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Last Updated: Saturday, 1 July 2006, 17:36 GMT 18:36 UK
Tears as 'darkest day' remembered
By Cameron Buttle
BBC Scotland

Ceremonies marking the 90th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme have been taking place in France.

BBC Scotland's Cameron Buttle was in a small village where the role played by a Scottish regiment was remembered.

Regimental colours
The regimental colours were carried on the first day of the battle

"That was an honour and a privilege."

Those simple words grimly summed up how Captain Gary Tait felt about his role in a commemoration service at Contalmaison to those who fell.

Soaked in sweat from collar to cuff, Capt Tait hadn't moved an inch in the burning summer sun in this quiet French village.

His gloved hands were rock solid on the battered wooden staff which held the very same regimental colours the Royal Scots had carried, somewhere in someone's backpack, on the first day of the Somme.

Behind him fields of wheat barely rippled in the soft breeze.

It was across these fields 90 years ago that 800 men of the Royal Scots advanced towards the German front line.

Stopped to remember

Over a mile-and-a-half they fought their way through trenches, barbed wire, grenades and bombs, snipers and machine guns.

When they reached Contalmaison only 40 of them were left.

On Saturday, Contalmaison stopped to remember those men who fell.

Everyone in the village had come out. Young and old gathered opposite the cairn memorial and stood shoulder to shoulder with the Scots who had travelled to pay their own tribute.

Wreath being laid
Wreaths were laid at to remember those who fell in 1916

By the time the church clock had struck 11, the crowd had spilled onto the one road through the town. The traffic had no choice but to stop.

Any noise from their engines was stopped after a bang on the bonnet from a local farmer.

Wreath after wreath was laid at the foot of the cairn. A plaque on the memorial tells the tale of McCrae's battalion.

Lt Col Sir George McCrae was 54 years old when he said: "I could not ask you to serve unless I share the danger at your side."

He was speaking to the young men of the east of Scotland who had answered the call to fight for king and country.

Wept openly

These men included the entire professional team of Hearts FC. Some players from their Edinburgh rivals Hibs also joined, along with golfers, athletes and rugby players. They became known as McCrae's battalion.

As the piper played Floo'ers o the Forest in this small French village, French and Scots alike wept openly.

They wept for these 800 Royal Scots, for the one million men who died over the four months of the battle of the Somme. One million lives lost, only eight miles of France gained.

But 1 July, 1916, will forever be remembered as the darkest day in British military history.

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