The Heroes of St Valéry were remembered today (Friday 12 June) on the 80th anniversary of the ‘other’ Dunkirk, at which the forgotten army of the 51st Division, including the Seaforth Highlanders, made their stand.
St Valéry was the rearguard action defending the retreating British forces as they escaped mainland Europe from the beaches of Dunkirk.
Pipers in Stornoway and at Kinloch were among those who joined an international tribute, with pipers in 16 countries playing the tune Heroes of St Valéry at 10am this morning.
The tune was written by Pipe Major Donald Maclean of Balantrushal in Lewis, himself one of the 10,000 members of the 51st battalion captured at St Valéry. They were subsequently marched through Belgium and Holland to East Prussia (now part of Poland) where those who survived the march were kept as Prisoners-of-War in the Stalags, or work camps, run by the Nazi regime.
Among the pipers playing today was Larry Ferguson, who took up his post at the Kinloch war memorial just before 10am.
Larry said: “From my village of Laxay three men left to fight in the 2nd Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders and all of them were captured at St Valéry. Thankfully all three of them returned after five years as prisoners of war.
“From 30 Laxay my uncles Donald ‘Dolly’ and Angus Ferguson went to serve in the Seaforths. There was also John ‘Polcain’ Macdonald of 19 Laxay.
“Angus was a piper who had been a regular soldier before the war and was on his way home, having decided to leave the army, when war was declared in 1939. He came off the boat at Stornoway and police Sergeant MacPhail ordered him to return to his unit immediately.
“He borrowed a bike to cycle home to Laxay and see his family. The police officer turned a blind eye, making him promise to report back before the boat sailed the next morning. Angus cycled the 15 miles to see his family and reported for duty the next morning.”
After being captured at St Valéry on 12 June 1940, Angus played a pivotal role in the lives of many of the men who were being marched from France to Prussia. Over the years Larry has heard first-hand stories from veterans of the battle who returned to Lewis.
He said: “I was told by more than one person that it was thanks to Angus that they kept marching and survived, because he played the pipes and kept them going. Otherwise they would have fallen by the side of the road on the way to Poland.”
Today was not the first time that Larry has played the tune Heroes of St Valéry as a tribute – ten years ago he was at St Valéry itself, piping before veterans of the actual battle. Their memories of events at the battle gave particular poignancy to Larry’s piping tribute today.
His playing this morning came at the same time as students from The Nicolson Institute’s pipe and brass bands played the same commemorative tune at the Clock Tower in Stornoway.
Angus MacNeil MP and Alasdair Allan MSP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar have both laid motions, respectively, to the House of Commons and Scottish Parliament this week to remember the 80th anniversary on June 12th 1940 of the capture of 10,000 men of the 51st Highland Division taken prisoner near St Valery en Caux, six days after the Dunkirk evacuations. The 51st Highland Division were attached to French defence forces.
Angus MacNeil said: “It is important that we remember those who tragically lost their lives when they were forced to surrender, after they had been left behind following Dunkirk, as they were fighting with the French at the time in defending the retreat from the Somme. Later, in 1941, 134 of the 219 returned escapees to Britain were from the 51st Highland Division, of this three men were from Ballachullish who used Gaelic to confuse the Germans to convince them that they were from a part of the Soviet Union.
“The bravery and heroism of the soldiers is most notably captured in the memorial in St Valery en Caux “La a bhlair is math na cairdean” - “On the day of battle it is good to have friends/relations”.
"A gripping account of events at St Valery, capture and captivity is given in the book by Donald John MacDonald of South Uist "Fo Sgail a Swastika" (Under the Shadow of the Swastika) and I would recommend it for anyone interested in further reading about the 51st Highland Division.”
Alasdair Allan said: “While the anniversary of the evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk draws significant national attention, what happened to members of the British Expeditionary Force who were left behind in France is less well known.
“The soldiers of the 51st Highland Division, made up of men from the Western Isles, North and West Coast of Scotland, were charged with the task of recapturing a strategic position on the Somme after the rest of the Allied Forces had been evacuated. Under heavy bombardment, outflanked and greatly outnumbered by Rommel’s 7th Panzers, the 51st fought a retreat to the coastal town of St Valery where, when all hopes of evacuation faded, they were forced to surrender.
“Their story deserves much greater prominence. On the 80th anniversary of their capture, it is important that we remember the courage of 51st Highland Division, the sacrifice of the fallen, and the suffering endured by captured soldiers who would spend the next five years as prisoners of war.”
Today’s commemorations have also been welcomed by Highlands and Islands MSP Donald Cameron. Mr Cameron, who submitted a motion to the Scottish Parliament last week marking the anniversary, said: “The tributes that have been paid to the heroes of St Valery here in the Highlands and Islands, and across the world, have been very moving.
“It is striking how those sacrifices made by an earlier generation have struck a chord and generated such a heartful response today, the 80th anniversary.
“We will never forget what was done on our behalf and I’m sure the tradition of pipers playing Donald Maclean’s tune will endure for many years to come.
“It is difficult to imagine a more fitting tribute than the sound of the pipes on an occasion like this.”
Picture: Larry Ferguson piping at Kinloch war memorial today