On this day exactly 100 years ago, a Falkirk man showed such bravery under gunfire in the Great War he was awarded one of the British military’s highest honours.
William S. McLachlan from Bainsford was married to wife Ann (27) and had three children – Robert (6), Margaret (4) and William junior (2) – with another baby on the way when he enlisted as a Private Reservist with the 10th Battalion Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders on Saturday, August 22, 1914.
The foundry worker was 30 years old and his new battalion was formed the same month he joined up as part of K1, Lord Kitchener’s first 100,000 men attached to the 27th Brigade in the 9th (Scottish) Division.
Only weeks after son James was born on December 17 he was called up for service to join the rest of the troops in training for the front line. They were inspected by Field Marshall Earl Kitchener himself on May 5, 1915 at Ludshott Common, Haslemere, Hampshire before being sent to France.
William and his battalion landed at Boulogne-sur-Mer on Wednesday, May 12 and soon had their first taste of life in the trenches at Armentieres where they remained for a few months.
From September 25-29 they were involved in their first conflict with the German enemy during the Battle of Loos in northeast France where three of William’s cousins in other regiments were killed.
William and his brave battalion continued to fight battles during 1916 at the Somme, Albert, Bazentin Ridge, the Capture of Bernafay Wood, the attack of Longueval, Delville Wood, Arras and Scarpe.
In between battles William had returned to Hampshire in England to train new recruits before going back to the front in 1917 where he was later promoted to the rank of Sergeant.
The Battalion then crossed into Flanders in Belgium and were involved in the Battles of Ypres, which included the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge, before moving on to near Dunkirk and then two other locations, spending the night in a shell hole on October 10.
On Friday, October 12 – the first day of The First Battle of Passchendaele (seventh phase of the Third Battle of Ypres) – the attack commenced on Passchendaele Ridge.
William’s grandson James McLachlan (68) of Redding, whose father was the son born just before William enlisted, has gone to great lengths to trace his grandfather’s steps during the battle and for the rest of World War One.
He said: “The attack commenced at 5.25am. Together with the 8th Battalion Black Watch and the 7th Battalion Seaforth Highlanders, William’s Battalion began to attack and advance eastwards in the direction of Passchendaele.
“They were held up by machine gun fire and sniping from the enemy. They managed to capture some German pill boxes, killing the occupants and, in spite of constant machine gun fire from further away, they started consolidating shell holes.
“It had rained for days and everything was a sea of mud. The following day, October 13, it continued to rain hard all day and they were relieved by the 4th South African Battalion.
“The War Diary shows that 56 men of the battalion were killed on that first day, plus 28 missing, probably also killed, and a further 156 wounded. Sadly amongst that number five men in the 10th Battalion who were killed were from the Falkirk area, the youngest being Private James Fleming from Camelon, age 19.”
On November 6 William was decorated with the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM), however, it is not clear exactly what happened on the battlefield, except that it involved “personal gallantry and courage under heavy fire”.
A citation published in the London Gazette on March 4, 1918 said: “S/2108 Sjt. W. McLachlan, A. & S. Highrs. (Falkirk). For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He took over the duties of company sergeant-major, and showed splendid qualities of leadership.
“Later, he had to take command of his company, and consolidated the captured ground with great skill and resource. By his personal gallantry and courage under heavy fire he maintained a high standard of efficiency in his company.”
William was honourably discharged from the Army on April 17, 1919 – “no longer physically fit for service” and he returned home with the scars such a brutal war left on many brave survivors.
At some point during the Battle of Passchendaele he was wounded, a medical document shows he had a “GS (gunshot or shrapnel) wound to leg”.
James added: “Amongst his possessions he kept a few small pieces of shrapnel which the family believe were removed from his leg. He did walk with a slight limp.”
At a public ceremony in Falkirk on August 1, 1920 William and other heroes from the district were given a scroll by the Burgh of Falkirk for “recognition of the Services rendered by him in Defence of his country, during the Great War”.
William attended the ceremony with his brother, Robert G McLachlan, who had been a sergeant in the 9th Battalion Seaforth Highlanders and had been awarded the French Croix de Guerre medal.
He returned to his occupation as an iron moulder and he and wife Ann had another two children, retiring as an iron foundry stocktaker from the Castlelaurie Foundry in Bainsford in 1949.
He passed away in 1957 aged 73. Gone, but never forgotten.