Woodfarm students’ pilgrimage to the killing fields of France

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Two pupils from Woodfarm High School will place a wreath on the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery at Arras in France today.

For students Molly Ward and Matthew King it will be an unforgettable moment, marking the centenary of a First World War battle that claimed tens of thousands of lives.

The Scots alone suffered 18,000 casualties - the equivalent to the population of a town like Peterhead or Dumbarton.

The total cost the Allied forces was 159,000 men.

The Battle of Arras was supposed to be the great breakthrough effort that would deliver a war-winning blow to the Germans and make all the sacrifice of the carnage at the Somme and Verdun somehow worthwhile.

Instead, despite unbelievable heroism and some initial success, the vast operation launched on April 9 – which ran until May 15 - was yet another dismal failure.

It was also a Scottish national catastrophe, as no less than 44 of the 120 battalions that made up the ten British assault Divisions were Scottish.

Seven of the Canadian battalions involved were also proudly Scottish in origin.

More than 4,000 men typically became casualties on every single day of the battle.

For Molly and Matthew the once in a lifetime trip to the Great War killing fields of France will see them meet pupils their own age from France and Canada.

Together they will reflect on the appalling sacrifice made by the First World War generation.

The trip has been organised by WW100 Scotland in conjunction with the Armed Forces in Scotland, Legion Scotland, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Education Scotland and Mercat Tours,

The commemorations will drive WW100 Scotland’s aim to encourage a spirit of research and inquiry, particularly among young people, to help create a lasting legacy.

Molly and Matthew will probably find it difficult to contain their emotions, as even the most calloused army veterans do, when the Band of the Royal Regiment of Scotland beats the Retreat in the Place des Heros in the early evening.

As well as participating in the Arras commemorations, students will visit a range of other battlefields, cemeteries and memorials relating to the battles of Loos, the Somme and the Third Battle of Ypres.

Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop, said: “The casualties had a devastating impact on those back home at the time, and resonate to this day in our collective memory.

“I am heartened that our young people will attend this commemoration – helping to ensure future generations will not forget the horrors and grief associated with war.”

Those in Scotland wishing to join in the Arras commemorations are encouraged to go to Edinburgh Castle Esplanade tomorrow evening, where a service taking place in the Scottish National War Memorial at 6.30pm will be broadcast on a large screen ahead of a 7.30pm Beating Retreat conducted by the Band of HM Royal Marines Scotland.