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 –
434. The Savage War
by Murray Brewster
This book was a disappointment, a big disappointment. The clue should have been in the subtitle - "The Untold Battles of Afghanistan". I should have thought that one through. The author Murray Brewster is a journalist. If the battles were really untold, then what was he doing during his day job? But while the subtitle may be the publisher's responsibility, the poor writing is Brewster's. There are two threads running through the book. One is Brewster's experiences as a newspaper reporter in Afghanistan. Other reviewers have accused Brewster of grafting whole passages of the Vietnam classic Dispatches into his text. I don't know about that, but I know I didn't recognise his description of Kabul airport. His account is a better read than I could written. His description of an incident in which an American pilot killed four Canadian soldiers and maimed several others as the "mistaken" dropping of a 250kg bomb got my back up. Major "Psycho" Schmidt deliberately dropped the bomb, ignoring instructions from the ground; it was not an mistake. The problem was that he didn't know who he was bombing and after finding out the guys on the ground were not Americans, perhaps he didn't really care. Brewster is at his best in this book when he pores over documents released under the Canadian Freedom of Information Act and discusses the conflicts in the corridors of power. But there's not enough good stuff. And there is too much poor editing. ".. out of fifty soldiers that made the crossing that morning, there were more than twenty casualties, including dead and wounded". Who else is Brewster including in the casualty list? A visit to a "girl's school". Just one pupil? Did Canadian soldiers really believe in the "invisibility" of their armoured vehicles? A bridge wired with "ninety mortars"? What should have been a very interesting book was a chore to finish. The one good thing I can say is that unlike many Canadian journalist's books about Afghanistan it is not a love letter to the Canadian Military.
433. Steel From the Sky
by Roger Ford
I am not sure if this book wasn't a missed opportunity. The book looks at the activities of the, usually, three-man teams, known as Jedburghs, parachuted into France by the Alliesto help train and arm the "French Resistance" after D-Day in June 1944. After a brief introduction and details of the training undertaken by the Jedburghs, Ford spends much of the book detailing each mission one-by-one. These accounts are based on the after-action reports provided by the Jedburghs, which Ford tried to double-check from other sources, including memoirs and the reports of other Jedburghs. The teams show themselves to be heart-touchingly human. Some claim credit for things they shouldn't have, some of the men are even, reading between the lines, not suited to a combat role. The problem with Ford's approach is that many of the reports repeat basically the same experiences; feuding resistance groups, theft of kit by the French, all-too-often mishandled parachute drops (more likely when US aircrews were involved), self-proclaimed resistance groups that behave more like bandits and arriving in France too late to influence events. The result is too fragmented for my taste. I would rather have something that give the Bigger Picture better and used the after-action reports to provide telling illustrations of the matters being discussed. I also found it difficult to remember who was who as Ford switched between real names, noms-de-guerre and code names with baffling frequency. More reminders of which resistance group were Communist or Gaullist or somewhere in between would have come in handy. If Ford wanted the reader to feel some of the frustration felt by the Jedburgh teams in a complicated fast-moving war, then he succeeded. This is an interesting topic, I'm just not sure the approach taken in this book does it justice.
432. Wellington's Rifles
by Ray Cusick
It is hard to know what to say about this book. The author, Ray Cusick, was dying when he wrote it and did not live to see it on the bookshelves. I got the impression that, perhaps, if Cusick had been in better health and lived longer then this might have been a good book. But instead, it comes across as part of an early draft version. I found myself reading some sentences several times in attempt to fathom what was being said. At first I thought Cusick made a mistake when he apparently said there were four Highland regiments in 1800, the 71st, 72nd, 79th and 92nd. But I came to think he meant there were four Highland regiments represented in the ranks of the Experimental Rifle Corps. The selection of battles featured seemed eccentric and I was left wondering if Cusick had originally intended to cast his net considerably wider to illustrate both the Rifle Regiments and Light Infantry battalions in action. Although the 71st Highland regiment converted to Light Infantry in 1809, it gets scant coverage in the book and much of the little mention it gets what is said is in the context of fighting alongside the 52nd Oxfordshire Light Infantry at the Battle of Waterloo. I was unable to make sense of the reference to the "second American war" of 1794. The book also suffers from several unnecessary repetitions. Despite the main title, about a third of the book is about the evolution of the Light Infantry concept in North America and the Caribbean from 1750 onward. It might have been better for Cusick's reputation if a co-author had been brought in to build on and properly finish the work done by Cusick rather than publish a book trying to draw together a partially completed project.
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