THE Braveheart spirit embodied by John Smeaton, the former baggage handler who tackled suicide bombers at Glasgow airport, has been blamed for some of Scotland's biggest military disasters.
A new book suggests that historical battlefields have been littered with the corpses of thousands of Scots who died needlessly because they refused to walk away from a fight they had little chance of winning.
It claims that had common sense prevailed, famous battles such as Culloden, where the heavily outnumbered Jacobites were defeated by King George II's army in 1746, would not have happened.
Paul Cowan, the author of Scottish Military Disasters, said history was filled with accounts of Scots troops suffering casualties because they refused to back down against seemingly insurmountable odds.
He claims the heroic but sometimes reckless spirit has endured and that modern Scots will rarely back away from a fight.
Last year, Smeaton was among a number of Scots who received bravery awards after tackling two men who tried to bomb Glasgow airport. One member of the public suffered a broken leg and lost two teeth after being knocked to the ground by one of the terrorists, and another tore a tendon in his foot.
“The problem is that the Scots just don't know when to call it quits,” said Cowan, who was born and raised in Scotland, but now lives in Saskatchewan, Canada.
“My own experience growing up in central Scotland suggests that the ‘fight or flight' switch in the brains of most young Scots males is more likely to flip to ‘fight'. I guess that's down to living in a macho culture where any signs of weakness or cowardice are despised.
“After the attack on Glasgow airport, I think people around the world were surprised that some onlookers stood their ground.”
In his book, which is to be published this week, Cowan cites the bravery of the Sutherland Highlanders at the battle of New Orleans in 1815. While soldiers from other nations turned and ran in the face of the American army, the Scots regiment stood firm and was mown down by cannons and muskets.
In 1940, members of the 51st Highland Division refused to believe they had been ordered to surrender to the Germans under General Erwin Rommel at the French town of St Valéry-en-Caux. They wanted to fight on.
Historians believe the charge of the Jacobites on Drumossie Moor in Inverness in 1746 cemented the Scots' reputation as formidable opponents on the battlefield. It meant Scottish regiments were often placed on the front line to intimidate the enemy.
“From the 18th century onwards, the Scottish regiments were the military cutting edge of the British empire and were always used in a spearhead role, and that meant huge casualties,” said Professor Tom Devine, the historian and director of the Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies at Aberdeen University. “This is where, in a sense, Scotland is hoisted by its own petard, because by 1914 the Scottish soldier had an international reputation for valour and was used as shock troops in those horrendous battles on the western front.”
Mark Macaskill, The Times, May 10, 2008
» MORE at www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/scotland/article3908800.ece
We are renowned for being a nation talented in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Cheap as this statement is, it is no truer than when applied to Scotland's military history. Here former war correspondent Paul Cowan has compiled a blitzkrieg history of famous defeats, revealing an inauspicious part of our past. It spans a 2000-year period, beginning with Agricola's campaign in Caledonia at the battle of Mons Graupius in 83AD where, according to Tacitus, the Celtic leader Calgacus uttered the chillingly contemporary riposte to Rome's so-called civilizing: "They give the lying name of empire; they make a desolation and call it peace." Well-known accounts of events like Edward Hammer of the Scots' defeat of Wallace at Falkirk in 1298 dominate but perhaps the most interesting touches are vignettes such as the 211 young troops who died in a train crash at Gretna en route to Gallipoli in 1915. Perhaps too cursory for the scholar this pacy, lucidly written history is extremely readable and highly informative.
MARTIN TIERNEY, Sunday Herald, 17th August 2008
Wha Killed The Braw Lads?
When Scottish soldiers ended up on the losing side.
"THERE is something unnerving about a screaming man charging head on at you with the sale intent of impaling you on a piece of sharpened steel." I'm in total agreement with that observation.
The steel in question is a bayonet, firmly clamped to the business end of a rifle barrel, but the key word is unnerving as countless troops in numerous battles have discovered for themselves. For the opposition it was time to turn and run and they always did, despite the fact that very few battlefield injuries were actually caused by bayonets. The sharpened length of steel was (and still is) a psychological weapon rather than a physical one.
This observation comes from journalist Paul Cowan in his paperback about Scottish regiments at war. But this is no elongated paean to the glory of our victorious lads surmounting the odds in various parts of the Empire and Europe. This work is very different, for its title is Scottish Military Disasters.
There were plenty of those - nearly 2000 years' worth, from Calgacus and his hordes losing out to the Roman legions at Mons Graupius right through to the first Gulf War in 1991 and the needless deaths of three Highlanders at the hands of gung-ho US reservist pilots.
The author doesn't mince his words when it comes to leadership, though the officers at regimental level come out fairly well. He reserves his true vitriol for the high-ups. I don't recall his use of the word "numptie", but you will know what I mean. High on the latter list must surely be Lt. General Aylmer Hunter-Weston, a Scotsman whom Cowan describes as the Clown Prince of the Gallipoli campaign. His incompetence cost the lives of hundreds of young Scots in the 8th Scottish Rifles, part of the 52nd Lowland Division's 156th Infantry Brigade.
Told of the slaughter, his unfeeling response was: "That will blood the pups." One of the pups was the author's great-grandfather.
History, of course, is full of "what ifs"? While not a military disaster in the accepted sense, the death of King Alexander III in 1286 when he rode over a cliff during a storm dramatically altered Scotland's history. Had he lived we might never have heard of Wallace or Bruce and Paul Cowan is right to include this.
He includes so much more that changes our view of great historical events. Remember that famous painting of the Gordon Highlanders hanging on to the Scots Greys' stirrups as they charged the French at Waterloo? Dramatic stuff, but who recalls that later in that same charge the overenthusiastic Greys were cut to pieces by French Cuirassiers, losing 100 dead and another 100 wounded out of their total strength of 350 troopers?
One of Scotland's greatest military disasters was Flodden in 1513. But what went wrong, especially as the Scots outnumbered the English army two to one? How did the Cameronians come by their name? And why is the White House painted white?
Lots of questions. Paul Cowan answers all of them and many more. A fascinating and highly recommended read.
Ian Smith, The Scots Magazine, September 2008.