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Eighty years on, new generation to learn about the ‘Forgotten 51st’


By Alan Hendry

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James Rottger in a performance of The Beaches of St Valéry. Picture: Leslie Black
James Rottger in a performance of The Beaches of St Valéry. Picture: Leslie Black

It was a World War II battle that led to 10,000 mainly Scottish soldiers being captured. The remarkable bravery of members of the 51st Highland Division, who remained on the continent after the Dunkirk evacuations and were eventually captured at St Valéry-en-Caux, has largely been forgotten. Now, thanks to three Scottish armed forces charities, all school children in Scotland will be able to learn about the story.

Speaking at the launch of new learning resources created by Poppyscotland, Scotland's minister for children and young people, Highland MSP Maree Todd, said: “Barely a town, village or hamlet in the Highlands was unaffected by the events at St Valéry in June 1940, yet many today are unaware of its significance.

“These new resources are an excellent addition to Poppyscotland’s already extensive learning programme. At a time when parents and carers are doing an incredible job to keep our young people learning at home, the St Valéry materials are an excellent additional resource, and offer fascinating insight into the events at St Valéry 80 years ago this week.

“My great-uncle fought there and spent five brutal years as a prisoner of war, so the forthcoming commemorations have added poignancy for me. While the 75th anniversary of VE Day was rightly at the forefront of national consciousness last month, it is equally important that we remember and learn about less triumphant periods in our history.

As well as daily lesson plans, other significant learning events include an interactive Facebook Live lesson on Friday itself (11am) and two special broadcasts of critically acclaimed play The Beaches of St Valéry (Thursday at 8pm and Friday at 3pm).

Written and directed by Dr Stuart Hepburn and starring Ron Donachie, James Rottger and Ashley Smith, it was first performed as part of A Pie, a Pint and a Play at Glasgow’s Oran Mor in March. The play has been made available free for young people and adults alike to enjoy as part of the 80th anniversary commemorations of St Valéry by all those involved.

The play The Beaches of St Valéry, by Dr Stuart Hepburn, has been made available free as part of the 80th anniversary commemorations of St Valéry this week. Picture: Leslie Black
The play The Beaches of St Valéry, by Dr Stuart Hepburn, has been made available free as part of the 80th anniversary commemorations of St Valéry this week. Picture: Leslie Black

Dr Hepburn, of the University of Stirling, said: “I am absolutely delighted that The Beaches of St Valéry will form a central part of the 80th anniversary commemorations. Learning about St Valéry has been a passion of mine since 1999.

"The play began life as a film script and I went on to do a PHD on St Valéry, so it’s wonderful to see the remarkable story of the 51st Highland Division getting the national recognition it deserves.

“Many stories of those who fought at St Valéry went into creating the play, but it would not have been possible without the support of Arthur and Helaine Frazer, and the Frazer family, to whom I will be eternally grateful.”

Friday will mark the 80th anniversary of St Valéry and, as well as the learning resources aimed at young people, there is an extensive programme of commemorative events taking place. These have been arranged by Poppyscotland, Legion Scotland and RCET: Scotland’s Armed Forces Children’s Charity.

Gordon Michie, the head of fundraising and learning at Poppyscotland, said: “St Valéry represents a hugely significant moment in our nation’s history, and it is vitally important that the bravery and sacrifice of the ‘Forgotten 51st’ is forgotten no more.

“We are very grateful to Dr Stuart Hepburn and the wonderful cast for making the play available for us to use, and I would encourage young people and adults alike to tune in to the live broadcasts, both of which will be followed by a question-and-answer session with Stuart and the cast.”

At 10am on June 12, pipers up and down Scotland and all over the world will take to their doorsteps to play Heroes of St Valéry. Pipers, and other musicians, of all ages and abilities are being invited to download the sheet music and learn the piece over the coming weeks.

The public is being asked to support the St Valéry tribute through a fundraising campaign which will support the work of the three charities.

To register interest in taking part, and to access the sheet music, pipers are being asked to visit www.poppyscotland.org.uk/st-valery.

The live broadcasts can be viewed on Facebook (Poppyscotland, LegionScotland and RCETScot) and YouTube (Poppyscotland).


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