A city fighting hard in the war on the home front

Men queuing up to sign up at Waverley Station
Men queuing up to sign up at Waverley Station
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LINE after regimented line of First World War gravestones in a faraway cemetery, the blood-coloured poppies growing on Flanders fields and the muddy, bloody horror of the trenches, all of it seems so far from home.

Even the few grainy images of when Britain went marching to war in 1914, which help bring to life the people, the places and the true horror of the conflict, somehow show events well removed from Scotland’s capital city.

A recruitment poster

A recruitment poster

But news last week that long-forgotten First World War trenches, once used to train soldiers destined for the front line – and beyond – are being left to rot in Dreghorn Wood, Colinton, brought into sharp focus just how close the war felt for every one of the city’s citizens. The historic trenches were dug sometime between 1915 and 1916, as fathers, sons and brothers destined for the maelstrom of battle learned how to create tunnels in the earth to house them and protect them from enemy shells.

While efforts continue to raise the estimated £10,000 needed to preserve them, the fact they are even there brings wartime western Europe right to our very doorstep.

In fact, according to Edinburgh University’s Yvonne McEwen, who is director of Edinburgh and Scotland’s War Project, soon to be expanded to detail even more of the country’s role in the First World War, events overseas touched everyone’s lives, whether in the form of tragic news from the front, in the work they did at home or the effort to just help.

“The home front role in the First World War has been badly neglected,” she says. “The Second World War is often referred to as the People’s War, but the Great War involved the people just as much. There wasn’t a family not touched, whether in the war effort or working in the war industry. The war was ­all-consuming.

reward poster to protect vital homing pigeons

reward poster to protect vital homing pigeons

“It’s sometimes forgotten how much this city and the country contributed to the war effort,” she adds.


The frontline battle might have been overseas, but as historian and author Jack Alexander points out, it would have been quite obvious in Edinburgh that we were a nation at war.

“The city was militarised,” he says. “Regular soldiers were billeted at places around the city and reservists trained at drill halls, some of which remain today.”

Jason Rust, Peter Gray, Mark Drysdale and Phil Abramson examine a trench

Jason Rust, Peter Gray, Mark Drysdale and Phil Abramson examine a trench

As well as at Redford and Glencorse, there were barracks at Edinburgh Castle, Piershill and at Leith Fort.

As pressure grew for space, school buildings such as George Watson’s College premises, in Archibald Place, and George Heriot’s School were requisitioned. Drill halls dotted around the city were already used by reservists, but as they moved off to the frontline, more took their place.

Physical training took place outdoors at, among other locations, The Meadows and Leith Links, the sands at Belhaven near Dunbar, and the Pentland and Lammermuir Hills were used for physical training. Shooting practise often took place at estates like Dalmeny and at Swanston and even in the Queen’s Park at Holyrood.

The emerging use of aircraft in battle had an impact too. A German Zeppelin raid on Edinburgh in 1916 prompted the area around Turnhouse Farm on the west fringes of the city to be converted to an airfield. East Fortune became a Royal Naval Air Station and landing grounds were established at places including Colinton, Gifford, Gilmerton, Hoprig Mains, near Tranent, and West Fenton, near Gullane.

And to ease the passage of soldiers making their way to and from Waverley Station, the Boys Brigade established a rest hut at the bottom of the Mound, and a YMCA hut at the station where they could wash, eat and rest.


As casualties poured home from the frontline, virtually every hospital had to make space for new patients.Craigleith Poorhouse, later to become the Western General, was declared the Second Scottish General Hospital. It had around 1000 hospital beds for military personnel and 105 nurses trained specifically to deal with frontline casualties.

Bangour Village Hospital in West Lothian was turned into the Edinburgh War Hospital with 2600 beds.

Smaller hospitals were also employed. The Eastern General Hospital in Leith became a war hospital and Leith Hospital was used for servicemen injured at the front or on convoys to Russia.

The Royal Victoria cared for soldiers and sailors who contracted TB as a direct result of their war service, while the Royal Infirmary made 100 beds available.

Edinburgh Castle converted an ordnance store to create a 60-bed military hospital, which at one point dealt with more than 100 German casualties after the Royal Navy sank one of its battleships.

Dozens of Red Cross Auxiliary Hospitals sprang up, including at Morningside, Moray Place, Marchhall, Mayfield and Craigend.

The Assembly Rooms, in George Street, took on a medical role as a Central Red Cross Depot, where volunteers and staff collected aid for the frontline.

Famously, Elsie Inglis set up the Scottish Women’s Hospital, and sent units to France, Serbia, Russia, Corsica and Greece to help tend the injured.


Family life was torn apart as men marched to war. And at home, women soldiered on too, doing their bit.

Many trained as nurses while others knitted socks, hats and balaclavas for soldiers at the front and ran flag days and sold items for the war effort.

School life was also touched by the war. Children’s lessons were interrupted as teachers joined the war effort, their expertise in chemistry and science often a requirement from the war office.

School playgrounds became drill grounds where part-time soldiers practised marching and gun skills. Children raised tens of thousands of pounds for the war effort, through concerts, and school savings funds. James Gillespie’s children raised nearly £4500 by 1919 to help.

One Red Cross Auxiliary Hospital was funded by staff and pupils of St George’s School for Girls, while Girl Guides planted vegetable gardens and held fundraising events.

“Children did their bit,” agrees Yvonne. “They did little shows for the troops, charging people pennies to watch and then gave it to the war effort.”


The wheels of industry revolved around fighting the war too. Firms throughout the Lothians produced ammunition, weapons, personal equipment for fighting men, boots, food and drinks, medicines and tools.

Employees at the largest factory in Edinburgh, the North British Rubber Company at Fountainbridge, made one million pairs of trench boots that were bound for the Western Front.

In West Lothian, the shale industry provided oil for the war effort, while the coal mines around Lothian produced fuel to feed heavy industry as it churned out ships and weapons.

Iron ration biscuits for the troops were baked by McVitie’s and Price of Gorgie. Artillery shells were produced by Brown Brothers, of Roseburn – which also developed early tanks – and Bruce Peebles and Co Ltd in East Pilton. The Broughton Road premises of the Lothian Chemical Company was put to use, producing deadly poison gas.

Tailors Kinloch Anderson made smart uniforms for officers while Bartholomew’s played a vital role in the battle, providing maps of trenches.

“A lot of firms in the habit of producing civilian materials started to make things related to the war,” says Jack. “My great grandfather’s company, Alexander of Edinburgh, went from building motorcycles to manufacturing shells.”

Soldiers who had returned from war injured were given a role too. Rehab work units were set up, the main one at Slateford Road.


Leith played a vital role in the First World War. With so many Leith men in regular Army, Royal Navy or Merchant Service, the shipyards started to employ women.

It was a hive of industry. Deep sea trawlers were built as minesweepers, Ramage & Co produced hospital ships and yards in Leith and Granton were put to work maintaining vessels and building merchant ships to replace those sunk by U-Boats.

The port became a hub for troop transportation ships, supply vessels and hospital ships. Leith lost more than 2200 men during the First World War.

n Jack Alexander is author of McCrae’s Battalion, the Story of the 16th Royal Scots


1 The old Craigleith Hospital (now the Western General) was the 2nd Scottish General Hospital, one of 23 United Kingdom designated Territorial Hospitals which were controlled by the War Office and under army administration.

2 As well as being barracks along with Piershill and Leith Fort, Edinburgh Castle converted an ordnance store into a 60-bed military hospital. The small hospital was equipped with all the amenities of a war hospital, including an operating theatre. The Castle hospital dealt with more than 100 German casualties after the Royal Navy sunk the battleship Blucher.

3 Dalmeny Estate was one of many locations used as a firing range by troops learning how to use the Enfield rifle.

4 As well as its major role in shipbuilding, Leith was a hub for troop transportation ships, supply vessels, and hospital ships.

5 After the German Zeppelin airship raid on Edinburgh on April 2, 1916, the area around Turnhouse Farm west of Edinburgh was converted to an airfield.

6 Many school buildings were requisitioned for accommodation and playgrounds were turned into parade grounds. Tents were erected in public parks and training recruits for war was carried out on the Meadows and Leith Links.

7 The sands at Belhaven near Dunbar and the Pentland and Lammermuir Hills saw troops training and on exercise

For more about Edinburgh’s role in the First World War, go to www.edinburghs-war.ed.ac.uk