133. Forgotten Victory
by Gary Sheffield
Back in November, I think it was, I wrote a blog about why the First World War was not futile and why Kaiser Wilhem II and his generals had to be stopped. That blog would have been better argued if I had read this book by respected historian Gary Sheffield before I wrote it. In this book Sheffield marshals a strong argument against the popular Lions Led by Donkeys in a pointless war version of the conflict all too sadly lodged firmly in British popular mythology. Yes, the war was horrific and the losses were heavy. But as Sheffield points out the British, Australians, Indians, Canadians, South Africans and New Zealanders took the lion's share in the 1918 defeat of the German Menace. Among the targets Sheffield has in his myth-busting sights are the Americans, who still believe it was them who won the war, and those who believe the scribblings of a few privileged officer poets truly represent the views of the majority of men who fought in the front line. The American Expeditionary Force would have been an army to reckon with in 1919 but in 1918 it had only begun to negotiate the steep learning curve that made British, and to a lesser extent French, troops such war winners. It took the British Army until late 1917 to get its act together. Terrible mistakes were made as Field Marshal Douglas Haig and his generals struggled to create a trained army and find ways to cut through the Gordian Knot of trench warfare on the Western Front. But as Sheffield sensibly points out, they started from almost nothing. And the Germans made some terrible mistakes too. From the coverage of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, it is clear that not enough supposedly informed commentators on the conflict have read this valuable contribution to the argument.
132. The Trumpet in the Hall
by Bernard Fergusson
Bernard Fergusson comes through in this classic military autobiography as an extraordinary man with some extraordinary tales to tell. I already knew Fergusson was a talented writer through his history, The Black Watch and the King's Enemies, about his regiment during the Second World War, and his account of commanding a Chindit column in Burma, Beyond the River Chindwin. This book had long been on my "Want to Read" list and when I spotted a copy in a Canadian second-hand book store at a reasonable price, I snapped it up. I'm glad a did. The son of a First World War general and Ayrshire landowner, Fergusson opted to join the Black Watch rather than his father and grand-father's regiment, the Grenadier Guards, after he left Eton. He was a definite son of privilege and his personal and family connections served him well throughout his career. And yet I found it hard to grudge him that. He was a character and tells his tales with a lot of humour. He probably needed that humour. The miseries of commanding a Chindit column in Burma would test the most irrepressible sense of humour. Men had to be left behind to face almost certain death, either at the hands of the Japanese or Burmese villagers. The murder of friends and colleagues in Palestine, both before and after the Second World War would also strain the most even-tempered of men. But, sadly, Fergusson decided to keep much secret. His frequent refusal to name names when it comes to people and military units began to become a little irritating. The picture Fergusson paints of himself in this book is engaging. But in reality, I suspect he was a hard man. American Brit hater "Vinegar" Joe Stillwell astutely noted when he met the monocled brigadier "He looks like a dude, but I think he's a soldier". "Dude" was obviously not a complementary term when Stillwell used it. Fergusson is very coy in the book about his dealings with former SAS man Roy Farran. Fergusson refused to give evidence against Farran when he was court martialed for the murder of a Jewish teenager in Palestine. He fails to explain why and his story from then on doesn't make a lot of sense. A promise that after serving in Palestine he would command the 1st Black Watch came close to going unfulfilled. What Fergusson's bosses knew was that Farran had confessed to him that he had bashed the teenager's head in with the rock. Without Fergusson's evidence, and thanks also to a written confession from Farran being ruled inadmissible as evidence, the murder case collapsed. Farran would go on to become Attorney General of the Canadian province of Alberta. Fergusson's military career stuttered and eventually died. This book is an excellent read, but has to be taken with a hefty dose of salt.
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
In the News Again
I happened to be checking out the closing-down sale at one of the last remaining locally owned bookshops in Edmonton recently when a newspaper reporter pounced on me as I left and asked me comment on the closure. As a former reporter, I know what a pain grabbing random people on the streets for quotes can be; so I was only too pleased to help. Imagine my delight when the story appeared and I found my quote printed in large type. It made me look like a big deal. There were some genuine big deal Edmonton writers quoted in the story but whoever was designing the page must have just grabbed the first quote they found for the break-out - and luckily for me....
Sadly, the break-out does not appear in the online version of the story but if you're interested Edmonton Journal
In the News
The Scotsman newspaper invited me to put in my tuppence-ha'penny when it published an article about the controversy surrounding the 400th anniversary celebrations in Norway of Battle of Kringen - Scotsman Article
The battle and subsequent massacre of Scottish prisoners in 1612 featured in Scottish Military Disasters.
A new Canadian history magazine The Dorchester Review published a tongue-in-cheek go at the spate of books about How the Scots Created/Invented the country in its launch issue. In an article called How the English Invented the Scots Dr. Chis Champion argued, well, that the Scots are an English invention. Paul’s equally tongue-in-cheek rebuttal can be seen in the second issue of the magazine which is now out. The article, which also includes essays by Canadian columnist John Ivison and London-based writer Hugo Rifkind, is available on line at
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 –
The debate over whether Scotland produces some of the finest fighting men in the World could go on for ever. What is certain is that pride in the military is woven into the Scottish psyche and that that pride has been ruthlessly exploited by the British Establishment.
In the popular imagination the Scottish soldier is a kilted infantryman. The infantry are the men who go through the meat grinder in almost every war and Scotland has provided the British Empire with more than its fair share of infantry. In the fighting after D-Day in 1944 a British study suggested that although the infantry made up only 25% of the troops involved; they suffered 71% of the casualties.
(While I can’t put my hand on my heart and say my research for Scottish Military Disasters points to the Scots having the worse military record in Europe, for most of recorded history it hasn’t been very spectacular. People remember Bannockburn because it is one of the few battles against the English that the Scots won. Even when the English were heavily outnumbered, at battles such as Flodden in 1513 and Dunbar in 1650, they still managed to win. Many English, and Irish and Welsh soldiers for that matter, regard their Scots counterparts as a bunch of blowhards who write cheques with their mouths that their battlefield performance fails to honour. The counter-argument goes that the Scots go that extra mile to back up their boasting.)
But where does this Scottish martial pride which encouraged so many young Scots into the infantry during two world wars come from?