By Euan Loarridge, PhD candidate in History, University of Glasgow
As, things begin to gear up for the anniversary of the Battle of Arras (April 19th – May 12th) this post reflects on the University’s Commemoration of last year’s Centenary of the Battle of the Somme.
Commemorating the Fallen
Almost 150 staff, students, cadets and alumni were killed, or died of wounds sustained, in the Battle of the Somme (July 1st – November 18th 1916) and the associated diversionary attack at Gommecourt (July 1st). Eighteen individuals, over 10%, fell on the first day alone. As with all the individuals on the University’s Roll of Honour, each is commemorated on the anniversary of their death with a poppy cross in the Memorial Garden. However, during the centenary of the offensive, the University also remembered the fallen through a series of events and academic studies including talks on the Leipzig Redoubt, screenings of the Official War Film, displays of the Somme Observance Community Knitting and an academic conference on Faith in the First World War.
Mapping the Fallen
There were also efforts to place the University’s losses in a geographic context. Using regimental histories and war diaries, the location of each individual who fell on the first day of the Somme was plotted on a map of the battlefield. This revealed that members of the University community were present in almost every sector of the Somme, from Beaumont Hamel in the North to Fricourt in the South. In many cases, these young men fought and died in the company of other former students and cadets. The disaster that befell the 1/9th Highland Light Infantry (Glasgow Highlanders) at High Wood on July 14th/15th for example, claimed the lives of four former students. During the attack of the 1/14th London Regiment (London Scottish) at Gommecourt on July 1st, Second Lieutenant Donald Kerr MA BSc and Private Thomas Cleghorn MA were killed within yards of each other. Two days later, three more lives were lost during the attack of the 15th (Tramway) Battalion of the Highland Light Infantry.
However, nowhere is the concentration of University community members more evident than on July 1st in the area of the Leipzig Salient, near the village of Authuille where nine men from the 16th (Boys Brigade) and 17th (Chambers of Commerce) battalions of the Highland Light Infantry fell in the attempt to drive the Germans from Thiepval Ridge. This engagement not only accounted for the majority of university casualties on the first day, but is also one of single largest concentrations of university community members in one place, at one time in the entire First World War. As a result of this connection between the University and the Leipzig Salient, the site became the focus of research for Masters students at the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology. Using the records of the Grave Registration Units of the Imperial War Graves Commission, it was possible to identify where on the battlefield individual bodies were recovered. In some cases, this elaborated on what may have happened to these young men.
2/Lts Brown and Murdoch 16th HLI
Two such individuals were 2/Lt. Robert Stanley Brown and 2/Lt. John Murdoch, respectively of ‘B’ and ‘D’ Companies 16th Highland Light Infantry. These two young men had been cadets together in the University Officer Training Corps for several years before enlisting at the outbreak of War. On July 1st 1916, they both went ‘over the top’ opposite an area of the Leipzig Salient known as ‘The Point’. Three years later, their bodies were recovered by 148th Labour Company which was working to consolidate the hundreds of scattered little cemeteries into the larger cemeteries we know today. The location of each body found was recorded with a grid reference, allowing individual graves to be plotted on contemporary maps.
If Robert, for example, was buried close to where he was found at grid reference R31.a.2.3, he may only have led his platoon a sobering 45m (50yds) into No Man’s Land before he was killed. John’s body, meanwhile, was actually found behind the German lines at R31.a.6.3. This may mean he actually succeeded in entering the German trenches or, was perhaps amongst a large group of ‘D’ Company who succeeded in crossing No Man’s Land only to find the German barbed wire impenetrable. Having been caught on the wire, John’s body may have been recovered and buried by the German defenders within their own lines.
After the war, the bodies of Robert Brown and John Murdoch were exhumed and moved to Lonsdale Cemetery, near the village of Authuille, where they now rest in peace. The names of both men are commemorated on the Roll of Honour tablets in the University of Glasgow Memorial Chapel.
Edmonds, J., 1932. Military Operations: France and Belgium 1916, Vol.1. fascimile ed. London: Naval and Military Press & Imperial War Museum.
Linesman, 2014. The Somme: Interactive Trench Map Archive [CD-ROM], London: Great War Digital.