AS I sat down to write this column yesterday, I had just heard about the remarks of historian David Starkey who said Remembrance Sunday has become a “crazy religious ritual”.

He went on: “It’s become abstracted from reality. There is what we call poppy fascism, we’re both suffering from it. The absolute requirement to do it. Say if you have mass war and conscription, today’s soldiers are volunteers. They are doing it usually because they like it, and they get tremendously excited about it. And many of them just enjoy killing and that’s very useful.”

How offensive is that? I say the person abstracted from reality is Starkey himself.

I have never considered the Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday commemorations to be a glorification of war, nor have I any time for those who just think Remembrance ceremonies are an excuse for kow-towing to royalty and waving the Union Flag. For a great many people, the act of Remembrance is a blessed personal thing and yes, our modern society must never cease to acknowledge those who gave their todays for our tomorrows.

Yesterday was the 101st anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War One, so in order to show how that war that didn’t end all wars was won by the heroism of ordinary people, I’m going to tell seven short stories about seven Scottish men who died on the Western Front and who were posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross (VC), the UK’s highest military decoration.

My reason for telling their stories is simple – to prove that wars are not won by generals but by ordinary people doing extraordinary things, a view with which monarchy-obsessed David Starkey might not concur. Here are seven Scottish heroes who did their duty and made the ultimate sacrifice, yet I suspect the general public will be barely aware of their names, though there are local memorials and monuments to some of them in their home towns.

I could have chosen many of the VC winners who survived the war – Scots won 74 VCs in that war alone – with some of them going on to live long lives, but the writer and historian in me is haunted by the tragic irony that the seven won the VC but did not live to know it, or to receive their medal.

There have been many more VCs awarded to Scots – 164 in all out of a total of 1358 awards, again this nation punching above its weight – but these seven stories exemplify the contribution Scotland made to stopping the German Empire controlling half of Europe, which was the real achievement of the Allies in 1914-18, and for which we should still be grateful.

Strictly in alphabetical order they are:


BORN in Dallas near Elgin in Moray on December 28, 1882, Anderson was the son of Alexander and Bella. He was educated at Forres Academy before beginning his working life as a car conductor on the Glasgow trams.

He enlisted in the 2nd Battalion, the Yorkshire Regiment – the Green Howards – in 1905 and served in various places for seven years before returning to work at the Elder Hospital in Govan. He got engaged to be married and was planning new life in South Africa when war broke out and as a reservist he was immediately called up.

An Acting Corporal, he led his men into action at the Battle of Neuve Chappelle which was to prove inconclusive but saw 10 men win VCs.

His citation read: “For conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty at Neuve Chapelle on the 12th March I9I5, when he led three men with bombs (grenades) against a large party of the enemy who had entered our trenches, and by his prompt and determined action saved what might have otherwise become a serious situation. Corporal Anderson first threw his own bombs, then those in possession of his three men (who had been wounded) among the Germans; after which he opened rapid fire upon them with great effect, notwithstanding that he was at the time quite alone.”

Anderson was killed in action the very next day. He was 32. His body was never found.

His brother Alex accepted the VC on his behalf after the war.


BORN in Wigtown on March 15, 1893, Louis was the first son of a labourer, Edward McGuffie and his wife Catherine nee Gilmour.

After his education at Wigtown School he joined the King’s Own Scottish Borders Territorial Battalion which was duly called up on the outbreak of war. His three younger brothers also enlisted in the KOSBs with their battalion which first saw service in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign. McGuffie’s bravery already was noticed by his officers. He then served in the Palestine and Gaza before the battalion was transferred to the Western Front.

By now a Sergeant, McGuffie won his medal as the war was drawing to a close. His citation read: “For most conspicuous bravery and resourceful leadership under heavy fire near Wytschaete on September 18th 1918. During the advance on Piccadilly Farm, he single-handed, entered several dug-outs and took many prisoners, and during subsequent operations dealt similarly with dug-out after dug-out, forcing one officer and twenty-five other ranks to surrender. During consolidation of the first objective he pursued and brought back several of the enemy who were slipping away, and he was instrumental in releasing some British soldiers who were being led off as prisoners. Later in the day, when in command of a platoon, he led it with the utmost dash and resource, capturing many prisoners. This very gallant soldier was subsequently killed by a shell.”

His death took place on October 4, 1918, less than six weeks before the Armistice. The people of Wigtown clubbed together to pay for his mother to travel to London to receive the Victoria Cross from King George V.


BORN at West Glen, New Abbey in Kirkcudbrightshire, now Dumfries and Galloway, on April 2, 1889, Mackenzie was the son of a stonemason, Alexander and his wife Marion nee Millar. He began his working life on his maternal grandparents’ farm before training as a joiner.

He enlisted in the Scots Guards in 1912 and was with the 2nd Battalion which embarked for France in October, 1914. Two months later they were involved in fierce hand-to-hand fighting at Rouges Bancs.

His citation reads: “For conspicuous bravery at Rouges Bancs on the 19th December, in rescuing a severely wounded man from in front of the German trenches, under a very heavy fire and after a stretcher-bearer party had been compelled to abandon the attempt. Private Mackenzie was subsequently killed on that day whilst in the performance of a similar act of gallant conduct.”

He was shot by a sniper and his body was never recovered.


BORN in Edinburgh on December 18, 1894, James was the second son of a Leith butcher, David McPhie. He joined the Territorials in 1912 and was called up to the Royal Engineers.

On October 14, 1918, Corporal McPhie was with a party of sappers trying to maintain a cork float bridge over the Canal de la Sensee north-west of Cambrai to allow a large patrol to escape from the heavy fire of the German forces. The bridge began to break, so McPhie and another sapper jumped in to try and hold it together. Realising the bridge needed repair, McPhie returned to the canal bank and then swam out for a second time saying “it is death or glory which must be done for the sake of our patrol on then other side.” He was severely wounded but kept on working until wounded several more times, dying at the scene four weeks short of the end of the war.


BORN in Kirkintilloch in East Dunbartonshire on September 11, 1898, Meikle was too young and too small to enlist when he first tried, but the lad who was working as a railway clerk in Nitshill was not to be denied.

He was accepted by the Seaforth Highlanders in February 1915, pretending to be 18, but had to wait a year before going into service. Almost immediately he gained promotion and at the 3rd Battle of Ypres in 1917 he won the Military Medal for his bravery under fire.

In July of the following year, and by now a Sergeant, Meikle and the rest of the 51st Highland Division were involved in the 2nd Battle of the Marne, successfully halting the German advance.

It cost Meikle his life, however, his company sergeant major writing to his family: “It is with the deepest regret that I write to you to inform you of your dear son 200854 Sgt Meikle, J, of his death, (killed in action) on the 20th July. We were on this day attacking a strong enemy position, and your dear lad behaved as gallantly as ever Britisher did. He single-handed took down an enemy machine gun post and its crew. Knocking it out with a walking stick he always used to carry and was afterwards rushing another similar post when he was killed by machine gun fire. His death was instantaneous.”

He took on a machine gun with a revolver and a walking stick and died at the age of 19.


THE Glaswegian son of a Kirk minister, Ranken was a brilliant prize-winning young doctor with the Royal Army Medical Corps who was one of the first nine recipients of the Victoria Cross in World War One. Quite simply he gave his life so that his patients might survive.

He had volunteered to serve alongside the King’s Royal Rifle Corps and within days of arriving in France on August 13, 1914, Ranken was appointed a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honour for gallantry under fire.

On 19 September, the Rifles were at Hautes-Avesnes when he was badly wounded by a stray British shell. Despite the severity of his wound, Ranken insisted on treating the other wounded men the whole following day. He died of a blood clot on September 25, 1914, aged 31.


BORN on Christmas Eve, 1883, in Glasgow to a master joiner, James, and his wife Elizabeth nee Dunlop, Turnbull was a tailor and an outstanding sportsman who had played for Third Lanark before the war and had also been a first rate cricketer and yachtsman.

On the first day of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916, Sergeant Turnbull and his men of the Highland Light Infantry were among the first men of the British Army to charge the enemy, capturing an important position.

Turnbull decided to hold the position come what may against German counter-attacks that came in waves. Men were killed and wounded all around him but still Turnbull fought on with grenades and a machine gun until a German sniper shot him dead.

The regiment’s official history states: “It was hopeless, yet it was necessary to hold on till nightfall. Turnbull shouldered the responsibility.”

Like all the above men, he was posthumously awarded the VC.