Lost poem from front reveals incredible story

A chance discovery in the archives of the Royal British Legion in Grangemouth '“ and a fair bit of detective work since '“has revealed the incredible story of a local hero of the First World War.

The Legion’s vice-chairman, Raymond Burns, was sorting out old paperwork when he came across a piece of paper that at first glance looked blank, it was so faded.

Little did he know that story revealed would be of a hero who regularly risked his life on the battlefield – so much so that he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Had William Baillie not lost his life in the war, he would have been awarded the VC.

Raymond discovered all this when he took the illegible piece of paper to a friend who works in Minuteman printers – and was stunned to find a poem, written in Flanders by Sergeant Baillie.

The rhyming poem tells the story of a soldier who is reading the list of names of the men who have been selected for honours – and suddenly sees his own.

“It seemed to good to see it and I spelt and spelt the name/Lest my eyesight should have tricked me, but it still remained the same.”

His reaction, summed up in verse, is made all the more poignant with the knowledge that it was written very shortly before his death.

A century on, at first Raymond could not believe it had been written by a serving soldier, who talks about “an easy chair” and looks back on his boyhood.

“He was sitting writing this in the dugout! At first you think he’s in his living room, but that’s not the case.

“We do know that they had lots of chairs, they would take them from all over the place and carry them with them!”

Raymond has pieced together the pieces of the fascinating story through research that included several visits to Grangemouth Library as well as a trip to the Highland Light Infantry museum in Glasgow.

After several hours poring over microfiche copies of the paper, he found the poem in the pages of the Grangemouth Advertiser of 102 years ago, alongside a report of the soldier’s brave conduct during the war.

It read: “The following announcement appeared in the New Year Honours List of the London Gazette on Saturday: Sergeant William Baillie (9276), 2nd Highland Light Infantry, has been awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, for gallant services rendered, especially at night time; was always eager to volunteer for patrol or other dangerous duty requiring nerve.

“The announcement of this well-merited honour on a fellow-townsman was received with great satisfaction in the Port on Monday. Mr Baillie was known to practically every young man in the Port, and they have followed his career with great interest.

“He was wounded at Ypres on 28th October, and sent home to Birmingham for treatment. The wound was in the shape of a cross and fully one and a half inches long.

“After being operated on he made a good recovery and was discharged from the hospital. “

Another report in The London Standard had more details, including the incredible discovery that the dardevil Sgt Baillie had a wooden leg, which the field telephone was strapped to.

Raymond was thrilled to discover so much information – but he wants to find out more and, in particular, he would love to find a photograph of the man himself.

He said: “I know he died just three days after the poem was published in the Grangemouth Advertiser, but I can’t find the death announcement.

“I know that his wife left Grangemouth and moved to Hamilton but I don’t know if he had any children.

“We do know from the newspaper articles that he had brothers who served, so that’s the next step, following up their names and trying to find out a bit more.”

The Grangemouth Advertiser reported: “Since coming home, three of his brothers have gone to France – John and James as transport workers, and Tom in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.” The thrilling story of Sergeant William Baillie will take centre stage in a new display that is planned for the Royal British Legion in Grangemouth.

It will feature many of the local heroes that the Legion makes sure will never be forgotten and Raymond would love to hear from anyone who knows more of this story or could perhaps track down relations of Sergeant Baillie.

Most prized of all, he would love a photograph to complete this amazing story.