Those Bloody Kilts

By Thomas Greenshields

In this blog I look at my recently published book, Those Bloody Kilts, and look ahead to my forthcoming book on The British Infantry NCO in the Great War.

Those Bloody Kilts examines the experience of the Highland soldier during the Great War of 1914-1918. The experience of the Highland soldier had been somewhat romanticized and glamourized in popular accounts, the conventional picture being the semi-mythologised bayonet-toting hero from a martial race. In this book I have endeavoured to move away from the myth and explore the reality of his experience, working entirely from the evidence provided by the soldiers themselves.

To see ourselves as others see us. A Highland soldier personifies Britain in this unflattering Italian postcard, produced no doubt before Italy joined the war on the side of France, Britain and Russia. (author’s collection)

The book is the culmination of research over a period of about ten years. The principal sources were the letters and eye-witness accounts of the Highland soldiers themselves, drawn from the Imperial War Museum, the Liddle Collection and the Regimental Museums, notably the Black Watch, at Perth, the Gordons at Aberdeen, the Argylls at Stirling, and the Highlanders Museum at Fort George, embracing the Seaforths and Camerons. The first two collections have been well exploited although not for this purpose, and there is of course new material constantly being received by the IWM. The revelation was the amount of material available in the regimental museums, extremely rich, but much less exploited.  

Bronze low-relief at the South African memorial, Delville Wood, shows a soldier of the South African Scottish leaving the wood. (photograph author)

The casual reader will find many first-hand examples of the life of the Highland soldier; the practicality of the kilt, the use of the pipes, comradeship, support from home, and behaviour in battle, with many fascinating or touching extracts from soldiers’ letters and diaries. I hope that he will be touched, amused, inspired, saddened, and occasionally shocked by the experiences described. The serious researcher will find a challenging analysis of the Highland soldier’s experience, the extent to which he was different, the dynamics of interactions within a battalion, the significance of identity, and the way morale actually worked.

All, I think, may be surprised at the normalcy of the Highland soldier, and the variations and contradictions in his behaviour. Thus, the pipes came increasingly to be used, not to pipe troops into battle, but to build morale behind the lines; alongside some informality, there co-existed the iron rod of discipline; alongside compassion and understanding between officers and men, there were some abject failures; amongst touching examples of comradeship are found disturbing examples of selfishness; amongst moving examples of compassion towards the enemy are found disturbing examples of brutality; and among inspiring examples of courage are found disturbing accounts of shattered nerves. It is therefore a ‘warts and all’ picture I present. But while I have been happy to debunk myths, I have, I believe, maintained respect for both the soldiers and regiments concerned. 

The romance of war: dead Highland soldier. (photograph, author’s collection)

This is my first book, and I am honoured to have been named Second Runner Up in the Best First Book category for 2019, by the Society for Army Historical Research. I am grateful that this has given me a platform for my second book, also to be published by Helion, on The British Infantry NCO in the Great War, with publication around 2025. Although much has been written about the life of the officers during the Great War, much less has been written about the N.C.O.’s. The book will examine the social background of the N.C.O.’s, and their roles and effectiveness in battle, in training and behind the lines. It will consider the role of the N.C.O.’s in maintaining discipline, maintaining morale and providing support both upwards and downwards. It will consider the relationship between N.C.O.’s and their officers and men, and between themselves at the same and different levels. As for Those Bloody Kilts, the research will be based on the recorded experiences of the soldiers themselves. The potential source material is vast, and this will be a labour of love.

As regards myself, I am a retired Civil Servant, living in Chessington, Surrey. I have a degree in geography from the University of Oxford and a PhD in the same from Durham, on the settlement of Armenian refugees in Syria and Lebanon after the First World War, and in the distant past had a couple of chapters published in geography texts based on this research. After completing my doctorate, I spent the bulk of my career involved in mapping and geographic support to the Armed Forces within the Military Survey organisation, while in my last eight years, I worked in MOD HQ. In addition, from 1980 I spent eight years in the Territorial Army (Royal Engineers), and retired as a captain in 1988. I took early retirement from MOD at the end of March 2008, in order, inter alia, to pursue my research interests.

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