One of the rewards of battlefield research is how it’s relatively common to stumble on a piece of information, often in the most unlikely of places, which leads to a fresh trail of discovery.
This happened to me when my wife and I called in at a wonderfully idiosyncratic bookshop called ‘Barter Books’ at Alnwick in northumberland.
It’s inside a disused railway station and is packed from floor to ceiling with a rich collection of all kinds of volumes; there’s even a model railway skirting the rooms on tracks above head height.
The café is in the old booking office, and as we sat down for our morning coffee, I found myself looking at a portrait of a magnificent kilted highlander on the wall. I could just make out the hand-written caption: ‘Garnet Wolsely Fyfe, 1880-1916. Fyfe was one of the pipers of the Tyneside Scottish who died leading the advance into no-mans-land on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1st, 1916. On that day, the Regiment lost 1750 men. No ground was gained’. He was 36 when he died.
I took a picture of the portrait and left Barter Books with more than I bargained for: a wish to find out more about one of the many Tyneside Scottish, the men who were billed as ‘Harder than Hammers’ on the recruiting posters, who died at La Boisselle a century before. David and Julie Thomson in La Boisselle directed me to a book called Somme 90, written by Duncan Youel and David Edgell to commemorate the 90th anniversary in 2006, and they quoted an eye-witness account of Corporal Fyfe’s death by Private J Elliott of the Tyneside Scottish:
“A bomber shouted, ‘I’ve been hit in the arse!’, Billy Grant called back, ‘Haven’t we all!’ I did see poor Aggy Fife. He was riddled with bullets, writhing and screaming”. Corporal Piper Fyfe was one the 2522 Tyneside Scottish listed as killed, wounded or missing after they walked towards the almost untouched German machine gun nests by La Boisselle. He was buried at Ovillers military cemetery, such a familiar sight for everyone who visits Lochnagar Crater, near the killing fields of Mash Valley. A website called the north east War Memorials Project (www.newmp.org.uk) told me that Fyfe was in the northumberland Fusiliers. He died – as many others did – within minutes of going ‘over the top’. He, of course, didn’t carry a rifle; he was armed with his pipes, which makes his courage all the more extraordinary. His name is on a memorial at Shiremoor in north Tyneside. This too was remarkable, because my wife spent her childhood in nearby Forest Hall and her parents lived their final years in Palmersville, next door to Shiremoor.
The granite column is on a sandstone base, on land given by the Duke of northumberland. Corporal G.W.Fyfe is on the front, among a hundred other names. The inscription reads: ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friend’.
‘In memory of the glorious dead of Shiremoor and District who fell in the Great War.’ The memorial was unveiled in 1924. It cost about £495, and the money was raised by public subscription and fund-raising. It was Grade II listed in 1986, and survives today.