From Civvy Street to the Somme

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Jim Urquhart, left, holding the standard of the Highland Light Infantry association and Jim Devine, right, holding the  sword that belonged to 2nd Lt Richard McGibbon. They are standing in front of the memorial plaque to the men of the  15th Battalion (Tramways) Highland Light Infantry in the Riverside Museum                                 Picture: Colin Mearns
Jim Urquhart, left, holding the standard of the Highland Light Infantry association and Jim Devine, right, holding the sword that belonged to 2nd Lt Richard McGibbon. They are standing in front of the memorial plaque to the men of the 15th Battalion (Tramways) Highland Light Infantry in the Riverside Museum Picture: Colin Mearns

1915. The place: Gailes, Ayrshire. There, volunteers from Glasgow's civvy street - tram workers, Boys' Brigade officers, and men from the Chamber of Commerce - were put through their paces.

Newspaper photographers took pictures of them making bayonet charges up and down the sand dunes.

Such exercises were, in the words of our sister paper, The Glasgow Herald, "in preparation for more serious work in Flanders".

For this was the Great War, and these men, most of them volunteers with the three service battalions of the Highland Light Infantry (HLI) - the 15th, the 16th, and the 17th - were being readied to fight the Germans on the Western Front and some would later endure the hell of battles such as the Somme.

The 15th was the Tramways battalion. The 16th was formed from officers of the Boys' Brigade. The 17th was the Commercials, the city's Chamber of Commerce.

They could trace their roots to a decision taken the previous September by the Glasgow Corporation. It decided to take steps to raise at least two battalions in the city. The cost of raising and equipping them would be met out of the Common Good Fund and there was a great response.

The 15th Tramway took just 16 hours to raise.

According to Proud Heritage, a later book on the HLI, by Lieutenant Colonel L B Oatts, the best of the recruits were "strong enough to drive a bayonet through a two-inch deal board".

Former members of the BB, eager to fight the Germans, formed the 16th as soon as the Corporation made its decision.

Directors at the Chamber of Commerce agreed to form their own battalion, the 17th.

They were not the first service battalions of the HLI, said Lieutenant Colonel Oatts. The 10th and 11th had been raised "by the beat of the drum" a week earlier.

"They did, however, represent the first official response by the city to the national call for arms," he added.

Uniforms and equipment for the 15th, 16th and 17th battalions had to be turned out in factories. It took a year to get the three into the field of battle.

Ayrshire played a big part in their early preparations.

While they were down there, they would be inspected by important visitors from Glasgow, such as the Lord Provost and members of Glasgow Corporation.

The men of the 17th were billeted with local people in Troon. Before long, the three battalions would make their way to England for further training, then made their way to the Front, where they would fight alongside the regular troops in the British Army.

Many of them would never see their home again. Others did return to Scotland, but at great personal cost.

Some suffered from physical wounds received on the field of battle. Others suffered severe mental anguish resulting from the horrendous sights and sounds they had to endure in the trenches.

"For men who were volunteers they served their country magnificently," says Jim Devine, secretary of the modern-day HLI Association.

"The point to remember is that up until 1914 Britain had never faced a major industrial power in war, as it then did with Germany. The wars before then had, for the most part, been colonial wars in which Britain had had the upper hand in men, material and technology.

"But this was a very different scenario.

"Most of the cream of the regular army had been lost in the first year of the Great War, because they had been sent to places such as Mons to fight. The cadre of the seasoned regular troops was heavily reduced by such battles.

"So there was a massive need for more troops to replace them."

During the war, Glasgow formed the equivalent of 26 battalions of the HLI. Back then, a battalion would have consisted of nearly 1000 men, which gives an idea of the scale of the city's contribution.

Sometimes today they are confused with the "pals' battalions" which sprung up during the war all over Britain in response to the desperate need for more men on the front.

Mr Devine says: "The pals' battalions was more of an English phenomenon, and were made up of men from the same geographical area.

"A lot of the men in each pals' battalion would have been employed in the same factory or down the same colliery.

"The HLI service battalions were not, strictly speaking, pals' battalions - they were not geographically based, other than the fact their central point was Glasgow. These men came from all over the city."

The fighting on the Western Front took its toll on the 15th, 16th and 17th. They endured nightmarish conditions and suffered considerable losses amongst men and officers.

But their bravery did not go unnoticed - and played its part in helping Britain to victory.

"Many of them made the ultimate sacrifice," says Mr Devine who, together with HLI colleague Jim Urquhart went to the Riverside Museum, Glasgow, to look at the memorial plaque to the men of the 15th.

"But it speaks volumes for these ordinary Glasgow men that they were willing to take that risk to fight for their country."

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