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Flanders Fields and Falkirk District

Updated: Apr 15, 2023


This blog explores the recruitment and enlistment of men from Falkirk District following the declaration of war on 4 August 1914. Was their motivation purely part of the patriotic rush following the retreat from Mons or was it earlier and driven by economic reasons. Or was it a combination of both.

The links from Falkirk District to Flanders are tenuous and date from the Roman occupation of Scotland when they established the Antonine Wall which runs through the district. Many of the Roman legionnaires came from Flanders. Lawrence Dundas, who supplied the uniforms worn by the Duke of Cumberland’s troops at Culloden, was also his quartermaster during the Seven Years War in Flanders. The First World War and the fighting in the Ypres Salient rekindled the tenuous connection between Falkirk District and Flanders. The name Ypres, and the sacrifices made by men from Falkirk District, still resonate in the town of Falkirk and the district to this day. A Sergeant from Argyllshire wrote of Ypres: ‘Ypres; well may they call it Ypres Ypres in Gaelic means ‘Sacrifice.’

The First World War disrupted the continuity of British history more profoundly than any other event in the previous sixty years. The war also had some anti-radical outcomes in the form of patriotism but this patriotism alternated between patriotic fervour, war weariness, militant protest, and radical social demands amongst the workers. Before the war, state intervention was limited with only the 1906 Liberal welfare legislation making any impact on the laissez-faire capitalism and was confined to distribution and not production. With the advent of the war state intervention was to expand in both social and economic areas. The supplying of men and material demanded control of industries, imports, distribution, prices of food and raw materials, military, and industrial conscription. By 1917, the laissez-faire capitalism of pre-war Britain was gone and the emergence of the new state economy had arrived.

The First World War was fought predominantly by the working class. It would not have been possible to fight the war without their participation either on the battlefield or on the home front. The men of Falkirk District who fought and died in the Ypres Salient between 1914 to 1918 were predominantly working-class men who worked in the foundries, offices, mines, docks, and other industries in the District. They served in all Scottish Regiments and in a number of English Regiments of the British Army, as well as the Royal Naval Division.

Drill Hall of the Argyle's today.

Mobilisation and Recruitment

With the declaration of war on 4th August 1914 army reservists began reporting to the Drill Halls in Falkirk District. Notices were posted by the police indicating that the Territorial Force was being mobilised. On the morning of Wednesday 5 August crowds gathered to cheer the Territorials of the 7th Battalion, Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders to Grahamston station from their Drill Hall on Cow Wynd. There they went to Stirling Castle to join their battalion which was forming up. The Falkirk Herald reported on the scene:…not a few scenes of an affecting nature, as people in the watching crowds waved farewell to their kindred in the ranks, women weeping in some cases at the parting from their husbands and sons.’ Similar scenes were taking place in other towns in the district, Denny, Bonnybridge, Larbert and Grangemouth. In Bo’ness, the local Territorial battalion ‘B’ Company, 1/10 (Cyclists) Battalion, Royal Scots mustered at the Drill Hall at Corbiehill. They had only returned from their annual camp the week before. The Linlithgow Gazette reported that the battalion commanding officer, Colonel Henderson, and a considerable number of men had volunteered for overseas service. They received an enthusiastic send off at the local railway station from the people of Bo’ness.

Linlithgow Gazette, Sept 1914. Highlighting the closing of the collieries as aiding recruitment.

The Economic Conditions and Recruitment

The link between the economic situation and recruitment played a part in the recruitment levels in 1914 just as much as patriotism. With the declaration of war in August 1914, the unemployment levels rose by 194,000 that month. In the month of July unemployment registration had risen by 112,000.Many workers were also on short term work and wages had been cut or reduced. These economic conditions had an impact on recruitment. The government also took a hand in forcing the unemployed to enlist by instructing local charity commissioners not to give poor relief to any able-bodied men who were of military age thereby starving them into enlisting. In his book ‘Plain Tales From Flanders, the Reverend Philip B Clayton M.C. ‘Tubby’ of Talbot House in Poperinge, wrote of the men: ’Then estimate the spirit that sustained these few dying doggedly for the country which had starved many of them into enlisting.’ It was reported by employers that nine out of every ten men who had been laid off had volunteered or had been called up as reservists. During August and September rising unemployment, short-term working and the reductions in wages certainly was a major contributing factor in the surge of recruitment.

Firs Street, Falkirk today. Authors image.

Housing and Overcrowding

Another factor aiding recruitment was poor housing and overcrowding. By 1914, Scotland stood on the verge of a housing catastrophe. It was found that 50% of the Scottish population lived in one or two roomed dwellings compared with 7% in England. Rents were significantly higher in Scotland 10% higher than those in the north of England, 25% higher than those in the English midlands. Over two million Scots, nearly 50% of the population, lived more than two persons to a room. In Falkirk, the appalling housing conditions saw families of twelve living together. Charles Bryce, the son of Alexander and Alison Bryce, 9 Firs Street, Falkirk. He had six brothers and three sisters and they all lived at the same address. He was employed as moulder at the Callendar Iron Works before he enlisted in the Territorials on 9 September 1914.

Private Charles Bryce

1/7th Battalion, Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, 10th Infantry Brigade, 4th Division

Age: 22

Date of Death: Killed in Action 25.4.15

Buried: Menin Gate Memorial, Panel 42 to 44

Read about the action in which he was killed by clicking on the link

Many chose Emigration to Escape Many Scots decided to leave to escape the social and economic conditions by emigrating to the USA, Canada, and Australasia with estimates that by 1914 some 2 million had emigrated. Between 1905 – 1913 some 600,000 people left Scotland. This movement of people is reflected in the villages in the Slamannan area within Falkirk District as many of the coal mines began to close. In 1891 the population of this area was 7,000 by 1911 this had dipped to 3,443 a reduction of 49.4% as not just the miners left but also those in the associated industries such as quarrying, brickmaking and milling, to seek employment elsewhere.

IWM Q 68299 The investiture of Lance Corporal (now Sergeant) Frickleton with the Victoria Cross by HM King George V

Two men from Falkirk District who emigrated and who were awarded the Victoria Cross while serving with the Imperial Forces. Lance Corporal Samuel Frickleton, 3rd Battalion, 3rd New Zealand (Rifle Brigade), part of II Anzac Corps, was from Slamannan. He emigrated in May 1913 to New Zealand and won his VC at Messines Ridge on 7 June 1917 for destroying two German machine guns after he was wounded. Lieutenant Harcus Strachan, Canadian Expeditionary Force, served from July 1915 in the Canadian Cavalry Brigade, The Fort Garry Horse. He lived in Bo’ness until he emigrated to Canada in 1905. He was awarded a VC for his part in the cavalry charge at Cambrai on 20 November 1917. Strachan took command of his squadron when its leader was killed by machine gun fire. Leading the surviving squadron onto enemy lines, he fought until the opposing battery fell silent – killing several of the enemy with his sword.

Pro-War Movement and Recruitment

In Scotland, the pro-war movement was particularly strong in the industrial and mining communities. By December 1914, 25% of the male workforce had volunteered. The motive for this was driven by a fear of unemployment as opposed to any patriotic fervour and a

show of solidarity with ‘Brave little Belgium’. The Ayrshire coalfield had both a secure domestic and Irish market, affected little by the disruption caused by German U-boat activity. Here only 20% of miners volunteered. In the east of Scotland coalfields, it was different. Here, the exports to eastern Europe had collapsed and over 36% of miners enlisted. To aid this need for recruits from Scotland Lord Kitchener made a direct appeal to the people of Scotland: ‘I feel certain that Scotsmen have only to know that the country urgently needs their services to offer them with the same splendid patriotism as they have always shown in the past…. their services were never more needed than they are today… I rely confidently on a splendid response to the national appeal.

In Falkirk during the first weeks of the war the military had to open a recruitment office in West Bridge Street to cope with the men queuing to enlist. Many of those queuing had come from the Glasgow area. As early as the 24 August 1914 Lord Derby had approached the War Office with his suggestion for ‘Pals Battalions’ the idea having originated in the War Office on 12 August. The ‘Stockbrokers Battalion’ of the Royal Fusiliers had already begun recruiting on 21 August. Not to be outdone the Glasgow Stock Exchange formed a company for the Cameron Highlanders. In Falkirk District, the Laurieston Westquarter Silver Band enlisted together in the 5th Battalion Royal Scots and the Camelon Pipe Band also joined the Royal Scots 7th Battalion. These ‘Pals’ Battalions were primarily an English phenomenon and in Scotland only seven such Battalions were raised, one being the 17th Battalion, Royal Scots, a Bantam Battalion formed in November 1914.

The recruiting movement embraced much of the establishment in local areas including, whenever possible, representatives of local labour or clergy who were prominent in encouraging enlistment. Once conscription had replaced the voluntary system the local establishment tended to preside over the tribunals, which have been characterised as ‘civilian, middle-class and public minded.’ The noble virtues were also presented to the public at large through the pictorial representation of the soldier by artists such as T. Caton Woodville, W.B. Wollen and Fortunio Matania, whose work, appearing in popular illustrated periodicals and children’s literature, invariably depicted gallantry, self-sacrifice, and determination, while death somehow contrived to be tasteful. Another factor that prompted many workers to enlist was the opportunity to escape boring menial jobs for a sense of adventure abroad. There was also the Scots tradition of respect for militarism and in those Edwardian days the words duty, honour and patriotism were considered the corner stone of society.

In Flanders Fields – Falkirk Districts War Dead

The exact figure of the total war dead for Falkirk District will probably never be known. In November 1918, the Falkirk Herald calculated that 10,000, nicely rounded figure, enlisted or where conscripted from Falkirk District. Of the war dead, one local historian puts a rounding figure of 3,000 killed in all theatres and another calculated the war dead at 2,400 or 24% covering all theatres. This figure includes names of men who did not live in the District but had a connection and it may only include a small number of the three hundred or so from Bo’ness. This is possibly as accurate a figure as we can get as this figure was calculated using the death notices published in the Falkirk Herald from 1914 to 1919 and from press reports of the unveiling of war memorials. From this total of 2,400, 521 or 21.7% from Falkirk District died in the fighting in the Ypres Salient between October 1914 to October 1918. They are buried or commemorated in the many cemeteries and on the memorials in the Salient.

Menin Gate Memorial. Authors image

Scotland's War Dead

In Scotland on July 1927, the Scottish National War Memorial, located in Edinburgh Castle, was opened to the public and commemorates Scotland’s war dead. The creation of the national memorial in Edinburgh signified that Scotland had made a distinctive contribution to the war effort. By 1918, half of Scotland’s male population aged 18 to 45 was in one branch of the forces or another with a disproportionate number of casualties resulting from this contribution. In his 2019 paper Manpower, Myth and Memory: Analysing Scotland’s Military Contribution to the Great War,’ Patrick Watt states: 'We can say with a degree of certainty that around 608,000 men born in Scotland served in the British Armed forces during the war…, Furthermore, we can say with some confidence that around 102,500 of these men died in the period from August 1914 to December 1919. Overall, 91,800 out of the 702,410 fatalities sustained by the British Army were born in Scotland. This is 13.07 per cent share of the British total, some 2.6 per cent higher than Scotland’s share of the British population.It can therefore be said with some certainty that, Scotland suffered disproportionately more casualties than any other nation in the United Kingdom in the First World War.

Their Loss Was for a Noble Cause

From the beginning of the war the government had fostered the propaganda that the war was being fought in a just and noble cause in order to ensure public support for the war and to comfort the bereaved. Families commemorated their dead father, brother, son, or husband in their own homes. After the war, the family received a commemorative medal known as the ‘dead man’s penny’ a printed scroll and a message from the King. All of this was to give the family comfort and to emphasise that their loss was for a noble cause.

In his book ‘A Surgeon in Khaki, Through France and Flanders in World War I’, Arthur Anderson Martin wrote, in 1915, rather prophetically of the future of Ypres:

… of the Old Cloth Hall one saw little more than ruins, for the famous building had in the interval been correctly ranged by the enemy guns and duly shattered. Later on, more destruction took place, and visitors of the year 2015 will be shown some stones and broken pillars, all that was left of a famous hall which had stood for seven centuries and had been destroyed one hundred years ago. When peace comes again to Belgium, Ypres and its roads, its Hill 60 and its graves will be a place of holy pilgrimage to thousands of English, French, and Germans, for here fell and are buried their bravest dead.’

Ypres, as place of pilgrimage, is perhaps best described in these lines from Captain Hugh B C Pollard’s book, ‘The Story of Ypres’ published in 1917: ‘Of those who have fallen, write only upon their monuments, ‘THEY FELL AT YPRES’ - It is immortal honour.’

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