Just about this time a hundred years ago, my father, Private Eric Linklater, posed for a photograph in the uniform of the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry. He was 16, and was about to leave for the front. Like so many others he had faked his age to be accepted. He had also altered the medical report on his eyesight which, without glasses, was not great. Four months later he would be in a salient trench at Ypres, a sniper.

Last week I was in France to commemorate an action which he missed – just – but which he would have known all about: Beaumont Hamel, the last great battle of the Somme, when the 51st Highland Division took a seemingly impregnable German position in the village on 13 November, 1916. We have, over the past three years, seen many of these events, and learned much about a war one hundred years ago that never ceases to shock and move us in equal measure. But each one tells us just a little more about its history.

A crowd of around 200 turned out, with a small detachment of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, with pipes and drums, and a wee French boy dressed in khaki, also playing the pipes. We had speeches, there were welcomes from the mayor and the local MP, the Last Post and Flowers of the Forest were played around a Scottish flagpole in the centre of the village, and we all sang the national anthems of Britain and France.
Afterwards we tucked into champagne, provided by the French, malt whisky and shortbread, donated by the Scots. There was great enthusiasm from the locals, who still recognise the sacrifice that was made on their behalf. The village – a scattering of houses, and a church – was entirely destroyed in the course of the Somme campaign, and has been rebuilt.

Afterwards, we walked over the site of the trenches on both sides. You could see immediately the difference between the relatively shallow British lines, and the deep, dug-in German trenches. The action at Beaumont Hamel meant storming a notorious German-held trench in what is known as Y Ravine, a deep cleft in the ground, in which they had created underground bunkers, with stairways, concrete shelters and complete living quarters.

What one learned, of course, was that the British trenches were temporary because they were attacking. The German trenches were deep and well-made because they were defensive. On 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, there had been a combined allied attack, preceded by the most massive explosion, when the Royal Engineers, who had tunnelled to within yards of the German lines, laid 40,000 lbs of explosive, and blew it up just before the allied advance. It didn’t work – merely announced the impending attack. It created a huge crater, killed 800 Germans, but allowed the German soldiers to occupy it as a defensive position.

The attack was driven back with appalling losses. The Newfoundland regiment was virtually wiped out – they lost 86% of their men. We went and visited the memorial park, which has been created by the Canadians, with a huge statue of a Caribou deer dominating it. It was heartbreaking. You could see the ground that the Newfoundlanders had to cross, and it was entirely exposed. We were told that the barbed wire had only been cut in three or four places, and the German machine gunners had the gaps covered from every angle, so that almost every soldier charging through was killed.

There is a tree still standing in a place known as Danger Tree (the original one is pictured above), marking the place where most of them died. So terrible were the losses that it effectively ended Newfoundland’s ambition to be independent of Canada. We were taken round by a guide who said that this – and next year’s commemoration of Vimy Ridge at Arras, which was a Canadian battle – were formative events in the creation of Canada.

There is also a huge monument to the 51st Division, topped by a massive statue of a Highland soldier, and we followed a detachment of the Royal Regiment of Scotland who played the pipes in front of it. They took the whole thing very seriously, and we were moved by their devotion to the task.

The attack by the 51st Division on 13 November was also preceded by a massive explosion. But by this stage they had far better intelligence about the ground and the German defences. They went in on two fronts, and in two stages, through mud that was occasionally waist-deep (one runner got so embedded that he could not move for five hours). They were helped however by the early darkness, and a low mist, and the Seaforth Highlanders got up the edge of the village before they came under fire.
Y Ravine took all day to capture. Two caves, held by the Germans, were captured by an astonishingly small company of jocks. Here is the official account:

In the northern sector of the division's front were two large caves, and 'A' Company was detailed to provide parties to capture them. Closely following the barrage the party led by Second Lieutenant McVicar captured the northern cave, and that led by Second Lieutenant George Edwards captured the southern one. Edwards arrived at the entrance having passed through part of the British artillery barrage and with the support of just a few men, some of them already wounded. Calling on the occupants to surrender the Germans agreed, not realising how few Highlanders there were outside, and the gallant little band took charge of a large group of prisoners; some reports say as many as 400. Some minutes later a German bombing party appeared at the cave mouth, put most of the Seaforth party out of action, and forced George Edwards to surrender to his former prisoners. He was taken to a nearby dug-out which was in fact a battalion headquarters, where he was questioned by a German battalion commander and his staff. After a short time the sounds of rifle fire and bomb indicated that the situation outside had changed again. Edwards then suggested to the German that as they were probably now surrounded it would be prudent for them to surrender which, after a brief discussion they did. Second Lieutenant Edwards therefore took charge of his high-ranking prisoners and marched them back to the 6th Seaforth HQ where he handed them over to Lieutenant-Colonel Graham. For his bravery, and indeed audacity, Second Lieutenant Edwards was awarded the DSO.

Here is another citation from the same day:

In the raid of the seventh Gordon Highlanders, Lance Sgt Morrison killed four Germans and disarmed 50, who were taken prisoner. At this point Morrison had expended all ammunition and bombs and was faced by two more Germans with fixed bayonets. Appreciating the situation, Private Louis Thompson rushed past sergeant Morrison and killed the first German with his entrenching tool. He then picked up the fallen German’s rifle and with it killed the second. For this exploit both Simon Morrison and Private Thompson were awarded the military medal.

The capture of Beaumont Hamel, against all the odds, is described by the division’s historian, as 'the foundation stone on which the reputation of the 51st Highland Division is built.'

Next day we went to the massive memorial at Thiepval, designed by Lutyens. As with all Lutyens' buildings, it had a certain imperialist splendour, but seemed to us entirely soulless. It was opened by the Prince of Wales in 1932. The names of all the allied soldiers who died in the course of the Battle of the Somme are inscribed there, including that of H H Munro – ‘Saki’ – of the Royal Fusiliers, who was killed on 13 November 1916. We attended the small daily service that takes place every morning on the steps of the monument. They read out the names of any relatives of those attending, so we had my father’s name read out – wounded in action at Ypres, and the names of my wife Veronica’s uncles, who died in the second world war at Arnhem and Normandy. There were only about half a dozen people attending, and I think we found that more moving than almost anything else.

Finally, we went to Amiens, and its superb cathedral. Protected during the war from the shellfire, which was only few miles from the city limits, by great palisades erected round its base, it survived more or less, with windows and masonry broken, but the structure surviving. Inside there was the sculpture of a weeping angel, which troops used to send back as a postcard, and a small memorial to Raymond Asquith, the prime minister’s son, who insisted on serving at the front with the Grenadiers, and was killed in action in September 1916. There are two famous stories about his death. One, that his last words were 'Put that bloody fag out' and two that, after being shot in the chest, he asked for a cigarette, to disguise the seriousness of his injury so that the attack would not be held up. He died as a result of not being taken back for treatment sooner. The memorial, on one of the pillars of the cathedral, quotes the line from Henry V: 'Small time, but in that small most greatly lived this star of England.'

Snippets of history. All worth remembering.




Destined for public ownership?

Bill Mitchell (17 November) doesn't boast about his academic credentials in his article ‘The nightmarish world of ridicule’; which is just as well. He twice undermines the thesis he is propounding about analysis, which he describes as 'the ability to take a subject and address it from all angles, to provide an evaluation of the facts as presented to me, not only from the source material, but from commentators on that subject.'

He acknowledges that his views on UKIP are in direct contradiction to his argument in favour of analysis because he finds UKIP 'intolerable and offensive on all levels'. Later he compounds this by saying he can’t understand what Willie Rennie’s purpose is.
I think he should try a bit harder. UKIP represents a very powerful element in the current British political scene. It is UKIP, with help from a large section of the Conservative party, that has set the agenda that the rest of us are now struggling to understand, come to terms with, or confront. To say that he finds them ‘intolerable and offensive on all levels’ doesn’t get us very far. He may remember that Hillary Clinton's reference to some Republican supporters as ‘deplorable’ did not help them to take stock of themselves and change their views.

Let's move on to Willie Rennie. He is the leader of the Liberal Democrats in Scotland. If you are looking for the polar opposite to UKIP then you find it in the Liberal party. The old values of the Liberal party were diluted when it combined with the Social Democrats in 1988. Social Democrats often described themselves as 'centrists’ which is not a Liberal position. But the evidence these days is that liberalism, not social democracy, is the stance of the Liberal Democrats. Witness Vince Cable’s relentless criticisms of the Conservative’s anti-immigration policies, the party’s unified support for the European Union, and its opposition to nationalism in any guise.

There is a great gulf between these two ideologies, nationalism (UKIP’s principal belief) and liberalism. They are very clearly differentiated. I wish Bill Mitchell had used his analytical skills to evaluate these important opposites rather than abusing the one and ignoring the other.

Peter Twyman

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Tuesday 15 November
Today I received an unforeseen invitation to attend a memorial event in Adelaide, Australia to celebrate the life and achievements of a distinguished academic. His death was not unexpected as he was aged 90 and had been in poor health. My surprise arose from the fact that I had never met him, though we had been in email communication. He had been helpful to me in connection with a piece of research, providing me with some documentary material and commenting on a draft of the article I was writing. When it was published, I sent him a copy.

I surmised that his family had used his email address list as a means of informing people about his death and inviting them to the memorial event. This turned out to be the case, as I discovered when I sent a note expressing my condolences and my regret that I would be unable to attend.

Memorial events are interesting occasions. For speakers, finding the right form of words to capture the character of the deceased, to record memorable events from his or her life, and to lighten the sadness of the moment with touches of humour, can be a daunting challenge. There are risks involved: saying something that will offend a relative or, alternatively, painting a picture that suggests a paragon of virtue at odds with the real person.

I have only had to undertake the task on one occasion and it was made relatively easy for me. The friend whose life we were celebrating was a colourful character, who inspired great affection from former students. There was no shortage of anecdotes to share or witty exchanges to recall. Like all of us, he had his vulnerabilities, but his honesty and courage in facing them evoked admiration and respect. In the splendid setting of Glasgow University chapel, accompanied by some fine singing by the choir, all of those who attended felt they had been present at a fitting tribute.

Wednesday 16 November

I make a note to find out more about the ‘alt right' movement in the United States. It refers to a broad alliance of people who espouse alternative conservative opinions at odds with mainstream Republicanism. They have extreme views on subjects such as immigration, multiculturalism, feminism and political correctness.

Some ‘alt right’ supporters have been given senior positions in Donald Trump’s administration. The most prominent is Steve Bannon, recently appointed chief strategist. He is particularly associated with Breitbart News, an online journal whose headlines make those of the Daily Mail seem wimpish. Examples include ‘Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy’ and ‘Would you rather your child had feminism or cancer?’.

Trump is surrounding himself with rich white men who feel able to dismiss liberal views with contempt. For the moment, they have enough populist backing to encourage them to press ahead with their agenda. Similar trends can be seen among far-right nationalist parties in Europe. We have entered very disturbing times.

Thursday 17 November
It is reported that the UK government has dropped plans to reform the House of Lords. Members of the upper house have proved diligent, not only in collecting their daily allowances and submitting their expenses’ claims, but also in thwarting some policy proposals. With a vast amount of parliamentary business expected as disengagement from the EU proceeds, Theresa May has taken the pragmatic decision not to ruffle ermine at this delicate stage.

If a referendum were to be held on the future of the House of Lords, I predict there would be a large majority in favour of abolition. It is seen as anachronistic, a relic of a past age in which power and status were conferred on the basis of birth rather than merit. It is true that nowadays membership is extended beyond an aristocratic elite to include people with varied backgrounds. But a significant number of these are perceived as undeserving – failed politicians, city spivs and career toadies. A few have even managed to acquire criminal convictions.

The case for a second chamber, to serve as a check on the House of Commons, remains strong, but many commentators are of the view that it should be much smaller and require a democratic election process. They also think it should involve dispensing with much of the pomp and ceremony that currently accompanies the proceedings. That style may once have inspired deference: now it appears absurd and invites ridicule.

Nonetheless, it looks as if we are stuck with this discredited institution for the foreseeable future. And if the government attempts to return to the question of reform, it can expect robust resistance from those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. One of the striking features of the culture of the place is the ease with which those members of the House of Lords, who affected radical, left-wing views in their youth, settle comfortably into the padded seats of the chamber. Just look at some of those on the Labour benches. But at least we have the SNP continuing to make the case for abolition. At least I hope we have. The prospect of Lord Salmond or Lady Sturgeon would be too terrible to contemplate.

Friday 18 November
Readers will doubtless be agog to know that I shall not be joining the growing trend for men to sport beards and other types of facial hair (handlebar moustaches, muttonchop whiskers, etc.). I have no wish to spoil my fresh-faced, boyish looks (the delusions of older men take many forms). In a radio interview, the broadcaster John Humphrys described beards as ‘ridiculous and disgusting’. That seems a little severe. I have two friends of long standing whom I have never seen without their beards. If they were to shave them off, I would have difficulty in adjusting to their changed appearance.

In one case, the man presents an interesting two-toned image. His hair started to turn grey when he was quite young and he embarked on a path of regular ‘colour enhancement’. The result is that he is now black on top with a snowy beard below. My suggestion that he could get a Christmas job as Santa (the fur-trimmed red hood would cover his hair) was not well received. Perhaps fortunately, he is not a reader of SR.


On Saturday, the BBC 'news' website congratulated the, er, BBC on the 'record-breaking' sum raised by the, er, BBC's charity, Children in Need. On Sunday, the BBC 'news' website congratulated the, er, BBC on the huge audience pulled by the ludicrous 'Strictly Come Dancing' compared with the rather smaller audience that watched its main rival's equally ludicrous 'X Factor'. The BBC is so busy congratulating itself on its many achievements that it is indeed a wonder it finds the time or space to report anything else.

First non-event of the winter: Storm Angus. (Bit of rain and wind in the south-east – of England).

Gratitude corner: the actress Billy Piper managed 14 'thank yous' in an acceptance speech lasting barely a minute at the London Standard theatre awards.

Euphemism of the week: once upon a time you were fired. Now you are the subject of 'involuntary severance'.

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