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Footsoldiers of Empire: The Highland Regiments

Black Watch Sergeant
Black Watch Sergeant
© Scran
Throughout every imperial conflict – from the Battle of New Orleans to the suppression of the Indian Mutiny – the Highlanders were thrown in to the brunt of the fighting without thought given to casualties.

The First World War was to see the Highland regiments formed together in their own division – the 51st. It was also to see the impact of large-scale enlistment and conscription, as huge numbers of Scotsmen served – many in battalions replacing those which had been wiped out. The Highlanders served in all the major battles on the Western Front – from Ypres to the Somme and often experienced higher rates of casualties than other regular units. For example some 50,000 Gordons served during the war, and of these, approximately 27,000 were killed or wounded. In total 147,609 Scots were killed during the war, a fifth of Britain's war dead, at a time when Scotland only contained 10% of the population.

Thanks to its heroic displays during the Great War the army regarded the 51st Highland Division as the best fighting division in the entire army – and in 1940 the 51st was to pay heavily for this. The Battle of France was a disaster for the Allies, with the British and French commanders routinely outthought by their German counterparts and retreat to the channel was confused. Salvation came at Dunkirk for the vast majority of British forces, but evacuation was a forlorn hope for the 51st. In a vain attempt to persuade the French to carry on the war, Churchill placed the 51st under French Command – and while the rest of the British Expeditionary Force was being evacuated from Dunkirk, the Highland Division was involved in a ferocious battle against Rommel’s panzers as they made a fighting retreat to the town of St Valery en Caux in Normandy. Although some units managed to make their way to Le Havre where a few were evacuated, most of the division was surrounded as the French Army completely collapsed around them. Soldiers remember attacking German positions without armoured support as French tanks simply didn’t turn up, while one battalion of Seaforths fought on alone after the surrender unaided, with only regimental pride keeping them going. Over 10,000 Highlanders were taken prisoner, and many were to remain bitter over their abandonment as the “miracle of Dunkirk” was celebrated.

In the post-war environment, with a greater emphasis on technology rather than manpower, the Highland Division was scaled down and separate regiments amalgamated despite the Highland regiments fighting hard battles in Korea and seeing active service in areas as far apart as Malaya and Northern Ireland. Today only six Scottish infantry regiments now remain, only half of whom are Highland, and with the threat of more cuts in defence expenditure looming, the Highlanders regiment is one of the favourites to be culled. It is ironic that after 250 years at the forefront of every major British campaign, the next mistaken order given to the Highlanders may well be for their disbandment.




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