PEOPLE CAN BE DIVIDED SIMPLY INTO TWO GROUPS: those who do not like graveyards and those who do.
I am a fully-paid-up member of the second chapter, but I have learned that dragging the family round old cemeteries will not earn me any Dad or Husband of the Year awards, so these days it is a solo pursuit.
I am fascinated by the physical manifestation of grief displayed in the headstones, statues and memorials. I admire the skill of the stone masons (although I wonder why soft stone was used so often when it weathers so easily). I am intrigued by the wording on the messages and the varieties of often long-neglected fonts used for the inscriptions. I enjoy simply reading the often-unusual names of the departed. For example, I saw a Zinnia the other day. I have never met or heard of anyone called Zinnia.
It is the apparently ordinary and, to me, anonymous graves that interest me most, but occasionally I come across a memorial of more lasting significance. In St Cuthbert’s Churchyard in Norham I was curious about a fine marble headstone decorated with a vivid red tartan sash.
On inspection I discovered it is the grave of Piper Daniel Laidlaw VC, the celebrated ‘Piper of Loos’, whose astonishing action I had read about in the excellent museum of The King’s Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB) at Berwick Barracks.
Berwickshire-born Laidlaw was 40 years old and a piper in the 7th Battalion, KOSB, 15th (Scottish) Infantry Division during World War I. Born in 1875, he had served in the British Army from 1896 to 1912, but re-enlisted in September 1914.
His Victoria Cross citation in The London Gazetteon 18 November 1915 read: “For most conspicuous bravery prior to an assault on German trenches near Loos and Hill 70 on 25th September 1915. During the worst of the bombardment, when the attack was about to commence, Piper Laidlaw, seeing that his company was somewhat shaken from the effects of gas, with absolute coolness and disregard of danger, mounted the parapet, marched up and down and played the company out of the trench. The effect of his splendid example was immediate, and the company dashed out to the assault. Piper Laidlaw continued playing his pipes till he was wounded.”
He received his medal – inscribed simply with the words ‘For Valour’ – from King George V at Buckingham Palace in early 1916. By an odd coincidence, I discovered the gravestone shortly before the 70th anniversary of Daniel Laidlaw’s death on 2nd June 1950. He was 74. An illustration of the incident appears on the Norham village information board.
The Battle of Loos took place between 25thSeptember and 8th October 1915. It was reportedly the biggest British attack of 1915 and the first time that the British used poison gas. Maybe it was British gas that had affected Piper Laidlaw’s comrades. Tragically, the repeated assaults did little to shift the Germans.
On the fate of the KOSB troops, all I can find is that , unsurprisingly, “they suffered heavy casualties”. Depressingly, The Loos Memorial near Lens in northern France commemorates over 20,000 soldiers of Britain and the Commonwealth who fell in the two-week engagement and have no known grave.
It remains a sickening tragedy that the poor Tommies were in the trenches in the first place, but I find Piper Daniel Laidlaw’s sense of duty and bravery strangely moving and inspiring.
I am pleased he, at least, lived long and has a dedicated and beautiful resting place in Norham.