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The last days of WW1: The troops who almost made it back

As the church bells rang out in Leith to mark the dawn of peace in Europe, Isabella Reilly joined excited family and friends celebrating the joyful news.

Soon she hoped to be reunited with her husband John, who had survived four years of the war in France.

Perhaps most importantly their four daughters – only the eldest of whom could clearly remember John living at home – would at last have their father back.

Dock labourer John was among the many Edinburgh men who had enlisted to the 1st Battalion Scots Guards – details of their bravery are held in the archives of the HQ Scots Guards Archives in London.

John was just 20 when he enlisted on January 4, 1905. The young Leither served three years as a regular soldier and was in the Army reserves when he was recalled to action on August 5, 1914.

As the Armistice approached, four years and three months later, Pte Reilly was still engaged close to the frontline with the 1st Battalion Scots Guards.

On November 4, the battalion left their base at the French village of Capelle at 5am and marched through Villers Pol to an area occupied by the British 2nd Guards Brigade. The battalion were not called on to the frontline that day, but the men still came under attack from German shells and snipers. Pte Reilly and two other soldiers were killed and another 30 wounded.

Sgt Kevin Gorman, a Scots Guard archivist, says: "The battalion was back in rest at the time he was killed. He was killed by a shell, probably a stray shell."

It was ten days after the end of the war that the news reached Isabella Reilly at her home in Sandford Street. She was left alone to look after their four daughters – Catherine, then aged nine, Anne, seven, six-year-old Margaret and Mary, three.

Sgt Gorman adds: "They would have been wondering for those ten days whether he was alive, which must have been really traumatic."

The only personal effects returned to the family were his watch and chain – an indication that he was likely to have been killed by shell fire. He is buried in Villers-Pol Communal Cemetery in France alongside more than 100 other British servicemen.

Perhaps one of the most poignant tales of an Edinburgh soldier is that of Thomas Craig, who survived one of the most ferocious battles of the war and years spent languishing in a prisoner of war camp, coming within days of a safe homecoming.

He was part of the first wave of soldiers sent to Belgium and France to halt the invading German forces.

As a member of the British Expeditionary Force, the famous "Old Contemptibles", he found himself at the centre of fierce fighting within weeks of crossing the Channel.

The then 25-year-old played his part in the First Battle of Ypres, the last major battle of the first year of the war.

The BEF's staunch resistance would stop the German advance and the invaders' plans for a short, successful war, but at a terrible cost.

It is estimated that about 135,000 Germans were killed or badly wounded at Ypres between October 19 and November 22, while the BEF lost around 75,000 men and was effectively destroyed as a professional army.

On November 11, 1914, Thomas and his colleagues were entrenched at Velthoek, near Ypres, when they came under ferocious attack by the Kaiser's Prussian Guard. Only 65 men managed to escape.

Pte Craig, who had worked as a golf ball maker before signing up, was taken prisoner. Sgt Gorman says: "The battle where he was captured was, for the Scots Guards, almost like a massacre. A lot of members of the 1st Battalion Scots Guards were killed in that battle, they were buried alive in trenches which were not as well built back then."

He was taken to the Schneidemuhl Prisoner of War Camp, in Germany and languished there for almost four years – one of 2.5 million prisoners held by the Germans over the course of the war.

He was a captive there in 1917 when the decision was taken to honour the surviving members of the BEF by awarding them all the Mons Star.

But just eight days before the ceasefire, on November 3, 1918, Thomas died, aged 29, a victim of the Spanish flu epidemic raging through Europe. The tragic news was broken to his father David and mother Mary at their New Town home in Cumberland Street.

His body rests at Stahnsdorf, near Potsdam, in eastern Germany.

A plaque at Edinburgh Castle also commemorates the heroics of the "Old Contemptibles". The BEF earned their nickname from a supposed order issued by Kaiser Wilhelm before the First Battle of Ypres, instructing his forces to "walk over General French's contemptible little army".

A pawnbroker by trade, Duncan McBeath was 18 when he enlisted with the 1st Battalion Scots Guards on 28 September 1916.

Two years later the Broxburn teenager was serving on the Western Front in northern France.

He and his comrades were positioned on the western bank of the Canal Du Nord, alongside newly arrived Canadian reinforcements, sitting directly opposite a heavily defended German trench line.

On 18 September, as the Allied generals debated the merits of mounting an attack across the canal, Pte McBeath's battalion was bombarded.

Sgt Gorman says: "The Germans were flinging everything they could at them, including mustard gas."

The 20-year-old was caught in the chemical attack, eventually succumbing to the gas poisoning the next day. As he was unmarried and his parents apparently not living, the news of his death was broken to his aunt Isabella McBeath, in Golspie, Sutherland.

Pte McBeath is buried in Sunken Road Cemetery, Boisleux-St Marc, northern France.

When tram car conductor Robert Manzie enlisted on January 14, 1915, he was aged 35.

The father-of-one, of Tay Street, Fountainbridge, joined the 1st Battalion Scots Guards and was posted to northern France.

Sgt Gorman says: "Robert Manzie wasn't a regular soldier. He joined up in 1915 and went through the ranks pretty quickly to sergeant."

There on September 3, 1918, he was killed in action during an attack on the village of Lagnicourt.

The battalion's objective that day was to advance to the old British front line – a successful manoeuvre in which 35 prisoners, four field guns and several machine guns were captured.

The gain did not come without cost, though, as one officer and four other soldiers, including Robert, were killed as they advanced. But he was, says Sgt Gorman, very unlucky. "The casualties on that battle for the battalion were very small."

After Robert died, his wife Sarah moved back to her home town of Anstruther, in Fife, with their four-year-old daughter Sybil.

Robert is buried in Queant Road Cemetery, Buissy, near the French border with Belgium.

While the battle in which Robert died was an important victory, Sgt Gorman says the small number of casualties points to the fact the Germans were very much on the back foot by this stage in the war.

He says: "The Germans were basically on the run at this time anyway and the French and the British knew that they were ready to give in."

An end to the darkness

IT was the end of four long, dark, dismal years. The ceasefire which came into force at 11 o'clock on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 called a halt to the carnage of the First World War which had seen around 20 million people slaughtered.

Little wonder then that thousands of Edinburgh's citizens poured on to the streets in celebration.

But a sense of sadness and loss hung over all the festivities. "Only one thing Germany cannot render up – the lives of Britain's choicest youth," said the Evening News, announcing the Armistice in a special edition.

Figures held by the Scots At War Trust show that more than 144,500 Scots – both men and women – died during the conflict. And of the soldiers who listed Edinburgh as their place of residence, just over 2200 died.

Perhaps all the more tragic are those who almost made it home: in the last 11 days of the war, 9342 deaths of British soldiers – excluding Navy, Merchant Navy and Royal Air Force personnel – were recorded.

And for weeks after the ceasefire, the death columns of the Evening News were filled, under the heading "For Their Country" with names of the wounded and missing who died even as the nation rejoiced.

Here, in the first of a three-part series, LINDA SUMMERHAYES uncovers the stories of four Edinburgh men who died just before the peace bells tolled.

CITY'S REMEMBRANCE EVENTS

THERE are a number of events taking place across Lothian to commemorate Remembrance Sunday and the 90th anniversary of the First World War Armistice.

This Saturday, 10,000 volunteers will be out on the streets across Scotland selling poppies.

On Remembrance Sunday, a service will take place at the Stone of Remembrance on the High Street from 10.45am. Wreaths will be laid by the Lord Provost, George Grubb, First Minister Alex Salmond, Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy and the president of the Royal British Legion Scotland, Sir Alistair Irwin. There will also be a gathering at the Hearts war memorial at Haymarket from 10.45am.

On Remembrance Day itself, next Tuesday, members of the public are invited to gather at the Garden of Remembrance at Princes Street Gardens adjacent to the Scott Monument for a two minutes' silence at 11am, when the One O'Clock Gun will fire.

There are other events being held around Lothian to mark the 90th anniversary:

Edinburgh Castle Great Hall

Saturday 8 and Sunday 9 November, 10.30am-4pm.

A special event, The Great War and Scotland, looks back at the country's role in The Great War and the enormous contribution of communities throughout the country during the First World War.

The event will feature performances by costumed historic re-enactors who will highlight aspects of what life was like for services personnel involved in the conflict of 1914-18, as well as those left to keep the home fires burning. The Great War and Scotland is a free event, included in the price of admission to Edinburgh Castle.

Tickets can be purchased in advance via the Castle's website, www.edinburgh castle.gov.uk.

BBC Learning has also organised a host of free local events this weekend.

People will be able to upload personal family First World War memorabilia to the BBC online remembrance wall.

These events will take place at the following venues across Edinburgh and the Lothians on Saturday:

Leith Library Community Room

28-30 Ferry Road

Edinburgh

10.30am-12.30pm

Penicuik Library

Carlops Road

Penicuik

9.30am-12.30pm

Carmondean Library

Carmondean Centre, Deans

Livingston

10am-1pm

Scottish Parliament Exhibition:

Wednesday 29th October-Thursday 6th November.

An exhibition in the garden lobby of the Parliament, which the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has been touring, is already under way.

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Parliament explains: "The exhibition features pictures of war graves throughout the Commonwealth. People who are on tours or visiting MSPs can look at the exhibition."

 
 
 

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