Unsung legal hero fought as part of McCrae's Battalion

AS A newly called advocate, I used to sit in the corridor of the Advocates Library, in a space near the Faculty War Memorial. It lists the names of 22 advocates and four intrants who fell during the Great War and one advocate who lost his life during the Second World War. Often I looked up at the memorial and wondered who these men were. The first name on the Memorial always stuck with me. It was Napier Armit.

On 29 June 2006 I watched a TV documentary, Supreme Sacrifice, on the BBC. It was the story of courageous men of Heart of Midlothian FC who volunteered to join the 16th Battalion of the Royal Scots. It was a moving account of brave footballers from the playing field of Tynecastle to the killing fields of the Somme. Hearts, at the time, were top of the league. The documentary contained comments from soldiers; one was attributed to Napier Armit. My ears pricked up.

On 29 September 2007, after a successful Open Day at Parliament House, I chanced to mention the documentary to Jane Condie of the Advocates Library staff. She offered to find out more and contacted the producer of the BBC programme and was advised the programme was based on a book entitled McCrae's Battalion by Jack Alexander. A copy was immediately obtained from the National Library. From this excellent and detailed book, the following facts emerge.

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'Nap' Armit was the eldest son of Mrs TN Armit and the late Thomas Napier Armit, salvage engineer, of Trinity, Edinburgh. He was born on 22 March 1880 and passed advocate on 18 March 1904. He was a member of Grange Cricket Club. On 14 July 1915 he married Jennie Cousin, younger daughter of Sir Richard Mackie of Leith. Like the Hearts players, Nap joined the 16th Battalion of the Royal Scots. He was 34. The Royal Scots welcomed recruits into a regimental family that had existed for three centuries. The battalion, under the leadership of Lt Col Sir George McCrae, was raised in Edinburgh in December 1914 and become known as McCrae's Battalion. It had 1,400 volunteers.

Nap was chosen by Sir George McCrae as Captain of B company, enlisted as a private and had to be talked into leaving the ranks to take an officer's commission. The remaining platoon commanders in B Company were a Minister of the Kirk, a rubber planter and a mechanical engineer.

In December 1915 McCrae's Battalion expected to be sent to Egypt and tropical equipment was issued, but on 26 December orders were changed and their old kit reissued. France was the new destination. Nap, editor of the battalion journal, The Weakly Rumour, wrote: "We were a' Jock Tamson's Bairns ... and a good New Year to all."

On a moonless evening on 8 January 1916, 1,100 men of McCrae's Battalion sailed into Le Havre from Southampton. Two days later the battalion, now 1,200 strong, squeezed into a train for St Omer. To the east, 20 miles away, lay the front lines. They marched 15 miles in full pack and reached the village of Renescure. The next few days were taken up with talks on keeping your feet dry, your rifle clean and yourself alive. On 28 January they moved to the front line. It was the Kaiser's birthday. By 10pm the battalion occupied an uninterrupted front of one and a half miles. At one point the German trenches lay only 50 yards away. A bombardment of more than 2,000 shells began. Nap wrote: "They were sending them over so thick we got to the stage of thinking that a shell could hardly help dropping in our midst. Fortunately, however, after two hours it stopped, just as suddenly as it started."

On 6 June 1916 the battalion was marched four miles to Lahoussoye to take part in the "Big Push" on the Somme; the battalion was informed the offensive (on a 14-mile front line from Serre in the north to Maricourt in the south) was to take place on 1 July 1916 at 7:30am. On the morning of 1 July, the order to fix bayonets came at 7:28am. At 7:30am, the whistles blew. The German machine-gun fire was merciless. Men were scythed down. Bagpipes played. Four minutes later, B Company got underway. German bullets "were like hailstones". Men were cut to ribbons. The wounded were crying out, but could not be reached. By noon the sun was blazing. German snipers picked off anything that moved. Nap was trapped with around 100 men in a trench deep behind German lines; they were surrounded, short of water, food and ammunition. At 6:20pm the enemy attacked the battalion rear. At 8pm, British flares signalled a prearranged attack. Nap and his men tried to get out, but were pinned back and down to 30 rounds per man. Before midnight, fighting took place - "bloody hand-to-hand stuff at the death", with rifle butts and bayonets. At 4am Nap and about 100 men were found in a crater. At 6:30am shelling and bombing intensified. By 8:15am, the worst had passed. At Roll Call it was discovered that, of the 21 officers and 793 soldiers who went into battle, 12 officers and 624 soldiers were missing. On 5 July, McCrae commended his men for their bravery. Nap was awarded the Military Cross.

On the afternoon of 1 July Commander-in-Chief Sir Douglas Haig had met Major Arthur Stephenson of the 9th King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. Despite a plea by Stephenson, who wore the Military Cross, that further attacks on the German lines would lead to slaughter due to overwhelming German machine-gun power, the order to continue the attack was made.

During the first day of the Somme offensive in the summer of 1916, 20,000 men were killed and 40,000 were wounded. Under heavy shell fire on 3 August, Nap led a reinforced B Company into a further assault. At midnight Nap reached the assembly position to find most of the company was missing. At 1:09am on 4 August the shelling of no man's land began. At 4:51am the whistles blew. Nap climbed over the parapet and advanced under heavy machine-gun fire. He was out in front leading his men. He got as far as the German wire before he was shot through the head.

Jennie Armit insisted her husband of one year was not dead. Despite confirmation from several survivors, she believed there was still hope and spoke of "secret Belgian internment camps" used to hold captured British officers. By late November 1916 Sir George McCrae was unwell and suffering from exhaustion. He was told he was not medically fit for further service and left the trenches with a DSO and two Mentions for gallantry. It was the end of 38 years of distinguished military service. Arthur Stephenson was confirmed as his successor.

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Eight-hundred men of the 16th Royal Scots fell during the Great War. A commemorative plaque was placed in St Giles Cathedral - fittingly close to Parliament House, where Nap started out as an advocate.

In 2004, as a result of public subscription in Scotland, a cairn was erected in the Somme village of Contalmaison in memory of the McCrae's. The unveiling ceremony was attended by a crowd of more than 600, including representatives of the Westminster and French governments, the Scottish Executive, City of Edinburgh Council, the Royal Scots and Hearts and Hibs football clubs.

In only three years, the "Contalmaison Cairn" has become a major attraction for battlefield pilgrims from all over the world. Napier Armit and his friends have not been forgotten.

• Thanks to the Advocates Library, Jack Alexander and Mainstream Publishing.