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With the Scottish Regiments at the Front
Chapter I - The Guards and The Greys


If one should ask any man, of any regiment of the British Army, what was the quality of the regiment to which he belonged, the answer would be to the effect that his was the best regiment in the service, without any exception. If any other answer should be returned to such a query, it might be assumed that there was something wrong with that particular man ; he ought not to be a soldier, for every soldier worthy of the name firmly believes that his regiment is the best.

The Scottish regiments are not exempt from this belief, and surely, judging by their regimental histories, they have good cause. Certain peculiar honours are theirs, too : they form the only kilted force of regular troops in the world, for one thing ; and for another thing the oldest regiment of the British Army is Scottish—for the Royal Scots, with definite history dating back to 1625, lay claim to direct descent from the Scottish archers who were kept for centuries as guards for French kings. Putting legend and tradition aside, it is certain and beyond dispute that John Hepburn led the Royal Scots under Gustavus Adolphus, the great Swedish champion of liberty, as early as 1625; and in 1633, with eight years of hard work on Continental battlefields to season their ranks, the Royal Scots were definitely and officially included in the British Army, seeing service under Marlborough at Blenheim, Ramillies, Malplaquet, and Oudenarde. There is a story of Blenheim to the effect that the Commander-in-chief of the French Army, taken prisoner by Marlborough, congratulated the latter on having overcome “the best troops in the world.” The Duke caustically requested him to “Except those troops by whom you have been conquered.”Prominent among these were the Royal Scots.

But, although senior in point of age, the Royal Scots is not “the right of the line” in the British Army. This proud distinction is held by the Royal Horse Artillery, which probably numbers as many Scotsmen in its ranks as men of any other nationality. The Artillery, however, knows no nationalities in its nomenclature. One is first a gunner, and then either English, Scotch, Welsh, or Irish—the guns count before territorial distinctions. Next to the R.H.A., if ever the line of the whole Army were formed, would come the Brigade of Guards, and here the Scots Guards find a place, very near the right of the line, when the length of that line is considered.

It is possible, to a certain extent, to trace the history of each unit of the Army, as far as the present European war is concerned, by means of the letters sent home by the men of each unit. Such histories are necessarily brief and scrappy, but they afford some idea of what the various regiments are doing on the field; and the object of this book is, to some extent, to show how each Scottish regiment has contributed to the glory of Scotland and the fame of the British Army since August of 1914. Some reference to the earlier exploits of Scots on other fields may perhaps be pardoned, for there are some stories—like that already quoted regarding the Duke of Marlborough—that never grow old.

Of the Scots Guards, few records have as yet come to hand, beyond those that are common knowledge. The regiment has nearly three hundred years of history, having been raised as the “Scots Fusilier Guards” in 1641. Nineteen years later they became the “Scots Guards,” and in the closing years of the seventeenth century they fought in Flanders, subsequently serving with distinction under the Duke of Marlborough. From “Dettingen” through the Napoleonic and Crimean wars up to “Modder River” the battle honours on their colours range, for like the great majority of British regiments they had their share of South Africa in the last campaign there.

Personal records of their deeds in the early stages of this present war are scarce, but certain it is that there were Scots Guards at the battle of the Marne, although the official dispatches are chary of mentioning the names of regiments engaged in definite actions or at definite points. For, previously to the battle of the Marne, there was a Guardsman of Kilmarnock of whom a story is told. He was on duty with a comrade when two mounted men approached, and on challenging the riders the Scots found that one of them was a Uhlan—who made off with all speed. The Kilmarnock man advanced on the other rider, whom his comrade had covered with his rifle, but the horseman made a motion with his left hand toward his revolver. Thereupon the Kilmarnock man, being tall and powerfully built, struck out with his fist and knocked the man from his saddle, ascertaining subsequently that he was a German scout officer, and that he carried a diary which gave particulars of the movements of the brigade to which the Scots Guards were attached, from the time of its leaving Havre almost up to the time of the officer’s capture. There were in the diary frequent allusions to “those hellish British”—which comment speaks for itself.

Later, along the position of the Aisne, the first battalion of the Guards were busy. On a certain Sunday afternoon the Guards and the Black Watch were in the thick of the fighting, and that night they were ordered to the trenches—and the Germans had the position of the trenches ranged to a nicety, so that they were able to drop shells with wicked precision all night. Next morning the German infantry retreated for a matter of a mile, uphill, and there waited for the inevitable advance of the Guards and the Black Watch. The retreat was a trap, for on the advance the two British battalions were subject to shell as well as rifle fire, and out of one section of fourteen men only one was left. This one, a corporal, was badly cut about the face, and had one knee severely damaged, but with a field dressing tied round his leg he remained in the firing line all day, going over to the Black Watch, since he had drifted too far away from his own battalion to rejoin it at once. “I had to stick it in the field all day,” he says, “and the fighting was awful. The Germans had all their big guns firing at us, and we could not get our own guns up to fire back at them. I never expected to get out of it alive. Well, after lying half the night wet in the open, among the dead Germans and our own dead, I got strength enough to crawl back, and managed to find a hospital about twelve o’clock at night, nearly dead. I never got any sleep that night, but guess what the Germans did in the morning ! They blew the hospital up in the air. I happened to be near the door, so I got away all right; but I got another bit in the back that flattened me out for awhile. I missed all the ambulances through this. The next carts that came along were the ammunition ones. The driver helped me on to the back of one, but I had hardly enough strength to hang on. The Germans shelled all these carts for miles, and the horses of the one I was on got hit with a shell, and I had not the strength to climb on to another one. The drivers were hurrying away for their lives, so I had to scramble along for two miles on my own to a big barn, which they called a field hospital.’’

And there the record ends. It makes a scrap of history of the Guards, though when the regimental histories of this war come to be written it will be found that such stories as these are only scraps of the whole, for the battles of the Aisne and of the coast do not mark the end.

With regard to the Scots Greys, their work in the early days is well known now, for from Mons down through the three weeks of the great retreat they upheld the honour of Scotland so well that on the 8th of September Sir John French addressed the regiment in words that officers and men alike will remember. He came on them while they were resting, and these were his words, as given by a man of the regiment :

“I am very sorry to disturb you from your sleep, Greys, but I feel I must say a few words to you. I have been watching your work very closely, and it has been magnificent. Your country is proud of you, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart. It is not the first time I have had the^pleasure of thanking you, and I hope it will not be the last. There are no soldiers in the world that could have done what you have done/’

This, it must be pointed out, is as it is told by a soldier of the regiment ; it is worth while to make the contrast between it and a letter said to be from a man of the Greys to his wife, in which he says:

“I was in the retreat from Mons. We were told to go out and draw the enemy, and before going all our officers and generals said, ‘Good-bye,’ so you can bet we felt all right.

“A couple of chaps in my troop went through the South African war, but after the Mons fighting said the medals they got in Africa were not worth the keeping. They saw more shot and shell in one day here than they saw in three years in South Africa.

“The inhabitants go fairly mad when they see us, as they know they will be cared for by us.”

The writer of that letter may have heard a German shell in the air—and he may not. Queries rise in one’s mind as to whom the “officers and generals” said good-bye to, and also a query rises as to how many generals the Scots Greys have in their ranks—these points come up automatically. It is not the custom in the British Army, after the order for an advance has been given, to give time even for the “officers and generals” of a regiment to wander round with last messages; and, if ever the Greys played this game in the fighting in France, there can be little doubt that the inhabitants of the country went “fairly mad” over the regiment. The letter looks like a fraud, but it is typical of some that are finding their way into print nearly every day.

Circumstantial and bearing the impress of truth is the account of the doings of the regiment given by one Private Ward, who came home wounded from the Aisne. He tells, all too briefly, how from the second day after landing in France the regiment was continually in action. The work for the most part, however, was in the nature of a grand artillery duel, and the Greys were mainly employed in scouting, with an occasional charge “thrown in.” In the battle of the Aisne the Greys supported the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and

the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in the crossing of the river; and, after the infantry had all crossed, the Greys went in single file, with sixteen feet between man and man, over a pontoon bridge that was under shell fire from the German guns, placed on the heights in front. Many of the horses were killed, and Ward himself was struck in the leg with a piece of shell, causing so severe a flesh wound that he had to be taken to the field ambulance, and thence home. And thus the story of the Greys ends, so far as this record is concerned.

It is a regiment of great traditions, as British cavalry regiments go. Alone among the cavalry the Greys wear the bearskin in place of the metal helmet in parade dress, and they are nearly as old as the Scots Guards, having been raised as a regiment in 1678, and forming the oldest regiment of Dragoons in the service. Originally they were known as the “Royal Regiment of Scots Dragoons,” a title that was subsequently changed to “Grey Dragoons,” from which their present title of Scots Greys was evolved. Unto this day the sergeants of the regiment wear the badge above their chevrons that commemorates the taking of the French eagle of the famous Regiment du Roi; and at Waterloo they charged with the Gordons clinging to their stirrup leathers, while cavalrymen and Gordons alike yelled— “Scotland for ever!” To Napoleon they were known as “ces terribles chevaux gris,” and out of the charge of the Heavy Brigade in the Crimea they brought back two Victoria Crosses.

No record of the doings of Scottish regiments in this present war can be compiled without mention of the Scots Guards and the Greys, but their history properly belongs to that of the Guards Brigade and of the cavalry respectively —and in these two counts they must be reckoned for a full recital of their doings. The foregoing mere incidents will serve as compromise, lest it should be thought that the two regiments had been overlooked. As for the Royal Artillery, it knows no more of territorial distinctions, as already mentioned, than it does of battle honours—for every battle in which a British Army has fought might be inscribed on the colours of the gunners, if they had colours. It is probable that, when the relative populations of the four nationalities are taken into account, Scotsmen will be found to preponderate in the R.A., for the Scot is always a little mechanically inclined, and the working of the guns needs most mechanical knowledge of any of the three arms.

Of infantry of the line, there are ten definitely Scottish regiments, and an effort will be made to trace their histories in the great European campaign— or rather, in the first days of that campaign, as far as personal narratives will admit. Blanks and gaps there must be, but the stories that officers and men have to tell will, when collated and set down in some sort of order, enable us to conceive of the nature of the work in which Scots are well maintaining the honour of their regiments.


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