129. The Alexander Memoirs 1940-1945
by Field Marshal Earl Alexander of Tunis
I've had this book sitting around unread for a long time. What made me finally pick it up was Rudyard Kipling's history of the Irish Guads in the First World War. Harold Alexander is often depicted in histories of the Second World War as a charming but far from clever British commander who had an advantage over more capable colleagues in that he was a Limey that the Yanks could work with. Kipling's book portrays Alexander as one of the Irish Guards' star performers. After reading this book I'm a little puzzled as to why Alexander bothered writing this book. Perhaps he felt it was time to tell his version of the Second World War. Sometimes, the gentlemanly veneer wears a little thin. His disgust with US glory hunter General Mark Clarke's decision to "liberate" Rome in 1944 rather than trap the retreating Germans is obvious. According to Alexander, he gave rather more in the way of orders to subordinates such as George Patton and Bernard Montgomery than history has given him credit for. Alexander also counters claims that Montgomery "stole" the plans of his predecessor in the Western Desert, Claude Auchinlek, by pointing out that the prickly little British commander was too arrogant to adopt anyone elses ideas. The book itself is odd. There are sections of reminisence of the retreat to Dunkirk, retreat in Burma, Alamein, Tunisia, Sicily and Italy which are followed by bog-standard brief summaries of the campaigns. All in all, an odd book.
128. The Irish Guards in the Great War - The Second Battalion
by Rudyard Kipling
Having already reviewed the volume recounting the exploits of the 1st Battalion, I wasn't sure whether to bother with a review of this one. But I was a intrigued because I knew that Rudyard Kipling's 18-year-old son John had been killed while serving with the 2nd Battalion at the Battle of Loos in 1915. Jack Kipling was reported as missing and his father's efforts to find out what happened to him brought the writer into close contact with many members of the 2nd Battalion. So, I wondered if this might result in this volume being a little different from the first one. I think I did detect a slightly different feel. Once again Kipling successfully drew on official regimental documents, officers' letters and some interviews with rank-an-file members of the battalion to create one of the more usual unit histories of the period. As with the volume concerning the 1st Battalion, Kipling made heavy use of unattributed supposed quotes from a members of the rank-and-file in what can only be described as a Kiplingesque Irish patois. It is impossible to tell if the quotes are anywhere near genuine or intended only to give an Irish flavour to the account. Once again, Kipling does an excellent job of capturing the confusion, misery and humour of a battalion at war on the Western Front. The battalion itself is the main character and takes on a life of its own - as Kipling no doubt intended. While many battalion histories of the period focus on the fighting and battles, Kipling tried to portray the day-to-day existence of Irish Guards, in and out of the line. The appearances of Captain the Honourable H R L G Alexander and his rise to command of the battalion will be of particular interest to those who are intrigued to know what the Second World War Field Marshal did during the First World War.
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?