The most stirring sermon I ever heard was delivered by a company sergeant-major in the Black Watch to a cadre of young lance-corporals, barely 19 years old, who were about to experience their first deployment to Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Like an old-fashioned Presbyterian minister, he warned them of the dangers of the world, in this case roof-top snipers and stone-throwing rioters, and the temptation these presented to the unwary soul, in this case, as he put it, ‘to run like buggery’.
But they would not succumb, he said; indeed, they would lead their sections looking such dangers fearlessly in the face, because they were armed with a greater power — the red hackle, or feather, they wore in their khaki bonnets. The courage of countless generations before them, back to the battle of Fontenoy in 1745, had, he promised, imbued this symbol of the regiment with a steadfastness they would feel in their bones when the dustbin lids rattled and the petrol bombs exploded.
The text from which that sermon was drawn is now provided in definitive form by Victoria Schofield’s official history of the regiment, and the last one ever, as a consequence of its reduction in 2006 to a battalion within the Royal Regiment of Scotland. The book’s immediate military and regimental interest is obvious, but a wider value should also come from an exploration of those intangible factors that allow people to act beyond their normal capacity, and institutions to renew themselves beyond their natural lifespan.
Apart from creating a fabulous name and an internationally popular tartan, the birth of the Black Watch in 1743 marked the start of a military revolution. Although intended as a police force to keep insurrectionary Highlanders in check, the impact in battle of this ‘hardy and intrepid race of men’, as William Pitt termed them, encouraged the recruitment of more Highland regiments, and later of Irish units, who replaced continental mercenaries, transforming a European-style army into one distinctively British.
The ‘Highland Furies’ of Schofield’s title was an epithet bestowed by the French, in baleful recognition of the speed of attack by kilted troops compared to the constricted advance of infantry clad in heavy canvas breeches. But it was the ferocious tenacity of the Watch’s clan-based soldiers that led generals like James Wolfe as well as politicians to want ‘as many Highlanders as possible’.
Oddly, the quality was best exemplified in defeat, at the doomed assault in 1758 on the fort of Ticonderoga in New York. In this battle, the Black Watch lost more than half its 1,200 men, but, long after other troops had withdrawn, the French fort commander noted the regiment’s survivors ‘returned unceasingly to the attack without becoming discouraged or broken’.
His report concluded that France should lose no time in recruiting its own Highlanders.
Almost a century later, with its military reputation burnished by battle honours in the Napoleonic Wars from the West Indies to Waterloo, and its civilian standing buoyed by Queen Victoria’s love of all things Highland, the regiment enjoyed something like celebrity status when ordered to the Crimea. By then, a majority of the regiment’s recruits were urban, but a vital clue to its continuing clannish heart could be heard in an order given as the Black Watch, then part of the Highland Brigade, was about to advance up the slopes of Alma to attack Russian troops. Since speed was essential, the commanding officer, General Colin Campbell, warned that if anyone held back, even to help the wounded, ‘his name will be stuck up in his parish church’. That the ultimate sanction should have been local shame testifies to the regiment’s ability to pass on the close-knit values of an earlier era.
This first volume ends the Black Watch’s history in 1899. Schofield tells the stories of the battles, the incessant travels and the waxing and waning of the regiment in different guises with exactness, and in a clear, readable style. She gives the narrative immediacy by quoting liberally from primary sources of information among the Watch’s own soldiers.
Yet, as the remorseless sequence of actions unfolds, it is sometimes difficult to escape the whiff of the catalogue. And there is only a glancing recognition of the regiment’s capacity to renew itself, most notably when a succession of officers promoted from the ranks rescued it from drunkenness and corruption after Waterloo, and restored the internal family discipline that was, and remains, its key strength.
On 23 June, the colours bearing its many battle honours will be laid up, marking the formal end of Britain’s first Highland regiment. Schofield’s meticulous record of the spirit that gave rise to those honours provides a worthy memorial to the Black Watch.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 2, 2012Tags: Book review, Scotland