“Ye hypocrites! Are these your pranks?
To murder men, and give God thanks?
Desist, for shame! Proceed no further:
God won’t accept your thanks for Murther!”
Robert Burns, 1793, ‘Thanksgiving For A National Victory’.
For many centuries the people who inhabited the Scottish Highlands mainly lived a rural life in a feudal-style system of clans, who sometimes fought with each other in disputes over land and cattle. After the Union of 1707, however, there came a time when the Highland clans were regarded as a threat to the British monarchy and state. In 1745 a new British national anthem, ‘God Save the King’, was adopted – the 5th verse (which is not sung often nowadays) stated:
Lord grant that Marshal Wade
May by thy mighty aid
May he sedition hush,
And like a torrent rush,
Rebellious Scots to crush.
God save the King!
The next year, in 1746, the wearing of tartan was outlawed, when ‘Highland dress’ was made illegal under the Dress Act. This was implemented after the battle of Culloden, with the Highlanders being depicted as disloyal, as well as wild and formidable – ever ready to resort to violence to settle a quarrel, or stage revolts. A brutal crackdown ensued, with several punitive expeditions by British state soldiers taking place, forcing many Highland people to flee their native land.
While the fighting qualities of the clansmen was feared, those who had defeated them at Culloden sought to harness this for their own use. There was to be an ever-increasing need for ‘cannon-fodder’ as the Empire was forged and policed, so, the British Army often sought to recruit the martial races they had defeated. The Gurkhas are a later example of this process.
In England, before the Civil War and Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, there had been no standing army. Previously, the monarchy had raised armies to fight specific wars, after which these forces were disbanded. A permanent standing army, under Parliament control, gradually emerged from the period of the Civil War and the ‘Glorious Revolution,’ when William of Orange’s forces defeated those of James II.
Most of the rank and file soldiers came from the poor and dispossessed in England. Ironically, many who later filled the ranks were former enemies, including Irish and Scottish clansmen. During both the Highland clearances in Scotland and the famine in Ireland recruitment drives were undertaken.
Most clan chiefs were already incorporated into the establishment, with their sons being educated at English public schools. Dr Johnson noted that these chiefs then: ‘Degenerated from patriarchal rulers to rapacious landlords’. With the Highlands ‘pacified’ and the clan system repressed – then changed to suit the new masters – the enlistment could begin and the Scottish writer, John Prebble, outlined the background to the recruitment and what happened next:
“Highland soldiers were Britain’s earliest colonial levies, first raised to police their own hills, then expended in imperial wars. The Gaelic people of the 18th century, three per cent only of the population, nonetheless supplied the Crown with sixty-five regiments, as well as independent companies, militia and volunteers. … He was often recruited by threat, or sold by the chief he trusted. Promises made to him were cynically broken, his pride was outraged by the lash, by contempt for his fierce attachment to his language and dress. The family he hoped to protect by enlistment was frequently evicted in his absence and replaced by sheep.”
[Mutiny, by John Prebble, Secker and Warburg London, 1975].
Scottish Highland soldiers, whose forbears had been hunted down for wearing their native garb, now wore a shiny new British military tartan to serve the Empire. ‘Ye Heilan Cheils’ is a song about the use of Highland lads in Britain’s wars:
As Prebble wrote: ‘Contrary to romantic belief, the Highlander was rarely a willing soldier, his songs lament the day he put on a red coat’:
If I were as I used to be,
amongst the hills,
I would not mount guard
as long as I lived,
nor would I stand on parade,
nor for the rest of my life
would I ever put on a red coat.
While the navy protected the Empire and its trading routes at sea, it was the army that forced its extension on the ground. During Queen Victoria’s reign, from 1837 to 1901, British soldiers, fighting under the Union Jack, carried out the following colonial campaigns:
Anti-colonial revolt in Canada, 1837; Capture of Aden, 1838; First Afghan War, 1838-42; Against Boers, South Africa, 1838-48; Opium Wars in China, 1839-42; War in the Levant, 1840; War in Afghanistan, 1842; Conquest of Sind, India, 1843; Gwalior War, India, 1843; First Sikh War, India, 1845-6; Against Native Africans, South Africa, 1846-52; North-West Frontier of India, 1847-54; Second Sikh War, India, 1848-9; Second Burmese War, 1852; Eureka Stockade, Australia, 1854; War with Persia, 1856-7; North-West, Frontier of India, 1858-67; Storming of the Taku Forts, China, 1859-60; Maori Wars, New Zealand, 1861-4; Operations in Sikkim, India, 1861; Ambela Expedition, 1863; Yokohama, Japan, 1864-5; Bhutan Expedition, 1865; Expedition to Abyssinia, 1868; Red River Expedition, Canada, 1870; Ashanti War, West Africa, 1874; Expedition to Perak, Malaya, 1875-6; Galekas & Gaikas war, Cape Colony, 1877; North-West Frontier, India, 1878-9; Second Afghan War, 1878; Third Afghan War, 1879; Zulu War, 1879; North-West Frontier of India, 1880-4; Transvaal Revolt or First Boer War, 1880-1; Bombardment of Alexandria, 1882; Expedition to the Sudan, 1884-5; Third Burmese War, 1885; Suakin Expedition, Sudan, 1885; End of the Nile Campaign, 1885; North-West Frontier of India, 1888-92; Minor Operations in India, 1888-94; Siege & Relief of Chitral, India, 1895; Mashonaland Rising, East Africa, 1896; Re-Conquest of Egypt, 1896-8; Tirah Expeditionary Force, India, 1897-8; North-West Frontier of India, 1897-8; Boxer Rising, China, 1900-1.
Besides these conflicts, the Crimean War, 1853-6; the Indian Mutiny, 1857-8; and the Boer War, 1899-1902, involved the British Army in major warfare during this period. William Ernest Henley was an influential English poet, critic and editor of the late Victorian era, who wrote verse that exalted the Empire. In ‘A New Song to an Old Tune’ the suffering of British soldiers was portrayed as a glorious sacrifice:
What if the best of our wages be
An empty sleeve, a stiff-set knee,
A crutch for the rest of life – who cares,
So long as the One Flag floats and dares?
So long as the One Race dares and grows?
Death – what is death but God’s own rose?
Let but the bugles of England play
Over the hills and far away!
Henley did not mention the casualties suffered by the conquered, perhaps, like many others, he did not consider this worthy of contemplation? In contrast, the then dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Jonathan Swift, in his poem ‘On Dreams’ commented on ‘the Redcoats’ in Ireland, who were ruthlessly enforcing the Penal Laws and putting down dissent:
The Soldier smiling hears the Widow’s Cries,
And stabs the son before the Mother’s eyes,
With like Remorse his Brother of the Trade,
The Butcher, feels the lamb beneath his blade.
Swift, who was also an Irish author and satirist, became best known for his book ‘Gulliver’s Travels’. Like Swift, many of the subject peoples, over whose countries the Union Jack flew, had their own view of British rule. They called Britain’s flag the ‘butcher’s apron’ and when British politicians boasted that the Empire ‘was the place where the sun never sets’ they added ‘and the blood never dries’.
‘Civilisation’ and ‘Christianity’ were the oft-declared motives for empire, but, for the rich, the Empire was a cash-cow, which was ruthlessly milked for economic exploitation and maximum profit. Great fortunes were made, for instance, from the use and trafficking of slaves and forcing opium on the Chinese people.
In the popular Music Halls, some performers were ardent supporters of Britain’s expansionist wars, including Sir Harry Lauder, a Scottish singer and comedian. While some Scots regarded Lauder as a ‘tartan fool’, Sir Winston Churchill claimed he was: ‘Scotland’s greatest ever ambassador … rendering measureless service to the Scottish race and to the British Empire’. During WW1 Lauder promoted recruitment and campaigned for the war effort, writing:
“I know that I am voicing the sentiment of thousands and thousands of people when I say that we must retaliate in every possible way regardless of cost. If these Germans savages want savagery, let them have it.”
The Run-Down of Empire
While Scotland had existed as an independent country up to the Acts of Union in 1707, there had been internal divisions due to the different systems of life and control in the Highlands and Lowlands. The British state victory at Culloden facilitated the suppression of the feudal clan system in the Highlands, which suited the lowland bourgeoisie as much as Westminster. Under the ‘Union’, the Scots then gradually developed a separate national consciousness, but one that was subservient to, and dominated by, a partisan British nationalism – and the money-making Empire.
Up to the present day, there is still a romanticised view of Scotland that can be glimpsed on some shortbread tins; a world of noble stags, on brooding heather covered hills, amid swathes of tartan and claymore wielding kilted clansmen. Ironically, some of this idealised vision was incorporated by the Crown, with the Scottish highland regiments being rigged out with their own distinctive, but made-up, tartan attire. The core loyalty was now with the Union Jack, however, and in the 1960s the military side of this Westminster-loyal tartan kitsch often featured in the ballads of the popular entertainer Andy Stewart.
The Second World War had left the UK almost bankrupt, so, as well as a patriotic ‘we won the war’ feeling, this was a time of the loss of overseas territory that mingled with the austerity brought on by the need for fiscal restraint. In turn, this created the circumstances of economic conscription that saw many youngsters, including myself, join the armed forces. In 1960 Andy Stewart, who was a big fan of Sir Harry Lauder, produced a patriotic hit single called: ‘A Scottish Soldier’:
In the song the soldier’s service ‘far away from his hills of home’ is depicted as ‘battles glorious’ and ‘deeds victorious’. The soldier’s death followed, but there were no explanations, or any questions asked. It was true, of course, that a lot of soldiers were dying then, because from the end of WW2, up to1968, ironically called the year of revolution, the British military had been continually involved in many campaigns of varying intensity, which included:
Greece, 1944-47; Palestine, 1945-48; Vietnam, 1945; Indonesia (Java), 1945-46; India/Pakistan, 1945-47; Aden, 1947; Ethiopia (Eritrea), 1948-51; British Honduras, 1948; Malaya, 1948-60; Korea, 1950-53; Kenya, 1952-56; Cyprus, 1954-59; Aden (border), 1955-60; Hong Kong, 1956, 1962, 1966 and 1967; Suez, 1956; Oman, 1957-59 and 1965-present day (Advisers, secondment of troops and mercenaries); Jamaica, 1960; Cameroons, 1960-61; Kuwait, 1961; Brunei, 1962; Malaysia (North Borneo and Sarawak) 1962-66; British Guiana (Guyana), 1962-66; Aden, 1963-67; Operation Crown, Thailand, 1963-68; Swaziland, 1963; Uganda, 1964; Tanganyika, 1964; Mauritius, 1965-68; Bermuda, 1968.
Most of these were colonial conflicts, because, from 1945, British governments, confronted with freedom demands from national movements in British colonies, used armed force in attempts to crush them. As the red of Empire gradually shrank in our school atlases, most people in Britain took little notice – except when new ‘trouble spots’ sprang to their attention. These engagements were often hidden from view and/or had their events distorted by biased reporting and therefore constitute a hidden history for most of the home population, like this footage from Aden:
Hardly ‘battles glorious’ or ‘deeds victorious’, but this is what happens when you brainwash soldiers into a racist frame of mind – then send them into other people’s countries and order them to assert their authority and take control.
Just as the Victorian wars to build the Empire had been accompanied with waves of jingoism and propaganda, so the run-down followed a similar pattern. The late James Cameron was a journalist who covered many of these colonial conflicts, but his reporting was an honourable exception to the usual jingoistic type of coverage. In an article in ‘The Guardian’, he made these comments about Britain’s small wars, during the rundown of Empire:
“I have spent the greater part of my working life watching British troops being pulled out of places they were never going to leave. The process started in the 1940s, when Mr. Churchill insisted that the British could never leave India, and of course they did. A wide variety of Colonial Secretaries in the years to come made it abundantly clear that their forces would never leave Malaya, or Kenya, or Cyprus, or Aden. All these places were integrally part of an imperial system that could not be undermined and must be protected, and one by one all these places were abandoned, generally with the blessing of some minor royalty and much champagne.
In most cases some rebellious nationalist was released from gaol, or its equivalent – Nehru, Nkrumah, Kenyatta, Makarios – given the ritual cup of tea at Windsor and turned into a President. The thing in the end became a formula, though the process wasted a great many lives and much time and money, and as far as I know on every occasion the formula followed the one before it: We shall not leave; we have to leave; we have left. At no time in our colonial history did one occasion leave any precedent for the next one, except for the statement that we would never pull out, which was always one thing before the last.”
[Guardian, 2nd June 1975].
During these conflicts, cinema news (later TV) took over from the music-halls, and with the press took up the task of imperial cheer leaders with a relish. Cocooned in a media web of ‘Our boys doing a jolly good job in trying circumstances’, ‘peace keepers’ amid ‘bandits’, ‘extremists’ and ‘terrorists’ – the folks back home rarely asked any questions. The truth was usually very different, as these ‘small wars’ were about power, hegemony, natural resources, cheap labour and profits – where intimidation, internment, torture and killings were systematically used by our Armed Forces to protect ‘British interests’.
Ordinary soldiers were not responsible for these colonial conflicts, but did have to serve in them. The military was then made up of regulars and others on National Service (which ended in the early 1960s) and most obeyed their orders and carried out what they saw as their duty. Some, carried away on a tide of indoctrination and jingoism, believed passionately in what they were doing.
In 1977, a disabled Scottish ex-soldier, who signed on as regular soldier just after the end of WW2, wrote about his experiences in some of these small wars. While Andy Stewart had given us a sanitised patriotic version of the ‘Scottish soldier’, this veteran gave us a realistic vision of what service life was really like in the British Army:
“It is getting along to 30 years since I first signed on as a regular. I was out of work, and in trouble with the police. The army was much bigger in those days. Once in it I was convinced there was no way they would get me back to the slums of Glasgow. My own bed and locker. Good clean clothes. Plenty of good grub. Great comradeship from the men in my billet. What more could a young man ask? I had known poverty and hunger all my boyhood days. The army was a great life for me. It is hard for young working-class men to realise the attractions of such a life, unless they have known similar poverty and hunger.
In those days the army fought ‘the dirty commies’. We shot ‘the yellow slant-eyed bastards’ in the hills of Korea, chasing him back to the Yalu River, where ‘some bastard politician’ stopped us from going over and finishing them off for good. We went into the jungles of Malaya, and ‘routed them out’. It cut us to the quick to see ‘that evil bastard’ Chin Peng get all that cash for surrendering. He and his will-o’-the-wisps had given us a lot of trouble and sweat. Now the government was giving him a load of cash. It was crazy. If they’d turned him over to us we would have chopped him up into little cubes and fed him to the dogs that ran around in packs in Kuala Lumpur.
Out in Kenya we hated that ‘black cannibal’ Jomo Kenyatta. The officer from Intelligence who gave us our political lectures (did you know they gave such things in the British army?) told us Jomo wrote for the Commie paper, the ‘Daily Worker’. If we’d caught him in the forests of the Aberdares we would have chopped him up with blunt pangas.
In Cyprus we fought that ‘little murdering bastard’ Grivas. It was strange how nobody would turn the ‘little wall-eyed bastard’ in. It did not matter how much we kicked and beat them. The Greek Cypriots would never divulge his hiding place. Came the day when I copped a packet. It was not pleasant. They took me on a stretcher, all strapped down, and flew me back for medical attention. I was paralysed from the waist down. Every jolt I got caused racking pains to tear through my body. Lying beside me on the plane was a young Scottish lad. He came from my native city of Glasgow. I guess they put him beside me because I spoke ‘Glasca’ like him. Maybe they thought the sound of his native accent would quieten him down. He was as mad as the proverbial mad hatter. When he looked at me out of his mad eyes, I felt myself shrink back in fear. After all, I was only an arm’s length away from him, and partially paralysed.
In different hospitals in various countries, experts prodded and poked me. They caused me a lot of pain. But months later I was still affected with terrific pain if I got any sudden movements. I went back to civvy street like an old man – shuffle-shuffle. It was in the Union Jack Club opposite Waterloo Station that my position was brought home to me. A young soldier like myself was lying dead drunk. His documents had fallen out of his jacket. I saw he had been in places out East that I had just been in. He was discharged just like me. But he could get no work. I felt a wave of despair wash over me. How could I survive? Back in Glasgow I went to sign on at the Labour Exchange. They had no work for ex-killers. ‘So what if you do have ribbons from half a dozen campaigns? We need men who can work all day and every day. You can hardly walk!’ These clerks were all throw-backs to the means test days. They could not even manage a look of pity for a young man with a pale face, all complete with dark rings under the eyes for added effect.
How I hated mankind. Here I was, reduced from being a hard soldier, six feet tall, twelve and a half stone in weight, down to nine stone something. Yet nobody gave a dam about it. Even the ex-Regulars Association would not attempt to find me a job. The fat bastard ex-sergeant major had just the job I could have done. Nobody would help me. I would have to look out for myself. I made it. No thanks to the bastards who run the country. They took my youth and young manhood. Today I still suffer pain. But my muscles have toughened a lot. As of now, they are able to bear me up. But what will happen when I get old and they become less strong? I just don’t fancy the idea of sitting out the remainder of my days in some establishment for infirm soldiers, raving about the days when we were young.
Oh! I forgot to tell you. I could not find a wife. You see, I am rendered impotent. Yip Ming was my last bed-mate. She was a Chinese prostitute I lived with, out in the Far East. She bore me two sons. But I could not marry her. The army would not permit it. She went back to China and I have lost touch with her. My sons will be in their twenties now. Probably they read the thoughts of Chairman Mao and curse their white-skinned father.”
[British Soldiers Speak Out on Ireland, IOI, 1978].
The Lament of Widows
In 1881, under the Childers Reforms, a new Highland regiment was created by amalgamating the 91st (Argyllshire Highlanders) Regiment of foot and the 93rd (Sutherland Highlanders) Regiment of foot. The men of the 93rd had been acclaimed as ‘the thin red line’ in the Crimean War. The new amalgamated regiment, called the (Princess Louise’s) Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, was to forge a reputation as ‘glorious’ and ‘honourable’ as any in the British Army.
The Regiment served with the Highland Brigade in the Boer War, won six Victoria Crosses in the First World War and fought with distinction in the Second World War and Korea. Most regiments in the British Army, however, have an unspoken ethos of: ‘What happens up the sharp-end – stays up the sharp-end’. This creates a ‘hidden history’ of conflicts that is rarely exposed to outsiders, which only emerges in some veteran’s nightmares long after they have ceased serving.
Often, the bad dreams occurred after the soldiers’ involvement in colonial style conflicts. In Northern Ireland in 1972, for instance, two Catholic men, 31-year-old Michael Naan and 23-year-old Andrew Murray, had been found murdered at isolated farm buildings in County Fermanagh. Murray had been stabbed 13 times and Naan 19 times through the heart and chest.
Michael Naan had been a prominent member of the Civil Rights Association and had taken part in a number of protest marches and the pathologist said his wounds were ‘consistent with an attack by someone who had gone berserk’. The murders had taken place in a mixed border area where tit-for-tat killings occurred and a sectarian motive was attributed to the slayings. Loyalists were suspected of carrying out a crime, which became known as the ‘pitchfork murders’, after the alleged murder weapon.
Back in Britain, later in the 1970s, people were horrified by a series of brutal murders of young women, many picked up from ‘red light’ areas in northern English cities. Reading about the latest ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ murder in 1978 had a profound effect on a Scottish ex-soldier. The lurid accounts of the multiple stabbings of the latest victim had evoked memories of a night, six years before, when he had been on a tour-of-duty in Northern Ireland.
The veteran knew who had really carried out those killings of Naan and Murray in 1972 and the similarity between those and the Yorkshire Ripper murders began to prey on his mind. Convinced that the same people must have carried out both the ‘Ripper’ and the Northern Ireland slayings, he contacted the police and gave them full details of those killings in County Fermanagh.
In reality there was no link between the two crimes, but the police were under intense public pressure to catch the ‘Ripper’, so, they began to investigate the ex-soldier’s allegations. Subsequently, in 1980, two former compatriots of the ex-soldier, a staff-sergeant and a sergeant, were tried and jailed for life for the murders of Naan and Murray. When the staff-sergeant confessed to the police he broke down in tears and said:
“I did it. I did the killings. Oh my god. Yes, I did it. I killed them. They would not stop screaming – I have been having bloody nightmares about it …”
A one-year suspended sentence was given to the officer-in-charge, who was described as an ‘exemplary officer’. He had attended Harrow and Sandhurst and came from ‘a distinguished military background’. The officer told the court he’d been in charge, and, although he was not on the patrol himself, he had found out about the killings later. He then admitted why he’d kept quiet:
“I mulled the whole thing over in my mind and decided that for the good of the army and the regiment it must never go any further.”
A rank-and-file member of the patrol, who was a private at the time of the killings, received a four-year sentence for manslaughter. In 1970 he’d been pictured in some papers being inspected by the Queen, while on Royal Guard duties at Balmoral. It also came out during the trial that the murder weapon was not a pitchfork as first thought, but the stabbings were in fact carried out with a bowie knife that one of the soldiers possessed; it subsequently emerged that many of the troops in Ireland carried ‘personal weapons,’ to which those in authority were turning a blind eye.
This information only saw the light-of-day, because a veteran had the events on his conscience and he’d made the wrong connection to the ‘Ripper’ killings. The story did not end there, however, because the veteran who had revealed the information then received several death threats during the trial, which he believed had come from members of his former unit. So, upset and angry, he handed over to the Scottish Sunday Mail paper a dossier containing information on up to forty killings carried out by fellow soldiers in Aden fourteen years previously.
The paper printed many of these in early 1981 and a controversy ensued, with the Sunday Mail being inundated with letters. Serving soldiers complained bitterly about ‘former mates telling tales out of school’ and attacked the paper for printing material detrimental to ‘the honour of the regiment’.
Others, mainly ex-soldiers, wrote in telling how the terrible events in Aden had been on their minds. Unable to forget, they welcomed the opportunity to unburden themselves and some wrote of their own experiences, telling how:
The Yellow Card instructions – which laid out the circumstances in which soldiers could open fire – were abused. To detain an Arab, soldiers were taught to shout ‘waqf’ – pronounced as ‘wakeef’ – meaning halt. If three warnings were ignored troops were then entitled to shoot, but some soldiers treated this as a joke and shouted ‘fuck off’ or ‘corned beef’ instead. Not surprisingly, most Arabs did not understand this and several were just gunned down.
The bodies of Arabs killed by soldiers were taken in a three-ton truck and dumped off a bridge into the bay, some of the dead were suspects who had been arrested, or wounded Arabs who had been taken to the army medical centre. A soldier who had carried out the ‘dumping’ of the bodies stated: ‘Some of the prisoners’ bodies had gunshot wounds, but some had been given injections’.
The army had set up machine-gun emplacements on high ground overlooking the Crater district and some nights – especially if there had been attacks on soldiers – those heavy guns were fired into this deprived area as a punishment. Ripping through the neighbourhood, the heavy velocity bullets must have caused untold deaths and destruction.
Clearly showing the racist way Arabs were viewed by the military, officers had initiated inter-platoon rivalry by awarding Robertson’s Jam ‘golliwog labels’ to each platoon for the killing of an Arab. The labels were pinned to the unit notice board and a veteran recollected: “At one stage my platoon had notched up 13 kills and another platoon were one kill behind. Their corporal even told the privates to use their bayonets, for it was to be that sort of killing. They went into an alley and killed a young Arab who was out after curfew.”
The Sunday Mail passed the dossier to the Scottish Lord Advocate who promised an investigation. But this time there was no pressing reason to examine these events. Two years later the Sunday Mail printed a tiny article saying that the Lord Advocate had decided that ‘no proceedings should be instituted in this case’.
[Sunday Mail (Scotland) 17th Dec. 1978; & the editions of 26th April, 3rd May, 10th May and 17th May 1981. Also see ‘LOST LIVES’ (656 & 657), Mainstream Publishing, 1999].
The military unit involved in those incidents in County Fermanagh and Aden was the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. In Aden the 1st Battalion of the regiment had been led by Lt-Colonel Colin ‘Mad Mitch’ Mitchell, a British ‘war hero’, who ‘pacified’ the Crater district and whose ‘strong-arm methods’ were acclaimed by much of the British media.
As the fighting against the rebels in Aden had intensified Andy Stewart was on hand to lend patriotic backing with another hit song, ‘The Barron Rocks of Aden’, set to the military pipe tune of that name. Another song in the same partisan tradition, ‘700 Glengarried Men’, was written by an officer of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders about their operations in Aden:
After Aden, the song was used in attempts to stop the regiment being disbanded. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders had loyally carried out the dirty work for Westminster and the MoD in various colonial conflicts, but in spite of this, in 2006 – 39 years after the ‘Emergency’ in Aden had ended – the unit was disbanded and amalgamated into the Royal Regiment of Scotland. After leaving the army, Lt-Colonel ‘Mad Mitch’ Mitchell became a right-wing Tory MP.
However, two-hundred-and-twenty years before the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were running their operations in Aden, other British state forces were carrying out similar actions in the Scottish Highlands. The ‘Highland Widow’s Lament’ is a song about the repression suffered after the Government’s victory at Culloden in 1746 – and ‘the pacification’ of the Highlands that followed:
Then, it was the Scottish Highlanders who were being stereotyped as a lessor people, denigrated as ‘bloodthirsty vermin’, and forced to migrate from their native homes by the forces-of-the-Crown. But today, how many widows and mothers are there, across the world in many places, including Aden, who are lamenting the loss of their husbands and sons at the hands of more recent soldiers-of-the-Crown, including those in Highland regiments?
The Amnesty Report & the Honest Soldier
Aden had been taken over by the British East India Company in 1838/9, after Royal Marines had landed and secured the territory. Regarded as a vital part of the fabric of British world control, it was used mainly to protect the Empire shipping-trade using the Suez Canal. In the 1960s, like in many conflicts of this type, the British administration, using ‘emergency’ legislation, brought in a system of detaining suspects without trial.
In 1966 Amnesty International produced a report chronicling the torture of the detainees in Aden, which included:
- Stripping prisoners and forcing them to stand naked during interrogations.
- Hitting and twisting genitals and pushing lighted cigarettes against prisoners’ skin.
- Keeping prisoners awake in cells by detaining them naked in supercooled cells.
- Forcing naked prisoners to sit on poles directed towards their anus.
The British authorities refused any cooperation to the Amnesty representative, Dr S Rastgeldi, as he compiled his report. After it was published it was subject to attacks by the authorities and in the British media. The Sunday Times, for instance printed an article, which suggested that: ‘the Amnesty reputation for “accurate and fair-minded investigation” should be temporarily eclipsed’.
A Scottish soldier, George Lennox, who was a corporal in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, had been stationed in Aden toward its last years under the Union Jack. He’d witnessed some of the ill-treatment dished out to the detainees and he took exception to the Sunday Times article, because, based on what he had witnessed, he believed the Amnesty Report was accurate.
Lennox was then serving in the BAOR, in West Germany, and he wrote a letter to the ‘Sunday Times’ to criticise their article for attacking the Amnesty Report:
“In the interests of helping to restore Amnesty International’s reputation as an organisation of the utmost impartiality and honesty I should like, as a serving member of the British Forces in Aden at the time of question, to bring to light a few facts which should prove that the allegations of maltreatment of Adeni detainees by British Servicemen and reported by Amnesty, are not without foundation. … It should be made clear at the outset, however, for while I was serving in Aden I was not prepared to make any protest, although fully aware of the methods employed in detaining Adeni suspects at the Ras Morbut interrogation centre which have subsequently been brought into the open by the Amnesty report. If it were not for a deep feeling of moral obligation to come to the aid of Amnesty, in view of the constant inaccurate and unjust reporting by the press since their charges were made known, I doubt if I would have been prepared to do so even now.
On several occasions, whilst on unit guard duty at Fort Morbut (the Ras Morbut interrogation centre was situated in close vicinity to our Guard room — in fact one of our main responsibilities was the patrolling of the perimeter fence), I was witness to the pathetic screaming and howling, sometimes lasting well into the night, of detainees of the interrogation centre. On enquiring in the morning from the guards of the centre I was invariably told, in boastful fashion, of the beatings and tortures which they had had a hand in. The versions told by the guards differ very slightly, if at all, from the charges reported by Amnesty. I have also no doubt in my mind that they were under the instructions of the interrogation officers. I can recall a telephone conversation between one such officer to the guard commander of the centre who instructed to give ‘cell six a rest as he was sure he was about to talk’ but to keep ‘cell three awake’. On one instance however, I personally was witness to a heinous act of brutality equal to the worst reported by the Amnesty representative. It took place at Ras Morbut the day after four suspects were brought in by the Aden Special Branch who had arrested them in connection to the killing and wounding of two RAF servicemen behind the Ma’alla Straight. I was in Fort Morbut on guard duty. At about mid-afternoon I heard screaming coming from the direction of the interrogation centre. Through our Guard Room window, I watched three soldier from a famous infantry regiment in Yorkshire, drag out an Adeni detainee into the exercise yard. There was blood coming from the man’s mouth and he was dressed only in a loin cloth round his waist. The three soldiers, standing about five yards apart, began, in turn, to hit the Adeni. The first soldier was using a five-foot-long broom handle and beating the man about the head and prodding him in his midriff and genitals. He was then passed to the second soldier who hit him with a tin mug commonly used by the Infantry. The third used his fists. The unfortunate wretch fell unconscious twice. He was revived with a fire hose only to be beaten again. This was the only act of brutality I witnessed but you can be assured many more took place. The fact that the sickening screaming occurred usually prior/or immediately after the arrival and departure of the intelligence and interrogation officers makes me convinced of the validity of the reports made by the soldiers themselves and Amnesty International. Furthermore, it was common knowledge, and if I remember rightly the joke of the troops, in reference to the charge of a man having a stick put up his anus as alleged to have happened by Amnesty.
I fully realize the feeling of everyone concerned who have had dealings with Adeni terrorism and that the British administration there will do everything in their power to protect their affairs, but at the same time, why should an organization such as Amnesty International be ridiculed because the truth has been hidden by the same administration …
(CPL G.S. LENNOX, RAOC)
Because I am still a serving member of the services and liable to service prosecution I should desire to remain anonymous …”
The Sunday Times did not print Lennox’s letter, but a copy was known to be in circulation soon after at the MoD. A little bit later Lennox was playing rugby at his base in West Germany, when he was arrested and flown in a light plane back to Blighty to end up in a Security Services safe house. Here he was held and interrogated over a few weeks and repeatedly told that that he should not tell any more about what he had witnessed in Aden.
I met up with George Lennox about a decade later at a meeting I’d helped to organise in west London. He, like me, was now in Civvy Street and at the meeting he explained how the troops had operated in Aden in attempts to dominate and control the people there:
“Most of the soldiers who went into the houses of the Adenese, who arrested them, shot them, who even tortured them, never asked the question, ‘Why am I doing it?’ This is not part of your thinking while you’re in the Army. You haven’t got the experience to think for yourself which is one of the reasons why you join the Army, and if you did you’d probably come up with a lot of unsatisfactory answers and I think you would question your role.
So it’s very easy for the politicians to use a military force, those in uniform, to perform tasks such as the Army was doing inside Aden and that was to crush any political opposition. Because the people who are performing that task, who themselves are the people who are being killed and injured, don’t ever question why they’re doing it. That’s always been a fact.
I know that when I was in Aden we never talked about the political situation there. Our level of consciousness, or our level of conversation of talking about the people there was, ‘Oh these fucking wogs’, etc. which was essentially I think to be expected of any army or military personnel under active service. We were conditioned to think in terms of, ‘That is the enemy, this is who we’re fighting’, and never question it.”
[British Soldiers Speak Out on Ireland, edited by Aly Renwick, Information on Ireland, 1978].
The same claims of the abuse and cruelty towards detainees that occurred in Aden, had also been raised before in Malaya, Kenya and Cyprus – later, they surfaced again in Northern Ireland, Iraq and then Afghanistan. While there were differences in the locations and circumstances, the details of the allegations of brutality and torture are remarkably similar. It is clear there is a chasm between the official versions of what happens in these kind of conflicts and what actually occurs.
All this points to the fact that this type of oppression is systematic and is covertly instigated and sanctioned by those in authority – by both Westminster Governments and the MoD. Extreme violence is used to get the desired results, with a blind eye being turned towards it by the higher-ups – with denials issued and cover-ups attempted, if any ill-treatment is exposed. Therefore, if we want to stop torture happening again, the most important link to expose is how the orders and sanctions come down the chain-of-command.
If the exposure of brutal treatment becomes difficult to refute, it is apparent that those at the top do not really care if a few rank-and-file troopers end up in the dock for ‘getting carried away’ and using ‘excessive force’. This will be used, however, only as long as the role of the top brass in the process remains hidden. For an example of this see the film ‘Breaker Morant’ about events during the Boer War, when Australian mounted troops were ordered ‘to take no prisoners’ by the British high command, but subsequently, to facilitate peace talks starting, some were charged with ‘war crimes’ and 2 were shot by a military firing-squad:
Despite the level of repression in Aden it proved to be a failure for the Army’s counter-insurgency methods, and Britain was finally forced to withdraw in 1967. By then, however, Britain was already strongly entrenched in neighbouring Oman, which was under the rule of a despotic Sultan. In 1970, Britain’s grip on the Omani state machine enabled them to mastermind the overthrow of the old Sultan in favour of his son, Qaboos, a Sandhurst graduate. Supposedly more ‘liberal’, he was not any more democratic – and even today Britain continue to ensure the rule of autocratic Sultans.
The casualties suffered by Britain’s forces in Aden amounted to around 120 killed (including over 90 servicemen) and 550 wounded; while the rebels had about 400 dead and 1,750 wounded. The non-combatant civilian casualties are unknown, but are likely to be considerable. Tragically, people in this area are still being attacked today by British made aircraft and missiles, which have been sold to Saudi Arabia by UK armament companies, for huge sums of money.
Reclaiming Our History & the Need for Change
Like Aden, Cyprus was another territory taken over by Britain in the late Victorian period, this time to protect the Empire trade-shipping on the Mediterranean side of the Suez Canal. In February 1955 an ‘Emergency’ was declared in Cyprus and the following year British troops opened fire on a demonstration of students and school children in Famagusta. During which 18-year-old Petrakis Yiallouris was killed by a bullet from a soldier’s Sten-gun.
When the British media tried to justify the soldiers’ actions, the Scottish poet, Helen Fullerton, gave an alternative view in her poem ‘Cypriot Question’. In it a Cypriot mother has an imaginary conversation with the mother of a British conscript soldier:
In Famagusta, one February morning
The market place and the streets were full
When crowds of children marched protesting
That General Harding had closed their school:
Then the British Army went into action
With baton charges and tear gas drill
And the children’s stones were met with bullets
For the troops had orders to ‘shoot to kill’.
Ah, British Mother, had you a boy there?
No blame to him for the evil done
Or that a sorrowing Cypriot couple
Lost that day a beloved son
When at eighteen years, in the cause of freedom
Petrakis Yiallouris met his eclipse
Shot through the heart, by a conscript soldier,
‘Cyprus, Cyprus!’ upon his lips.
When the dockers heard it, they struck in anger
And our shops were closed and our streets were still
And we drew around us our little children
Your troops had orders to ‘shoot to kill’;
But they feared Petrakis more dead than living
And they made us bury him out of sight
Fifty miles from the scene of the murder
In lashing rain and by lantern light.
Scotland’s hero, brave William Wallace
They slew for the love he bore his land
And they shot James Connolly as he was dying
And made a mighty crown of the felon’s brand;
They make the widow, they make the orphan,
They shoot the children – it’s come to this:
But ah, British Mother, had they a quarrel
Your conscript laddie and our Petrakis?
Fullerton’s poem was in the tradition of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, who was born 13 years after the highland clans had been defeated at Culloden. He knew about repression, because throughout his life he’d viewed Britain’s role at home and in world affairs. Burns had a radical spirit, which he expressed in some of his poems, like ‘The Tree of Liberty’ and ‘A Man’s A Man for a’ That’. He also strongly opposed the hypocrisy around wars, like in his short poem about a naval skirmish won against French revolutionary forces in 1793, called ‘Thanksgiving For A National Victory’:
Ye hypocrites! Are these your pranks?
To murder men, and give God thanks?
Desist, for shame! Proceed no further:
God won’t accept your thanks for Murther!
Conflicts abroad continue in our own time and the powers-that-be who initiate and conduct our wars, still seek to falsify the history of them and obscure the actions of our troops with a cloak of patriotic ‘honour and glory’. Behind this ‘rally-around-the-flag’ bunkum, they insinuate that any questions, or criticism, will be disloyal and against ‘our boys’. But surely it is in the interests of all of us – service-personnel as well as civilians – that it is the actualities, and not fabrications, which are revealed.
By writing, or speaking, about their experiences, veterans can help to confront those in power with the truth. George Lennox attempted to do so while still serving and came up against an army system that will lie and do anything else to preserve their false narrative of events. Lennox, however, was an honest soldier and although he became a victim himself, his was a valiant attempt to tell the truth and he leaves an example for all of the rest of us.
Another veteran who left lessons for us was Hamish Henderson (1919 – 2002), who was born to a single mother in Blairgowrie, Perthshire, shortly after the end of WW1. Like many others from this time he became determined to see an end to all wars, but two decades later, as Henderson reached manhood, the world was hurtling towards another global conflict.
Just before the start of WW2 he was a visiting student in Germany, where he helped a Quaker network that arranged for refugees to escape the Nazi regime. Back home in Scotland, Henderson was reluctant to join the war, but he realised that if the fight against fascism was to be successful then German military power had to be confronted. So, he served as an intelligence officer with the 51st Highland Division in the Western Desert and then in the invasion of Italy.
Throughout WW2 Britain’s armed forces had continued with their hierarchies intact, but many anti-fascists had joined up to fight Hitler. They did their best to subvert establishment views, circulating books like Jack London’s ‘People Of The Abyss’ and Robert Tressell’s ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’. Informal discussion groups were also organised and , in Egypt, the ‘Cairo Parliament’, which regularly attracted hundreds of troops to debates, became so radical that the brass-hats eventually suppressed it. It was activity of this sort that helped secure the large, serving and ex-services, vote for Labour after the war had ended.
During the war Henderson collected the songs and poems of his fellow soldiers and produced a substantial amount himself. His poem sequence about the desert fighting in eastern Libya, ‘Elegies for the Dead in Cyrenaica’, expresses a compassionate view of the war. He refused to let his humanity be consumed by the fighting and viewed the ordinary German soldiers as like himself and his companions – caught up in events that were difficult to comprehend and in a conflict that neither wanted.
In his songs Henderson often reflected the feelings of his fellow soldiers in their war against Nazi fascism and one of his best known was ‘The 51st (Highland) Division’s Farewell to Sicily’, which is sometimes shortened to ‘The Banks of Sicily’:
Henderson celebrated the 1945 Labour election victory in a now liberated Rome, but found it difficult to find closure after returning home. He went back to Italy and translated the prison letters of Antonio Gramsci, the socialist philosopher who had died in one of Mussolini’s prisons. Henderson later used Gramsci’s theory of hegemony as a way to view and understand his own home culture in relation to establishment rule in Scotland.
In 1951 the American folklorist Alan Lomax arrived in Scotland and Henderson accompanied him on a tour around the country, which helped to provoke an upsurge of interest in Scottish folk memory, tradition and melodies. Folk clubs became commonplace and traditional songs, as well as new – often political – refrains, became routine. On his retirement, Henderson’s efforts in the field of folklore, and his own vast output of work, was rewarded when he was made an honorary fellow of the School of Scottish Studies.
In 1983 Henderson refused an OBE in protest at the nuclear arms policy of the Thatcher government. He was also aware of the part that Scottish soldiers had played in building and holding the Empire. And one of Henderson’s most notable songs was his ‘Freedom Come-All-Ye’, which he wrote in the Lowland Scots’ common language:
Roch the wind in the clear day’s dawin
Blaws the cloods heilster-gowdie owre the bay
But there’s mair nor a roch wind blawin
Thro the Great Glen o the warld the day
It’s a thocht that wad gar oor rottans
Aa thae rogues that gang gallus fresh an gay
Tak the road an seek ither loanins
Wi thair ill-ploys tae sport an play
Nae mair will our bonnie callants
Merch tae war when oor braggarts crousely craw
Nor wee weans frae pitheid an clachan
Mourn the ships sailin doun the Broomielaw
Broken faimlies in lands we’ve hairriet
Will curse ‘Scotlan the Brave’ nae mair, nae mair
Black an white ane-til-ither mairriet
Mak the vile barracks o thair maisters bare
Sae come aa ye at hame wi freedom
Never heed whit the houdies croak for Doom
In yer hoos aa the bairns o Adam
Will find breid, barley-bree an paintit rooms
When Maclean meets wi’s friens in Springburn
Aa thae roses an geans will turn tae blume
An the black lad frae yont Nyanga
Dings the fell gallows o the burghers doun.
In the fourth line from the end Henderson mentions John MacLean, who was detained under the ‘Defence of the Realm Act’ for opposing the First World War. Harry Lauder had supported WW1 and undertook tours to raise recruits for the killing fields in France, in contrast John MacLean had opposed the ‘Great War’ and called on working class youth not to join up. While Lauder was knighted in 1919 for his services to the war effort, MacLean was harassed, arrested and jailed.
A Scottish socialist of ‘Red Clydeside’ fame, MacLean was jailed five times for his socialist and anti-war activities. He was sentenced to 4 years in jail after his last arrest for ‘sedition’, but at his trial he made a 75-minute speech from the dock, in which he stated why he thought wars like WW1 occurred:
“For the full period of my active life I have been a teacher of economics to the working classes, and my contention has always been that capitalism is rotten to its foundations, and must give place to a new society. I had a lecture, the principal heading of which was: ‘Thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not kill’, and I pointed out that as a consequence of the robbery that goes on in all civilised countries today, out respective countries have to keep armies, and that inevitably our armies must clash together. On that and on other grounds, I consider capitalism the most infamous, bloody and evil system that mankind has ever witnessed …”
Hamish Henderson’s song – in the lines: ‘Broken families in lands we’ve harried, Will curse “Scotland the Brave”, no more, no more’ – suggests that Scottish soldiers should no longer be doing the dirty work of the British state, or Big-business. During and after his service, the WW2 veteran has left us an example, based on truth and a striving for justice, that offers veterans and others, not only a way to reclaim our past, but also a nobler way forward too.
Henderson set ‘Freedom Come-All-Ye’ to the tune of a pipe march, ‘The Bloody Fields of Flanders’, which he heard for the first time in 1944 on the beachhead at Anzio, in Italy. The version here, which includes a photo of Henderson, is sung by Luke Kelly of the Dubliners and contains Scots and English subtitles:
‘Freedom Come-All-Ye’ is Henderson’s most important song, in which the veteran suggests, or hopes, that a wind-of-change will blow through Scotland and the world at large, which will sweep away exploitation and imperialism. The song then rails against the tradition of the Scottish soldier as both imperial cannon-fodder and colonial oppressor. And Hamish Henderson ends his song with an internationalist vision, to which we should all concur, of a future global-society, which is peaceful, multiracial and just.
Postscript: Help Make the UK a Neutral Country
Veterans For Peace UK is a voluntary and politically independent ex-services organisation of men and women who have served in conflicts from WW2 through to Afghanistan.
As a result of our collective experiences we firmly believe that: ‘War is not the solution to the problems we face in the 21st century’. We are not a pacifist organisation, however, as we accept the inherent right of self-defence in response to an armed attack.
VFP works to influence the foreign and defence policy of the UK, for the larger purpose of world peace. We are working to restrain our government from intervening, overtly and covertly, in the internal affairs of other nations.
In order to achieve this goal, we are seeking support, across the political spectrum, for the UK to become a permanently neutral country.
Information compiled and written by VFP member, Aly Renwick, who was born and reared in the Scottish Lowlands. He joined-up at 16 and served for 8 years in the British Army from 1960-8. His books are available from the VFP Shop:
To read the 1966 Amnesty International report chronicling the torture of the detainees in Aden:
The film ‘Home Soldier Home’ (1978, 40 mins B&W 16mm) is a film in which veterans speak about their experiences of serving tours-of-duty in the North of Ireland, in British colonies and back in Britain, intercut with extensive footage of the army in action in Belfast, Aden, Kenya and Aden. It includes footage of George Lennox talking about his service in Aden:
In the 1980s two books were written suggesting that changes should be made to the military set-up in the UK. The first in 1985, ‘Democratic Defence – a non-nuclear alternative’ by Peter Tatchell took a radical look at the existing status-quo and suggested that our defence forces should be just that and not forces that interfered directly, or clandestinely, in other people’s countries: “Peter Tatchell proposes an alternative to nuclear weapons that is non-provocative, self-reliant, and distinctively democratic. It involves a radical reform of the armed forces, the creation of a community-based citizen’s army, and preparation for non-violent civilian resistance”. The book had a supporting blurb from Bruce Kent, then the general secretary of CND, who later joined VFP.
The second in 1989, ‘A New Model Army’ by Michael Yardley and Dennis Sewell was written by two ex-army officers who pointed out a lot of what was wrong in the existing military set-up – and how they wanted to see it reformed: “Michael Yardley and Dennis Sewell set out to confront by peering through the smokescreen and camouflage to examine the options open to Britain’s Army as it marches into the 1990s. They suggest alternatives which may be necessary if confidence is lost in nuclear weapons – they take a look at the theory of defensive debate – and they also suggest a new perspective on terrorism which threatens to take the upper hand in in the next decade. Finally they take a look inside the institutions of the Army, riddled with a lax morality, racism and a bully-boy mentality”.
Tatchell’s book is more radical, but both books will be of interest to anyone who seeks to change the existing military status-quo. They are available on the internet and second-hand copies can usually be obtained at a fairly low cost.