Hundreds of people joined military personnel, veterans and descendants at an overnight vigil at the Scottish National War Memorial in Edinburgh Castle to mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme on Friday 1 July.
The vigil, organised in partnership with WW100 Scotland, Royal British Legion Scotland (Legion Scotland), the Scottish National War Memorial, the Ministry of Defence, Historic Environment Scotland and the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, was one of four national commemorative events taking place across the four nations of the UK.
The vigil began on Thursday (30 June) evening, with members of the public filing silently through the Memorial, passing the Shrine where the Casket containing the original Roll of Honour for the fallen of WW1 was guarded by sentinels with heads bowed.
They then joined veterans, military personnel, descendants and VIP guests including Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop, for a short service typical of those held in the battlefield, conducted by Reverend Neil Gardner of Canongate Kirk.
Following the service, the Reverend led a party of candle bearers into the Memorial, where they officially opened the overnight vigil at 9.30pm by placing their candles on the Casket plinth within the Shrine.
Throughout the night, the vigil was attended by representatives of Regimental Associations and Services, who kept watch over the Casket until 7.30 am on Friday, the time the Battle began 100 years ago. Edinburgh Castle was floodlit red from dusk onwards as part of the Commemorations.
A second short service began at 7.10am. Following a piper’s lament, a two-minute silence commenced at 7.28am with the firing of the ‘One O’Clock Gun’. The silence, which was synchronised across all four nations of the UK, was ended by Somme descendant Alan Hamilton, who blew the whistle that his great uncle blew 100 years ago at 7.30am as he led his troops into Battle. A Benediction followed, after which the final watch party, made up of representatives from the Royal Scots Association, left the Memorial as a piper played to mark the end of the service.
The Battle of the Somme was the largest Western Front battle of World War One, beginning on July 1 1916 and ending 141 days later on 18th November. Over a million men were wounded or killed, 420,000 of them from the British Army. British casualties on the first day were the worst in the history of the British army, with 57,470 casualties of whom 19,240 died.
Fifty one Scottish battalions took part in the campaign, including the renowned 16th Battalion Royal Scots ‘McCrae’s Battalion’, which was largely composed of professional and amateur sportsmen and their supporters. The Battalion lost 12 officers and 573 soldiers in the attack on the first day.
Major General Mark Strudwick, Chairman of the Trustees of the Scottish National War Memorial, said:
“The courage and sacrifice of the British soldiers who fought at The Battle of the Somme should never be forgotten. Few words conjure the tragic scale and staggering loss of life during the 141 days that battle raged.
“One hundred years on, we come together to honour them, to remember them and to ensure their memory and legacy lives on for generations to come.”
Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop, said:
“The Battle of the Somme was a significant battle in terms of casualties. On the first day alone there were nearly 57,470 British casualties, 19,240 of whom died. Fifty one Scottish battalions took part, and the National and local Vigils held across the UK have been a fitting way to remember those that fought at the battle, as well as an important chance to reflect on what can and should be learned from the horrors of war.”
Kevin Gray, MM, Chief Executive Officer, Legion Scotland said:
“Seeing so many members of the public pay their respects to the many thousands of soldiers that fell at The Battle of the Somme was extremely poignant. Every community across Scotland has a connection to the Armed Forces both now or in the past and the respect paid by those who attended the vigil reflected that.”
Alan Hamilton, one of the sentinels at the vigil whose great uncle fought at the Somme, said:
“I am honoured and humbled to have taken part in the vigil to commemorate the thousands of fathers, brothers and sons that lost their lives or were wounded in mind and body in one of the largest battles in our history. 100 years ago, my great uncle Robert, then a young officer, blew his whistle and led his men into a fierce battle where many of them, his friends, were killed and wounded. He was with them until he, himself, was wounded. Throughout the vigil, I have stood with others in silent reflection and in unspoken comradeship with those who went before us.”