Great War & Scotland

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The Great War Experience for Scotland

It was the war to end all wars - and it very nearly put an end to the entire flower of Scotland's manhood too.

The Great War was one of the most awesome, bitter and ultimately destructive conflicts in Scottish history. It wiped out a generation of young men and meant the nation had to practically rebuild itself from the ground up.

Of course, Scots had been dying in wars for centuries, generally against England. This conflict, though, was different. The country's brightest and ablest youngsters were not dying fighting the English, but alongside them.

A total of 147,609 Scots lost their lives in the four-year-long conflict between 1914 and 1918. While Scotland had just a tenth of the UK's population, its soldiers accounted for a fifth of Britain's war dead. Or, to put it another way, twice as many Scots died per head of population than was the case south of the border.

Most men who went off to fight did so willingly and with their spirits high. When war against Germany was declared, the Scottish recruiting offices were so over-run with volunteers that they told would-be soldiers to wait a month and then come back and try again.

Their enthusiasm was not surprising. Most Scots saw themselves as British and were caught up in the jingoistic patriotic fervour of the time. Germany was a menace and a danger to Europe, so the logic went, and so had to be beaten.

Working men in particular responded to the call to leave friends and family behind and head off to the front. Within just a year of the launch of the fighting, one in every four Scottish coalminers had enlisted, with more wanting to join up. The government eventually had to ban pitmen from active service to ensure that the mines were kept fully manned.

In Glasgow, the rush to join the fighting was greater than any in other city in Britain. Altogether, a total of 26 battalions were raised. At the start of the war, more than 1000 men signed up for one battalion alone in just 24 hours.

To start with, most Scots who joined up found the going easy. They were often billeted in comfortable accommodation, and sometimes trained with nothing more than broom handles. It was an easy, Dad's Army style introduction to the military lifestyle.

It did not last long. Once they arrived in France, Scots found themselves having to ensure the horrors and privations of trench warfare, the constant threat of disease and - worst of all - the risk of death in near-suicide attacks ordered by the Generals.

The slaughter took place on an almost biblical scale. Scots soldiers, for instance, fought at the battle of Loos - the first significant British land action of the war - in October 1915.

The battle was a disaster. The British attempted to use poison gas on the enemy but the plan backfired: the wind was in the wrong direction and it blew back on their own men.

Scots regiments were in the thick of the action at Loos. They were ordered over the top and marched towards the enemy lines, making themselves sitting ducks for German machine gunners. It was a turkey shoot. By the time the battle was over, the British had lost 50,000 men against the enemy's 20,000 and had failed to make any strategic gains whatsoever.

The generals, however, did not learn their lesson. Trench warfare continued for the whole of the conflict, with attempts by troops on both sides to break out of their positions and press forwards leading to huge casualties.

Scots troops featured prominently in another of the most notorious engagements of the Great War - the notorious Battle of the Somme in June 1916. The Edinburgh-born General Douglas Haig, who was Commander in Chief of the British Forces and a national hero, was convinced that a powerful attack could determine the outcome of the war.

Haig was to be proved tragically wrong. Soldiers of the Highland Light Infantry were among those to be butchered en masse in the carnage that followed. Once again, they were told to make their way out of the trenches and across No Man's Land to try and take over the German positions.

To the skirl of the bagpipes, the men went over the top. Once again, however, the Germans had ensured their own lines were heavily defended. The heavy machine guns opened up, and the Scots soldiers, along with other allied troops, were mown down. In one day of fighting alone, 20,000 allied soldiers died. The 17th Battalion of the Highland Light Infantry alone lost 447 soldiers and 22 officers.

The Somme, then, was another disaster. Yet, back home, the population continued to support the troops and the war effort. Scotland played an important part, with an army of workers at home supplying an army of troops in the trenches.

Scotland did more than its fair share of work in producing munitions for the front line. By 1917, 250,000 people north of the border were engaged in manufacturing ordnance. The Clyde Valley in particular churned out munitions and supplies at a prodigious rate, making everything from blankets for the troops through to tanks - a military invention used for the first time in the Great War.

Production levels had to be maintained, and workers in the factories were subjected to almost military discipline. The shipyards of the Clyde, too, were kept busy turning out new vessels. But for many Scots, the demand for their services produced a bonus. Women, in particular, managed to advance their own position in Scottish society as a result of their toil in the factories of war.

Before the fighting broke out, Scots women had been particularly vociferous in demanding the vote for themselves. In 19087, they tried - unsuccessfully - to stop Winston Churchill from being elected as an MP in Dundee.

Much of the suffragette activity, however, took place in Glasgow, and in 1913 a campaign was launched in the city by dropping acid bombs through letterboxes. Many Scottish councils were in sympathy with the aims of the suffragettes, but the campaign turned increasingly violent, with a laboratory in St Andrews set on fire and the station at Leuchars burned down.

The efforts of the suffragettes got nowhere at the time: Britain and Scotland were too busy preparing for the war which was coming. But during the fighting, women proved their worth and raised their profile on the home front, and were finally rewarded when, in the peace that followed, they were given the vote.

But as well as hard work, the war effort also brought discontent. The fighting pushed prices and rents up, and many workers - particularly skilled ones - resented the fact that their own interests were being subordinated to the war effort.

Workers in the shipyards finally rebelled, going on strike in support of more money and withholding rent money in order to demand a freeze. The result was that the official in charge of Scottish industrial production, William Weir, brought in American workers and paid them more money than their Scottish counterparts.

It was an inflammatory thing to do, and it simply heightened fears among many in Scotland's workforce that the war was bringing them a raw deal. They were becoming more concerned about fighting capitalism than the Germans.

The focus of the public's attention was on the fighting at the front, but back at home, Scotland's history was being redefined. Workers were raising their voices to demand their rights, and they were starting to be belligerent about it. Full-blooded socialism, and the spectre of Red Clydeside, was about to be born.


Meanwhile...

  • 1908 Bernard Shaw's, "Arms and the Man" opens in New York
  • 1909 Women are admitted to German universities
  • 1927 Trotsky is expelled from the Communist Party
  • 1927 Marcel Proust's, "A la rechereche du temps perdu" is published
  • 1908 Kenneth Grahame's, "The Wind in the Willows" is published
  • 1909 John Buchan publishes, "Prester John"

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