Now that all the Scottish infantry battalions, with the exception of the Scots Guards, have donned the kilt it seems odd to discover that around 130 years ago senior Scottish officers regarded it as a drag on recruiting and actually wanted to cut the number of kilted regiments.
The debate in the run-up to the 1881 re-organization of the British army was every bit as heated as the one surrounding the recent amalgamation of all six regular Scottish infantry battalions into one super-regiment. In the immediate run up to the 1881 changes, the only Highland regiment stationed in Britain was the Black Watch.
Its colonel was the only Highland regimental commander consulted about the proposals to double the number of kilted battalions from the five that existed prior to 1881.
Colonel Duncan MacPherson said those five kilted regiments already had enough problems recruiting Scots, never mind true Highlanders, into their ranks.
He suggested it would be better to create one regiment, “The Highland Brigade”, which would recruit from the whole Highland area.
He, like the other Highland colonels, was anxious not to dilute the Highland character of the regiments any further.
The colonels were even prepared to give up their regimental tartans if it meant keeping their recruiting grounds in the Highlands - only the Camerons refused to surrender their distinctive Cameron of Erracht tartan. This scuppered a proposal to put them in Government tartan as the 2nd Battalion of the Black Watch.
One former commander of the Gordon Highlanders took a less dramatic line. General J.C. Hay declared more than 120 years ago that he’d worn the Gordon tartan for 30 years and would be sad to see it go.
“But I would rather have the right men in the wrong tartan, than the wrong men in the right tartan,” he said
Up until 1881, the Gordons regarded themselves as an Inverness-shire unit. The regiment had been recruited in 1794 from the Duke of Gordon’s Highland estates, which stretched all the way to Lochaber at the time
But despite this, by 1881 only about half the regiment came from homes in the Highlands and Islands.
Since the early 1870s the Gordon’s base had been at Aberdeen. They shared a depot with the Sutherland Highlanders as part of a scheme drawn up by Secretary of State for War Edward Cardwell to link different regiments for recruiting purposes.
Under Cardwell’s scheme, while one of the linked battalions was overseas policing the British Empire, the other would be recruiting and training reinforcements for it. Every few years the two battalions would switch duties.
The new Secretary of State for War Hugh Childers decided the system of linking could be improved if the one battalion regiments were welded together into two battalion regiments. Each of the new regiments would be assigned a specific recruiting area.
These shotgun marriages created some disappointing combinations for the Highland purists.
The Gordons were “married” to the 75th Stirlingshire Regiment in 1881. The 75th had previously been linked for recruiting and training purposes to the Dorsetshire Regiment.
The only possible justification for the union was that the 75th had been raised as a Highland Regiment in 1787 but when the flow of Highland recruits dried up around 1809 it was decided to abandon the kilt in a bid to recruit more Lowlanders, English and Irishmen into its ranks.
For the same reason, three other Highland regiments were deprived of the kilt in 1809. Childers re-organization would put all three back into the kilt. The Duke of Albany’s Own Highlanders, who had reclaimed at least part of their Scottish identity in 1825 by donning tartan trews, became the 1st Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders; the 73rd Perthshire Regiment put the kilt back on as the 2nd Battalion of the Black Watch; and the 91st Argyllshire Highlanders became the 1st Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
The controversy over the future of the Highland regiments became a major sore point for Childers. The powerful Anglo-Scottish community in London were ignorant of the serving officers' proposal to form one kilted regiment, and were lobbying to “save” all five.
Childers, in a humorous letter to Lord Reay, joked about the London Scots’ campaign.
“The tartan question is one of the gravest character, far more important, as your friend suggests, than the maintenance of the union with Ireland,” he wrote.
“All the thoughts of the War Office are concentrated upon it, and the patterns of tartans -past and present - fill our rooms.
“We are neglecting the Transvaal and Ashanti for the sake of weighing the merits of a few threads of red, green, or white.”
A Coyote armoured vehicle on patrol near Kandahar Airfield.
Scottish Military Disasters has been launched as an e-book. And it’s now improved.
Preparing the book in e-book format offered the chance to correct some minor errors.
“I wouldn’t say it’s worth someone who has the print version going out and buying the e-book,” said author Paul Cowan.
“But in preparing the e-book we’ve corrected a couple of little irritating misprints and one mistake that probably only annoys me and a couple of my relatives.”
The book is one of the first from the Neil Wilson Publishing catalogue to be released as an e-book.
“Neil’s stable of authors includes such giants as Nigel Tranter, so this is a real honour for me,” said Cowan.
“This will make the book far more accessible to readers in Scotland and around the World – and also in certain countries far more affordable.
“I’ve found where it is reasonably priced overseas, it’s been selling like hotcakes.”
Glasgow-based Neil Wilson said the move into e-books was as a result of public demand.
Wilson teamed up with the respected e-book team at the Faber Factory for the conversion to the new format which will make Scottish Military Disasters available on a variety of devices, including most e-readers and mobile phones.
“We will also go online with Apple soon,” he added.
For details of how to buy the e-book version –
356. Leading from the Front
by Sir Richard Dannant
This is an odd book from one of Britain's most high profile generals of recent years. It is part autobiography and part pleading polemic. The autobiography is interesting enough as young Richard moves through the all-too-common route to high command in the British military via private school. I couldn't help feeling that a kid from Cranhill who left high school with the same lacklustre academic results as Dannant would not have been accepted as an officer in the British Army. Nor perhaps would they have been admitted to Durham University. But there's no taking away from Dannatt that he was a brave soldier and I believe him when he claims to have put the welfare of his troops high up on his list of priorities. The book also dispels suggestions that when he spoke out against the defence policies of the ruling Labour Government while the professional head of the British Army, Chief of the General Staff, that he was being naive. The book shows that his previous jobs had included a couple of stints as a Whitehall Warrior. He knew exactly what he was trying to do. Whether he did the right thing only time will tell, and eight years on since the book was written he does not look as though he did do that much good. The Army remains the Cinderella service. The pleading polemics, which pretty much take up the last three chapters of the book, are much less interesting. There must be much, I suppose, that he felt he could not say in a book that came out so soon after his retirement about the running of the British military during his years near the top. Like most of the club-able old boys in senior ranks he makes a couple of cryptic criticisms in public about his former colleagues but fails to finger the guilty parties by name. Though, it doesn't take a genius to work out that he didn't think having jet-jocky Sir Jock Stirrup as the head of the British military when the army's activities Iraq and Afghanistan were the main focus of armed forces' activity was the greatest of ideas. Nor does he think two aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy was, or is, the best use of scarce defence budget money. But it is the discretion, or whatever it is, that makes the final three chapters more than a little irritating. I had hoped for more hard-headed practicality and less philosophical musing on the nature of future wars and conflicts. It is hard to work out how much power Dannatt actually wielded as Chief of the General Staff and whether the job as become that of a figurehead for a labyrinthian network of senior officers whose overlapping and clashing responsibilities mean the military decides very little at the Ministry of Defence. Much of his time in the senior echelons appears to have involved organising talking-shops. He may have been equal to the intellectual rigours and gymnastics they involved but I fear much of what was said at these events went over the heads of all-too-many of the participants. They seem to mouth the platitudes easily enough but to lack any true understanding of what is being said at these talking shops.
355. Shock Army of the British Empire
by Shane B Schreiber
The "shock army" referred to is the Canadian Corps in the closing days of the First World War. Shane Schreiber was a member of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry when he wrote this book and would later command its 3rd Battalion and play a key role in Nato's campaign in southern Afghanistan. So, as a professional soldier his claim that the Canadian Corps were the shock troops of the British Expeditionary Force as it relentlessly pushed the Germans back in the last 100 days of the First World War merits serious consideration. Schreiber makes a fairly convincing case. The Canadian Corps commander Sir Arthur Currie, a real estate broker in civilian life who used regimental money owed to a Glasgow uniform supplier to pay his debts, was among the more imaginative and flexible of the BEF's Generals. The Corps also drew on a wealth of British talented British officers, three of whom were to become Chief's of the Imperial General Staff during the Second World War. But it was, argues Schreiber, the Corps innovative use of artillery that made the real difference. There was also Currie's ability as a national contingent commander to say "No" to his superiors and the backing he received from BEF commander Douglas Haig - who, no genius himself, usually knew a winner when he saw one. The Corps also enjoyed a cohesion and uniform training regime denied to most British corps formations. It was also better resourced when it came to engineers and communications. Schreiber points out that the Corps paid a heavy price in casualties as it drove the Germans out of several key defensive positions following the victory at Amiens in August 1918 through to the Armistice on 11th November. Currie's Corps suffered like all large units from communications problems once it began advancing and follow-up operations were often unavoidably ill-coordinated, resulting in heavy infantry losses. But Currie eventually simply recognised the Law of Diminishing Returns and began to halt operations after 12 hours. Many Australians, and even some Brits, might contest Schreiber's contention that the Canadians were the true shock troops of Empire. But he makes a good case. And his claim that the Canadian Army learned the wrong lessons from its success and failed to match its First World War key role in the Second also has a lot of merit.
by Peter Harclode
I wasn't sure about this book marking the first 50 years of the Parachute Regiment. At only 380 pages, there were a lot, an awful lot, of stories to be fitted in to not many pages. Peter Harclode is one of Britain's best known and prolific military writers - and former army officer. This military experience proved to be the source of both weakness and strength when it came to the book. Harclode has an understanding and sympathy for the problems the airborne troops faced. But sometimes, the book had more than a hint of military jargon. It turned out that I needn't have been deterred by the number of pages. Harclode gets most of the highlights and many lesser known incidents and actions in by not cluttering the book with any first-hand quotes from the participants in them. This, it turns out, saves a lot of space and Harclode's summations of the action are generally excellent. He also takes on the rarely mentioned activities of the British Indian Army's paratroopers. He had already written a history of the 6th Airborne Division, so he is good on its history too. I would liked to have seen more about the Greek Civil War, which followed the German withdrawal from the country. It would also be interesting to see whether Harclode would now like to recast his account of Bloody Sunday in 1972 when paratroopers opened fire on protesters in Londonderry, killing 13 men. The Falkland's War is covered in more detail than most events. I would put this semi-official history down as a valuable addition to the library of anyone interested in an overall account Britain's airborne forces to the end of the Falkland's War.
The latest edition of History Scotland magazine, for September/October 2017 but available now, includes a two page article I wrote looking at who really captured a French general in 1808 and why the credit might have been given to another member of the Highland Light Infantry. The official version of General Brennier's capture by the HLI at Vimeiro has gone down in British Army legend, "We are soldiers, Sir, not plunderers", but what ordinary members of the regiment had to say, or did not say, about the episode paints a less flattering picture of it and its aftermath.
Pension Misery Highlighted
The Dorchester Review , a leading Canadian magazine when it comes to history, is carrying an article I wrote about British Army pensioners, many who served under the Duke of Wellington's command, who were caught up in a disastrous scheme which involved them giving up their pension entitlement in exchange for land in the British Colonies or United States. I became interested in what happened to the so-called Commuted Pensioners after realizing one of the main suspects as a contributor to Vicissitudes in the Life of a Scottish Soldier had been lured to Canada under the scheme.
The latest edition of Canada's Dorchester Review features not one but two articles from Paul - Churchill in the Trenches and Drug Store Commandos. The first link takes you to an extended version of the article which appeared in the DR about Winston Churchill's time in command of the 6th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers on Western Front while the second is an article about the Lovat Scouts training in the Canadian Rockies as mountain warfare specialists.
Canadian Connection with With Wellington in the Peninsula?
The British Canadian newspaper ran an article in its May edition about a possible connection between one of the soldiers in my new book With Wellington in the Peninsula and a disastrous government scheme to settle ex-soldiers in Canada while depriving them of their pensions.
Irish Terrorism in Canada
In between working on a major project, I wrote another article for the Dorchester Review here in Canada. The attempt by terrorists to destroy a Canadian canal lock in 1900 is often dismissed as being the work of bunglers. But a closer look reveals a tale of murder and links successful bombing of the House of Commons more than a decade earlier. Few seem to know that one of the gang was found dead with a bullet through his heart. Attempts by US politicians, including President William Taft, to persuade the Canadian authorities to release the terrorists is better known. Dynamite Dillon
Also see - Dorchester Review
The Dorchester Review, based in Ottawa, Canada, recently published an article I wrote about one of the more eccentric of the British regiments - Victoria's Royal Canadians. Most Canadian historians seem unaware of that a regiment was raised in Canada to fight in the Indian Mutiny.
The Winter Issue of the Scottish American Military Society's magazine The Patriot contains a two page interview with yours truly. I thought the least I could do in return was give them a plug. At a later date, I'll see about either linking to the article or posting a version of the interview on the SMD site.
It’s been a busy few weeks. Last Saturday (Nove. 3) the Scottish Daily Mail published a two page spread under my byline about the 2/10th Royal Scots campaign against the Bolsheviks in northern Russia 1918-1919 titled "The Tsar's Fighting Invalids". I’ve found a link to a site which carries the article but before I post it I want to make sure I’m not sending you somewhere you might regret going. The Daily Mail article let the cat out of the bag when it comes to the fact that I’m working on a new book – working title, Jock and Rorie – Tales of Scottish Soldiers. Read about the Forgotten War