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With the Scottish Regiments at the Front
Chapter IX - The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders

The threat against Britain by the French Republic in 1794 led to the raising of the 1st battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the battalion having been formed in that year by the then Duke of Argyll, under the title of the 91st Regiment of Foot. The present 2nd battalion was raised by the Earl of Sutherland six years later, and numbered the “93rd Foot.” These two battalions were united under their present title in 1881.

Active service was first seen by the 2nd battalion at the Cape, where its men played a prominent part in the defeat of the Dutch army of 5,000 men engaged in the defence of Capetown. The turn of the 1st battalion came during the Peninsular campaign, when the Argylls formed the rearguard at Corunna and were seven times engaged with the enemy. Later, they joined Wellington in Spain, and were conspicuously engaged at the Nivelle, at the crossing of the Nive, and on to the siege of Toulouse. The 2nd battalion formed part of the force that courted disaster at New Orleans in 1814, and no less than 520 officers and men fell in that fatal attack, futile as fatal.

Missing Waterloo, the regiment next won distinction in the Kaffir wars at the Cape, where it underwent five years of active service. There were “91st” men on the Birkenhead in 1852, and though the name of the ill-fated vessel is not borne on the colours of any regiment it might well be inscribed on those of the Argylls. Their next active service was in the Crimean campaign, where the 2nd battalion formed part of Sir Colin Campbell’s Highland Brigade, and took the heights beyond the Alma under as destructive fire as a British regiment has ever faced. At Balaclava the Highlanders were in deadly peril, but their coolness saved them for work in the trenches before Sevastopol, and for a share in the final assault.

Still under Sir Colin Campbell, their chief in the Crimea, the Highlanders took part in the suppression of the Mutiny, and marched to the relief of Lucknow, avenging the tragedy of Cawnpur at the action of Secundra Bagh, where with the loyal Sikhs they piled up a heap of 2,000 dead sepoys. On the same day the regiment took a hand in the capture of the Shah Nujjif, a strong building that was taken by desperate hand-to-hand fighting. From the top of the building the regimental colour of the Highlanders, waving, announced to the sorely pressed Lucknow garrison that relief was approaching—and the rest of the story of the relief is an oft-told one.

Zululand and frontier work in India next claimed the attention of the regiment, and then in 1899 the 1st battalion sailed for South Africa, to join Lord Methuen’s force and take part in the battle of the Modder River, at which the Argyll and Sutherland men lost heavily. Joining General Wauchope’s Highland Brigade, the battalion marched on to Magersfontein, where the commanding officer was among the killed. With the rest of the brigade the Argylls moved on to Paardeberg and the capture of Cronje and his force; and from that time onward to the end of the war the record of the battalion is one continuous story of marching, fighting, and the general work of the campaign, up to the time of the signing of peace at Vereeniging. The total of marching accomplished by the battalion during the course of the war was not less than 3,500 miles. Seven Victoria Crosses had been won by members of the regiment up to 1902.

The deeds of the regiment are rather scantily told by its men in France. The personal accounts begin with an appreciation of the bravery of the Hon. R. Bruce, Master of Burleigh, in the retreat from Mons. “He was too brave for anything,” says a private who saw him at that time. “He simply wanted to be at ’em, and at ’em he went. I don’t know where his sword was, but he hadn’t it when I saw him, he had a rifle with the bayonet fixed, just like the rest of us. I saw him at the time he was wounded, and he just fought on gamely till he and his party of brave fellows were cut off and surrounded.”

The next account concerns the battle of Soissons, on the Aisne—a place variously pronounced by the troops, many of whom gave it the name of “Scissors,” as being a near thing to the real method of pronunciation. “For about a week,” says the narrator, “it rained night and day. You may imagine us marching all day, from daylight in the morning till dark at night, and then having to lie down in a field on the wet ground, nothing to cover ourselves with and nothing underneath us, and living on biscuits and corned beef. I feel sorry for the poor French people, and you may be thankful you are living in England. We passed through village after village on the march, and there was not a living soul in the houses; doors and windows were smashed open, and everything was broken in the way of furniture and fittings. We passed one house where the two women who lived in it had just returned after the Germans had passed. As we went by they gave us a drink of water, it was the only thing the Germans had left them.” Another man of the regiment, speaking of the earlier engagements, remarks “You would think you were in hell.” He tells of the adventures of Lieutenant Campbell of the Argyll and Sutherlands, who went out with eleven men to reconnoitre in the early days of the campaign. As none of the dozen returned, and careful searches failed to reveal any traces of the party, they were given up as captured. To the surprise of their comrades, however, they all turned up safe and sound some eleven days later. It seemed that the party had unwittingly penetrated through the German lines, and, managing to escape notice, had eventually found their way out again. This story is supplemented by one which tells of a trick played by the French during the German retreat from Paris. The Argylls were located about thirty miles away from Paris, and in rear of them a large body of the enemy were encamped in a wood. During the night, according to this account, the French crept up to the wood without being observed by the German sentries, and placed bundles of straw among the trees, setting fire to the straw before they retired. The timber in the wood was very dry, and the trees caught fire, causing a fierce blaze in the course of a few minutes. The enemy were thrown into confusion, which was completed by the artillery fire searching the wood and making rout of the German retreat.

There is one letter concerning the doings of the Argyll and Sutherland men which is worthy of quotation, and calls for some question. The writer says: “We have distinguished ourselves a good many times since we commenced operations here, and we have lost heavily, an occurrence much to our sorrow. It is not my place to speak of the honour that has been conferred upon us as a Scottish regiment for our bravery, and at one time we saved the British Army from defeat. We are fortunate to have any one left to relate the experience. The kindly eye of Providence has overlooked me, and I am thankful. I don’t know yet how I escaped. Once I was lying in a line of sixteen men, eight of whom were killed or severely wounded by the shell fire of the enemy.”

This letter comes undated, with the place of origin suppressed. It is curious, if the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, either or both battalions, “saved the British Army from defeat,” that there should be only this one account of the affair, which must have been tremendous. British soldiers, as a rule, are very quick to acknowledge the bravery of their comrades, and it is strange that no man of any other regiment has yet recognised that the whole of the British Army has been saved from defeat by this one regiment or possibly by one battalion of this regiment. On the whole, one is tempted to regard the letter as a hoax, though its solemn tone would go far to dispel that idea.

One other letter there is, worthy in a different sense of full quotation, for it tells of individual bravery and resourcefulness on the part of a member of the regiment. “We had worked our way up to within eighty yards of the German trenches,” says the writer, “and then got the order to charge, which we did with effect. One fellow belonging to the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders made a lunge with his bayonet at an opponent, and his intended victim promptly warded off the blow, but, much to the German’s astonishment, the canny Scot brought the butt end of the rifle to the jaw like a flash, and, felling him like a bullock, finished the job with the bayonet. It was the work of a moment, done without hesitation, and is typical of the bravery and resource of the Highlanders generally.”

These few records of the men of the regiment go to prove that the Argyll and Sutherland men went down from Mons to the Aisne, fought at Soissons, and that is all. Of their presence in Flanders there is no evidence so far, and at the time of writing they may still be living the life of cave-dwellers down where the old German front is still maintained against the thinned Franco-British line, or they may be round Arras, in those fierce struggles whence the wounded come back by the hundred and many men come back no more. Not till the “fog of war” has cleared utterly away will all their story be told, but we may rest assured that the story will not be one of which the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders need be ashamed.

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