I spent last week in France visiting the Somme where I attended a memorial service in the tiny village of Beaumont-Hamel. During World War 1 this village was almost completely destroyed as it was at the centre of heavy fighting throughout the Battle of the Somme. The village is now surrounded by cemeteries and the whole area dotted with memorials to battles and battalions, including the preserved battlefield within the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial Park that, due to their appalling losses there, is a National Monument of Canada. In the five months of fighting for the Battle of the Somme more than a million young men were killed or wounded. In November 1916 one of the casualties was our James.
James Gauld was born in Aberdeen in 1894, the youngest son of a family clearly not strangers to adventure or hardship. His mother and two of his sisters had died when he was still a toddler and by the time war broke out in 1914 four of his five remaining siblings had emigrated to Australia or Canada. James signed up with his local Territorial Regiment, the Gordon Highlanders, in June or July 1914, just before war was declared. He landed in France nine months later and fought on the Western Front for eighteen months, the last five months being the Battle of the Somme. His Division captured Beaumont-Hamel on 13th November 1916 in the final actions of the Battle of the Somme, suffering more than 2,000 casualties in the process. One of these was our James, who was shot in the neck. Although he was treated and evacuated to a nearby military hospital in Abbeville he sadly died of his wounds just eight days after the battle and only a few weeks before his eldest brother William Gauld, a Sergeant with the Australian Imperial Force (12th Field Artillery), arrived in France to fight nearby.
The ceremony I attended commemorated the famous victory of the 51st Highland Division (which included the 1/7th Gordons) at Beaumont-Hamel and was held at the flagpole in the village centre donated by the Division to the village. On 13th November each year the villagers fly the Royal Standard of Scotland to commemorate the battle. For the centenary this year the Royal British Legion (in the person of Derek Bird) arranged a service which included a colour party, pipe band and a few hardy souls wearing replica uniforms and kit. The village hosted a Vin d’Honneur after the service, to which John Grant of the Glenfarclas distillery family generously contributed two dozens bottles of their fabulous 15yr old single malt. Naturally I had a dram; it would have been impolite of me not to, and considering the weather it was very welcome. Despite the solemnity of the occasion I quite enjoyed the novelty of being surrounded by exotically-accented, kilt-wearing men yelling at each other over the drone of the bagpipes. I wish I could have souvenired a whole bottle of that whisky though…
Before the service I had visited James’ grave in the beautifully maintained cemetery at Abbeville on a lovely sunny Remembrance Day. Although there were thirty or more carloads of French families visiting graves in the main part of the cemetery I was the only person visiting the CWGC cemetery. Given the distance from his home and family I may well have been the first family member to visit James in the 100 years he has lain there; many of the almost 3,000 war graves in this cemetery may never have received a family visit.
These too-distant cemeteries are the reason for the war memorials listing the names of the fallen of WWI and WWII in towns and cities across the Commonwealth. James is commemorated on the Portlethen War Memorial where he enlisted, in the Gordon Highlanders Roll of Honour at the Scottish War Memorial and on the family grave in Nellfield Cemetery in Aberdeen. And in his enlistment photograph, hanging on the wall of his great-grand niece’s home.