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The Experience of the Scottish Soldier

Updated: Apr 16, 2023

In the late Victorian and Edwardian Armies, Scots had been under represented as a proportion of the UK population. This was reflected in the recruitment difficulties within the under populated Highlands but also in the towns and cities were the Highland Light Infantry, for example, had to expand beyond their Glasgow district recruitment areas to encompass the whole of Scotland. The irony here being that the HLI’s first two Victoria Cross winners of the First World War came from Edinburgh, something that Edinburgh’s local paper The Scotsman was quick to pick up on. Scots enlisted, not just in the well known Scottish regiments, but also in the six Scottish infantry divisions formed during the war, 9th, 15th, 51st (Highland), 52nd (Lowland), 64th (2nd Highland), and the 65th (Lowland). They also served in every branch of the Army and they could be found in English divisions, the 15th and 16th Royal Scots being part of the 34th Division.


The wider Scottish diaspora made up various dominion battalions affiliated or associated with Scottish regiments in the Canadian battalions or the South African Scottish. They could also be found in the Scottish Territorial battalions from English cities such as the Tyneside Scottish, London Scottish and the Liverpool Scottish. The Scottish soldiers experience reflected that of his counterpart in the other British battalions the marching, cramped accommodation, the lack of proper uniforms, and the obsolete equipment. The training camps in England were a culture shock to many nonetheless the experience of the camps helped to develop a bond and comradeship, even if they failed to prepare the men for the trials to come. Once in the trenches their experience was not that different to their comrades in other British regiments. They wrote of the scarcity of the rations, snipers, rats, lice, working parties, the mud, burial details, the smell of corpses and the bleakness of the ground. Many of the men preferred to be in the trenches than in the rest areas in the rear when in the trenches they escaped the endless parades and inspections.


The Kilt in the trenches

Some of the Highland battalions had a distinctive experience of trench life when wearing their kilts. It was worn under a wrap around khaki cotton-kilt apron, with a pocket on the front rather than a sporran, it kept the men warm and prevented them having to stand in wet trousers. There are accounts of men standing knee deep in water with their kilts wrapped around their waists and if the kilt became soaked through and caked in mud it became heavy with the rim of the kilt cutting the backs of the knees. The kilt had three main disadvantages; for soldiers drafted from Lowland battalions into a Highland one the change in uniform garb could be a shock to the system, particularly in severe cold weather. The mud encrusted kilts proved a hindrance when crossing barbed wire or water obstacles. Mustard gas which burned the sweatier parts of the anatomy signalled the end for the kilt in the front line although this decision was reversed as the kilt was seen as a good recruiting tool and showed off regimental distinctions, and there was the traditional element.



Ill discipline was not uncommon

Ill discipline was not uncommon particularly when drink played a part. Captain John A Liddell, 3/Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, reported the trouble trying to keep his battalion en route in France. Other officers spoke of the drunkenness of drafts of men when waiting at railway stations in Britain and of being a rabble in camp from drunkenness. Drunkenness was relatively less in France and Flanders however, looting and other forms of indiscipline ocurred in billets. One officer of the 2/Argyll’s said of keeping discipline that ‘The finest officers and training couldn’t make saints of men straight from Falkirk High Street and the south side of Glasgow.’ These accounts of indiscipline were not unique to Scottish regiments however, the gallantry and courage of the Scottish soldier is also legend.


Gallantry

In the Ypres Salient Falkirk District men serving in Scottish regiments were involved in the stand of the Scots Guards and Black Watch at First Ypres, the ill conceived attack of the 2/Royal Scots and 1/Gordon Highlanders at Maedelstedt Farm in December 1914 which Billy Congreve described in his diary as ‘It was a regular Valley of Death..andNext day, I read in the paper: British troops hurl back Germans at Wytschaete. A beautiful epitaph for those poor Gordons were little better than murdered.’ The attack of 10 Brigade at St Julien during Second Ypres during which 7/Argyll’s casualties were over 446 officers and men of Falkirk District dead and wounded in little over twenty minutes. The attrition in the Salient during 1916 and the heavy losses during Third Ypres and the final battles of the advance to victory from September to 11 November 1918.


By 1914 the pipes controlled the daily routine

L/Cpl Peter West. Laurieston man. The picture shows him as 4th Battalion Royal Scots Piper. He transferred to the 12th Battalion when he joined them in the field on 5 August 1917. He was killed in action on 25 April 1918 and is listed on the Menin Gate Memorial.

Morale also had a major part to play in the discipline and courage of the Scottish soldier and this morale was aided by good administrative support, good food, rest, regular mail, good medical care and welfare care for the families at home. Keeping busy when not in the line were aspects of building morale with smartness of dress and attention to the sanitary conditions. In addition, cheerfulness and high spirits were important with sports, leave, competition between regiments and bagpipes having an impact on morale in Scottish regiments. As the role of the pipe band evolved, so did their music. Marching tunes were added, The Black Watch, Gordon Highlanders and the 2/Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders marched past to ‘Highland Laddie,’ the Seaforths and Camerons to ‘The Pibroch o’ Donuil Dubh,’ and the 1/Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders to ‘The Town of Inveraray’ (‘The Campbells are coming!’). By 1914, the pipes controlled the daily routine with duty pipe calls at reveille, meal-times, and lights-out. They were used on the march, for parades, inspections, for beating Retreat, for recruiting, entertainment and competitions. Lastly, they were used in battle. Battalions of the Scots guards and the Highland Regiments were allowed a Sergeant-Piper and five Pipers. Neither the Lowland or Irish Regiments were allowed this extra strength.


Hostility towards the Germans

The Scottish soldiers hostility towards the Germans was a significant factor with many incensed by the stories of atrocities being committed, the abuse of the White Flag, the use of weapons such as poison gas and the flamethrower. However hostile they were towards the Germans they still respected their fighting capabilities and qualities and Scottish soldiers of the 2/Argyll’s took part in the Christmas Truce of 1914. With a letter from Falkirk man Corporal Dea, 2/Argyll’s and his account featuring in the Falkirk Herald. This hostility towards the Germans should be placed in some sort of context with the men spending long periods of boredom between the front line trenches and the rear rest areas.

Letter from Falkirk District man Cpl Dea featured in the Falkirk Herald

Writing in his account of the 10/Argyll’s ‘The First Hundred Thousand’ John Hay Beith, who wrote under the pseudonym Ian Hay, claimed that the men were ‘chiefly concerned, as in peacetime, with his holidays and creature comforts.’ and saw battle as ‘a mere incident between one set of billets and another.’ Scottish soldiers had many similarities with the experience of other British soldiers and also distinctive elements such as high morale and a positive self image helped them to cope with the conditions in the Salient and the enemy.

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