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With the Scottish Regiments at the Front
Chapter X - The Highland Light |Infantry and the Cameronians


The Highland Light Infantry, a title shortened in the Army to a colloquial “H.L.I.,” were originally known as “Macleod’s Highlanders,” and were raised as the 73rd Foot in 1777, being embodied at Elgin in April of 1778. Lord Macleod, after whom the regiment was named, was its first commanding officer, and under his command the original members of the 73rd went to Madras in 1780, their voyage lasting no less than twelve months. The valour of the regiment in those early days of its history may be judged from the fact that between the time landing in India and 1806, a matter of only twenty-six years, there were emblazoned on the regimental colours no less than six names—those of Carnatic, Sholingur, Mysore, Hindustan, Seringapatam, and Cape of Good Hope. To these might well be added that of Perambaukum, for in that first action in which the H.L.I. took part the flank companies were cut to pieces in a truly heroic stand against irresistible odds. After the formation of new flank companies came the principal battles of the Carnatic, and in the attack on Cuddalore the H.L.I. lost half their strength of officers and men, and won the grateful thanks of their commander-in-chief.

In 1786 the regiment became the “71st,” and their next spell of active service was in the Mysore campaign, where they took part in all the principal engagements, including the storming of Bangalore and Seringapatam. They went from India to the Cape, and thence formed part of General Whitelock’s expedition to Buenos Ayres, in which, through no fault of the Highlanders, who captured the city, Britain definitely lost a footing in South America, the result of the expedition led to Whitelocke being court-martialled and dismissed from the service. For their gallantry in the capture of Buenos Ayres the H.L.I. were specially commended by Lieutenant-General Floyd on the occasion of the presentation of new colours to the regiment.

Their next exploits were in the first Peninsular campaign, through which they came to Corunna. They were at Torres Vedras, at the fierce encounter of Fuentes d’Onor, and they took a prominent part in the battle of Vittoria, where they routed the enemy and lost their commanding officer, who fell dying while leading his men in the attack. Like Wolfe, the commanding officer of the H.L.I. had a last thought for the defeat of the enemy, and died happy in the knowledge that the battle was practically won. Near on four hundred of his men fell with him on this field.

No less than sixteen special medals were presented to men of the Highland Light Infantry in the Peninsular campaigns for special personal bravery, and then at Waterloo they shared in the last attack on Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, with which the day ended. Earlier in the day the Highland Light Infantry formed the square in which the Duke of Wellington had his place at the time the French cavalry charged.

The regiment took part in the Crimean campaign, serving in the trenches before Sevastopol, and in the expedition to Yenikale. In the Central Indian Campaign of 1858 the H.L.I. were heavily engaged, and at the Morar Cantonments engagement the first Victoria Cross of the regiment was won.

The history of the 2nd battalion of the regiment—the old 74th, is very similar to that of the 1st battalion, including as it does the storming of Seringapatam, the principal engagements of the Peninsular campaign, and here the history diverges, the sinking of the Birkenhead off the Cape. The two battalions were first definitely named “Highland Light Infantry” in place of their old-time numbers in 1881, when the Territorial system came into being as regards the Regular Army.

The 2nd battalion of the regiment took part in the Egyptian campaign of 1882, and won a Victoria Cross at Tel-el-Kebir. In the Malakand Campaign of 1897 and again in Crete in 1898, the regiment saw active service, and in the South African War the 1st battalion went through the action of Modder River and on to Magersfontein, where another Victoria Cross was won by Corporal Shaul of the regiment. Together with the rest of the Highland Brigade, the H.L.I. were “in” at the capture of Cronje at Paardeberg, and at the capture of Prinsloo they played an important part. No less than eighty-one officers and men were left behind by the regiment at the close of the South African campaign.

Four Victoria Crosses are reckoned to the credit of the regiment, but to these must be added the sixteen special medals for gallantry won by the H.L.I. in the Peninsular War, before ever such a thing as a Victoria Cross was instituted. Of medals for distinguished conduct, there are many in the H.L.I.

Personal accounts of the fighting in which the regiment has been engaged in France are few, up to the present time. A definite account has been received of the death of Lieutenant Sir Archibald Gibson Craig. It is stated that the lieutenant had told his servant some time previously that, in case of his death on the field, the servant was to take charge of all his personal belongings; and at a place not named, or a place of which the name has been excised, he was in charge of a party of sixteen men, who were proceeding to a rather steep hill, when they came in contact with a large number of the enemy, estimated by the Highlanders at between 300 and 400. The men had not been aware that they were so near the Germans, but when the lieutenant saw the position in which they were placed he drew his sword and shouted, “Charge, men! At them!” His men fired at the German force, and then charged with fixed bayonets, at which the enemy thought the British party was far stronger than it was in reality, for they began to retreat. The Highlanders, however, had to retire, since two of their number were killed and three wounded, which left a dangerously small force of effectives. They retired in good order, carrying their dead and wounded, but Sir Archibald Craig was shot through the mouth, and killed instantaneously.

This is the most circumstantial account that has come to hand regarding the work of the regiment, so far. Another story of a wounded man states that during the fighting on the Aisne, in the village of Vera Neuil, he received two pieces of shrapnel in the chest. "We were not safe anywhere, not even in the hospital, as the Germans shelled that too. I was wounded on Tuesday, September 15, when I was eating a biscuit at the time I was shot.”

An officer of the H.L.I. gives an account of the way in which the Germans are conducting their fighting.

“An officer dressed as a French officer went up to some Coldstream Guards and asked if Bulkley, the machine-gun officer, was in that battalion. He then shot the officer he was talking to. Others dress up as British staff officers, and drive about in motor cars, and when they meet transports of convoys shout at them—‘The Germans are advancing on you from just ahead,’ which causes a stampede. That happened to us, for a long column of transport was ahead of us as we were retiring, and all of a sudden a supposed French officer came galloping down the road the reverse way, shouting ‘Les Allemands, les Uhlans!’ All the transport was thrown into confusion, and some of the waggons came back at a gallop. We were just behind, but mercifully the road was broad. There was a little confusion at first, but they rallied splendidly when I shouted to them, and we all advanced up the road with fixed bayonets, to find absolutely nothing.

“The Germans actually dress themselves up in our men’s great-coats to disguise themselves, get close, and then shoot.”

These accounts demonstrate the presence of the Highland Light Infantry on the great retreat, and also at the battle of the Aisne. From the latter position they may have gone on to Flanders, the more likely alternative—or they may have remained as part of the thin defensive line left along the Aisne positions.

The present “Cameronians” were formed from the old-time “26th Cameronians,” from whom the regiment takes its title, and from the “90th Perthshire Light Infantry,” the first of which regiments fought for religious liberty against the King’s troops at Bothwell Bridge in old days. Until the revolution which placed William of Orange on the throne they stuck to their principles, and then in one day there was enrolled from among them a regiment to support the cause of “Dutch William,” a regiment which, under the Earl of Angus, held Dunkeld against a force four times their own strength. They fought at Landen, and lost their colonel, the Earl of Angus, at Steinkerk; they shared in the capture of Namur, and then in Marlborough's battles they so fought as to be able to emblazon the names of Blenheim, Ramillies, Oudenarde, and Malplaquet on the regimental colours. They shared in the defence of Gibraltar in 1727, fought and endured through the American War of Independence, and served under Sir John Moore at Corunna. Meanwhile the 2nd battalion, formed by Thomas Graham (subsequently Lord Lynedoch), served under Sir Ralph Abercrombie in driving out Napoleon’s “Invincible Army” from Egypt, and captured a French eagle at Guadeloupe.

In the Chinese campaign of 1840 the Cameronians 1st battalion took a share, being first to scale the walls of Amoy. The 2nd battalion saw service against the Kaffirs of South Africa in 1846 and the following year, and went on to the Crimean campaign, having among its officers a certain Lieutenant Wolseley, who was destined for great things.

In the Mutiny the 2nd battalion formed a part of Havelock’s force at Lucknow, and subsequently assisted in stamping out the last traces of the great rebellion. The 1st battalion took the field in Abyssinia in 1868, and went on with Napier to Magdala. Another famous British officer shared in the exploits of the 1st battalion in the person of Sir Evelyn Wood, during the strenuous work of the Zulu campaign of 1878, when the battalion fought from Inhlobane to Ulundi, where Cetewayo was overthrown.

The Cameronians shared in Buller’s advance through Natal in the South African War of 1899-1902, forming part of General Lyttleton’s brigade at Colenso, reinforcing the Lancashire Brigade in the action of Spion Kop, sweeping the Boers off Vaalkrantz, and sharing in the furious charges at Pieter’s Hillm until the way to Ladysmith lay open. Through the fighting for Laing’s Nek, and in the guerilla warfare that lasted out the rest of the campaign, the Cameronians played their part nobly. No less than three South African campaigns are commemorated on the colours of the regiment.

Of their work in France, less personal accounts are to hand than concerning the work of any other Scottish regiment. There is one statement by a wounded man with regard to a German ruse of driving on sheep in night attacks on the trenches. The sheep were heard moving in the darkness in front of the trenches, and while the Cameronians opened fire on them the Germans tried to get round their flank, but two Maxim guns drove them back with a loss of over 200 dead. The incident is related with no reference to place or date.

A non-commissioned officer of the regiment speaks of the secrecy of movement that has to be maintained. None are made aware of probable movements, destinations, or reasons for any plans, and commanding officers are not informed of what is about to be done until it is absolutely imperative that they should know. The reason for this lies in the great number of German spies who are arrested in all kinds of disguises, British and French uniforms, civilian clothes, chauffeurs uniforms, and all possible forms of dress. “The leakage of information is astounding,” says the writer, "and we quite appreciate the necessity for secrecy in all our doings, and fully understand its wisdom, as we have been saved from complete destruction more than once through this secrecy.”

Even of things that took place months ago, however, there is no record yet. Of how the Gordons were cut off, and of what the Cameronians have done and where they did it, we know little or nothing—concerning all things that individual units have accomplished there is scarcely more record than the stories collected here, which make no pretence at giving a full history of the doings of the Scottish regiments at the front, but simply stand as detached records of the deeds of brave men.

And as for the London Scottish and their bravery, that story belongs to the record of Territorial regiments at the front, in which it will in due course be told.


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