The British Army:
Dr. G. Hughes
' Of the Gordon Highlanders about 500 were taken but a few escaped... For a time they practically ceased to exist as a battalion.'
- 1st Gordon Highlanders at Le Cateau, August 1914 Official History of the War: Military Operations in France and Belgium, 1914
THE SCOTTISH REGIMENTS IN THE GREAT WAR 1914- 1918
The Scottish infantry during the Great War were, arguably, the most distinctive of the British Expeditionary Force. Their contribution left a lasting impact on the history of the War and gave us some of its most enduring images; from the 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers holding the Jemappes canal bridge at Mons in 1914, to the kilted 6th Seaforths in steel helmets, clambering over the desolated landscape at the battle of Scarpe in 1918. What follows is a brief assessment of the Scottish regiments from 1914-1918, with a few ideas for recreating them and their campaigns in small scale.
Of the British Divisions raised for the war, many were wholly comprised of Scottish battalions. These included the famous 51st (Highland) and 52nd (Lowland) Divisions, both of which were formed from members of the Territorial Force at the outbreak of hostilities. Two further 'reserve' Divisions, the 64th (2nd Highland) and 65th (2nd Lowland), were raised in September 1914 from those Territorials who had enlisted post-war. Additionally, to cope with the mass of volunteers eager for active service, another two 'New Army' Service Divisions were raised as well; the 9th (Scottish) and 15th (Scottish) both serving with considerable distinction.
In the desperate need for men, recruits who had been 'weeded out' from volunteers for other units were accepted into 'Bantam' battalions, comprised of men under regulation height. Paradoxically, these men were often treated with ridicule and sometimes even contempt, but were also held in a certain awe at their fearless courage and tenacity. The 18th (4th Glasgow) Highland Light Infantry was a 'bantam' battalion, with such a bellicose reputation that they were unofficially known as the 'Demon Dwarves'.
There were also the Scots Guards, 1/14th (County of London) London Regiment (London Scottish), 1/10th (Scottish) King's Liverpool Regiment, 20th-23rd (Service) Battalions, Northumberland Fusiliers (Tyneside Scottish) and other Scottish units specifically raised the war throughout the Empire. As well as those Scots serving in other British forces, there were five 'lowland' and five 'highland' regiments. Despite this, there were many 'highland' units in 'lowland' regiments, notably, the Highland Light Infantry. Confusingly, this was officially a lowland regiment, as it recruited from Glasgow and its environs, although it did have 'highland' battalions.
Scottish regimental uniform details can also be split into 'highland' and 'lowland' styles. The highland regiments were, perhaps, the most distinctive and instantly recognisable as they wore the kilt, for the most part, on active service. This was frequently worn with a protective khaki kilt apron, which had a pocket on the front to replace the sporran. Sometimes, as an alternative, the gas helmet haversack was worn at the front of the kilt instead. Despite its greatest drawback (namely extreme vulnerability to gas attacks), some suggest that in the damp conditions of trench warfare, the kilt became a useful piece of clothing. It saw widespread use and, although highland service dress was modified due to the practicalities of war, by and large, the kilt was worn in all weathers and campaigns. For example, the London Scottish served in their grey hodder kilts in Salonika, whilst the 1st Seaforths fought in theirs throughout Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq).
Some lowland Territorial units adopted the kilt too, notably the 6th (City of Glasgow), the 9th (Glasgow Highland) H.L.I. and the 'Dandy 9th' or 9th (Highlanders) Royal Scots, who were raised in Edinburgh from highlanders who lived there. They wore Hunting Stewart kilts and were famed for their bravery at High Wood at Beaumont Hamel, during the Somme in 1916. However, the majority of lowland units wore standard British issue khaki uniform with the adoption of Scottish regimental headgear. Types of headgear were dependent on the regiment in question and changed between the Glengarry and Balmoral, or Tam O'Shanter, bonnet. In late 1915, the Glengarry was officially replaced by the less conspicuous khaki 'Balmoral', although it was still being worn long after this date. There seems to have also been an understandable practice in the trenches among troops to wear whatever type was available. During the winter of 1914-15, the 2nd Scots Fusiliers, at La Boutillerie, are shown wearing an assortment of both types. There is also much photographic evidence to suggest the wearing of woolly 'cap-comforter'/balaclava types amongst both highland and lowland troops in the early winters of the war.
The playing of bagpipes in battle was another distinctive characteristic of Scottish troops. Numerous battalion pipers performed extreme acts of courage under fire to encourage their comrades forward or to steady them during a bombardment. One of the best examples is from the battle of Loos, in September 1915. The 7th King's Own Scottish Borderers were ordered to advance, in full gas helmet and goggles, against the German position. Although the threat of gas attack was ever present, their piper, Daniel Laidlaw, disregarded his gas helmet and played the battalion forward. The 7th KOSBs went on to capture the German first line trenches but Piper Laidlaw was seriously wounded in the advance. Despite this, he still continued to play the Regimental march, 'All the Blue Bonnets are over the Border', winning the Victoria Cross in the process.
For anyone wishing to use Scots troops in their Great War skirmishes or campaigns, many of the following actions would make excellent potential scenarios. At the start of the war, during the height of the battle of Mons, the 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers fought an heroic delaying action at the canal bridge crossing in the village of Jemappes. The surprise German attack came in the early hours of the morning and, although they initially got within 500 yards of the Scots northern forward outposts by the canal, they were driven back. In the face of a sustained, massed infantry assault, these positions were withdrawn, enticing the enemy forward. As the Germans hurled themselves at the Scots Fusiliers' defences, they retaliated with heavy machine-gun fire, rifle fire and were supported by a British artillery bombardment. The Fusiliers held out for a number of hours, inflicting great casualties on the Germans but also sustaining many themselves. Just as it seemed as if the Scots Fusiliers may have won the day, orders were received regarding the situation on their flanks, where the Germans had finally broken through. With the utmost stoicism, they continued to hold the enemy at bay until the bridges were destroyed at Jemappes, after which they joined the Retreat. Months of hard-fighting followed. On the Ypres Salient, the 1st Scots Fusiliers were engaged at Aubers and, on the 18th October, took part in the costly assault on Herlies. By mid-October 1914, the 1st Scots Fusiliers had suffered a shocking casualty rate. The battalion had left for France four months previously with slightly under a thousand men: - after Mons, Le Cateau, the Aisne and Herlies, they were just seventy strong and commanded by a junior subaltern.
At Le Cateau, on the 26th August 1914, the 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders fought intensely in support of the Suffolks. Their battle was west of the town, as part of the last gasp of the holding action before the final withdrawal of II Corps. For nine hours, the Argylls and Suffolks desperately held out but, eventually, the Germans began to crush all resistance with the Argylls' 'C' Company entirely knocked out. Then, as the maelstrom of artillery shells and gunfire rained about them, half of 'B' Company was swamped by the German advance and captured. It is alleged that during the final stages of the fight, that the Germans repeatedly blew the British 'cease fire' and called out for them to surrender. The surviving Argylls and Suffolks steadfastly refused and instead managed to escape with the rest of II Corps.
From the outbreak of war, the Black Watch was one of the strongest elements in the British Expeditionary Force. Its 1st battalion famously arrived at the Mons-Beaumont road just in time to be immediately caught up in the Retreat. From here, it fought virtually every foot of the 200 miles it trekked, all in an exhausting fortnight. On the 8th September 1914, the 1st Black Watch led a ferocious attack on a German held wood near Sablonnieres. With the Cameron Highlanders in support, they poured through the slit-trenches and, in bloody close-combat, drove the Germans from their positions. The battle was so decisive that it forced the enemy to regroup but, over the coming days, the constant pressure along this part of their front from other such attacks caused them to finally redeploy northwards to the Aisne. Elsewhere on the Aisne, the 1st Royal Scots were heavily engaged whilst attempting to cross the river. Despite strong German resistance, they fought their way across, eventually capturing the heights to the north near Vailly.
By the end of 1914, the 2nd Highland Light Infantry held the newly constructed front line trench at Polygon Wood in the Ypres Salient. At 4.30am on the 11th November, 300 Germans attacked in force and managed to break into their shallow trench. A furious and confused hand-to-hand combat ensued. As the Germans streamed into the British line, they forced the Scots to retire to the other side of the parapet and captured their Maxim machine-gun. In response, the battalion's machine-gun officer, Lt Walter Brodie, led 'B' Company back into the trench to reclaim his gun. A bloody engagement followed, where Lt Brodie personally bayoneted four Germans and shot a further five before he and his men retook the gun. Then, calmly retraining it along the occupied trench, gave supporting fire in the counter-attack, significantly helping to clear it of the enemy. As dawn broke on Polygon Wood, the 2nd H.L.I. discovered that they had killed 80 of the enemy and taken 54 of them prisoner. Walter Brodie apparently dismissed his part in the action as merely a 'bit of a scrap'; unsurprisingly, he was awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallantry and initiative.
The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) were another regiment which began its war thrown into the confusion of Mons and the Retreat. The 1st battalion engaged in a series of daring fighting retreats and held up the German advance until it was caught up in the battle of the Marne in September 1914. The 2nd Cameronians, under Colonel Vandeleur, were badly mauled at Neuve Chapelle in March 1915, with the battalion reduced to a third of its strength. The 6th Scottish Rifles arrived in the sector shortly after, just in time for both to be committed to the infamous battle for Aubers Ridge.
In April 1915, the King's Own Scottish Borderers saw considerable action during the battle for Hill 60, an objective beside the Ypres-Commines railway. Although the 2nd Borderers captured the Hill, the Germans counter-attacked that night with such aggression that the Borderers lost 200 men. A matter of days later, they were part of the assault on Gravenstafel Ridge to relieve a forward position held by the Canadians. In this attack, they succeeded in repelling the enemy (at a cost of a further 250 casualties), only to discover that the Germans had retaken part of Hill 60. Accordingly, the 2nd Borderers were pulled back to regroup and assault the hill once more. This they did, on the 5th May, but failed to secure the objective and only took yet more casualties.
The brutal close combat of the KOSBs at Hill 60, the stand of the 2nd H.L.I. at Polygon Wood or the assault of the Black Watch at Sablonnieres would all make interesting skirmish games. Indeed, a Scots battalion would make a truly characterful unit in any Great War game. With Mike Owen's Scots range for Renegade, there is now a long-awaited addition for those gamers who wish to recreate the hard-fighting lowland regiments; in particular, the Royal Scots Fusiliers or Royal Scots. This last regiment perhaps typifies the commitment of the Scottish troops to the war. The movement of ten of its battalions to the Western Front in the first two years chillingly demonstrates how the war swallowed horrific numbers of recruits. By Winter 1914-15, the 1st, 8th and 9th (Highlanders) Royal Scots had joined their 2nd battalion in France and Flanders, fighting at Second Ypres. They were soon followed by the 11th, 12th, and 13th battalions in the summer, only to be reinforced by the 15th, 16th and 17th by early 1916. In total, the Royal Scots fielded some 35 battalions for the war and lost an appalling 12,000 officers and other ranks killed in action.
Suggested further reading:
There are many fascinating and informative works available on Scottish troops, covering every aspect of their service. Most of the original service histories are now being reprinted. The following is only a brief guide but hopefully it will have some useful suggestions!
- M. Chappell, M. - Scottish Units in the World Wars (Osprey, Elite No. 96, 1994)
- Falls, Capt. C. - Life of a Regiment: The Gordon Highlanders in the First World War, 1914- 1919, (University Press, 1958)
- Gillon, Capt. S. - KOSB in the Great War (Thomas Nelson, 1930)
- Henderson, Dr. D. - Scottish Regiments, (Harper Collins, 1996)
- Jeffery, Prof. K. - British Army and the crisis of empire, 1918-22, (Manchester University Press, 1984)
- Mileham, Maj. P.J.R. - Scottish Regiments - a pictorial history (Spellmount, 1988)
- Oatts, Lt.-Col. L.B. - Highland Light Infantry, (Leo Cooper, 1969)
- Sutherland, D. - Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, (Leo Cooper, 1969)