Now that all the Scottish infantry battalions, with the exception of the Scots Guards, have donned the kilt it seems odd to discover that around 130 years ago senior Scottish officers regarded it as a drag on recruiting and actually wanted to cut the number of kilted regiments.
The debate in the run-up to the 1881 re-organization of the British army was every bit as heated as the one surrounding the recent amalgamation of all six regular Scottish infantry battalions into one super-regiment. In the immediate run up to the 1881 changes, the only Highland regiment stationed in Britain was the Black Watch.
Its colonel was the only Highland regimental commander consulted about the proposals to double the number of kilted battalions from the five that existed prior to 1881.
Colonel Duncan MacPherson said those five kilted regiments already had enough problems recruiting Scots, never mind true Highlanders, into their ranks.
He suggested it would be better to create one regiment, “The Highland Brigade”, which would recruit from the whole Highland area.
He, like the other Highland colonels, was anxious not to dilute the Highland character of the regiments any further.
The colonels were even prepared to give up their regimental tartans if it meant keeping their recruiting grounds in the Highlands - only the Camerons refused to surrender their distinctive Cameron of Erracht tartan. This scuppered a proposal to put them in Government tartan as the 2nd Battalion of the Black Watch.
One former commander of the Gordon Highlanders took a less dramatic line. General J.C. Hay declared more than 120 years ago that he’d worn the Gordon tartan for 30 years and would be sad to see it go.
“But I would rather have the right men in the wrong tartan, than the wrong men in the right tartan,” he said
Up until 1881, the Gordons regarded themselves as an Inverness-shire unit. The regiment had been recruited in 1794 from the Duke of Gordon’s Highland estates, which stretched all the way to Lochaber at the time
But despite this, by 1881 only about half the regiment came from homes in the Highlands and Islands.
Since the early 1870s the Gordon’s base had been at Aberdeen. They shared a depot with the Sutherland Highlanders as part of a scheme drawn up by Secretary of State for War Edward Cardwell to link different regiments for recruiting purposes.
Under Cardwell’s scheme, while one of the linked battalions was overseas policing the British Empire, the other would be recruiting and training reinforcements for it. Every few years the two battalions would switch duties.
The new Secretary of State for War Hugh Childers decided the system of linking could be improved if the one battalion regiments were welded together into two battalion regiments. Each of the new regiments would be assigned a specific recruiting area.
These shotgun marriages created some disappointing combinations for the Highland purists.
The Gordons were “married” to the 75th Stirlingshire Regiment in 1881. The 75th had previously been linked for recruiting and training purposes to the Dorsetshire Regiment.
The only possible justification for the union was that the 75th had been raised as a Highland Regiment in 1787 but when the flow of Highland recruits dried up around 1809 it was decided to abandon the kilt in a bid to recruit more Lowlanders, English and Irishmen into its ranks.
For the same reason, three other Highland regiments were deprived of the kilt in 1809. Childers re-organization would put all three back into the kilt. The Duke of Albany’s Own Highlanders, who had reclaimed at least part of their Scottish identity in 1825 by donning tartan trews, became the 1st Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders; the 73rd Perthshire Regiment put the kilt back on as the 2nd Battalion of the Black Watch; and the 91st Argyllshire Highlanders became the 1st Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
The controversy over the future of the Highland regiments became a major sore point for Childers. The powerful Anglo-Scottish community in London were ignorant of the serving officers' proposal to form one kilted regiment, and were lobbying to “save” all five.
Childers, in a humorous letter to Lord Reay, joked about the London Scots’ campaign.
“The tartan question is one of the gravest character, far more important, as your friend suggests, than the maintenance of the union with Ireland,” he wrote.
“All the thoughts of the War Office are concentrated upon it, and the patterns of tartans -past and present - fill our rooms.
“We are neglecting the Transvaal and Ashanti for the sake of weighing the merits of a few threads of red, green, or white.”
Scottish Military Disasters has been launched as an e-book. And it’s been 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 –
399. We Were Soldiers Once.... And Young
by Lt Gen Harold G Moore and Joseph L Galloway
This book inspired a not-half-bad film starring Mel Gibson. Films are always, or nearly always, more superficial than books. This book is both monumental and a monument in itself. Hundreds of former members of the 1st US Air Cavalry Division were interviewed about the desperate fighting in Vietnam's Ia Drang Valley in November 1965. Most do not pull any punches and the book must rate as one of the most honest and visceral accounts of combat to have appeared on either side of the Atlantic in recent years. The film ends with Mel Gibson and his men from the 1st Battalion of the 7th Cavalry being airlifted by helicopter from the battlefield. The book adds the story of what happened when their replacements from the regiment's 2nd Battalion were attacked as they marched to another helicopter landing zone nearby and came close to being wiped out. The book stops short of pointing the finger of blame for the almost disaster but it is not too hard to read between the lines. This book is a smooth read but also achieves its aim of standing as a monument to the American men who fought in the Ia Drang Valley. It also makes an attempt at recognising the courage and skill of the mainly North Vietnamese troops the Air Cavalry fought against. There was some input into the book from senior Vietnamese officers but it lacks the perspective of the peasant soldier wielding an AK-47 in the face of American machine guns, mortars, artillery, rockets and napalm. This is perhaps too much to ask and would have led to book that would have been so massive that no-one could reasonably be expected to get through it.
398. Aces Falling - War Above the Trenches, 1918
by Peter Hart
This is yet another fine book from Imperial War Museum sound archivist Peter Hart. As with many of his best books, this one leans heavily on transcripts of the interviews with veterans. This time he looks at aerial warfare on the Western Front during the final year of the First World War. Hart deftly knits the veterans' memories in with his own analysis of events, letters, diaries and even books by some of the air crew. As with his previous book on the war in the skies in April 1917, Hart points out that not everyone could be an ace fighter pilot. Although some aces do feature, Manfred von Richthoven, James McCudden and Edward Mannock for example, many of those appearing in the book were involved in straffing ground troops, spotting for artillery batteries, downing enemy observation balloons or bombing bridges and air fields. Hart has picked the first-hand experience extracts well and they make for a compelling picture of what it was like to fight in the sky in what would now be regarded as incredibly flimsy flying machines. The air crew in this book come in many shapes and sizes, from the stone-cold but eagle-eyed pilots of the German scouts to very naive teenagers struggling to stay alive in the swirling dogfights above the fields of France and Belgium. Some of the crew share their survival tips. Several are endearingly candid about their fear. This is a good read.
397. The Guns 1939-45
by Ian V Hogg
This is another entry in the Purnell's Illustrated History of the Second World War series and as per usual is well illustrated with drawings and photographs. The book was copyrighted in 1970 and once again as usual with the series, known as Ballantines Illustated Histoy of World War II in the USA, is written by a subject expert from that era. In this case Purnell snagged one of the best known and most prolific British writers on matters of gunnery, Ian Hogg. Hogg was good writer and as one of the British Army's most senior artillerymen knew his stuff. But personally I found the book a little too technical for my taste. This was despite Hogg doing his best to dumb things down. He adds in some interesting anecdotes and insights of his own and as I said, he certainly knows his subject matter. But this one I can guarantee is not in the running for the 2017 Book of the Year. It's interesting in its own way but not gripping.
An article I wrote about the 1918 Armistice Day battle against the Bolsheviks in Northern Russia has been published in the Spring/Summer edition of Dorchester Review. It’s a companion piece to “Archangel” but focuses on the role of the 67th Battery of the Canadian Field Artillery rather than the 2/10th Royal Scots. The new article is called - Canada’s Winter War
The Defenceless Border
The Canadian - United States border is said to be the longest undefended frontier in the world. The latest Dorchester Review, Canada's best history magazine, carries an article I wrote about a time when though American invasion seemed highly likely, Scottish troops found themselves with useless rifles in their hands. The article is called Undefended Border
The September/October edition of History Scotland magazine included a two page article I wrote looking at who really captured a French general in 1808 and why the credit might have been given to another member of the Highland Light Infantry. The official version of General Brennier's capture by the HLI at Vimeiro has gone down in British Army legend, "We are soldiers, Sir, not plunderers", but what ordinary members of the regiment had to say, or did not say, about the episode paints a less flattering picture of it and its aftermath. As the November/December issue is now available, here is the article The Real Mackay?
Pension Misery Highlighted
The Dorchester Review , a leading Canadian magazine when it comes to history, is carrying an article I wrote about British Army pensioners, many who served under the Duke of Wellington's command, who were caught up in a disastrous scheme which involved them giving up their pension entitlement in exchange for land in the British Colonies or United States. I became interested in what happened to the so-called Commuted Pensioners after realizing one of the main suspects as a contributor to Vicissitudes in the Life of a Scottish Soldier had been lured to Canada under the scheme.
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