Calendar An icon of a desk calendar. Cancel An icon of a circle with a diagonal line across. Caret An icon of a block arrow pointing to the right. Email An icon of a paper envelope. Facebook An icon of the Facebook "f" mark. Google An icon of the Google "G" mark. Linked In An icon of the Linked In "in" mark. Logout An icon representing logout. Profile An icon that resembles human head and shoulders. Telephone An icon of a traditional telephone receiver. Tick An icon of a tick mark. Is Public An icon of a human eye and eyelashes. Is Not Public An icon of a human eye and eyelashes with a diagonal line through it. Pause Icon A two-lined pause icon for stopping interactions. Quote Mark A opening quote mark. Quote Mark A closing quote mark. Arrow An icon of an arrow. Folder An icon of a paper folder. Breaking An icon of an exclamation mark on a circular background. Camera An icon of a digital camera. Caret An icon of a caret arrow. Clock An icon of a clock face. Close An icon of the an X shape. Close Icon An icon used to represent where to interact to collapse or dismiss a component Comment An icon of a speech bubble. Comments An icon of a speech bubble, denoting user comments. Comments An icon of a speech bubble, denoting user comments. Ellipsis An icon of 3 horizontal dots. Envelope An icon of a paper envelope. Facebook An icon of a facebook f logo. Camera An icon of a digital camera. Home An icon of a house. Instagram An icon of the Instagram logo. LinkedIn An icon of the LinkedIn logo. Magnifying Glass An icon of a magnifying glass. Search Icon A magnifying glass icon that is used to represent the function of searching. Menu An icon of 3 horizontal lines. Hamburger Menu Icon An icon used to represent a collapsed menu. Next An icon of an arrow pointing to the right. Notice An explanation mark centred inside a circle. Previous An icon of an arrow pointing to the left. Rating An icon of a star. Tag An icon of a tag. Twitter An icon of the Twitter logo. Video Camera An icon of a video camera shape. Speech Bubble Icon A icon displaying a speech bubble WhatsApp An icon of the WhatsApp logo. Information An icon of an information logo. Plus A mathematical 'plus' symbol. Duration An icon indicating Time. Success Tick An icon of a green tick. Success Tick Timeout An icon of a greyed out success tick. Loading Spinner An icon of a loading spinner. Facebook Messenger An icon of the facebook messenger app logo. Facebook An icon of a facebook f logo. Facebook Messenger An icon of the Twitter app logo. LinkedIn An icon of the LinkedIn logo. WhatsApp Messenger An icon of the Whatsapp messenger app logo. Email An icon of an mail envelope. Copy link A decentered black square over a white square.

The north-east pipers who laid down their lives and are forever remembered in St Valery

The St Valery cemetery commemorates so many north-east soldiers.
The St Valery cemetery commemorates so many north-east soldiers.

There are some heartbreaking stories behind the victims of the 51st Highland Division’s valiant last stand at St Valery in 1940.

And the cemetery in that little French fishing village and the nearby churchyard of Manneville-es-Plains have become the final resting places for many young men who were caught up in the terrible devastation which rained down on their heads.

Played and died together

The poignant memorials at the sites testify to the sacrifices which were made and also highlight how families were torn asunder and comrades from across the north-east of Scotland played the pipes together and died together, including a group of five who were killed on the very day – June 12 – that the division surrendered to the Germans.

Alex Watts kept a diary of his Second World War memories.

Stewart Mitchell, the volunteer historian at Gordon Highlanders Museum in Aberdeen, travelled to France while writing a book about the 51st Highland Division.

He said he would never forget the scenes which he encountered or the number of poignant memories which were evoked by those who fell 80 years ago.

He added: “When I was researching the Gordon Highlanders stories for ‘St Valery And Its Aftermath’, I decided to visit the area to experience for myself what the countryside and St Valery-en-Caux was like.

“In planning this trip, I had some objectives in mind, such as visiting the military cemetery in the town and the 51st Highland Division monument on top of the high chalk cliffs overlooking the harbour, where the evacuation was to have taken place.

Gordon Reid was one of the pipers involved in the St Valery last stand.

“In addition, I wanted to visit the grave of a 5th Battalion Gordon Highlander from Ellon, whose story touched me.

“That was William Neilson and the sad thing about him was that his two older brothers, Rolland and Charles, had been killed in action in the First World War.

“William died on June 12 1940.

“Like the rest of the men of the 5th Battalion, Bill left home in September 1939 and travelled to Aldershot to complete his training before leaving for France at the end of January 1940, to join the British Expeditionary Force.

William Neilson with his family before he was killed at St Valery.

“The family had arranged a visit to the local photographer’s studio for a family photograph before he left home.

“This was duly taken with Bill, in uniform, standing proudly behind his wife, Gladys, with their baby daughter, Florence, on her knee while he rested his hand lovingly on the shoulder of their young four-year-old son, James, standing by her side.

“I knew his grave was not in the war graves cemetery in St Valery, but in the churchyard of the small village of Manneville-es-Plains, three miles east of the town.”

Piper Duncan Reid was killed on the day the 51st Highland Division surrendered.

Mr Neilson’s burial place is situated slightly apart from a group of graves of five other soldiers, four of them Gordon Highlanders.

And, on checking the names, Mr Mitchell immediately recognised the identities of these victims, though he was not expecting them to be buried in Manneville.

John McLennan was among the casualties at St Valery in 1940.

They were John McLennan, 24, from Aberdeen – the son of Pipe Major GS McLennan, who was one of the regiment’s most famous figures – and Duncan Reid, 25, from Bucksburn, George Rennie, 20, from Kemnay, and Patrick (known as Peter) Stewart, 38, also from the Granite City.

Mortar shell

They died at the same time when a mortar shell came through the roof of the farm building in which they were sheltering on June 12.

Peter Stewart died on the day the 51st Highland Division surrendered.

Mr Mitchell said: “I already knew the story of how they had died, because I had received the written account of the war memoir of Alex Watt, from Bucksburn, who had seen the whole incident.

“All of the Gordon Highlanders buried there had their own story. They were pre-war territorial (part-time) soldiers. Peter Stewart also left a young family and Duncan Reid’s brother, Gordon, was captured, as was John McLennan’s brother, George.

Stewart Mitchell investigated what happened at St Valery and thereafter.

“Both spent the next five years as prisoners of war. Two other members of the pipe band, who had also been in the barn survived, but both were severely wounded.

“They were Bill Maitland, who was later on a founder member of the Bucksburn Pipe Band and James Allan from Peterhead.

“The reason I think this left such a big impression on me was that, here in this tiny village in northern France, I did not expect to find such an array of evidence of the day the 51st (Highland) Division surrendered.

Initially, he was left wondering why these men’s graves were in the churchyard instead of the war cemetery in St Valery-en-Caux.

Debt owed

But he soon found out that the reason lay in the debt which the locals in Manneville-es-Plains believed they still owed to the many courageous Scots who never had the opportunity to return home to their loved ones.

Mr Mitchell said: “I discovered later that, when the War Graves Commission came to re-inter the men in the War Graves Cemetery, the villagers immediately protested.

“They said that the men had died fighting for them and, therefore, they wished to look after their graves, and they have carried on doing so ever since.”

It is a fitting tribute to the thousands of brave lads who were left with the terrible choice – be killed or be captured – 80 years ago.