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 –
443. In Great Waters
by Spencer Dunmore
A look at the Battle of the Atlantic during the Second World War through a slightly Canadian lens. Spencer Dunmore had already made his name as a Canadian military historian through his books about air warfare. And in truth he seems rather more comfortable writing about the aviation aspects of the Allies’ desperate battle to prevent German submarines strangling the British war effort. Dunmore also looks at the activities of the German surface ships. The US Navy’s top admiral Ernest King did what he could to make the German’s job easier but then few of the participants played a perfect game. It is safe to say that King was not the brightest bulb on the nautical Christmas tree. Putting officers with no experience of aircraft in charge of British escort aircraft carriers was not always the best of ideas either. There was little new in this book when it came to the Big Picture but where Dunmore scores is in his selection of the personal experiences of the participants to illustrate the various facets of the war in the Atlantic. Dunmore is a smooth writer and this was an easy read.
442. War Against the Taliban
by Sandy Gall
I thought veteran TV newsman Sandy Gall retired years and years ago. But certainly, in 2011 when this book came out, he was still very much on his game. What struck me in this look at why the Afghan campaign was faltering in 2011 was the extent to which the West was actually financing the war against itself. The question is now much the picture has changed in the almost a decade since this book was written. One of the main sources of funding and support for the Taliban back in 2011, and I suspect still is today, is the Pakistani government through its Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate. The Americans sub-contracted the war against the Soviets to the ISI back in the 1980s and even after the Taliban were driven from government in 2001 the US cash was still pouring into the Pakistanis' purse. Pakistan shamelessly used the American money to further its own regional interests and that included funding and supporting the Taliban. Oddly, unbelievably even, the Americans only really woke up to this when Osma Bin Laden was found to be living in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad. Another source of cash for the Taliban, according to Gall, was basically protection money paid by both some of the NATO contingents, their civilian transport contractors and international aid projects to the Taliban. Complaints about endemic national corruption in Afghanistan were greeted by locals pointing at the equally wide-spread corruption involving US contractors. Britain does not come out well either. Poor military leadership at the top was only matched be even feebler support for aid projects from the civil service. The dysfunctionality now gripping the UK as result of the Brexit Crisis was only too evident in the Afghan intervention. Confused military command structures in Afghanistan only compounded the inadequate resourcing of the British contribution. And top of the list of reasons for failure in Afghanistan must be the ill-advised and basically stupid 2003 US intervention, aided and abetted by the British, in Iraq. What disappoints me is that much of what Gall highlighted in 2011 was obvious to those on the ground in Afghanistan in 2002. A lot of people who took home a substantial pay packet as servants of the Crown did not do their jobs and the price was paid in dead and maimed squaddies.
441. Too Important for the Generals
by Allan Mallinson
To put it mildly, soldier-turned-novelist Allan Mallinson is no fan of Field Marshal Douglas Haig's conduct of the First World War. In fact, his condemnation of how the war was fought includes most of the senior officers of all the participants. Anyone who hadn't taken the hint from the main title, would almost certainly have a further clue from the sub-heading "Losing and Winning the First World War". While many historians these days labour to rehabilitate Haig's reputation, Mallinson believes the Field Marshal's place in British public consciousness as an unimaginative butcher is close to the mark. As a former British Army officer he has no little insight into the problems of command and he is scathing about the commanders he believes wasted too many lives in obviously futile attempts to break the deadlock on the Western Front. He argues that instead of being rushed into action in 1914 the tiny British Army should have been used to as trainers to create a bigger an army fit for purpose. As it was the vastly expanded army took until late 1917 or early 1918 to become an effective force on the Western Front. But this was after squandering the flower of British manpower in 1915, 1916 and early 1917. He argues that its part in halting the German 1914 offensive could easily have been undertaken by the French and this would have avoided Britain's professional army being pretty much destroyed. He is also a great enthusiast for alternative theatres for offensive operations instead of unimaginative frontal assaults on a German Army which held all the aces on the Western Front. Mallinson is one of the few modern writers I've come across that believes the Dardenelles campaign had the faintest hope of succeeding.
Canadians Invade Russia
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