Solemn tribute to the Scots who fought and died at Passchendaele

Bonnybridge pensioner Michael McMahon is part of the official UK Government party travelling to Belgium this month to commemmorate Passchendaele. 
Michael is picture holding a photograph of his grandfather, Michael Sylvester McMahon, who fought there.
Bonnybridge pensioner Michael McMahon is part of the official UK Government party travelling to Belgium this month to commemmorate Passchendaele. Michael is picture holding a photograph of his grandfather, Michael Sylvester McMahon, who fought there.
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On July 21, 1917, Scottish troops were front and centre at the start of one of the most striking battles of the Great War.

The Scottish presence in Flanders was constant, culminating in the Passchendaele offensive in the second half of 1917.

The Menin Gate in Ypres.  The names of countless Scots are inscribed inside the arch.

The Menin Gate in Ypres. The names of countless Scots are inscribed inside the arch.

On very few other occasions have so many Scottish soldiers fought so close to each other, which makes the battle one of the most important in our history books.

Between July 31 and November 10, 1917, all three Scottish Divisions were on the Western Front.

The 9th and 15th Scottish Division and the 51st Highland Division were engaged in the Third Battle of Ypres – better known today as Passchendaele.

In addition, many Highland and Lowland battalions served in mixed British divisions.

Soldiers of Scottish origin could also be found in almost all of the other British and Dominion Forces engaged in the battle.

For example, the majority of the nine Canadian men who won a Victoria Cross for their bravery in the last week of October and first week of November in 1917 were either Scottish-born or children of Scottish immigrants. The battle involved some of the most intense fighting ever seen on Flemish soil.

The plan was to advance to the cities of Roeselare and Torhout, some 15 to 20 miles away.

The determined German defence and periods of awful weather conditions tranformed the fight into a battle of attrition.

It finally ended on November 10 at Passchendaele, some four miles from the starting line.

Each side suffered huge losses with 325,000 Allied and 260,000 German casualties.

Bonnybridge pensioner Michael McMahon, whose grandfather fought there - and survived, albeit minus the sight of one eye - was chosen to be part of the UK Government’s official commemoration in Belgium this month.

Mr McMahon said: “He rarely spoke about the war and it’s difficult to imagine what the horrors of the battlefields and incarceration as a prisoner of war must have been like for him.

“This will be an emotional journey for me, but a great honour to be present at the ceremony in Ypres to remember him and those who died in such a terrible battle.”

National attention will also focus on the centenary weekend planned on August 19 and 20.

Together with a number of partners, the Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917 is organising The Long Road to Passchendaele.

It is a commemorative weekend aimed at people of Scottish origin who were involved in the battle, as well as the 1st South African Brigade, part of the 9th Scottish Division, and all the non-Scots serving in Scottish formations.

The Scottish Memorial in Flanders was first created in August 2007 to commemorate the soldiers of the 9th and 15th (Scottish) Divisions who died at the Battle of Passchendale.

It is located on the Frezenberg Ridge on the site of the battlefield close to the village of Zonnebeke and the town of Ieper (Ypres).

For the centenary of the battle, the organisers are extending the Memorial Park by creating larger than life steel silhouettes in the form of marching Scottish soldiers from highland and lowland regiments.

The statues are inspired by the many soldiers who marched to the front and are based on photographs by famous war photographers such as Ernest Brooks and Frank Hurley.

The memorial will also include a tribute to these photographers.

The existing Celtic cross and the new silhouettes will form the Frezenberg Scottish Memorial Park.

David Sworde, whose great-grandfather fought at Flanders, is attending the event.

He said: “Like most people who had family members who fought in the war, I am immensely proud of my great-grandfather who selflessly risked his life to fight for his country.

“My family was one of the lucky ones – he returned home alive, although he was gravely injured in the face when he was hit by a shell and, therefore, lost the use of his left eye.

“I think it is fantastic that these men will be honoured for their bravery.”

The official commemoration begins on the evening July 30 with a traditional Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate, followed by a special live performance in Ypres Market Square

Then in August a themed weekend starts with a memorial ceremony at the Scottish monument on the Frezenberg Zonnebeke.

On Saturday, August 19, an international Tattoo will take place, with an impressive display of sound and light.

On the Sunday afternoon there will be a variety of Scottish-themed activities in the castle grounds including Highland Games, birds of prey demonstrations and samples of Scottish food and drink.

Paul Breyne, the Belgian general commissioner for the First World War commemoration, said: “It is our duty to continue to commemorate all of the victims and to keep the story of the Battle of Passchendaele alive.

“It is a story about the struggle and commitment of a generation who gave their lives for our freedom, a struggle for a peaceful world which continues to this day.”

“We are looking forward to welcoming citizens and visitors from other nations to Belgium to pay tribute to those who fought with dedication and bravery, 100 years ago, in this devastating battle.”

For more information on the campaign including how to make a donation, visit www.youcaring.com/scottish-great-war-memorial-near-passchendaele-completion-610763.

For further details on the centenary events, visit www.longroadtopasschendaele.be/.