Bo’ness hero of St Valery remembered 80 years on

A short service was held earlier this month to commemorate a Bo’ness soldier who died 80 years ago in a major WW2 battle in France.

Thursday, 25th June 2020, 7:21 am
Walter Williamson MBE played the tribute 'The Heroes of St. Valery'.

Private John McGillivray, from the Gordon Highlanders, was killed at the Battle of St Valery on June 11, 1940. On June 12 this year a short service was held at John’s family grave site at the Dundas Street cemetery to commemorate his sacrifice.

Just days after the successful mass-evacuations at Dunkirk, thousands of British troops still remained on continental Europe under French command. They largely comprised of men from the 51st  Highland Division, including Pte McGillivray, who fought almost continuously for 10 days against overwhelming odds until eventually surrounded at a French port called St Valéry-en-Caux.

Poppy Scotland asked for as many pipers as possible to turn out at war memorials on June 12 at 10am to play a pipe tune called ‘The Heroes of St Valery’ written by Pipe Major Donald McLean from the 2 nd Seaforth Highlanders, himself being one of the prisoners, to commemorate over 10,000 soldiers of the 51 st Highland Division who were forced to surrender to the German Army at St. Valery-en-Caux in France.

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Pte. John McGillivray, Gordon Highlanders from Bo’ness was part of the 51st Highland Division. He was killed on 11 June 1940 during what was to be known as the Battle of St. Valery-en-Caux.

In response to this request and to commemorate Pte McGillivray’s sacrifice, Bo’ness Old Kirk’s Rev Amanda McQuarrie conducted a service at the family grave in Bo’ness Cemetery, and Walter Williamson MBE took on the challenge from Poppy Scotland, playing the tribute.

Speaking about Pte McGillivray’s sacrifice, Mr Williamson said: “We laid a Gordon Highlanders wreath as well as crosses with poppies. Although it’s his family’s plot, Pte McGillivray isn’t actually buried there, his body was never repatriated back to Scotland.

“The service was well attended, with over 20 members of the local community there, as well as relatives.

“Rev McQuarry was delighted to take the service. In a way it was a very sensitive service, and in a way quite solemn but also very poignant as pipers across the world took part at 10am UK time.

“There were over 1,000 pipers involved. All playing the same tune at the same time.

“It was a nice thing to do and it was nice to be involved.

“Whilst events such as Dunkirk, VE Day and D-Day are rightly commemorated, the memory of those who fought and fell at St Valéry, known as ‘The Other Dunkirk’ were remembered in a national tribute for the first time.”

Not unlike Dunkirk, a flotilla of 67 Merchant ships and 140 small vessels were organised and despatched from UK ports for St Valery but the inclement weather and the German artillery overlooking the town, meant any evacuation on the night of  June 11 was impossible.

Major General Victor Morven Fortune, commanding the Division, considered all the options – a counter-attack, further resistance or retaking the town, but there was no possibility of evacuation or support. His men were exhausted and virtually out of ammunition. Shortly before 10am on June 12 General Fortune took the most difficult of decisions – to surrender.

Speaking about the 51st Highland Division, Mr Williamson said: “They were fighting a kind of rearguard action, to allow 300,000 soldiers to get away at Dunkirk.

“People might think, ‘why was a guy from Bo’ness in a Highland regiment?’ But lots of people signed up as they had family ties with the Highlands.

“The McGillivrays, of which I’m one, belong to the Inverness area. The came down during the industrial revolution at the time of the Highland Clearances.”