Scotland (North) Branch

Reports From Previous Meetings


2016 Meeting Reports

Compiled by Branch Chairman Derek Bird.

In January we welcomed retired orthopaedic surgeon Tom Scotland to talk about the life and work of Henry Gray, one of the most prominent, but little heard of today, surgeons of the Great War. Tom was able to give a fascinating insight into Gray’s work on the Western Front where his personal efforts, along with those through his mentoring of more junior surgeons, saved limbs and lives of thousands of wounded soldiers. He was honoured with a knighthood, but his war service meant that he had missed out on promotion in his home town of Aberdeen and, following an ill fated move to Canada to take over a high ranking post in Montreal, he finished his days quietly in private practice.

April saw the visit of Anna Welti who told us about her father, Archibald MacGregor, who served as a signals officer on the Western Front from April 1917 onwards. Within three weeks of arriving in France he was made Brigade Signals Officer to the 27th Brigade, 9th (Scottish) Division, and summed up his situation: “It was a bit of a gamble, as I had had only rather perfunctory training in practical Bde. Section work – what I did know very well was Cable Section work i.e. laying cable from a cable wagon drawn by a six horse team: but this was never possible in forward areas in France and Belgium except during the Somme retreat, and the last days of the war in Oct 1918.” However he overcame his lack of experience and was awarded the Military Cross for his actions in maintaining communications in the Kemmel area in late April 1918. Fifty years later he wrote an account of his time in the army for his grandchildren, which Anna has been able to use, along with his letters and other documents, to tell the story to a wider audience in her book ‘Signals from the Great War’.

In May we had a ‘double bill’ when Dr Dave Rogers travelled up from London to tell us about ‘British Boffins in the Great War’ and also talked about the logistics that put the army in the field, prepared them for major battles and sustained them. Both talks gave valuable insights into the many technical difficulties that had to be overcome by the brains of the boffins and by the brawn of the men in the supply chain who moved hundreds of tons of equipment, food and ammunition every day.

In June we welcomed author Andrew Williams to talk about intelligence gathering on the Western Front, and he gave an interesting insight into the various method used to try and obtain information on the Germans and their activities. This might be as simple as interrogating prisoners, but sometimes involved elaborate schemes in German occupied territory in which the local people were pivotal in observing activity and reporting it to the Allies.

Over the years we have covered almost all theatres of the Great War, but one that was lacking, until July, was Salonika. To fill that void in our knowledge we couldn’t have been better served than by one of the foremost experts on the campaign Alan Wakefield of the Imperial War Museum, who gave an excellent insight into the difficulties of terrain, climate and disease posed by that particular part of the world. Although the Salonika Force lost more men through illness, and sat around for considerable periods without any major attacks, when they did begin what proved to be the conclusive offensive in the autumn of 1918, the Bulgarians collapsed within a few weeks.

Our September meeting saw Michael Taylor travel up from Perth to talk about the Welsh Bantams of the 119th Infantry Brigade. Although most of us had probably heard of the bantams, and perhaps written them off, as so many others have, as undersized weaklings, Michael’s research over many years points to the Welsh Bantams being small, yes, but far from weaklings, as many came from the coal mines and were well used to hard manual labour. That some of the other bantam units did fit the stereotype and had to have hundreds of men weeded out from their ranks has unfortunately clouded the overall picture.

October saw Gerry Carroll telling the story of John Minnery, who served throughout the war, and afterwards, on the Western Front and in East Africa. In an adventurous lifetime he was awarded the MC, DCM and MM. Gerry’s detailed research meant that he was able to give an excellent account of the story of a brave and resourceful man.

For November, Derek Bird, Branch Chairman, gave a talk on the Zeebrugge Raid. The raid on 23 April, 1918, was remarkable in so many ways and the fact that it achieved so much was down to all concerned, from Vice-Admiral Keyes to the lowliest seaman or marine. As a result of the raid no less than eight Victoria Crosses were awarded, several of them by ballot under the little-used rule in the regulations where the collective bravery of a unit is such that it is impossible to single out an individual. Coming as it did at a time when the army was hard-pressed on the Western Front the raid did much to boost morale, as well as trapping a significant number of submarines and small surface vessels in the canals between Zeebrugge and their base at Bruges.

2015 Meeting Reports

Compiled by Branch Chairman Derek Bird.

JANUARY: The year kicked off with an excellent look at the war work of The North British Locomotive Company given by John Ross. Already one of the biggest builders of steam locomotives, this Glasgow based company spared no effort in diversifying for the benefit of the war effort. They turned their hand to producing a huge range of military equipment and munitions, other items such as artificial limbs and also turned over a sizeable part of their administrative buildings to become a hospital. Luckily the company had the forethought to make a photographic record of their activities and post war produced a book to show the scale and range of their war work and John was able to illustrate his talk with many of the photos.

MARCH: At our March meeting Dr Dee Hoole spoke on the shell-shock cases that were treated in the asylum system. Whilst the treatment of officers in grand country houses is quite well known, the treatment of the other ranks was often very different. Many were put into the mental asylums where they received little in the way of treatment, and not infrequently died young of diseases such as TB acquired while an inmate. Some were left to linger in the system for decades until they finally died. Dee Hoole has uncovered a wealth of information on these cases and her talk was interesting and particularly thought provoking. The only saving grace is that the lack of care for these poor men has in some part led to improvements in the mental welfare of our servicemen and women today.

APRIL: April saw the arrival of Barry Kitchener from London to give a talk on ‘Railwaymen in the Great War’. Barry gave us an excellent afternoon looking at the railway industry and its part in the war effort, both at home and abroad, and also focussed on a few individual railwaymen who performed heroic deeds. It was also extremely interesting to see how the various railway companies commemorated their former employees who had died during the war.

MAY: In May we welcomed Dr Dan Paton from the Montrose Air Station Heritage Centre to talk about the part played by Montrose during the Great War. Once No. 2 Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, had departed at the beginning of August 1914 there was little flying activity for a while but then it was decided to use the airfield for training both pilots and ground crew. Thereafter Montrose became extremely busy and as new pilots completed their training they were formed in to new squadrons that were then made operational and sent to the various theatres of war. Unfortunately there were many accidents and as well as trainees many experienced pilots, many of whom were acting as instructors while resting from front line duty, were killed. Many of the cemeteries around Montrose bear silent witness to these casualties as many were buried locally.

JUNE: In June I gave a presentation on behalf of the ‘Far from Home’ project. A week or so previously Diana Beaupre and Adrian Watkinson had passed through our area as part of their tour of Scotland locating and recording the graves of Canadians who died during the Great War. Three of us were able to meet with them over a late breakfast to discuss their project and I also went with them to Cluny Hill Cemetery in Forres to see them at ‘work’. There are three members of the Canadian Forestry Corps buried there including Private A. Hebert who went missing at the end of April 1918. His remains were eventually found at an isolated spot on the banks of the River Findhorn two years later; he had apparently committed suicide soon after his disappearance.

JULY: Our July meeting covered the advertised subject, but with a replacement speaker. The talk ‘The Naval Battles at Coronel and the Falkland Islands’ was due to have been given by Dr Scott Lindgren but he was unfortunately struck down with an ailment that meant he was unable to travel up to Scotland, however, he did us proud by arranging for his former mentor, Professor Eric Grove, to come in his stead. It always seems that, apart from Jutland, the naval aspects of the Great War get little coverage, but Eric Grove was able to put that right in his masterly description of the two major battles that took place far from home before the end of 1914. Losses were heavy on both sides, for the British at Coronel and for the Germans at the Falkland Islands but, from the British perspective, removed a very big threat to allied shipping in the seas around South America.

SEPTEMBER: In September Charles Messenger came to talk about a somewhat controversial character, Brigadier-General Frank Crozier, who came to the British Army through the unusual route of irregular forces, firstly in South Africa during the Boer War and later the Ulster Volunteer Force when it was incorporated into what became the 36th (Ulster) Division. It appears that he was a good soldier from the fighting perspective and received many awards and decorations, but had many traits that would normally have precluded him receiving a commission, such as bouncing cheques on occasion. It is perhaps no surprise that he was not retained in the post-war army but instead found employment as a commandant in the Royal Irish Constabulary Reserve Force, the infamous Black and Tans, although to his credit he resigned in 1921 when he was censured for his proposed punishments to some of his men who had looted a shop. He later worked for the League of Nations Union and became a firm pacifist.

NOVEMBER: At our November, 2015, meeting we had two short but interesting and entertaining talks from members, Timothy Finnegan and Roy Vincent, and we also had time for everyone to peruse and buy a large number of books that had been donated; in total about £100 was raised for branch funds.

2014 Meeting Reports

Compiled by Branch Chairman Derek Bird.

In January well-known writer and broadcaster, Hugh Dan Maclennan, came to speak about ‘Shinty’s War Heroes’. Hugh is a reporter on shinty for BBC Alba and knows his subject extremely well and has researched the stories of the players who joined up and served during the GreatWar. Many did not return and the effects on small communities and their shinty teams were profound; the damage was so great that there was a serious risk of the game dying out, but was rescued by a few stalwarts and thrives today.

March saw an unexpected change of plan when our speaker was stranded in Edinburgh by a car problem, so I had to stand in at short notice and give a re-run of my talk ‘Disaster and Victory: Two Days at Beaumont Hamel’, which hadn’t had an airing in Elgin for many years.

April ran to plan when I gave my talk on Louis Strange. Although few know of him today, he was a pre-war aviation pioneer who served from the beginning of the Great War (going to France with 5 Sqn in August 1914). His adventures included falling out of his aircraft when it flipped inverted while he was trying to change a jammed Lewis-gun ammunition drum in the middle of a dogfight! He managed to hold on, get his legs back into the cockpit, right the aircraft then drop back into the seat – he did so with such force that the seat broke and jammed the control cables so his problems were still far from over, but he did manage to recover the situation before hitting the ground, just. After a year in France he was returned to home duties where he had many more adventures, before returning to France in 1918 to command 80th Wing. He was awarded the MC in 1915 and the DFC and DSO in 1918. He left the RAF in the early 1920s but joined the Volunteer Reserve at the beginning of WW2 – wangling a flying post on a transport squadron despite being 17 years over age! For an exploit in flying an unarmed Hurricane back from France (a type he had never flown previously) in May 1940, and surviving being bounced by six Messerschmitts on the way, he was awarded another DFC. What was especially pleasing was that unbeknown to me until a week or so before giving the talk his great-nephew lives near Elgin and he was able to join us at the meeting.

In May we welcomed Graham Winton who put together an amalgam of some of his talks on horses in the Great War to give us an excellent afternoon. His scholarship and knowledge on the subject are superb and he was able to explain all the difficulties the army had in obtaining horses from around the world, how they were shipped to Europe and cared for, before being forwarded onto the units that would train them.

In June Martin Hornby gave us an interesting talk about the naval arms race through the early part of the 20th Century and the clash of the rival fleets in the Great War, before looking at the surrender of the German High Seas Fleet and their scuttling at Scapa Flow in 1919. With much of the latter stages of the story taking place in the seas around Scotland the talk was of particular interest to the audience.

Colin Campbell came to talk in July on the subject of his latest book ‘Engine of Destruction: The 51st (Highland) Division in the Great War’. Again with a subject with so much local interest everyone was keen to hear the talk and to discuss the many interesting points raised.

The morning of 22 September saw 18 members and friends from Scotland (along with four picked up en route to Hull) assembling in Edinburgh to begin a tour to the battlefields of 1914 arranged in conjunction with Mercat Tours International of Edinburgh. Some excellent weather meant that our four days on the battlefields were even better than we could have hoped for and Mons, the retreat down to the Marne, the Aisne, the final stages of the ‘race to the sea’ and the desperate fighting at Ypres were covered in warm and dry conditions. We laid a wreath at the La Ferte Sous Jouarre Memorial to the Missing, and I was particularly pleased that we were able to also lay one at the grave of Lieutenant Kenneth Meiklejohn of the 1st Cameron Highlanders in Vendresse British Cemetery. He was one of the few Cameron officers to survive the fighting at Cerny on 14 September 1914 when the Camerons suffered 600 casualties and eleven days later he was in a cave being used as the battalion HQ when German shellfire caused a collapse and entombed nearly 40 men, few of whom were dug out alive. That we were at Vendresse on the centenary of his death made our simple ceremony particularly poignant.

October saw a return visit by John Chester who spoke about ‘Poor Little Belgium’. He explained that far from being simply overrun the Belgians put up a stout defence of their country against far superior numbers and delayed the Germans significantly; thereby putting the first phases of the Schlieffen Plan behind schedule. That the civilian population were to be terrorised, and many of their homes and cities razed to the ground, is a tragedy that won the Germans no friends.
In November branch member Stuart Farrell talked about the results of his research into the Nairn War Memorial and some of those named on it. Stuart has researched a number of local memorials and published books on them, so his knowledge is well-founded and he managed to highlight some very interesting stories.

2013 Meeting Reports

Compiled by Branch Chairman Derek Bird.

In January Dr Joyce Walker travelled from Aberdeen to talk about the subject of her book A Cloak of Conscience. After an overview of conscientious objection during the Great War she looked in more detail at the Dyce Quarry Camp, close to the site of today’s Aberdeen Airport. Some 250 objectors were sent to the camp in August 1916 and many members of the local population were horrified to have such men in their area, with the local press also extremely critical of them on occasion. Following an inspection which found the living conditions, medical facilities, quality of food etc. below the acceptable standards, and with the hard-line objectors writing to anyone who they thought would listen to their complaints, the camp was closed after just three months. Joyce Walker must be thanked for unearthing an interesting and almost forgotten chapter in our local history.

A last-minute change of plan was required in March when our speaker was taken ill the evening before the meeting and I had to stand in with one of my talks, Some Unexpected Big Bangs of the Great War, that I last gave several years ago. I am pleased to say that the audience didn’t stampede for the door when the change was announced and as most had not heard the talk first time round it went down remarkably well.

April saw one of our own members, John Ross, giving his talk Julian the Tank Bank. In 1918 the War Savings Committee sent a number of tanks around the country to help persuade everyone to part with their hard earned cash in exchange for War Bonds. Julian first came to Scotland in early 1918 but did not travel further north than Aberdeen, but in the October a second tour saw it visiting several of the coastal communities along the shores of the Moray Firth and also towns such as Elgin, where the substantial sum of £171,000 was raised in a day. John enjoyed talking on his two main interests, the railways and the Great War, and explained how they managed to fit such a large load onto wagons and then made every effort to get the tanks around the country (although The Great North of Scotland Railway wouldn’t move Julian on a Sunday as they were a God-fearing railway company). A short piece of film taken when Julian was ‘in action’ at Dundee and Aberdeen manoeuvring close to the large crowds was a revelation – not a fluorescent jacket or risk assessment to be seen!

In May Tom Greenshields gave an excellent and moving talk on morale in the Highland battalions. Coming to us direct from a few days researching at the Highlanders Museum at Fort George he was able to include some of his newly discovered archive material; none more powerful than the letter written by a mortally wounded young man to his father as he lay dying in no man’s land. It certainly takes a special type of courage to face death in that way.

June saw Neil Hanson talking about the 1918 Blitz on London. The Germans developed huge and remarkably sophisticated aircraft, incorporating advanced metal- skinned fuselages, intercoms and oxygen for the crew, for the purpose. He also explained how they developed new incendiary bombs designed to set built up areas alight. Luckily the largest attack planned was cancelled just a short while before the aircraft were due to take off - London was saved, until 1940.

In July Douglas D’Enno came to talk about a subject of great interest in the North of Scotland, the exploits of the fishermen. Hundreds of boats fished from the ports in this area and when war was declared many of the crews volunteered for war service (a significant number of men were already members of the Royal Naval Reserve). They and their trawlers and drifters were used in a wide range of activities from simply ferrying the mail and supplies around the ships at anchor in one of the great naval bases, such as Invergordon, right up to minesweeping and armed escort duties. Many performed great acts of bravery, none more so than Skippers Joseph Watt and Thomas Crisp who were both awarded the VC; the former for refusing to surrender to an Austrian cruiser in the Straights of Otranto, instead he launched an attack upon it in his lightly armed drifter; the latter for extreme coolness in command when his drifter was shelled by a submarine in the North Sea, the seventh shell passing through his side. With both legs hanging off he still managed to smile as he told his son (one of his crew) not to lift him into the lifeboat – he went down with his ship.

In September I told the story of prisoners of war in general and the July 1918 mass escape from Holzminden in particular, when 10 of the 29 escapers managed to get to neutral Holland.