304. The Suicide Battalion
by James L McWilliams and R James Steel
The overwrought title does this book few favours. It is in fact the chronicle of one Canadian battalion during the First World War and not a bad example of the type at that - there have certainly been worse. It was written in the mid-1970s when there were still more than a few veterans of the 46th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force still alive to speak to the authors. The book also leans heavily on letters, diaries and official documents. The first hand accounts are good as far as they go and the book neither romanticizes nor over-dramatizes the veterans' experiences on the Western Front. I am not sure how well the use of official documents was executed. I decided to follow-up an event said to have happened on 7th July 1918 only to find from the battalion war diary that it could not have taken place before the 9th July. The authors have a good eye for anecdotes but I was left feeling that the book had narrowly failed to bring the battalion to life on the page.
by Robert Jackson
I would say this is an excellent introduction to the story of the Allied evacuation at Dunkirk in 1940 - but no more than that. First published in 1976, the book may well underplay the chaos in the Dunkirk area between 26th May and 3rd June. And by doing that Robert Jackson misses the chance to pay tribute to the skill and courage of the men who made the evacuation of the bulk of the British Expeditionary Force and a large number of French troops such a success. It also has to be said that the British got some lucky breaks. It's hard to say whether the Germans were incompetent or just did not try very hard. Jackson was probably overwhelmed by research material and had a tough time deciding what to leave out. He uses just about enough to create a cohesive and informative narrative. His analysis of the background to the evacuation is also sound. But by keeping the story short and readable, Jackson was forced to jettison perhaps too much of the tale. The decision to cover the naval and air force operations in chapters separate from the army's part, may have been a mistake because the timeline is lost. But overall, I would say this book has stood the test of time.
302. Imperial Reckoning
by Caroline Elkins
Where to start with this turgidly written effort: perhaps I should say that I have no problem believing that Crown Forces in Kenya in the 1950s did indeed murder, torture and burn down villages during their campaign against the Mau Mau. Every British colonial anti-insurgency campaign since the Second World War has featured examples of one or all of the above. The only variable has been the extent to which these tools have been used. Unfortunately, Elkins's book is big on accusation and disappointingly light on hard evidence. I repeatedly searched the footnotes for the sources of claims made in this book and found none. Elkins is an American who believes Northern Ireland is a British colony. This book relies heavily on interviews conducted with people who were imprisoned for being Mau Mau. I fear that if Elkins conducted a similar project in France about the Second World War she would declare that everyone was in The Resistance and no French person knows anything about how their Jewish neighbours ended up in concentration camps. This book badly lacks context and balance. It also drips with racism and snobbery. I think there are four murders committed by the Mau Mau detailed in the book. Much of the rest is a catalogue of British and non-Mau Mau African atrocity. Elkins apparently cannot see why any decent person would not be a Mau Mau. In Elkins's book those Africans who opposed the Mau Mau did it for only the most venal and selfish reasons. I couldn't help notice that most of the members of the Crown Forces accused of murder or torture are identified only by their nicknames. I would have thought any historian worth his or her salt could have found out the real names. Or was someone afraid of being successfully sued for defamation? Elkins fails to properly explain why Kenyans turned their backs on the Mau Mau after Independence. She also insists on over-egging the pudding by making silly claims such as that the Crown Forces modelled their uniforms on the Nazi SS. I wonder what she makes of the fact that the protective helmets worn by Police SWAT teams swarming around the Black neighbourhoods of US cities today are most certainly inspired by the SS version of the German "coal-scuttle" tin hat. There were better books about the Mau Mau written before this 2005 effort and there have been many superior ones written since. It would be hard to find a worse one than this. I would suggest that Elkins's next foray into the sanctimonious should be "Chain Gang: The Untold Story of America's Racial Gulags". I found reading this book a chore.
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
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?