Sunday marks 100 years since the end of the First World War and members of the current Melrose first XV squad have recently undertaken a fascintating but sometimes heartbreaking project to discover more about the club members from the Greenyards who lost their lives serving their country between 1914 and 1918.
During the Great War, 557,000 Scottish men joined up to fight and just over a quarter did not return home.
From Melrose – a town with a population of 3000 – 454 local men served.
Like many other towns in the Borders, the rugby club was at the heart of the Melrose community when war broke out in 1914.
And the pre-war records show that 75 members enlisted and that a Melrose player was present in every theatre of war during the conflict.
There are 90 names of local men who lost their lives recorded on the Melrose Parish War Memorial, 13 of whom were members of Melrose Rugby Football Club.
The rugby club is still at the heart of town and, over the last few months, scrum-half Murdo McAndrew and second-row James Head – who have both helped Rob Chrystie’s men win numerous trophies in recent years – have been learning more about those 13 men.
“Myself and James both like history and have often chatted about World War One, so in the summer we decided, with it coming up to 100 years since the end of the war, to find out more about the Melrose members who had been involved,” McAndrew said.
“We were both thinking about it because we thought that, if it was happening now, then it would be us and our team-mates signing up and that made quite an impression on us.
“The club records have a list of every Melrose member who died during the war and through our reading and the help of the Borders Family History Society we were able to piece together more about each individual.”
The majority of the men who signed up from Melrose and the surrounding area joined the Kings Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB).
This regiment was involved in some of the bloodiest campaigns and battles of the entire war, including the Gallipoli Peninsula, The Somme, Arras and Passchendaele.
The 13 Melrose members who died were Major William Sydeny Noel Curle, 2nd Lt. Thomas Hart, Sgt. William Davidson, Act/Cpl. Robert Smith Riddell, L/Cpl Ivor Fernie, Private William Darling, Private John Gibb, Private John Gill, Private James Mcvittie, Private Thomas Scott, Private Bruce Stewart, Private Thomas Marten Wilson and Private George Lawson Bunyan.
All of the men have interesting life stories which McAndrew, Head and others at the club believe should be known by a wider audience. Noel Curle was the youngest son of James Curle, the first vice-president of Melrose, and he served in France and was awarded the Military Cross. He passed away in March, 1918, while John Gill , who was born and lived in Newstead, Melrose, was a former captain of the rugby club before moving to London. He was a key member of the Melrose team that won the 1910/1911 Borders Championship. He died in Mesopotamia in April, 1916.
“These men all deserve our thanks and respect and it really has been very interesting doing the research on them and thinking that they all loved the same sport that we love,” McAndrew added. “It has made myself and James –and the team-mates and others at the club who we have talked to about it – realise how lucky we are and made us even prouder than we already were to represent Melrose.”
Major William Sydeny Noel Curle.
Military Cross, 107th Battalion, Royal Field Artillery and Royal Horse Artillery
Curle was born in Harleyburn, Melrose, in 1885, and was the youngest son of James Curle, the first vice president of Melrose RFC. Curle served in France and was awarded the Military Cross. He was reported as missing in March, 1918.
It was later confirmed that Curle died in German hands of wounds he received in battle on 23 March, 1918, aged 31. He is buried in Premont British Cemetery, Aisne, France.
2nd Lieutenant Thomas Hart.
63 Company, Machine Gun Corps
As a member of the Border Territorials, he was mobilised at the outbreak of the war and saw service in Gallipoli in Turkey and Egypt. He was later transferred to the Western Front in April, 1918. He had been on the frontline for only five days when he met his death on 5 April, 1918, aged 22.
Sergeant William Davidson.
Davidson lived in Dingleton, Melrose, and worked as a farm servant. He would have been nine when the war broke out in 1914. No definite information can be found on this man.
Acting Corporal Robert Smith Riddell.
2nd Battalion, King’s Own Scottish Borderers.
Riddell was born in Melrose and worked as a grocer and stonemason. He was the eldest of three brothers who all served in the war. His youngest brother, Edward, was killed in the summer of 1917. Two months later, Robert was killed in action by a shell on 1 July, 1917, leaving behind a widow and two children. He is buried in Roclincourt Military Cemetery, Pas de Calais, France.
Lance Corporal Ivor Fernie.
48 company, 1st/4th Battalion, KOSB
Fernie was born in Perth and later moved to Melrose. When war broke out, he was already a member of the KOSB and served in Gallipoli. The 1st Battalion fought on the Gallipoli Peninsula and their story is typical of that ill-fated campaign. Having been severely mauled in the initial assault, they took part in the Suvla Bay assault on 21 August, 1915. On 8 January, 1916, the battalion was eventually withdrawn from the Dardanelles. The casualty calculations come out at the horrendous total of 100 per cent. Fernie survived Gallipoli and was sent to Egypt where he became severely ill due to dysentery contracted at the Dardenelles and died at Bangour Hospital, Alexandria, on 19 April, 1917, aged 21. He is buried in the Kantara War Memorial Cemetery in Egypt
Private William Darling
1st/4th Battalion, KOSB
Darling was born in Melrose and worked as a baker. He enlisted with the KOSB and arrived in Gallipoli in June, 1915. On the 12 July, 1915, the British made a final attempt to break through the Turkish lines at Helles, Gallipoli Peninsula. The 1/4th Kings Own Scottish Borderers were amongst the first two waves of attack, soon followed by 1/5th KOSB. During this attack the regiment suffered a shocking 805 casualties, marking the day as ‘one of the darkest days in the history of the Scottish Borders’. Darling was amongst those killed on that day and is remembered on the Helles Memorial which stands on the tip of the Gallipoli Peninsula.
Private John Gibb.
1st/10th Battalion, Cameronians (Scottish Rifles).
Gibb lived in Darnick, Melrose and before the war he worked as a gardener. He survived the Gallipoli campaign with the KOSB and was later sent to Europe and fought in the 3rd Battle of Ypres, where he was wounded by a bullet which lodged near his heart. Gibb died from his wounds at 32 Casualty Clearing Station, France, on 5 August, 1917, aged 19. He is buried in Bradhoek New Military Cemetery, Ypres, France.
Private John Gill.
9th Battalion, Worcestershire Regiment; KOSB
Gill was born and lived in Newstead, Melrose, and was a former captain of the rugby club before moving to London. He was a key member of the Melrose team which won the 1910-1911 Borders Championship. Gill had already served in the Boer War and decided to enlist with the KOSB at the start of the war where he was badly wounded during a battle for Hill 60 but recovered from his wounds. He was later sent to Mesopotamia where he died of wounds, taking part in the fight for Kut on 6 April, 1916. He is remembered on the Basra Memorial, Iraqi
Private James Mcvittie.
6th Battalion, KOSB
Mcvittie was from Dingleton, Melrose, and worked as a butcher at Buynon’s and Sons. On 25 September, 1915, the allied forces launched a massive attack known as the Battle of Loos. The 6th Kings Own Scottish Borders were amongst the initial assault. On the first day of the attack, the fierceness of the fighting was such that only 2,000 of the 8,500 soldiers that died have a known marked grave. Mcvittie went missing on that day. He is remembered on the Loos Memorial in the locality of Pas de Calais, France.
Private Thomas Scott.
Scots Guards (Pioneer Section, British Expeditionary Force).
Scott was born in 1891 and lived in Gattonside, Melrose, where he worked as a mason. Scott survived the war, serving in Gallipoli and Europe. In November, 1918, he was granted compassionate leave to be with his dying three-year-old daughter. On 11 November, 1918, Armistice Day, his daughter died. Eleven days later Scott died from the same disease. He is buried in Cocksburnspath Parish churchyard.
Private Bruce Stewart.
11th Battalion, Royal Scots (Lothian Regiment)
Stewart lived in Melrose and served his apprenticeship before the war broke out. His parents received official word that he had gone missing in action in April, 1917. A few months later he was reported as a prisoner of war. On 13 June, 1917, he died of dysentery in a German prisoner of war camp, aged 35. He is buried in the Niederzwehren Cemetery, KasselHessen, Germany.
Private Thomas Marten Wilson.
8th Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment; 256th Company, Labour Corps
Wilson lived in Danielton Cottages, Melrose, with his parents. He fought with the 8th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment before he was transferred to the Labour Corps. Thomas died aged 20 from wounds sustained on 5 February, 1919. He is buried in Cambrai East Military cemetery, Nord, France.
Private George Lawson Bunyan.
1st Battalion, KOSB
Before the war, Bunyan worked as a gardener in Melrose. He lied about his age and was only 17 years old when he enlisted. He joined the KOSB and served in western Europe. Bunyanwas killed in action on 30 November, 1917, at the Battle of Cambrai. He is remembered on the Cambrai Memorial.