An exciting month for our volunteer Sheila!

Published on 8 November 2018 Categories:

October was a very exciting month for Sheila Gove, one of our Connect Online Volunteers, and we are delighted that Sheila is happy for us to share her remarkable story with you!

Sheila’s “crazy October” as she calls it began with an express delivery from her cousin’s daughter in Canada. She had sent a copy of a letter from the Scotsman which said that the Mayor of a small village in north-east France was searching for relatives of the late James McPhie VC – Sheila’s uncle! James was a Scottish recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces.

On 14 October 1918 at the Canal de la Sensée near Aubencheul-au-Bac, Nord, France, Corporal McPhie was with a party of sappers maintaining a cork float bridge, which when our infantry started to cross it just before dawn began to break away and sink. Corporal McPhie jumped into the water and tried to hold the cork and timbers together but this proved impossible so he swam back and collected the materials for repair. Although it was daylight and the bridge was under close fire he then led the way to the bridge, axe in hand. He was severely wounded and died almost at once. However, the bridge was kept open and 1/2nd Battalion London Regiment were able to maintain their bridgehead on the opposite bank until relieved. His Victoria Cross is now displayed at the Imperial War Museum, London, England.

Aubencheul-au-bac is a small village with only 500 inhabitants but they are so grateful to the soldiers of the allies who gave their lives that they wanted to hold a commemoration of the centenary and centred it on the day Sheila’s uncle Jim passed away there on 14th October 1918 – just twenty eight days before the Armistice. 

Although quite short notice, Sheila decided to make the journey for this special event, along with her son Gordon who lives in the Netherlands, granddaughter Sarah & her boyfriend Nick. They all arrived in France on the Saturday to a lovely welcome dinner in the Town Hall. There were about 40 people there including some men in period battledress. The hospitality and friendliness was overwhelming for such a small village. There were also five members representing the Edinburgh Royal Engineers who had also made the trip across.

On the Sunday morning everyone congregated at the War Memorial at 10am for a wreath-laying ceremony, lots of photographs were taken and then a parade with a band took place around the village then up towards the canal and scene of the wartime events. This was also followed by a lovely French meal. 

The following morning, Sheila and her son visited her uncle Jim’s grave on the outskirts of Cambrai. The flowers and wreath were there from the day before and they also laid some small crosses with heather that Gordon had made. Sheila said the journey was easy for them, but must not have been so for her father who visited his brothers grave in the 1960s despite not speaking any French or having his own transport. 

When Sheila arrived back home that evening she found out that the Government had previously decreed that on the centenary year they would lay a stone for every recipient for the Victoria Cross in Britain and one of the suggestions was that this should be laid near their birthplace. Edinburgh City Council decided that although James McPhie’s birthplace (Salisbury Street) was no longer there, the next nearest point was possible and so two weeks later on the 28th October a ceremony took place on the corner of the Pleasance and Brown Street. The Royal Engineers were represented and after the Lord Provost said a few words about the award, pipers played the last post and wreaths were laid. About 30 people attended this event including quite a few of Sheila’s distant relatives. 

This has been an emotional few weeks for Sheila and what an incredible story! We are delighted that she is happy for us to share it on her behalf.