I don't know how many memoirs there are from the First World War written by Germans. But I'd be interested to see what they have to say about killing prisoners. I've just finished a book, first published in 1929, in which a variety of British servicemen recounted their experiences during the war. What struck me was that more than half of accounts mentioning the murder of surrendered or surrendering Germans were from former members of Highland regiments.
One account detailed how during the Battle of Loos in 1915 a platoon of Highlanders found about 20 Germans at their mercy in a captured trench. The Germans, who wounded some of the Highlanders as they stormed the trench, begged for mercy. Then one of the Scots shouted “Remember the Lusitania” and the Germans were slaughtered. The deaths of almost 1,200 civilians when a German submarine torpedoed the ocean liner were widely regarded at the time as a war crime. Another member of a Highland regiment told how that no German was left alive after his unit took a German trench at Ypres in 1917. In another book, a private in the one of the Highland regiments also recalled the murder of prisoners at Loos.
Now, it could be that Scottish soldiers were more honest about whether they killed surrendered Germans. Or it could be that they were more likely to kill prisoners than most other British soldiers? The Canadians and Australians were also notorious for killing Germans who could have been easily captured.
About a year ago, while working on a companion volume to Scottish Military Disasters, I was going through some battalion histories from the First World War. Most did not explicitly mention the killing of surrendering Germans but simply noted with satisfaction that there were no survivors from such-and -such a German machinegun post after had been over-run. But the history of one of the Glasgow battalions was not so coy. The history tells the story of an officer of the Worcestershire Regiment who asked a sergeant from the Glasgow unit how many German prisoners he’d taken during a recent battle. “Prisoners,” replied the sergeant. “None, my ammunition's no done yet.”
The Scots who fought in the Second World War were just as honest as those from the First when it came to talking about killing prisoners. Seaforth Highlander Sgt. Carnduff said that after the Battle of Alamein a total of nine Germans found huddled in the bottom of trenches by-passed during the 51st Highland Division’s advance had been killed by dropping anti-tank mines on them. A soldier from the 15th Scottish Division admitted that during the fighting in Normandy after D-Day his unit soon stopped taking prisoners. “Any German who tries to surrender is a brave man; we just shoot them then and there, with their hands up,” he said. “There’s nothing to choose between the British and the Germans as regards atrocities …” The soldier added that shortly after landing in France, his Sergeant Major had been relieving some Germans of their valuables when a Canadian soldier sprayed the prisoners with his sten gun. The Sergeant Major was hit in the stomach.
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 the “Ladies from Hell” ? I’ve got a feeling this name 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 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.
Risking the Wrath
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 "The Ladies from the Hell". 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 "Ladies from Hell" 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.
The 93rd Sutherland Highlanders were widely acknowledged to be one of the most “Highland” of the Highland regiments. It’s been claimed that shortly before the Crimean War in 1854, only 30 of its members were not born in Sutherland, Inverness-shire or Ross-shire.
But only 16 years earlier, a snapshot of the regiment when it arrived in Canada in 1838 paints a different picture. Of 591 “other ranks” landed at Halifax in Nova Scotia 242 were born in the old Highland Counties of Caithness, Sutherland, Ross and Cromarty, Inverness-shire and Nairnshire. Caithness supplied the largest contingent, 80 men; Sutherland, 55, Ross and Cromarty, 46; and Inverness-shire 49. The second-largest contribution to the regiment came from Aberdeenshire, 73 men.
Fife supplied 42 members of the regiment, while Lanarkshire, which included Glasgow, contributed 34, Elgin and Moray, 40, and Perthshire, 33. The regiment counted seven Englishmen and two Irishmen in its ranks. Seven soldiers gave no place of birth and were recorded as being born “in the regiment”, the sons of soldiers and their wives.
More than half of the men, 381 out of 591, were listed as farm workers or labourers on enlistment. Of the 210 recruits who listed a trade, 64 were weavers, 32 were shoemakers and 26 were tailors. One man listed himself as a hairdresser and two as pipers.
Just short of half the soldiers in 1838, a total of 255, had less than five years service, and only 30 had more than 14 years with the colours. Their average age was just short of 25 years old and the average height was 5’8”. Five years after the Crimean War, in March 1861, the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders reported 92 Englishmen and 100 Irishmen out of a total of 1304 other ranks. Out of 51 officers, 29 were Scots, 18 were English and four were Irish.
The 93rd Highlanders circa 1854
I thought there might be some interest in these six links to the National Library of Scotland's Scottish Screen Archive.
As promised, a sample chapter from Scottish Military Disasters. I first became aware of this battle at a bus stop in Norway. My Norwegian language skills were almost non-existent but there seemed to be a road sign announcing "This Way to Dead Scottish People". Sadly, I had a bus to catch and didn't have time to go where the sign was pointing. But a little research back in Scotland quickly solved the mystery.
The ambush and massacre of a party of Scottish mercenaries in 1612 proved a key historical event for Norwegian nationalists trying to foster an independence movement from Sweden in the early 17th century. The myth-makers fastened onto the so-called Battle of Kringen as an example of gallant Norwegians banding together to repel a foreign foe. The fact that many of the 116 Scots murdered after the ambush had been virtually kidnapped and forced into mercenary service appears to have been conveniently forgotten.
But what were the Scots doing in Norway in 1612 anyway?