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The men of the 3rd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment are apparently being trained in riot control. This, I understand, is in anticipation another summer of riots in the United Kingdom. And yes, I know last summer’s riots were all in England. Many will remember when British units posted to Northern Ireland they were trained to fulfill their duties in “support of the civil power”. And of course before police forces were introduced, riot control was one of the British Army’s main functions. Before and during the First World War it was not unheard of for armed battalions to march through areas hit by strikes if trouble was expected.
My point is, the British Army has a long record of appearances on the streets of Britain. I remember sharing a flat with a fellah from Yorkshire. His father and brothers were all miners. A friend of one of his brothers was on the picket line in Yorkshire during the Miners’ Strike in 1984-85. There was a heavy police presence at the pit. But it could be that there was an army presence too. My Yorkshire pal says his brother’s friend had a brother in the Army. The Army brother was supposed to be in Northern Ireland. But he was seen clad in police riot gear facing off against the pickets, or so my Yorkshire pal’s story goes. So, the Army’s experience in dealing with riot and dissent may be even greater than has been admitted.

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There was saying when I was a reporter that “names make news”. Sometimes, it’s not what’s happening but who it’s happening to that gets the readers’ attention. So, if one the Scottish infantry battalions is facing disbandment, the story gets more attention if it’s said that it's the Black Watch that’s threatened with the axe. So, I don’t know how seriously to take newspaper reports that the Black Watch will be on the chopping block come the next round of defence budget cuts. The same report also mentions the Parachute Regiment could get the chop.
I don’t know by what criteria the Black Watch has been singled out, if indeed it has been. Maybe it has the largest recruiting short-fall of the five battalions in the Royal Regiment of Scotland (RRoS). In the old days, the very old days, it used to be the most recently raised regiment which was disbanded as the army contracted in times of peace – that would put the 5th Battalion RRoS, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders top of the list. But at least the Argylls have kept their pre-First World War identity. With the exception of the Black Watch, all the other battalions of the regiment were created by a series of amalgamations which began  in 1959.
I’m also a little baffled as to why the Parachute Regiment would be threatened, if it is. It’s been suggested that as they haven’t parachuted into action since Suez in 1956 that they’ve outlived their usefulness. What nonsense. The regiment has had its problems in the past but there’s no denying they are very committed soldiers and part of that comes from parachute training. It makes as much sense to suggest that the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers should be disbanded because they don’t carry fusil muskets any more.
Civil servants have never understood the British Army. Once a regiment is disbanded, it’s gone for ever. It’s like social workers putting all the kids in a family in different care homes and then reuniting them seven years later and expecting “happy ever-after”. The problem is that many of the British generals today  see themselves more as civil servants than soldiers. This is not a time to do anything rash. Before the Second World War, the infantry battalions were reduced to a couple of hundred men each, who used football rattles during training to simulate machineguns. There was just enough time to bring them back up to strength and equip them before Hitler invaded Poland. How Hitler would have loved the present day Ministry of Defence.

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Regular visitors to this site will know that I try to post a book review a week. I always give my true opinion of the book, without fear or favour. If you’re wondering what I mean by that and why its worthy of remark, have a look in the Blog Archive for 29th December 2010 "Book Reviewing 101".
But what about the reviews I don’t post? I have two very very critical reviews of books by Canadian authors which I never quite seem to get around to posting. I don’t get paid for the reviews and have to buy the books myself. My point is that I’m not committed or obliged to post a review of any given book.  I have little to gain through this service and perhaps much to lose. People can be very petty. I’ve been critical of Canadian writers in reviews that I’ve posted in the past but the two books I'm sitting on the reviews of are truly dreadful. There’s a good chance that the two authors involved, or  close friends of theirs, will be asked to review my work. I suspect that ripping them a new arsehole for their sloppiness could cost me dear. So, sorry, for the time being I’m taking the coward's way out. I just thought you should know; in the interests of full disclosure and all that good stuff.

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I was just watching Kelly’s Heroes and was struck by Clint Eastwood’s careful crafted coiffure. It struck me that in a lot of war films, the uniforms are pretty accurate but the hair cuts are all wrong. Mind you, in Kelly’s Heroes the uniforms aren’t as scruffy as real-life US soldiers fighting in Germany were. Now, I don’t know if the hair cut thing is down to a lack of interest in realism or actorly vanity. A brutal hair cut of the type inflicted on soldiers in the Second World War would not have looked good on Clint. More attention seems to be paid to hair cuts in more modern movies but they’ve pretty much stopped making Second World films, at least ones that don’t involve killing-Hitler fantasies. So, here’s a plea to anyone planning to make a “historic” war film; get the hair cuts right, doing that adds a lot to the feeling of time and place.
On the subject of war movies, I recently saw a really good one. It was an American one called Battleground and was about a platoon from the 101st Airborne during the Battle of Bulge. It was made in 1947, when a chunk of the audience would have been battle veterans and would have laughed much of the nonsense which followed in later years off of the screen. One of the sergeants even goes through the fighting wearing a greatcoat held closed with a giant safety pin.  The film was nowhere near as gung-ho as I’d expected. In fact there was a lot of shirking and ambiguity in there.

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While researching the Scottish Military Disasters chapter on the exploits of 11 (Scottish) Commando at the Litani River in 1941 I was lucky enough to stumble across a website run by the son of one of the Scots who fought there. I say “lucky” because it prevented me repeating an error which appeared in nearly every book I consulted. The website identified the Regimental Sergeant Major who took command of one of the parties after all the officers were killed or wounded as Lewis Tevendale. And yet book after book gave his name as, I think, Campbell. The website acted as a red flag and after a lot of further research I confirmed the name Tevendale. Journalists here in Canada are supposed to get a second source for key information.  But because two people say the same thing doesn’t make it true – not if it turns out that their information is based on a single source further down the chain. My research on Tevendale eventually led me to the book that originally named him as Campbell. That mistake was then repeated again and again in books that followed. I was very lucky not to be the latest in a long line of writers giving out wrong information. The book involved was at one time THE book on British commando operations during the Second World War and was by a very highly respected author. Three cheers for websites run by the sons of guys who were there!

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I’d be the first to admit I’m not a maths person. But I’ve often wondered if anyone has ever come up with a mathematical formula to calculate how much mayhem is created by various numbers of anti-social thugs. Based on my own experience at high school, it became clear that two nasty bits of work didn’t cause twice as much mayhem as one. I’d guess they made four or five times more trouble. And when they were joined by a third, we weren’t talking about three times as much violence and terror but something like 15 to 20 times as much. By the time the gang reached 20 members, they had the capability of placing hundreds in a state of fear. As the cops found, no-one, but no-one, would testify in court against these thugs. It was only when they were suspected of killing a cop that the hammer finally came down on them. I’d left town by then, but I’ve got a feeling that the methods used to collect evidence and the pressure on potential witnesses to testify were somewhat different than in previous investigations. 

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Does anyone out there know anything about a strange little book called Tales of the RIC? It dates from the early 1920s and purports to be the memoirs of the Royal Irish Constabulary member based at a station in an area in which the Irish Republican Army was active. I say "purports" because I suspect it was one of the last kicks of can by the Black Propaganda department set up during the First World War by the British Government. It's mission was to circulate stories to the "neutral" media, in particular in the pre-1917 United States. The book has my spidey sense tingling because it's just too slickly written. And too much happens in just one station's area. It's almost as if someone has collected up all the IRA atrocity stories in circulation at the time and attributed them to one Irish county. I have little doubt that some of the stories are true. The British attempt to smother the Irish independence movement after the First World War involved a lot of brutality and viciousness from both sides. I've tried to find out more about this book, published by Blackwood, and its author. And all I've drawn is blanks. I'd love to hear from anyone who can fill in those blanks.

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The fate of the Colours of the old King’s Own Scottish Borderers is the subject of debate and the future of the regimental museum in Berwick has been thrown into mix. The KOSB colours were retired earlier this year when the Queen presented the 1st Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, which was created in 2006 by merging the KOSB with the Royal Scots, with its own colours. The KOSB was raised in Edinburgh in 1689 and some argue the old colours should be preserved there. But the old regimental depot and museum is in Berwick and there are growing calls for the colours to be laid up at the historic Berwick Barracks. The problem may be that it’s feared English Heritage, who own the old barracks complex, want to turn it into luxury flats. The museum’s opening hours have already been cut in what many supporters regard as an attempt to cut visitor numbers down so much that its closure will be justified. It’s a good little museum and it would be a tragedy if is shut down.An online appeal has been launched to bring the Colours to Berwick -Berwick4borderers

The site also includes details of plans to save the museum and use the barracks complex to help injured ex-service personnel and their families.

 

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I watched a documentary recently about the 1916 film The Battle of the Somme, possibly the most successful British movies of all time; 20 million tickets were sold for it in Britain alone. The documentary featured attempts to work out which bits of the film were real and which bits were recreations. It was a silent movie but men could be seen talking. A lip reader was brought in and revealed what the men had said. Fascinating. But the scary bit came when experts in facial recognition were brought in to help identify some of the soldiers who appeared in the film. Stills from the movie were compared with photographs of people reputed to have been in it. On at least two occasions, the experts announced they had a close match, only for military records to reveal the man in the photograph could not be in the man in the film. What scared me was that these experts regularly gave evidence in court linking bad guys captured on security tapes to the accused. The experts were the first to admit that the identifications of the men in the movie were not definite, they would only go as far as to say it was worth looking at their military records. But they gave every appearance of knowing what they were talking about and if I were on a jury I would have taken their evidence far more seriously than I obviously should of. Sadly, I suspect few of the criminals  fingered in court by "expert witnesses" of this kind had military records to back up their alibis.

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I’ve often wondered about the “Leave No Man Behind” policy of western armies fighting in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. It seemed to me crazy to risk more lives to recover a dead body. Surely, it would be better to leave one dead body behind than lose five more men in a counter-attack to recover it. Of course, you can’t know for sure that someone’s dead until you take their pulse. And I’d like to think that if it was me lying there that someone would make to effort to rescue me. In the old days, rescuing the wounded used to voluntary. But now soldiers are ordered to go back in.
Then, I got it. Commendable though rescuing the wounded is, it’s not the point. What NATO commanders want to avoid is the bodies of their soldiers being used as propaganda. The last thing they can afford is a video on Al Jazeera of a British, Canadian, or American head being paraded through a village stuck on top of a pole. Hearts and Minds is a policy that applies as much to the Home Front as it does to the frontlines of an insurgent war.

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When I was a newspaper reporter, I wanted answers. It was a matter of professional pride to get them. But I met my match in the mid-1980s in the shape of the then Liberal Party leader David Steel. There was some controversy within the party over the policy on nuclear weapons. Someone slipped me Steel’s cellphone number and I gave him a call. I grilled him for 10 to 15 minutes to find out what the party policy was. He was a busy man and that was all the time I had. I thought I’d pinned him down to a firm statement of policy. I was satisfied. Then I looked carefully at my notes. It became apparent that he’d chosen his words very carefully. I had heard what I wanted to hear. He hadn’t actually said what I thought he was saying. He had said precisely nothing. I was torn between admiration and frustration. I’d been bested by an old pro. I tried the cellphone number again. But this time there was no answer.

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It’s more than a little disappointing to find the BBC describing the 1948 Scots Guards massacre of 24 ethnic Chinese rubber plantation workers in Malaya as “alleged”. Sadly, there is little “alleged” about the massacre. Members of the Scots Guards patrol involved have given sworn affidavits that they were ordered to kill the men at settlement and the soldiers who did not want to be involved were sent to guard the women. The women also maintained that the men at Batang Kali were murdered in cold blood. Only the official British version maintains that all 24 men were shot while trying to escape. Common-sense suggests that the lack of wounded male villagers points directly to a massacre taking place.
The BBC was reporting the welcome news that there is to be a judicial review, probably next Spring into a British government decision a year ago to refuse to hold a proper public inquiry into the incident. A Scotland Yard investigation in the early 1970s, after members of the patrol told a Sunday newspaper that they had taken part in a pre-mediated massacre, was shutdown before it could be completed.
It’s pretty obvious that Batang Kali was selected for the massacre because it was suspected to be a supply base for the Communist guerrillas operating in that part of Malaya. The lesson intended by the massacre was learned and there was no further trouble in Batang Kali area. If a proper inquiry had ever been conducted while the adult villagers present in 1948 were still alive, it's possible that it might even have revealed that some of the men killed were active guerrillas. Or may they were indeed have been nothing but rubber plantation workers. But the British Government decided that the most important thing was to protect whoever ordered the killings. The fact that lorries arrived at the settlement to take the women folk away shows that the killings were not the work of a “rogue” patrol but part of a well organised operation. It would appear that the Scots Guards came into Batang Kali  from the jungle, rather than via the road, in an attempt to surprise the guerrillas believed to be operating out of the settlement. The British Government does not protect the reputations of ordinary squaddies. So who has it been protecting?

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Years ago, many years many years ago, I worked in Inverness with an old English fellah called Tom. He’d had both legs amputated below the knee and got around with the aid of a grotty old brown National Health Service walking stick. I knew that he often took a short-cut home along an alley which was notorious for muggings. I asked him if he felt safe doing that. And that’s when I discovered that grotty old stick had a secret. I don’t think National Health Service sticks usually contain a rapier-like Wilkinson Sword blade. Tom told me it was a British Officers’ sword stick. I’ve often wondered what happened to it after he died. Did the folks that cleared his house know what it was or did it end up being thrown out?

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Canadian television recently had a drama based on the events surrounding the creation of Canada from the British North American colonies. Many of the main players in the events in the 1860s which are portrayed were Scots. I was delighted to find that many of the TV actors  sported Scottish accents, some good, some not so good. In fact, I was more than delighted, I was stunned. Canadian broadcasters have a dreadful habit of giving every character from the British Isles an English accent. There was a drama about the massacre of Scottish settlers in the early 1800s by mixed blood Metis hunters near the site of present-day Winnipeg. The leader of the hunters was a guy called Cuthbert Grant who may well have been educated in Scotland. The hunters were put up to terrorizing the settlers by Scottish fur traders who didn’t want farmers getting their way. So, there was a lot of Scot-on-Scot violence going on. How many Scots accents were heard? I counted one – and a little research showed that although he had a Highland name he was raised in the United States. Of course, that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have a Scottish accent, I’ve come across old second-generation Ukrainians born in Canada who speak English with a heavy Eastern European accent. I also remember a factual program about the evolution of Canadian English. It included a damning criticism of American influences delivered in a snotty English accent by an actor playing a school teacher. Once again, a little research revealed that the teacher in question was one of the many Scots who propped up the Canadian education system in the mid-1800s.
Of course, it’s hard to know how a specific person spoke in the days before recordings. But there are lots of recordings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle speaking with a surprisingly strong Scottish accent. But Canadian television portrays him speaking with a plummy English accent.
You may wonder why this is important. Well, what if the famous Jewish people of history were all portrayed as Roman Catholics? Or the famous Blacks of American history were portrayed as white guys? And while I’m on the subject of accents, how come a Canadian radio presenter lets himself be egged on into doing his “Scottish” accent on air? I’ve got a feeling that if he’d been asked to do his “Chinese” or “Indian” accent he would have refused.

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I was astonished to hear what a respected British international affairs and military analyst had to say when he was interviewed on Canadian radio recently.  He said that when the Americans and Canadians went into Southern Afghanistan a decade ago they believed the Taliban were foreign fighters with very little connection to local communities.
I was in Afghanistan in early 2002 and I knew that many of the people in the villages around Kandahar Airport were not happy to see armed foreigners driving around as if they had a right to be there. The foreign soldiers would only be tolerated if there was some tangible benefit to the locals from their presence. And making sure little girls got to go to school wasn’t one of the priorities for the guys who’d stashed their AK-47s and RPGs in drainage culverts when the Yanks and Canucks first showed up. You could see in their faces that if we didn’t start handing out sweeties soon, there was going to be trouble. And there has been.
We’ve dug a deep hole for ourselves in Afghanistan. We’ve tried to do things on the cheap. We’ve got into bed with some very unpleasant characters. In fact, we’ve proved very bad at picking our friends.
The time has come to have a look at what we actually want to achieve in Afghanistan. Would an Afghanistan without western troops be a menace to world peace? What are we prepared to pay and sacrifice for peace in Afghanistan? It is not going to come cheap.

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The latest edition of History Scotland provides proof, if proof were needed, that emigrating to Canada was a good move for young Scots a century ago. The magazine’s Scots in Canada Special took a look at Canadian Army enlistment documents from the First World War. They show that Scots who enlisted in Canada were both heavier and taller than their brethren who joined up back in Scotland. The authors of the article speculate as to why that might be. A healthier diet and better housing are obvious answers. The figures suggest the Scots quickly caught up with their Canadian born contemporaries in terms of height and weight after a couple of years in Canada, though they were slightly shorter on average.
On the other hand, the magazine argues, perhaps the Scots who went to Canada were already in better shape than the Scots who remained at home. A case of Canada creaming off some of the best of Scottish manhood. Certainly, food for thought there.

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I was reading a book recently about big business in Canada. What struck me was how much of it involved smoke and mirrors. Companies were taken over using money that didn’t exist. Bending the rules and pushing the envelope strayed on far too many occasions into criminality. Company executives seemed to decide that the law didn’t apply to them. That got me thinking me about the teetering world of high finance. Conventional wisdom seems to be that to prosecute white collar crime would cause a catastrophic loss of confidence in financial markets. I remember hearing a former City of London broker admit on the radio a couple of years back that he and all of his colleagues regularly broke the law. I thought at the time that criminal prosecutions might have actually restored confidence: I don’t remember any. Now it seems that the bankers learned nothing from the financial crisis triggered by the US mortgage market collapse – except that the “too big to fail” ploy might not work again. Perhaps it’s time to call the cops.

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In the past couple of weeks I’ve read two articles having a go at the Hollywood movie Braveheart. What is it about that film that gets under the skins of Englishmen so? Maybe they’re not used to being portrayed as the bad guys. Though I don’t think many Bollywood historical epics have many good things to say about the Raj either.
The English critics accuse Braveheart of being historically inaccurate. William Wallace did not father a child with the Queen of England. He didn’t win a battle when the Irish mercenaries in English service met the Scots halfway across the field and started partying. Englishmen kidnapping Scots brides to satisfy their lust was not a major cause of Wallace’s fight. King Edward I was not a medieval Darth Vader. Wallace did not hunt down and kill all the Scots nobles who sided with the English. The Scots didn’t wear the style of kilt seen in the movie and many didn’t wear kilts at all.
I say, take a chill pill. It’s Hollywood. The basic facts are there. Wallace did fight the English, many of the Scottish nobility did side with the English, Wallace did defeat the English, was defeated in turn when Edward/Darth Vader showed up in person and Wallace did die a barbaric death for a crime he wasn’t guilty of – he owed no allegiance to Edward and therefore couldn’t commit treason.
Hollywood follows in the tradition of the Viking sagas and medieval ballads. Exact historical accuracy takes a back seat to capturing the essence of the story. And, anyway, who do the Braveheart nay-sayers cite as their sources. Why, English propagandists. There is much we will never know about Wallace. It was a complex time. Hollywood doesn’t do complex. 

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An inquiry has just confirmed that Afghan journalist working for the BBC, Ahmed Khpulwak,  was shot dead last July by a United States soldier who mistook him for a suicide bomber. War reporting is inherently dangerous and accidents can, and will, happen. But the incident raises some concerns. US troops have killed several journalists in the past few years but they never seem to kill US journalists. Why is that? Have US journalists been lucky so far? Or do they know enough about the training and abilities of their own military to be super-wary of it? Will it take the death of a US journalist to force an improvement in US military training and end the killing of their foreign colleagues. So-called friendly fire attacks on British troops in both Gulf Wars revealed that US pilots were so badly trained that they were unable to recognise the armoured vehicle of allied nations – vehicles that bore no resemblance to any the Iraqis had in their inventory. I’ve wracked my brain and I can’t recall a single recent incident in which British or any other western troops have killed a reporter. Perhaps the law of averages and the size of the US military means American troops are the most likely to be involved in “friendly fire” attacks on fellow soldiers and journalists. Or perhaps there’s something else going on.

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Even before the Royal Regiment of Scotland was created, Canada had more kilted infantry units than Scotland. OK, so the Canadian units were reservists but the fact is that units such as the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada from Vancouver, the Calgary Highlanders and the Black Watch of Canada from Montreal, all point to a proud Scottish military tradition in Canada.
Scots soldiers played a major role in conquering Canada from the French in the 1760s. Only a few years later the Scottish veterans of that campaign and their sons helped repel an American invasion. There was even a regiment called The Royal Highland Emigrants, which included amongst its officers the husband of Highland Jacobite darling Flora Macdonald.
During the First World War, Canada’s kilties captured so much of the glory accorded to the Canadian Corps that after the war several militia units assumed Scottish identities. No fewer than 15 Canadian reserve units have either Highander or Scottish in their names. And even although Canada’s ethnic make-up has changed dramatically in the last 40 to 50 years, Canadian soldiers still don the kilt. I remember meeting some Canadian Seaforths when they were on exercise here in Edmonton. None of the guys I met  was even of European descent but they were all proud to parade in the kilt. And come to think of it, I’ve never been on an overseas Canadian military base that didn’t have at least one piper.
So, I’m looking forward to the September/October issue of History Scotland which celebrates the Scots in Canada. I’m told that not only does it look at the Canadian/Scottish military tradition but also at the Orcadian contribution to opening up Canada’s west to European settlement. There’s also a piece on Canada’s old Gaelic-speaking communities. I remember a Scottish teacher who spent her summers on Cape Breton in Nova Scotia saying she could tell where in the Highlands and Islands folks’ ancestors came from by the type of Gaelic they spoke.

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