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.”
A Coyote armoured vehicle on patrol near Kandahar Airfield.
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 –
430. Turning Points in Military History
by William R Weir
This book isn't so much about, as the title would suggest, major turning points in military history, but rather a gallop through the story of warfare. William R Weir is fine until he gets to the relatively recent past and then his American pre-occupations and biases reveal themselves. The book ends just after the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and he makes some good points about how mistaken it was for the invaders to expect themselves to be regarded as "liberators". But up until the First American Civil War, sometimes referred to as the American War of Independence, Weir does a good job of discussing the evolution of war, though much of his focus is on western warfare. It is a brief but thoughtful summary. I wasn't sure about this book, based on his 50 Battles that Changed History but noted in my review of it (See Review 38) that I'd noted that Weir had some interesting insights and ideas. This book lacks the basic ignorance of well established facts that often makes me regret starting a book by an American author. So, kudos to Weir for that at least.
by David Blakeley
Actually, this is another book from the Damien Lewis ghost-writing machine. To put it mildly, the quality of Lewis's work variable. This isn't one of his better efforts. Captain Dave "The Face" Blakeley led an abortive reconnaissance mission into Iraq in 2003. There is too much repetition; too much about Blakeley's extremely expensive watch, sunglasses and his French lawyer paramour; and when the shooting finally starts it swerves too often into war-porn. The feel for dialogue shows a distinct tin; well written dialogue doesn't need to label each speaker every time because the reader quickly picks up on the individual speech patterns, in the case of this book the same voice is used for everyone. Cut a long story short, Blakeley and his eight-man team, in three heavily armed landrovers, are supposed to check out and mark airfield deep inside Iraq for a helicopter-borne landing but encounter stronger resistance than expected and have to fight their way back to American lines. It's hard to know how seriously to take a book that claims that the bulk of the 3rd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment went into Suez in 1956 in helicopters. Such ignorance of airborne operations and lessons learned from them is woeful in book carrying the name of a Parachute Regiment officer. I guess all those photos of the last British battalion level drop must be fake. On the subject of photos, the picture of Blakeley's landrover after it recrossed the American lines doesn't appear to show even a scratch on the bodywork despite the "malleting" described in the book.
428. Victory at Sea
by Lieutenant Commander P K Kemp
This book was better than I expected. It is one-volume history of Britain's war at sea 1939-45 written by the head of the Royal Navy's Historical Section. According to the introduction, it had been planned to issue an accessible official one-volume history as early as 1948 but it took almost a decade and a private publisher for it to be released. The Royal Navy did issue a hefty three-volume official history written by Captain Stephen Roscoe. I wanted to read this book as soon as possible after I'd digested, and could still remember, Roscoe's Churchill and the Admirals (See Review 422) about wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill's often ill-advised interference with naval strategy. Kemp does not single out Churchill as being to blame for the several miss-steps admitted to in this book when it came to the War at Sea. The big secret not mentioned in this book is that the British could read much of German radio traffic thanks to the decoding of the Enigma code. Sometimes Kemp refers to "naval intelligence" sources but this is the closest he comes to mentioning the role played by the codebreakers in Victory at Sea. The story might have been more interesting and less laudatory of Admiralty skill if Kemp had been allowed to discuss Enigma. But it is still an interesting read. Recounting a war fought in almost every body of water in the world, with the exception of the Antarctic coastline, in a single, affordable, volume is a task which means a lot of brevity. But Kemp manages to give just enough detail to bring the battles at sea, from the battleship duels to the activities of midget submarines, to life. He is also good on the bigger picture and strategy of worldwide naval operations. The early part of the book is taken up by the rundown, almost to the point of impotence, of the Royal Navy between the two world wars. Many of the wartime shortcomings, defeats and near defeats are explained in the context of the decision to give the lion's share of the armament spending to the Royal Air Force. Kemp more hints than spells out the almost war-losing effects of this policy in context of anti-submarine warfare and the lack of essential maritime attack and patrol aircraft due to the RAF's insistence on giving priority to Bomber Command over Coastal Command. The American Navy does not escape criticism either. Admiral Ernest King will need to be added to my list of Americans who came close to messing things up to an irretrievable extent. It's no secret that King did not buy into the plan to defeat Germany first and then deal with Japan. That meant a lot of people died in both the Pacific and the Atlantic to satisfy his, and the US Navy's, greed for glory.
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