Published: 09/01/2014 14:50 - Updated: 09/01/2014 15:16

"Second to none" 51st Division remembered in new book

Argylls wrapped up goatskin for winter on the Western Front.
Argylls wrapped up goatskin for winter on the Western Front.

THIS year marks 100 years since the outbreak of World War I, a conflict which had a disproportionate impact on the people of Scotland, despite being so far away from its battlefields.

Over a quarter of Scottish combatants were killed, well over double the figure for the rest of UK and Ireland. Only Serbia and Turkey had a higher participant death rate.

Bearing the brunt of much of this was the 51st Highland Division, which included some of Scotland’s most famous regiments, including the Black Watch, the Seaforths, Camerons and Gordons.

In his new book,Engine of Destruction: The 51st (Highland) Division in the Great War, former history teacher, headteacher and SNP MSP Colin Campbell looks at the experiences and legacy of the Highland Division in "the War to End All Wars" with the aid of official histories and first-hand accounts and letters, many of which have never been published before.

There is a claim that the Germans of World War I feared the 51st Highland Division more than any other Imperial unit. Other historians have countered that the Highlanders were no more than any other British unit, just more distinctive because of their kilts and bagpipes. What is your own assessment of the Division’s reputation — is it merited?

The Highland Division claimed that in the autumn of 1917, after it had fought in the Third Battle of Ypres, the Germans had a list of "Furchtbarkeit (Most to be feared)" Imperial divisions. The order was 51st (Highland), Guards and 29th Division. This document has never been seen.

Many reputable authors referred to this list in post-war histories, but historians are sceptical that it ever existed. However, most military historians rate the 51st as an élite division, amongst other élite divisions, chosen to undertake difficult tasks. It was a well trained division, well led by Major-General George Montague Harper.

In 1918 a German assessment of Imperial and Dominion divisions capabilities as assault divisions put the 51st in the highest category as an "exceptionally good assault division", along with 14 others, including the Guards and 29th Divisions — no historian’s bias in that assessment!

There is something faintly unreal about trying to assess men’s performance in a context that I have never experienced, so I have relied on the opinions of people who knew the division, and agree with them, that the 51st was one of the best.

What new sources have you used in writing the book?

I have accessed diaries and personal accounts from Field Marshal Haig to private soldiers. Some have been published before, several of the personal accounts have never been published. Battalion, brigade and divisional war diaries, completed on a day to day basis have been trawled and produced some hitherto unpublished comments about the conduct of battles. As far as I know, the German order of assault divisions (see above) has not been published before.

What do you think were the most significant events in the history of the 51st Highland in World War I and why?

The 51st’s vain attacks at High Wood in the Battle of the Somme on 23rd and 30th July 1916 proved to be a painful learning experience. The division was thrown into the battle with little time to prepare and create its own plan of action, and suffered badly.

The capture of Beaumont-Hamel in disgusting foggy, wet and muddy conditions on 13th November, was the culmination of the Battle of the Somme and won the 51st (Highland) Division its reputation as an assault division. Harper had been told that no one could take it — he claimed that the division succeeded because they planned their battle themselves.

In 1917 the attritional battle at Roeux proved the division’s ability to stop German counter-attacks in their tracks. At Third Ypres it took most of its objectives, stopped counter-attacks, and was described by one general as one of the three best divisions that he had met in France.

Despite being twice almost completely obliterated in the German offensive of March and April 1918, it reformed and adapted to the open warfare of the last 100 Days, and was described by a well known Canadian as "second to none".

The approaching centenary of World War I has already generated some debate about how it should be marked. Do you have any thoughts on how it should be commemorated in Scotland?

The commemoration is an opportunity to educate people, understand the different standards that prevailed in 1914-1918, to dispel myths, to draw lessons on the need for conflict resolution, to understand the consequences of the revengeful peace of 1919, to place responsibility for needless deaths, to stress the importance of politics, as war is the outcome of bad politics.

Scotland’s two major battles should be highlighted. Loos, where 50 per cent of the attacking battalions were Scottish, and Arras 9.5.17, when 34 per cent were Scottish.

Scotland’s greater sacrifice should be stressed.

26.4 per cent of the Scots who marched away did not come home: the percentage for the rest of the UK and Ireland was 11.8 per cent and for France 16.8 per cent.

All Scotland’s First World War commemorations should stress the fact that 1.6 per cent of the adult male population of the rest of the UK and Ireland died in the war. Scotland’s adult male population was depleted by 3.1 per cent.

Engine of Destruction: The 51st (Highland) Division in the Great War by Colin Campbell, is published by Argyll Publishing priced £25 (hardback).

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