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.”
Scottish Military Disasters has been launched as an e-book. And it’s been 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 –
403. Agent Zigzag
by Ben Macintyre
I had already read one book about British crook turned Second World War double-agent Eddie Chapman (see Review 46) but I have been impressed by Ben Macintyre’s ability to surprise and breathe new life into stories (See Reviews 318 and 169 below) and so decided to give this one a go. And once again, Macintyre did not disappoint. Oddly, Macintyre’s reliance on official records, rather than Chapman’s own suspect claims, show the conman and thief to be a smarter and braver man than I’d given him credit for. Macintyre knows how to tell a story and he has a good feel for the real world of espionage; his book on arch-traitor Kim Philby won the 2016 SMD Book of the Year and his take on the Man Who Never Was was also excellent. Only his book on the SAS, Rogue Heroes (Review 358), has disappointed. Chapman, kicked out of the Coldstream Guards for going AWOL, was a career criminal who was in a Channel Island jail when the Germans invaded in 1940. He managed to convince them that he would make an excellent spy/saboteur if released and returned to Britain. But the first thing he did when he was parachuted into England was to turn himself over to the authorities. The British then faked a bomb attack on an aircraft factory and arranged for Chapman to escape to supposedly neutral Portugal. This story has a lot of twists and turns and a superb cast of characters. It is hard not to conclude that Chapman was shabbily treated by the British once he’d outlived his usefulness but he was a born survivor and seems to have done OK for himself after the war.
402. 18 Hours: The True Story of an SAS War Hero
by Sandra Lee
Australian special forces signaller Martin “Jock” Wallace won one of his country’s highest bravery awards for his part in a desperate battle against Al Quaeda and the Taliban in March 2002. He and many of the other participants in the 18 hour fight on the mountain slopes of Shahi Kot valley shared their stories with Australian journalist Sandra Lee. She has done an excellent job of portraying Wallace as the epitome of the classic Australian “Digger” of military legend. He comes across as modest, a bit of a larrikin, and a tough, skilled, professional. I have no reason to doubt that the portrayal is accurate. Lee also does a good job of bringing the bleak wintry battlefield to life as Wallace and a fellow member of the Australian SAS fight alongside a company of the US 10th Mountain Division. Seeking to destroy a mountain haven for Al Qaeda, in an operation that was reckoned to have a chance of capturing Osama bin Laden himself, the men had flown into a hornets’ nest and their only achievement was getting back out again with no fatal casualties. Lee doesn’t point fingers but some the things the US troops do surprise Wallace, such as throwing their ammunition stuffed backpacks away as soon as they come under fire. I know that Canadian troops who served alongside the 10th Mountain in Shahi Kot a few weeks later were not keen to repeat the experience. The book is a lively but easy read. There were none of the usual howlers journalists writing about the fighting in Afghanistan or Iraq are usually guilty of. This should be a contender for Book of the Year. But it’s not. There’s something lacking, a vital spark, perhaps a heart.
401. Destiny in the Desert
by Jonathan Dimbleby
It's hard to take a book by someone who thinks that the British Army's longest land campaign during the Second World War was in North Africa very seriously. If this member of the Dimbleby media mafia doesn't know that the real answer is Burma, then his grasp of World War Two is tenuous to say the least. Nor were, as far as I know, the 3rd Hussars ever an infantry regiment. And the Arctic convoys were not routed through the Baltic. At least Dimbleby knew his dad, Richard, worked for the BBC during the Second World War. The book is as much about Churchill's fight with the Americans into the war and then, after Hitler declared war on the USA, not to blow it through it a premature invasion of mainland Europe as it is about the fighting in the Western Desert. But Dimbleby fails to convince me that El Alamein was the turning point of the Second World War. I kept waiting for him to justify this claim but I waited in vain. Important, yes, Churchill needed a win after Dunkirk, Singapore, Greece, Crete, Hong Kong, and the series of defeats inflicted by Erwin Rommel in North Africa, but El Alamein was not a war winner. Dimbleby, to his credit, is critical of the officer class and the mess they made of the war in the Western Desert, at least when they faced by German troops. But he is too quick to sneer at Bernard Montgomery and to give weight to the British commander's critics. I wasn't sure that he knows that an officer he hails as an unsung hero of the campaign Eric "Chink" Dorman-Smith decided that he was just the man to breathe new life into the IRA in the 1950s. Dimbleby is, in his determination to denigrate Montgomery, too kind to previous commanders in the Middle East, Archibald Wavell and Claude Auchinlek. Both did well but could have a done a lot better. At the end of the day, there is little new on the military front in this book and Dimbleby fails to prove his case when it comes to the politics.
An article I wrote about the 1918 Armistice Day battle against the Bolsheviks in Northern Russia has been published in the Spring/Summer edition of Dorchester Review. It’s a companion piece to “Archangel” but focuses on the role of the 67th Battery of the Canadian Field Artillery rather than the 2/10th Royal Scots. The new article is called - Canada’s Winter War
The Defenceless Border
The Canadian - United States border is said to be the longest undefended frontier in the world. The latest Dorchester Review, Canada's best history magazine, carries an article I wrote about a time when though American invasion seemed highly likely, Scottish troops found themselves with useless rifles in their hands. The article is called Undefended Border
The September/October edition of History Scotland magazine included 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. As the November/December issue is now available, here is the article The Real Mackay?
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