Centenary Commemoration

Liverpool Scottish Centenary Commemoration of  1915 Battle in Ypres

Captain Mike Gavin

When I originally joined the Liverpool Scottish in 1967, I was immediately told two key facts. Firstly, ‘Regimental Day’ was 16th June, ‘Hooge Day’. Secondly, the battalion’s doctor in the Great War had been Capt. Noel Chavasse, winner of two Victoria Crosses who died of wounds received whilst earning the second in 1917.

Hooge 1915 (IWMQ49750)In France from November 1914, the Liverpool Scottish were the first city Territorial battalion on active service but the action at Hooge, just east of Ypres, was the their first charge on German lines, made with regular units of 9th Brigade and also with Cheshire Engineer Territorials from Birkenhead. Out of 519 other ranks and 23 officers who went into the action, 381 other ranks and 21 officers were killed, missing or wounded. On that day, the Liverpool Scottish showed they could be relied on to do the job and see it through without stopping to count the cost. After the battle, the survivors were commanded by a Second Lieutenant.

Under the umbrella of the Regimental Council and the Regimental Trustees, the Liverpool Scottish Officers' Association and the Liverpool Scottish Regimental Association took parties totalling over 150 people (both by coach and under their own arrangements) to the historic city of Ieper (Ypres) over four days in June 2015 to commemorate the Battle of Hooge (16th June 1915).  Over 150 more joined them on the battlefield at the service and ceremony around the Liverpool Scottish Stone, a massive piece of carved masonry with a regimental badge, originally over the main door of their 1904 Drill Hall.

Detailed planning of the complex 2015 programme had started two years earlier in the Museum Trust offices with the Regimental Association dealing with their accommodation and the transport arrangements for two coaches. Quickly, two fifty-seater coaches were filled, with Bobby Lynch apparently allowing aboard only skilled vocalists, comedians and story tellers but – hey – we are from Liverpool. Others were to make their own way to Belgium. The site around the Stone is very confined and twelve months ahead we worried about squeezing in 150: ultimately this became 300, as families of  soldiers from 1915, the Royal Liverpool Golf Club appeared (in memory of Captain John Graham, then a leading golfer, killed with the battalion), and civic guests were included. Also  slightly unexpectedly, 25 uniformed German Reservists were warmly welcomed.  The ‘Bellewaarde 1915’ group, connected to other units who fought, and Colonel Ian Paterson, with his large personal group, also mustered.  With the only adequate car-parking nearly a mile away, battlefield transport required an original solution: a ‘train’. There was liaison with Flemish farming families (and their friendly obliging cattle), the town council (seating and loos), the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the researching, writing and rehearsing of a battlefield tour for 200. In all, there were three separate ceremonial events and three separate (official) social functions. The side projects were the commissioning of a new, permanent plaque for the Liverpool Scottish Stone and the gift of a new bench beside the Stone from our Officers’ Association. Three liaison visits to Belgium, eight ‘instruction’ drafts as well as countless cross-Channel communications show this was more than simply the equally important matters of buses and beds.

Coaches left Liverpool on Sunday 14th June, reportedly a mobile musical comedy act led by Keith McCarthy, Billy Jones and others. They arrived in Ieper in the early evening to bring the Novotel alive with reminiscence and reunion. Many visited favourite restaurants on the Market Square; the Liverpool Scottish were everywhere. Those with staying power ended up in the ‘Old Bill’ pub, keeping locals and visitors entertained into the not so-early hours.

On the Monday 15th June, 150 assembled at Noel Chavasse’s grave. WO2 Billy Jones, now serving with North West OTR, formed up the veterans and marched them to the cemetery behind the Pipe Band (led by Pipe Major Jay Axon), a spectacle enjoyed by local residents. Major Gordon McConnell (Chairman, Regimental Trustees) laid a wreath after prayers; others placed their own tributes. Pipe Major (WO2) Richard Grisdale (originally Liverpool Scottish, now with the Black Watch) played his tune, ‘Capt. Noel Chavasse’. A visit to the huge ‘Tyne Cot’ Cemetery and a return to Ieper allowed an afternoon’s exploration. Sitting in the Grote Markt (Main Square) at the end of a busy day, with a good meal or a fine beer, watching the sunlight fade across the front of the rebuilt Cloth Hall, destroyed in 1915,  is a restful way to reflect on the soldiers who passed by 100 years ago.

That evening, the Officers’ Association hosted a regimental reception with 160 present in the atmospheric Kazematten (Casemates) Brasserie that occupies four huge 17th Century brick-lined vaults within the city’s ramparts, the original fortifications. In bright sunshine the Pipes and Drums entertained us and the populace at large.  This location was very apt as the casemates were actually Brigade HQ for Liverpool Scottish (1916/17) and also shell-proof troop shelters. The reception thanked those in France and Belgium who have assisted in establishing our two memorials, the Stone at Hooge and the Cairn at Bois Grenier (near Armentières, just across the French border).

On Tuesday 16th June, the battle’s exact centenary, eight parties of 25, each risking an officer guide with a map, were on the ground from 0930 for a battlefield tour organized by Major Mike Brimage, going from start line to objective. With local police road blocks and a multitude of own ‘No Parking’ signs, we transported ‘private car’ people from our personal car park at Hooge Crater using the tourist road train from a local amusement park complete with smokestack, bell and cow-catcher and its own police outrider down the famous Menin Road. Slick timing and logistical planning got these 200 people up to the Stone as well as dealing with another 100 arriving by differing forms of transport, including the unexpected group of 25 German Reservists!
The last groups arrived at the Memorial Stone just before 11.00 am, the P&Ds again playing for the gathering of the clans. Packing the crowd in to the area was done with humour and without needing the techniques seen on the Tokyo underground.

We were there to remember all the soldiers, particularly the Liverpool Scottish, who fought a century ago, many of whom had died and have no grave. They earned us then an excellent reputation that we still cherish. The moving service was taken by a Liverpool Scot, Captain Sandy Ellis, a sprightly octogenarian and lay preacher.

The Stone, originally installed in 2000, had a new plaque, funded by the Liverpool Scottish Regimental Trustees with generous assistance from In Flanders Fields Museum. Covered with the Union and Belgian flags, it was unveiled by Col. Chris Davies and the Deputy Burgemeester of Ieper, Mr Jef Verschoore. While  Major Ian Riley fended off Radio Merseyside and Major Matthew Boulter managed BBC North West Tonight. With the Liverpool Echo, we got good coverage.

When the service was over, we moved to the characterful Hooge Crater Museum and Café for lunch (treated by the Regimental Trustees) There, Niek and Ilse Benoot served 180 excellent lunches in quick time: without their help from the planning stage, organization of the entire event would have been much harder.

The coach party, with others including our new German friends, were at the Menin Gate by 7.30 pm with the P&Ds, taking pole position under the massive arches with the co-operation of the Last Post Association. Families represented the names of those who had fought 100 years previously: Dickinson (some from Australia),  Buchanan (Peter Buchanan in Highland finery), Glendinning (related to the late Colonel Paddy Bryson), Cottam, Cowan, Aitcheson, Rotheray and Leach with the Yates family joining us here.
At present, crowds are huge and those hoping to get inside the Gate need to be there well before 7.30. For groups, liaison is essential and good manners.

The band then kept the multitude entertained until the ceremony (now performed 30,000 times) began at 8 pm precisely. The Last Post Association had done homework well and began with the part played by Capt. RFB Dickinson in the action at Hooge, very well-received the five relatives present. Col. Chris Davies gave Laurence Binyon’s ‘Exhortation’, “They shall grow not old  …” and P/M Grisdale played a lament.  Capt. Mike Gavin laid a wreath on behalf of the Liverpool Scottish. Officers of Liverpool Scottish Associations were then privileged to be introduced to the Buglers.

The officers then moved quickly to the final dinner of the Liverpool Scottish Officer’s Association before the merger with the Regimental Association, an excellent evening enjoyed by all. Eventually leaving the table well after midnight, some officers passed the ‘Old Bill’ Pub: inside the Pipes were playing and the Jocks still singing, even though they were to be on the Liverpool bus at 10.00 am. What Stamina!

The coaches set off a few minutes late on Wednesday as one of the officers had found it difficult to get up (but ‘he was the same forty-five years ago’ commented a contemporary) probably making for appropriate comments from his fellow travellers. The last of the rear party left on the Saturday.

Although the ‘Liverpool Scottish’ name has gone from the order of battle, a good number of Liverpool Scots serve on with different units. For example, WO1 Steve Halvorsen is the RSM of Merseyside ACF where Sgt Billy Gomez also serves. Colonel David McNeill, Major Matthew Boulter, WO2 Billy Jones and Sgt Phil Thompson (North West Officer Training Regiment), WO2 Bobby Easom, C/Sgt John Brooks and C/Sgt Tom Waddell (Labour Support Unit at Grantham) serve still with the Army Reserve  and there are those originally with A Company of 4 LANCS who have recently been training on the Javelin Missile System. John Pollock continues to make an active contribution to the CCF at Calday Grange Grammar School. We apologise for the almost inevitable omissions.

Photographs from the Trip