A couple of years ago I purchased three postcards showing Musselburgh soldiers from the 1/7th Royal Scots. I’ve published several articles about these men and the Quintinshill rail disaster that claimed so many lives in May 1915. I had not made the Quintinshill connection when I bought the postcards but my curiosity was piqued because my great-great-great grandmother, Grizel Charles, was born in Musselburgh.
While researching the 1/7th Royal Scots who died in the rail crash I came upon an Edinburgh soldier named John Cunningham. My great-grandfather Walter Charles Cunningham was born in Edinburgh, one of eight siblings, including an older brother named John. I was intrigued, could this be my great-great uncle John? It seemed unlikely as he was 45 years-old and married with two teenage boys when war broke out in August 1914.
I set about researching this John Cunningham and quickly determined he was not my great-great uncle. However in the process of doing so I was startled by another name that jumped out from my search results page: John Reid Cunningham. His middle name Reid was my Orcadian great-great grandmother’s maiden name, a line I had researched extensively when I visited the Orkney’s in 2010. Not only had my great-great uncle John joined up but he was a Sergeant in the 1/7th Royal Scots!
John Reid Cunningham was born on July 18, 1869 at No. 35 in the Rosemount Building in Edinburgh. His mother was Annie Rich Reid and his father was Walter Cunningham, an Engine Driver for the North British Railway Company. The family moved from the Rosemount Building to 16 Richmond Terrace, not far from Haymarket station, and it was here that John lived with his family while he trained to become a Lithographer. Five of nine children, including a daughter, were employed in the map-making industry. John’s younger brother (my great-grandfather Walter) became a foreman at Ordnance Survey in Southampton, met my great-grandmother and emigrated to Canada in 1898.
John Reid Cunningham married Betsy (Bessie) Faichney Leith in 1895 and raised two children at 50 Albion Road, a 10-minute walk from Dalmeny Street. In 1901 the Royal Scots built a Drill Hall on Dalmeny Street and it may have been shortly after this that John joined the 1/7th Royal Scots. I have no documentation to support this but John was awarded a Territorial Efficiency Medal indicating he had served a minimum of 12 years.
On May 22, 1915 John boarded a train in Larbert along with the other men and officers of ‘C’ Company. As fate would have it he was spared the carnage at Quintinshill that claimed 226 lives and injured 246, the vast majority of whom were from ‘A’ and ‘D’ Companies of the 1/7th Royal Scots. ‘B’ and ‘C’ Company were on a second train that avoided the accident and arrived in Liverpool where they boarded the Empress of Britain with the 1/4th Royal Scots bound for Alexandria. They arrived on June 3 and after a short break made the journey to Helles, via Lemnos, arriving on June 13/14¹.
On June 28, 1915 a much depleted 1/7th Royal Scots took part in the Battle of Gully Ravine. They fought alongside the 1/4th Royal Scots in the 156th Brigade, one of a handful of Brigades that took part in the battle which raged for eight days. A detailed description of the campaign is recorded in Stephen Chamber’s “Gully Ravine”² published in 2003 and to a much lesser extent in “The Story of the Royal Scots (The Lothian Regiment)” by Lawrence Weaver (1915).
The 1/7th Royal Scots were subjected to a ferocious counter-bombardment prior to them going over the top at zero-hour, just before 11am on June 28th. The battalion captured two Turkish trenches but at great cost, many the victim of a machine-gun nest situated on their right. The wounded lay dying under the Gallipoli sun while the Turkish artillery intensified. Chamber’s excellent book describes their fate as follows:
“It was not long until the scrub and sun-browned grass caught fire again, devouring anything in its path. Those wounded who were helpless perished, burnt to death in the blaze.”
The exact circumstances of my great-great uncle’s death are unknown. He went missing on June 28th but a notice in the Oct 23rd Edinburgh Evening News indicates that he was not yet presumed dead. Eventually hope ran out and today Sgt. John Reid Cunningham is memorialized on the Helles Memorial on the Gallipoli peninsula.
Unfortunately I have no photos of my great-great uncle John nor any contact with his descendants but I’m hoping this article may generate new leads. If you have any information I would very much appreciate it if you took a moment to contact me.