.

"A lot of the men felt they had to be anonymous when they were actually producing the poems because some of the things they said are quite damning. They wanted to voice their feelings."

One of the poems featured was written in Edinburgh, at the Mayfield Red Cross Hospital, by Sergeant James McEwen, in praise of the women who worked at the shell shop of Bruce Peebles and Co in East Pilton – "lassies brave who toiled untiringly, To make the shells which keep our country free".

They aren't the only women who are celebrated in the poems – works by and about nurses, who often encouraged the soldiers to put pen to paper are included.

One of the most moving poems in the exhibition is written by an anonymous voluntary aid detachment nurse in 1917. It is entitled Pluck: "Crippled for life at seventeen, His great eyes seem to question why: with both legs smashed it might have been, Better in that grim trench to die, Than drag maimed years out helplessly."

The exhibition runs from Monday until November 29 with readings on Tuesday, from 6.30pm-7.30pm, and a poetry workshop on Thursday, from 2.30pm-4pm.