Scotland

The Battle of Loos: How Dundee marks its 'black day'

  • 25 September 2015
  • From the section Scotland
The brazier at the top of the Dundee war memorial is lit to commemorate the Battle of Loos
Image caption The brazier at the top of the Dundee war memorial is lit to commemorate the Battle of Loos

The tragic losses of Loos, the largest British battle of 1915, were felt throughout every village and town in Scotland but for Dundee it was its "darkest hour".

The annual report of Dundee Parish Church for 1915, written by the Reverend Mr Ferguson, says: "Of all the black days that 1915 brought us, the blackest was that day in September when the news came that practically all the officers and a great number of the men of the 4th Black Watch, Dundee's own, were either killed, wounded or prisoners.

"A service like that memorial service held in our parish church on 6 October is one no member of the crowded congregation will ever forget.

"It was the city on its knees before God seeking the consecration of our common sorrow, our common sympathy, our common grateful pride, our common united purpose to bring to victory that righteous cause to which our honoured dead had given the last full measure of devotion."

An estimated 30,000 Scots from 45 battalions fought at the Battle of Loos in World War One, and about 7,000 were killed.

Image caption The cemetery at Loos has the graves of the many Scots who fell in the battle

The British offensive, which began on 25 September, was part of an attempt by the French to break through German defences in northern France.

After partial success on the first day, the Germans reinforced and the Allied infantry were mowed down as they advanced on enemy positions.

The carnage had a devastating effect across Scotland, but Dundee was hit particularly hard.

Image caption The objective of the battle of Loos was to break through German defences

A decade after the battle, an impressive war memorial, constructed of Cornish granite, was unveiled on Dundee Law, overlooking the town and the Tay.

The losses the city suffered are memorialised by the lighting of the flame on the war memorial every 25 September.

Dr Derek Patrick, of Dundee University, says: "If you look at the opening day of the battle it is hugely significant to Dundee and it is hugely significant to Scotland.

"Something like 30,000 or more Scots participated, representatives from all over the Scottish infantry regiments are there, so it is very much a Scottish battle.

"But Dundee is represented by its local territorial battalion - the 4th Black Watch. The officers tend to be the great and the good from Dundee."

Dr Patrick added: "Harry Walker, the commanding officer, is a partner in the Caldrum jute works, the sergeants tend to be the men who are foremen in the shipyards and the jute mills, and the other ranks are the men who work there.

"So they are really close-knit. This is quite a close-knit battalion - a city at war basically - who suffer fairly appalling casualties that day.

"In fact after the Battle of Loos they effectively cease to be a battalion in its own right. They go into action with 400-plus men and lose over 200."

Another memorial to the battle is in St Mary's church in Dundee.

Historian Dr Ann Petrie says among the carvings on the memorial are acorns, representing hope and new life, not something modern generations would associate with war.

Dr Petrie says we tend to approach these memorials with pathos and a narrative about the futility of war but the generation that built them were actually proud.

She says: "They wanted to indicate the pride of sacrifice, they even experience joy that their fathers, their sons, had stepped up to the plate in the time of need."

The historian says the war memorials are a "colossal generational effort to end war for humanity" and celebrate the gift that those who fell gave to future generations.

On the church memorial there is an inscription 'living or dead we are comrades all'.

Dr Petrie says: "It is just so sad because it is something you would only associate with the First World War where battalions were comprised of neighbours and friends and work colleagues - and the 4th battalion were literally Dundee.

"They moved the culture of Dundee with them to the Front and they would have all known each other.

"They lived and died together in the Battle of Loos. They worked in the mills together and they fell in the trenches together."

A century on from the Battle of Loos and the solemn grandeur of the Dundee Law memorial remains a fitting tribute to the men who died in what Lord Provost Bob Duncan calls "Dundee's darkest hour".

However, the city's universities have combined to create a more 21st century way of remembering the battle and its effects on the city.

They have trawled contemporary accounts from newspapers and other records and mapped the stories to locations around the city.

The information about the people who took part in the battle has been compiled to create a "digital visualisation" of the effect of the war which can be accessed on a tablet computer touchscreen.

Derek Patrick of Dundee University says: "We are quite well served in the area with DC Thomson and the newspapers of the time are filled with wonderful stories, real gems of information on these men.

"We have turned up some fantastic stories and it is really from there that we have been able to plot where these men lived, their addresses where they worked and so on."

His research has been used by Dr Iain Donald of Abertay University and his students to tell the story of the 4th Black Watch and the scale of losses of men from the city.

Dr Donald says: "We are using a 1915 map of Dundee and we are mapping locations of those that were killed in action or those missing or injured.

"There are a lot of people who sacrificed themselves on that day and it is their very first action and they leave behind families, and they are not small families."

Dr Donald says it was not uncommon for a soldier to leave behind a wife and seven children. That had a massive impact on the city.

For Dr Donald the individual stories of each soldier "show how the heart of the community is being ripped out by something that happens 600 or 700 miles away".

More on this story