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In a way it is a shame that former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher did not live to see the result of next year’s Scottish referendum on Independence. That is because if the vote is for Independence, it was Thatcher who set the wheels in motion for the destruction of the United Kingdom. When I first came to Canada in 1997 people would ask me if Scotland was an independent country. I had to explain that it was more like a US state or a Canadian province and even had it’s own legal system - with juries of 15 rather than 12. But the big difference was that despite having its own laws and administration, it had no legislature and it laws were made in London; rather like Alberta or Montana being run direct from Ottawa or Washington. Scotland effectively had a colonial administration run by the Scottish Office. Since the First World War the Scottish Office had basically been run on a consensus basis by Scotland’s political elite. The London government left the Jocks to run their own internal affairs . The Scots elite were reckoned to be a little more in touch with the social and economic aspirations of ordinary Scots than a cabinet plucked from the playing fields of Eton. But Thatcher was a revolutionary and she exposed the Scottish Office for what it was – a colonial administration. The prime example of this was the flat tax for local government services – better known as the Poll Tax. Anyone with respect for the spirit of democracy would not have drafted in English MPs to swamp Scottish opposition in the House of Commons to a tax system which only affected Scots. But that’s what happened. When the Scots complained, the English voters who had elected the English MPs who voted through the tax into existence reckoned it was just another example of “Jock Whingeing” and paid no attention. So, the tax remained - until it was imposed on England. It was then found to be a bad thing and steps were taken. There was also in Scotland a feeling that, along with that of northern England, the industrial base of the region was being sacrificed to sate the economic demands of voters in Thatcher’s electoral heartland in South East England. Colonies always feel their interests are subordinated to those of the Mother Country. Scotland’s dependence on heavy industry probably owed much to the Old Scottish Office Consensus allowing the likes of Clyde shipyard owner Lord Lithgow to sabotage efforts to create economic diversity in the country and then move their business to Korea anyway. Thatcher’s solutions seemed un-feelingly brutal and the sudden withdrawal of government support for heavy industry, when competitors in Europe and the rest of the world were still subsidizing their traditional heavy industries, perhaps a little short-sighted. It came as news to many in Scotland that there had ever been an economic boom during the Thatcher years. Though the fact that folk in London could sell a pokey flat there and use the proceeds buy a Scottish island should have been clue. The British Labour Party tapped into Scottish dissatisfaction with the political home truths Thatcher had exposed and, believing the Scottish vote would be key in turning the Tories out of power, included a Scottish regional legislature  in its 1997 election platform. When the Tories were kicked out by a landslide and the Scots’ vote turned out not to be so important, the political wings of the proposed assembly were seemingly clipped by the new Blair government. Thatcher always liked Tony Blair more than John Major who had ousted her as prime minister. Which pretty much brings us to the 2014 Independence Referendum. Only time will tell now if Thatcher’s Legacy will the destruction of the United Kingdom.

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OK, I’m going to risk the wrath of the old soldiers, the really old soldiers, and proclaim that I don’t believe the Germans ever dubbed the Highland regiments during the First World War either The Ladies from the Hell or the Devils in Skirts. I haven’t been able to find anyone who has come up a German source for this claim. Maybe, perhaps, a snivelling German prisoner trying to curry favour with his kilted captors sold them a pup along the lines of Ladies from Hell; but I doubt even that. Soldiers just don’t give their opponents respectful nicknames. The tenacious teenage Germans who opposed the three Scottish infantry divisions in northwest Europe after D-Day were dubbed “Those Bloody Para Boys” which may or may not have been intended as a grudging compliment. Previous attempts to debunk the Devils in Skirts legend have led to an outraged backlash from Second World War veterans of the Highland regiments. I can't say why that would be. While I was quizzing folk who I thought might know where the Ladies from Hell story might have originated, someone said they also doubted if the 51st Highland Division really topped a First World War German list of “Most to be Feared” units. As two other Scottish divisions, the 9th and 15th, had excellent records, I think my informant might have a point. Veterans don’t always know best. Those who dared to suggest the Scots Guards had massacred civilians in Malaya in 1948 were shouted down and ridiculed. And yet the High Court in London ruled recently that there was plenty of evidence that the massacre at Batang Kali did take place. All too often the reported response from veterans to less than glowing eulogies to the Scottish soldier is knee-jerk. Those who insist on re-writing history tend to miss out on the chance to learn from past experience.

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I was listening recently to the BBC World Service and heard presenter Razia Iqbal pretty much asking a Scottish piper why he played an instrument that so many people found objectionable. The item was about another piper who had been made sick by some fungus or something which had sprouted up inside his instrument. So, Ms Iqbal’s question had little to do with the story. It was more of an ignorant piece of editorial commentary on pipes and piping. I will retract my accusation of ignorance when I hear Ms Iqbal ask a ballet dancer or an opera singer why they do what they do. I’ve always found during my excursions to the Home Counties that folks whose families have lived there for generations do not tend to ridicule those who reside north of Watford.

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It would appear that the Royal Regiment of Scotland is trying to distance itself from the old Scottish regiments. Up until recently the battalions proudly gave precedence to the pre-2006 units which formed it. The Black Watch, for instance, became The Black Watch, 3rd Battalion Royal Regiment of Scotland. But now precedence is to be given to the 3rd Battalion designation and “Black Watch” is to take a back seat in the name. Once again to use the example of the Black Watch, the unit is to be referred to in everyday usage as 3Scots. New recruits are invited to express a preference for which battalion they’d like to join, based on family or regional affiliations, but the days when, say, a Fife man would probably end up in the Black Watch, are apparently long past. Recruits are sent to whichever battalion can prove it needs them most. I also understand that officers who don’t want to damage their career prospects are expected to toe the line when it comes to ditching the old historic affiliations. It is understandable that the new super regiment wants to create its own identity and traditions. Service in Afghanistan and to a lesser extent Iraq, has meant that most of the battalions already have combat histories. And the Scots receive very little sympathy from the other British infantry regiments which long resented that the old Scottish battalions retained their historic identities when they were being amalgamated again and again and forced to shed their identities. The creation of the Royal Regiment of Scotland recognised some realities when it came to recruiting. Particularly in the Highland regiments, many of the soldiers were not from the recruiting area assigned to the unit. That said, many were following their grandfathers and great-grandfathers into the regiment of their choice. All I’m suggesting is that the baby isn’t thrown out with the bath water as the Royal Regiment of Scotland strives to create its own identity.

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I see the Ministry of Defence is claiming that firing radioactive shells into the Solway Firth isn’t the same thing as dumping radioactive waste off Scotland’s coast. If the depleted uranium shells, used for their armour-piercing capabilities, were counted in radio active waste, the British Government would be in breach of international law. But the government’s lawyers advised that the shells weren’t being “dumped”, they were being “placed” in water. The shells go into the sea after they’ve gone through the targets at Dundrennan. An estimated 30 tonnes of depleted uranium has been fired into the sea. Sadly, the Ministry of Defence has a record of being somewhat disingenuous when comes to munitions in the sea off Scotland. I remember silver-coloured waxy lumps of something nasty washing up on Kintyre beaches almost 20 years ago. After a few minutes exposed to air, the lumps burst into an intense unquenchable flame. The government said they were Second World flares. Actually, they were the phosphorous cores of incendiary bombs. Some of the captains of the ships contracted at the end of the Second World War to dump them in the Atlantic west of Ireland had decided instead put them overboard just out of sight of land. When a new fibre optic cable was laid to Northern Ireland, the old boxes of incendiary bombs were broken open and their potentially fatal contents were released. I was disappointed that most of the Scottish media bought into the flare story – flares sound far less dangerous than incendiary bombs.

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I guess the time comes in an exile’s life when they pass a tipping point when it comes to language. When I first came to Canada just over 15 years ago I was constantly translating British English into American English in my head when I spoke. The one I remember having to be most aware of was that here in Edmonton, the pavement is called the sidewalk and to some people the pavement is the road. Then on visits to Scotland I had to be careful not to use North American words or phrases when I spoke to people in case they thought I was showing off. I realised recently that I was beginning to have to translate in my head from North American to British English when communicating with Brits and that the language tipping point was near. Last Tuesday I realised I’d crossed over. I was speaking to a Scottish woman at the local supermarket and I said “pants” instead of “trousers”. And let’s not go into Scottish words. I think the one I miss most is skelf. Having to say I got a “splinter” in my finger just isn’t the same. One of the things that is the same is that Canadians understand “stay” for “live” as in “Where do you stay?” When I first stated working as a reporter in Newcastle upon Tyne folk used to look at me in bewilderment when I asked that question. I had to remember to ask “Where do you  live?”

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Last time I was in Afghanistan as a reporter, which is more years ago than I care to think, one of the Canadian units was far from co-operative. I eventually found out that one of the guys had told the rest of the unit that I’d mis-quoted him in an article I’d filed from Kandahar a couple of years earlier. And that was why they were being so obstructive. But here’s the thing – no-one would tell me who I’d misquoted or how I’d misquoted him. Now, everyone makes mistakes. Perhaps I did misquote guy, or maybe unintentionally used a quote out of context. It’s possible. But in most cases of someone claiming to be misquoted they haven’t been. What’s just as possible is that his wife or girlfriend saw what he said quoted accurately in the paper and went ballistic. It’s only human nature to claim then to have been misquoted. My point is that I was found guilty and sentenced without knowing the details of the charge and without the chance to defend myself. The one thing I know for sure is that I didn’t deliberately misquote the guy. I’ve worked in enough small communities to know that misquoting or distorting what people say comes back to bite a reporter on a local paper pretty quickly and pretty hard. I couldn’t help feeling that reporting from Afghanistan was challenging enough without the kind of stunt that unit pulled.

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The Germans had a secret weapon during the Second World War that’s seldom discussed. It was called the Red Book. It was American. It was the standard school history text book read by many American kids. All nations need myths and new nations need them more than others. American nation building required a rather black and white account of the American War of Independence. The truth is that it would be better described as The First American Civil War. The subtleties of the conflict were lost in the Red Book and the British were reduced to brutal redcoats serving a tyrant king. This probably wasn’t much of a problem until the British and the Americans had to work closely during the Second World War. Many American commanders came to the war table with a deeply ingrained dislike and distrust for their British colleagues. The patronizing attitude shown by many of the Brits didn’t help. What the Americans didn’t realise was that those self-same Brits were equally patronizing to many of their fellow countrymen. The Red Book did much to lay the groundwork for American Anglo-phobia. Perhaps one of the miracles of the war was that so many American generals managed to hide it until the closing months of the war. Some of the smarter, or wiser, ones even managed to look beyond the Red Book, but truth to be told, not many and not enough of them.

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I’ve got an odd sense of humour. A while back I sent an email to one of Britain’s top military historians. It purported to be from an organisation called the Military History Writers Association, or some such name, and told my friend that his latest book was in the running for Book of the Year. But there was a £100 “administrative fee” for processing the entry. My friend tells me he was reaching for his cheque book before he realised it was my way of trying to start an email a little differently. You’d be surprised at how many writing awards and competitions require an entry or processing fee. Not that I’m saying they’re all scams. Anyway, I think I will start awarding a Book of the Year, selected from the books reviewed in this site’s Book Briefing. This is partly because I don’t give them stars, or maybe it should be claymores, out of five in that section and that might make it tougher for you to work out which books I really recommend. Sadly, I can’t offer a cash prize to the winner. What I can do is give them what they call here in Canada “bragging rights” by giving the books a place in Recommended Reads, also known as Worth a Look. Recommended Reads started life as a place to mention books that I’d read before I started doing reviews in Book Briefing (The full reviews of the three winners so far can be seen at Book of the Year ). So, drum roll maestro, the winner of the 2012 Book of the Year is …… Toby Harnden’s Dead Men Risen. I’ve also decided to make two retrospective awards. So the 2011 prize goes to Tim Cook for The Sharp End and the 2010 winners are Doug Beattie and Philip Gomm for An Ordinary Soldier.

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Most of you know that many of the British generals in the First World War were cavalrymen. And most will know that the cavalry was one of most redundant arms in the British Army on the Western Front. So, the number of “cavalry” generals is often cited as an example of how out of touch the British High Command was. But actually, there might be reason, beyond the Cavalry Club Old Boys’ network, for why so many former horsemen were in command positions. The place of the full-blooded cavalry charge against an enemy armed with magazine rifles and quick-firing artillery, never mind machine-guns, was in doubt long before 1914. Even before the Boer War of 1899-1902, it had been realised that the cavalry would probably see more use as mounted riflemen. And mounted riflemen; often working hand-in-hand with horse-artillery. That meant that cavalry commanders had to master not only cavalry tactics but also infantry tactics. Whereas an infantry commander only had to know infantry tactics and drill. Add in the British obsession with offensive warfare, supposedly the speciality of cavalrymen, and you have a disproportionate number of cavalry generals in the British Army between 1914 and 1918.

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OK, gentle visitor, I have a challenge for you. Can anyone out there cite a German source for the claim that during the First World War the kilties were known as either the “Ladies from Hell” or “The Devils in Skirts” ? I’ve got a feeling these names might just be the products of the British propaganda bureau or over-imaginative journalism. I have come across a German nickname for the kilties but it does not convey the respect or awe suggested by the above. I think for that reason, what I found rings truer. Very few troops are given respectful nicknames by their foes. It's funny how fictions can become accepted as truth through constant repetition. Many people believe that Berwick upon Tweed was still at war with Russia until the 1960s. The story went that the declaration of war against Russia when the Crimean War broke-out in 1853 included Berwick as a separate entity because it's status was still in dispute; the Scots claiming in the 1707 Treaty of Union it was annexed territory and refusing to recognise it as part of England. When the peace was signed in 1856, Berwick was not mentioned. Sadly, not true. A 1746 Act of Parliament declared Berwick officially part of England. The Crimean War claim was first made in shortly before the First World War. It was even said, wrongly again, that the Soviets signed a "peace treaty" with Berwick in 1966 to rectify the omission.

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I’m still a little baffled as to why drug cheat cyclist Lance Armstrong has suddenly decided to come clean. Only the most naive could have believed that he could have won the Tour de France so many times without using performance enhancing drugs. I made that point for years – but only in private. If I had said the same thing in a public forum, on this website for instance, there’s a good chance Armstrong and his backers would have ruined my life. That to me was Armstrong’s real crime: he tried to destroy those who dared to tell the truth. He didn’t just deny he was drug cheat or say, “so prove it and if you can’t, I’ll sue”. No, he was proactive and highly aggressive when it came to going after his critics. There are plenty of people who have won substantial libel settlements in the British courts and then years later it is come out that what was written was actually true. As a journalist I knew there was a big difference between having evidence that something was true and that evidence not being quite strong enough to prove beyond a doubt in court that something was true. There are no certainties in life and to go before a British civil court is a massive financial gamble. I think some wit said that appealing a civil decision is simply to throw the dice a second time. The sleazier British tabloids thrive on the flip side of that coin – the poor working Joes and Josephines that they libel for the sake of their drivel stories can’t afford to sue. Anyway, the civil and criminal courts both depend on witnesses if they are going to function. Silence the witnesses and the whole process falls apart. I learned a long time ago never to confuse the Law with Justice. And what happens to a person appearing in court depends on the size of their wallet. The Law, as is the case with decent healthcare, is a commodity with a price tag. The best most of us can hope for is never to need either.

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Any of you who read Book Briefing regularly will know that several of the books reviewed almost certainly started their lives as PhD theses. My admiration for most of the authors of them leapt recently when I attended a seminar hosted by the University of Alberta. Several what I took to be embryo theses were presented and questions were invited. I couldn't help noticing the contrast between the language used in the written papers and the language used to answer the questions posed. The English used in the papers was abstract, pompous and I suspect at times deliberately ambiguous. The answers given to questions were in clear English. This experience made me realise just what a good job the authors of the books had made of writing in plain English and dropping the convoluted gobbledegook apparently so much appreciated in the halls of academia.

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When I first came to Canada to work as a newspaper reporter I sometimes found myself struggling to differentiate between Canadian Usage of English and just plain Bad Usage. Most of what triggered my spidey sense turned out to be Bad Usage. There’s a lot of bad usage out there. Hardly a day goes by without me hearing something on the radio that sets my teeth on edge. “Doesn’t that clown know what that word means”; “That’s just gibberish” - are two phrases which spring to the lips of my mind. One of the great things about the English language is that it is always evolving. Words and usages which I believed were perfectly acceptable were frowned on in the 1940s. I managed to get my hands on the British Government’s guide to good English usage from around 1948, “Plain Words”. It was an education in how much the language had changed in 35 years. The booklet slammed the BBC for murdering the English language – so obviously some things don’t change. I remember one of the editors here in Canada changing my “who” to “whom”. According to the style guides and grammar mavens, he was correct. But who these days uses “whom”? It comes over as pompous. That said, and at the risk of sounding like an old grouch, I can’t help feeling that the use of English is getting sloppier. And that means we’re not communicating as well as we need to. I think part of this is down to well-intentioned souls who argue against Language Fascism. Attempts to impose Latin rules on English, a Germanic language, have certainly led to some nonsense grammar rules. But if no-one is pushing back in the name of good usage, then the slide into incomprehensibility is accelerated.

 

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I have Argentinian neighbours. I’m worried that they are going to seize my flat. After all, much of Argentina’s claim on the Falklands seems based on proximity and only a thin wall separates me from the neighbours. I can’t help noticing that many of Argentina’s South American neighbours are supporting the attempt to force the islanders to accept traditional South American life. I’d take this despicable piece of grandstanding more seriously if all South American countries agreed to return to their own pre-1833 boundaries (the year Britain took over the islands). And possibly I’d make them sign a guarantee that never again would their countries be run by military dictatorships, no more paramilitary death squads, no drug cartels, no oppressing or murdering indigenous populations, no murdering inconvenient environmental activists and perhaps genuinely democratic elections. You know, I really can’t blame the Falkland Islanders for not wanting to be ruled by their nearest neighbours. Mind you, that would probably have happened if the Argie Junta hadn’t been stupid enough to invade in 1982. I was a teenager at the time but I knew that the plan to withdraw the South Atlantic patrol ship Endurance was madness and would be seen as a lack of commitment to the islanders. I could never work out why the wishes of the Falkland folk were regarded as paramount but we were happy to turn over the residents of Hong Kong island to Communist China. The 1898 lease agreement for 99 years only applied to the parts of metropolitan Hong Kong on the mainland. So, Britain was not obliged to return the island at all.

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I recently caught a couple of episodes of a programme on the TV called Deadliest Warrior. It's a bit like a boys' school playground argument about who would win if, say, the Incredible Hulk fought Billy the Kid which has been turned into a television programme. Only instead of playground heroes, the programme supposedly pits types of warrior from history against each other; say a zulu versus a samuri. The programme has lots of demonstrations of the weapons used by the warriors. This often involves hacking at pig carcases or shooting anatomically correct dummies – some even made of gel which replicates human flesh – with lots of blood spatter flying. A doctor examines the results and proclaims “instant kills” or mortal wounds, etc. It's all very pseudo-scientific and not a little silly. Then the supposed results of the demonstrations are fed into a computer which we are told will run a simulated fight between the two warriors no less than 1,000 times and predict a winner. I think later in the series pitted two teams of five against each other. Well, we all know that a computer program is only as good as the programmer. Some of the results were a little surprising. But here's the clincher – one of the episodes I watched pitted the Viet Cong against the Waffen SS. The computer declared the SS would win. But the Viet Cong and the Waffen SS did fight it out in French Indo-China in the 1950s. Only the Waffen SS guys were serving the French Foreign Legion. And the Viet Cong, or a least the Viet Minh, won in the real life. Maybe the producers should be more careful and make sure they don't pit people who really did square off in their little gory fantasy.

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When I was just a little fellah, we went to Glasgow to see Santa. But this was a very special Santa: it was my great-grannie's brother Charlie. I can’t remember whether we went to see him at Lewis’s on Argyll Street or at nearby Goldbergs. My poor mum must have been in dilemma. Family pride meant that she wanted us to know that the big guy in red with the beard was Charlie. But if she did that, we might feel cheated at not getting to see the real Santa. It had turned out, she told us kids, that for some reason Santa couldn’t make it to Glasgow that day and had asked Uncle Charlie to stand in for him. It was a great honour; apparently.

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Living in Canada, it never occurred to me that many Britons would be unaware of what exactly was said in that so-called prank call which is said to have led to the suicide of nurse Jacintha Saldanha. The British media apparently decided against letting the public hear what the nurse in the Duchess of Cornwall’s room actually told the Australian disk jockeys pretending to be the Queen and Prince Charles. But media did play the clip of Saldanha answering the call and putting it through to the Duchess’s room. That meant Saldanha was alone in the harsh public limelight when perhaps it should have been shared with her colleague. Of course in these days of the worldwide web, folks in Britain would have no problem hearing the whole call – not that there was much to it, the gist of what the nurse in the room said was that the Duchess was sleeping.  I heard an executive of the Australian radio station involved interviewed and he seemed to stop just short of saying “How were we to know that the silly besom would kill herself”. I was not impressed. The two pea-brains who made the call seemed genuinely upset. But they must have known that someone at the hospital might lose their job as a result of the call. And for what? What was supposed to be so funny?

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Journalists, if they are going to do their job properly, need sources. Nothing in this world is free. Or at least very very few things are free. These sources have agendas of their own. The journalist is using them and they are using the journalist. Often, the arrangement is mutually beneficial: the journalist gets a story; the source is often using the journalist as a tool to hurt a career rival and/or advance their own. Another thing the source may get is protection. Journalists are reluctant to destroy or damage the career of a valuable source. This means that a source often gets the benefit of the doubt when the brown stuff hits the fan. But sadly, it can go beyond that. Protecting a source can involve turning a blind-eye to wrong doing. Take the shortage of helicopters when the British Army first deployed to Afghanistan. Senior officers would brief journalists off-the-record that there was a shortage and soldiers were dying as a result. But on the record they toed the Government line and declared helicopter provision was adequate. Soldiers kept on dying – and senior officers did not damage their career and lucrative pension prospects by speaking out. The most journalists would do was quote un-named sources highlighting the shortage and then quote the official denial. Perhaps sometimes the un-named source and the senior officer issuing the denial were the same person. A senior, clearly identified, officer going on the record would have made all the difference when it came to getting those desperately needed helicopters to Afghanistan. But very few journalists were willing to risk losing a source who might one day be head of the British military by outing any of the senior officers involved. A cosy relationship. The only people who suffered where the poor squaddies killed or maimed by Taliban booby traps while travelling in convoys when they should have been flying in helicopters.

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When news reports from Afghanistan talk about a “senior soldier” being killed they usually mean a senior officer – perhaps a Lieutenant-Colonel. Walter Barrie was a captain but in truth he would appear to have been one of the most senior soldiers killed in Afghanistan – both in terms of experience and talent. Capt. Barrie was gunned down by a rogue Afghan soldier while playing football earlier this month. His death was greeted with sadness and an outpouring for tributes to his professionalism and humanity from his fellow soldiers. He was what is termed a Late Entry Officer – army code for promoted from the ranks. He was the Regimental Sergeant Major when the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, Royal Highland Fusiliers, where in Afghanistan in 2008. After his stint as the most senior non-commissioned officer in the battalion, he followed the usual career pattern of promotion to officer status and appointment as the unit’s welfare officer. I only know about Capt. Barrie from the flood of tributes which followed his murder. But I have known former RSMs whose hearts have been broken by being shunted into the battalion welfare job. They only stuck it for the enhanced pension which retirement at captain’s rank brings. And that’s why I believe Captain Barrie was indeed one of the most senior soldiers to die in Afghanistan. He threw himself into the job, masterminding a highly successful charity drive to support the families of battalion members killed or seriously injured in Afghanistan. And then instead of taking a desk job and waiting for his pension, Capt. Barrie got himself sent back to Afghanistan, this time helping to train the Afghan National Army. Had he lived, he may even have managed to reach the rank of Major. I expect his funeral at Glencorse Barracks on Thursday (Nove.29) will be a major and emotional affair.


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