Former pupil and fallen soldier inspires

The letters and diaries of a young man who attended Beath High, then went to war and never returned, are `making history real' for today's pupils

Raymond Ross

Beath High in Fife can boast quite a few famous former pupils: Nobel Prize-winning chemist Sir James Black, Baroness Jennie Lee who was instrumental in founding the Open University, Scottish international footballer "Slim" Jim Baxter and crime writer Ian Rankin.

That's not a bad haul for a school which was founded in 1910 in the former mining town of Cowdenbeath. But there's another former pupil, who was dux of the school in 1912, who has not only been exercising the minds of the pupils in recent years but has also become a role model, a moral touchstone and an inspiration, according to the pupils.

His name is William Barclay Binning and he is very much part of the living history of the school. Born in Cowdenbeath in 1896, William left what was then Beath Higher Grade School in 1914 to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh, where he joined the Officers Training Corps. In 1915 he was commissioned into the 11th Battalion The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) as a Second Lieutenant and crossed to France for the first time that October to serve on the Ypres Salient.

In January 1916 he joined the newly-formed Machine Gun Corps but was fatally wounded on 23 April and died the next afternoon at a Casualty Clearing Station at Bailleul. He was 19.

"He was a man of moral fibre," says S4 pupil Dylan Steven. "You only have to read the last letter he dictated to a nurse as he lay dying - especially the words `I have tried to do my duty' - to see that. He was an admirable and strong character and reading his letters and war diaries makes you want to strive for similar values and virtues.

"It helps you understand your own school. It makes you proud and it inspires a real school patriotism," says Dylan.

That the pupils know so much about William is down to their history teacher, Christine Plummer, who only found out about him in 2003. Contacting his family, she was given access to a treasure trove of primary sources including photographs, letters, diaries, medals, badges and even William's regimental sword, all of which are presently on display in the school.

In her drive "to make history real", as she puts it, Ms Plummer has also taken pupils on regular visits to First World War battlefield sites at Ypres and the Somme and on one visit a pupil piper played "The Floo'ers o' the Forest" at William's grave in Bailleul British Military Cemetery.

"Having access to the primary sources makes it all real, especially when they're from someone from your own school," says David Black (S4). "His last diary entry is particularly poignant. It simply reads `April 22nd. Relief to the trenches', meaning they were going back into the front line. And that's it. It just cuts off.

"You can imagine the bereavement of his family. But these sources do contain his legacy and it remains a positive legacy for us today," he says.

Dylan Steven agrees. "It brings it home and it makes you an effective contributor because you can speak to clear evidence, to a real life - and it gives you understanding of someone who was your contemporary a hundred years ago. It makes me a confident learner, because with these sources I know what I'm talking about," he says.

The materials also have a contemporary relevance, says Lewis Ratcliffe (S4). "You can relate to wars today and to the families of soldiers who're serving abroad and it also teaches you about reality. There are many computer war games you can play. But war isn't virtual. It's not a game," he says.

All the information Ms Plummer gathered about William was passed to the Great War archive set up by the University of Oxford and from this source, author Sian Price was able to include a chapter on William in her recently published book, If You're Reading This. Last Letters from the Front Line (Frontline Books 2011).

"He is someone to associate your learning with," says Melissa Haddow (S4). "Textbooks can be quite distant but William's story brings it right home, into our school. He makes you realise a lot about history and about war."

History preserved on paper

Last Letter of Lieutenant William B. Binning

My Dear Parents,

Don't grieve dearest mother and father - I should so much have liked to live and shown you what good there was in me but still I am happy for I have done Something. I shall be happy in His Care and will look forward so much to our reunion. Don't let any thought of me or my welfare worry you - for I am going to Him and will be safe in His keeping.

You might check all my effects, father, if they ever reach you. I have noted whom I would like them to be given to - the others you will just have to keep. Give Johnnie every chance of realizing his ambitions and tell him I expect him to do well.

Give Belle, Annie and Johnnie my very best Love.

Don't worry dear ones I am safe in His keeping. I have tried to do my duty but have failed sometimes.

With all Love to all,

From your loving son, Willie.

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Raymond Ross

Latest stories