Remembrance Address

Remembrance Address

The Headmaster spoke in Chapel and at Cramond Kirk

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While my theme today is remembrance and that should touch upon those who died or were injured, those who suffered or lost loved ones throughout the ages, I hope you don’t mind if this morning I stick to the events of what was known as the Great war. As we gather in chapel today within our 150th anniversary as a school but, in 2023, we are also marking the 100th anniversary of the opening of this chapel. It was created by pupils, parents, staff and governors as a memorial to the 126 Cargilfield boys who died between 1914 and 18.

There were about 40 million casualties in World War I – over 23 million dead and 16 million injured. About 10 million were civilians.

At the 1911 census, the population of Great Britain was about 45 million.

About 150,000 Scots died – representing about 20% of British losses. At that time, Scotland made up about 10% of the British population. That suggests twice as many Scots died as those in England and Wales.

How can we picture 150,000 people? Try filling Murrayfield Stadium – twice – and you’ve still tens of thousands left over.

To give this a modern context:

  • 10,000 people are believed to have been killed in Gaza and Israel last month.
  • Compare that to 20,000 British soldiers killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
  • Or the 457 members of the Armed Services who were killed in Afghanistan over 20 years – quite rightly that number was felt to be too high a cost.

How on earth can you make sense of this? Each soldier, sailor or airman killed was someone like me or you – they all had parents, friends and family. Perhaps with a wife or sweetheart, or with children? Every death would have been mourned widely. These numbers only makes sense if you think of individuals.

My first encounter with WWI was in 2014 and involved this man. Francis Renton.


    He was the only man on the memorial who also went on to Sedbergh School where my eldest son had just started.

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      Andrew and I cycled from Cargilfield to his home in Northumberland and on to Sedbergh School and then - via a train and ferry - to France and a cycle ride to the Somme. Blighty Valley cemetery is a beautiful tree-lined sport down a grassed path from a small back road near Albert.

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        I returned this year; we placed a rugby ball signed by rugby players from Cargilfield and Sedbergh – including some of you - on his grave

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          He died in the second month of the Battle of the Somme. Five men on the memorial behind me died on the first day of the battle – 1st July 1916.

          There on that day – the bloodiest day in the history of British warfare – were three future British prime ministers. Adolf Hitler was also there – as was the creator of Winne the Pooh and the author of The Lord of the Rings. They all survived and I am left wondering which great talents, who might have influenced the course of world events or culture, were among the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who didn’t survive?

          Scots troops featured prominently on the Somme. The Edinburgh-born General Douglas Haig, who would go on to be a parent at Cargilfield and was Commander in Chief of the British Forces and a national hero, was convinced that a powerful attack could determine the outcome of the war.

          Haig was to be proved tragically wrong. Soldiers of the Highland Light Infantry were among those to be butchered en masse in the carnage that followed. They were told to make their way out of the trenches and across No Man's Land to try and take over the German positions.

          To the skirl of the bagpipes, the men went over the top. The Germans had ensured their own lines were heavily defended. The heavy machine guns opened up, and the Scots soldiers, along with other allied troops, were mown down. In one day of fighting alone, 20,000 allied soldiers died. The 17th Battalion of the Highland Light Infantry alone lost 447 soldiers and 22 officers.

          Among them was Edward Gallie who died aged 19 and her is little Edward Gallie outside our house as a boy at Cargilfield.

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            This summer I went on a walk along the Western Front and, while there, I found his grave in the Lonsdale cemetery, about a mile from where Renton is buried. It is a pretty little cemetery – a short walk across field from a tiny lane behind the village of Authuile. His grave bears a lovely inscription: ‘He had done his work and held his peace and held no fear to die’.

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              We placed a wreath there and, as with other wreaths that we placed this summer, each one had a personal dedication.

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                This summer we reached the graves (for those whose bodies were found) or memorials (for those who weren’t) of 66 former pupils.

                In truth, my walk was because of this little boy – probably aged about 10 - and somewhere on the land where the Cargilfield View houses now stand.

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                  He became Head Boy, won a scholarship to Winchester College, to Oxford University and was already a brilliant young lawyer – working on the Titanic enquiry – when war broke out and his younger brother went out to fight and died in 1914.

                  Alexander Gillespie signed up and became an officer in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. In October 1915, he and many other Scottish soldiers found themselves in the first significant land action of the First World War at the Battle of Loos.

                  The battle was a disaster. The British attempted to use poison gas on the enemy but the plan backfired: the wind was in the wrong direction and it blew back on their own men.

                  Scots regiments were in the thick of the action at Loos. They were ordered over the top and marched towards the enemy lines, making themselves sitting ducks for German machine gunners. It was a turkey shoot. By the time the battle was over, the British had lost 50,000 men against the enemy's 20,000 and had failed to make any strategic gains whatsoever.

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                  Among those who died in that battle were:

                  Michael Henderson

                  Lt Col. 9th Bn Black Watch

                  Aged 44


                  Donald Graham

                  Capt. 9th Bn Black Watch

                  Aged 41

                  These two were within three years of each other at Cargilfield and died on the same day as part of the same battalion. They were buried next to each other in a large cemetery at Dud Corner. Would anyone have realised that they had been prep schoolmates?

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                  If you look at the battlefield map for Loos, there was a very significant landmark that was known to all the soldiers as The Lone Tree. I visited it this summer. Did the Cargilfield boys fighting there look at this and think of their time at prep school?

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                  I think most of these boys in this photograph from about 1905 fought in WWI. Some of them are named on our memorial.

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                  Gillespie was killed at the Battle of Loos but, before he died, he wrote to his headmaster at Winchester and suggested a route to trace the Western Front – a pilgrimage that everyone should follow to reflect on the carnage of the war. I walked part of that route this summer – just over 150kn in total to mark our 150th anniversary. I am grateful to children, teachers, governors and former pupils that joined me.

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                    Mrs Dholakia is placing a wreath on the grave of James Mitchell.

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                      Mitchell was a career soldier.

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                        He had previously been a boy in Moredun House at Fettes where many Cargilfield boys like to go to this day.

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                          When we got back home I was contacted by a Belgian lady who saw our wreath on Mitchell’s grave. Since she had visited Scotland a few years ago and seen his name in a Perthshire church, she had decided to tend his grave which was just a few miles from her home.

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                            It is a lovely story and excited the interest of a journalist. This is Marijke who still visits James Mitchell’s grave.

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                              Like A.D. Gillespie, his brother Thomas’ body was never found and so his name was inscribed on the memorial at Le Touret. There are nine other Cargilfield boys who names are listed on this massive memorial with over 13,000 names on it: soldiers who died in the first year of the war and whose bodies were never discovered. Among them was Philip Wilson.

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                                He died aged 20 having left Cargilfield to go to Winchester like the Gillespies. The poem that we heard read by Wolfie. was written by his mother, Lady Ashmore. She was devastated by his death. His great nephew, Rob Wilson, is now a governor at Cargilfield.

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                                  Perhaps the most telling story for me this summer was that of the last grave I visited. This required me to drive for about half an hour from Ypres where the walk finished.

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                                    This young man died, aged 20, in the last three weeks of the war in 1918. Howard Thomas was known affectionately by his men as Tommy. On his grave, it says that his men ‘would follow Tommy anywhere’. His news was received by this man who must have already received news of the deaths of so many of his boys.

                                    Mr Thomas was the second headmaster of Cargilfield. He arrived here in 1898 and had already been headmaster for 16 years when war broke out. He and his wife were the first people to live in the house where Mrs Taylor and I live. You look at his portrait in the library – over the fire – most days. In the last week of the war and so many former pupils already dead, the Thomas family received a telegram to learn that Howard had died as the German army was almost defeated. I wonder if Howard Thomas slept in the same bedroom as one of my children?


                                    Harry Thomas was present as the Cargilfield Memorial Chapel was opened in 1923 – he retired a year later and the Barnton gates were erected to remember him and his wife. Look at the details of the opening of the chapel in the display case in the front hall. What was running through his mind on that day?

                                    We visited another memorial chapel in Ypres in Belgium at the end of our walk – St George’s

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                                      Alongside many other plaques on the wall there, we unveiled this plaque to remember the Cargilfield boys.

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                                        It uses the same language that is on the memorial behind me.

                                        ‘The sons of Cargilfield whom this building commemorates were numbered among those who, at the call of King and Country, gave up their lives that we might live in freedom. See to it that their names be not forgotten.’

                                        Might I suggest that one way of doing it is that each of you – each family at Cargilfield - takes one name on this memorial and adopts it just as our friend in Belgium has done? Find out about them. Visit their grave or memorial one day. Find out if they still have relatives alive who would like to know about them.

                                        See to it that they are not forgotten.


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