Members of a German rugby club that lost 24 members in WWI are visiting Scotland for purely sporting reasons, writes John McLellan.
Emerging from Green Park tube station in London on Thursday afternoon, the unmistakable sound of a military band and the whump-whump-whump of bass drums cut through the drone of traffic crawling down Piccadilly.
No ordinary band, but the Brigade of Guards on the parade ground in front of Wellington Barracks rehearsing for tomorrow’s Armistice Centenary commemoration in Whitehall. A small groups of tourists peered through the fencing at what, even without full dress uniform, was still an impressive sight.
On the other side of the railings, the onlookers included senior officers in brass-buttoned, red-lined greatcoats, compete with swords, and another in knee-high brown riding boots and jodhpurs in a scene which had changed little in the 100 years since the guns on the Western Front fell silent.
It’s a short walk from the barracks down Birdcage Walk to Whitehall and the Ministry of Defence to where I was heading, every corner seemingly a memorial to some aspect of the great conflicts of the 20th century; War Rooms, Guards Memorial, the Women of WW2 and the Cenotaph itself. Then the commanders; Churchill, Field Marshalls Montgomery, Brooke, Slim and, of course, Earl Haig.
Montgomery and Brooke served under Haig in the trenches, Montgomery being shot in the chest by a sniper at Ypres and, given junior officers suffered by far the highest fatality rate, he was lucky to survive. Due to the Army’s rigid class structure of the time, at the outset of war junior officers were drawn almost exclusively from private schools and because of the emphasis on sport they tended to be fit and were assigned to combat regiments. It was an exclusive club only smashed by the attrition of German machine guns as the young officers led their men out of the trenches.
Scotland had a higher number of infantry battalions compared to support regiments in which the casualty rate was lower, so the list of names on memorials at schools like Heriot’s and Watson’s are long for that reason. No family’s sacrifice was greater than another’s, but the effect on the Scottish middle classes was catastrophic. According to some estimates, a third of all men aged between 18 and 23 in August 1914 were killed, so team photographs from 1910-14 really are a picture of what poet Wilfred Owen called doomed youth. The obvious result was a generation of women who lost, or would never find, partners or raise families.
It was, of course, the same on the German side but their survivors did not have any comfort that it was all worthwhile; no winged angels of victory, no statues of uniformed men with heads bowed on every village green, their grave markers functional compared to the Imperial War Graves Commission’s beautifully engraved individual memorials.
For the losers there would be no equivalent of the jaw-dropping Tyne Cot Cemetery on the other side of the Passchendaele slope, yet the impact on German society was every bit as great. For example, the VfR 06 Dohren rugby club in Hannover was established in 1906 and 12 years later 24 members were dead. VfR survived all the horrors which followed and this week eight of its members will visit Scotland to enjoy the sport their forebears introduced when the carnage awaiting them in Flanders could not have been imagined.
Their visit is nothing at all to do with the Armistice Centenary but a lot to do with the Scotland v South Africa match at Murrayfield next Saturday because they organise an annual Autumn International trip. On Friday evening, they will be at Myreside for Watsonians v Heriots and our pre-match dinner.
It will be all about the rugby and the friendships enjoyed by the closest of rivals; maybe someone will bring up Brexit, but we will not dwell on the events of 100 years ago. But in this week of all weeks, we will remember that so many young men on both sides never got the chance to sit back in their later years to eat, drink, laugh and risk nothing more dangerous than a high tackle.
Not so hush-hush
I was in the MoD for a meeting of the Defence and Security Media Advisory committee, a uniquely British institution in which media representatives sit down with Government officials to discuss any concerns about publicity which might affect national security.
Founded in 1912, and colloquially known as the D-Notice system, it exists to enable editors and broadcasters to seek advice about what can or cannot be safely published. It is also the subject of many myths about secrecy and cover-ups, but is so secret there is a website with the members’ pictures. In any case, more problems are caused for government by ex-servicemen selling their stories of derring-do than prying reporters.
An extraordinay life
It’s hard not to be moved by the statue of Polish WW2 commander General Stanisław Maczek, on a bench in the quadrangle of Edinburgh City Chambers, now surrounded by wreaths. He fought in the Austro-Hungarian army on the Italian front in WW1, then for the newly independent Poland’s forces in the Polish-Ukrainian War, and after that against the Russian Bolsheviks, which might explain why the Communists stripped him of Polish citizenship. After the fall of Poland and France in 1940, he made his way to Britain and eventually led the Free Polish armoured brigade across Northern Europe.
Being based in Scotland before the Normandy landings, he settled in Marchmont where he died in 1994 aged 102, having been forced to make a living as a barman in the Learmonth Hotel because he was not granted a war pension. Now you can sit with him, resplendent in his Rogatywka cap, and marvel at an extraordinary life.