Before Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army, there had been no standing army in England. In the past the monarchy had raised armies to fight specific wars, after which these forces were disbanded. A permanent standing army gradually emerged from the period of the English Civil War and the ‘Glorious Revolution,’ when William of Orange’s forces had defeated those of James II.
Most rank and file soldiers came from the poor and dispossessed. 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. Scottish Highland soldiers, whose forbears had been hunted down for wearing their native tartan, now wore a new British military tartan to serve the Empire.
Most clan chiefs were 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.’ In his book Mutiny, John Prebble outlined the background to the many revolts of Scottish Highland soldiers:
‘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].
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.
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. They fought with the Highland Brigade in the Boer War; they won six Victoria Crosses in the First World War and fought with distinction in the Second World War and Korea. In 2006 the regiment was amalgamated into the Royal Regiment of Scotland.
The ‘Pitchfork Murders’
In 1972 in Northern Ireland 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. The pathologist said Naan’s wounds were ‘consistent with an attack by someone who had gone berserk.’ A sectarian motive was attributed to the killings and loyalists were suspected of carrying out a crime, which became known as the ‘pitchfork murders’ – after the suspected murder weapon.
Later in the 1970s Britain was horrified by a series of brutal murders of young women, many picked up from ‘red light’ areas in northern cities. Reading about the latest ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ murder in 1978 had a profound affect 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 a member of a British Army patrol 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 killings, he went to 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. I killed them and they just wouldn’t stop screaming. Oh my god – I have been having bloody nightmares about it.’
Other members of the patrol received lesser sentences for aiding and abetting or withholding information – including the officer in charge. Described as an ‘exemplary officer,’ he had attended Harrow and Sandhurst and came from ‘a distinguished military background.’ The officer said he’d been in charge, but was not on the patrol. He had, however, found out about the killings and he said:
‘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.’
It also come 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 which one of the soldiers possessed. It subsequently emerged that many of the troops in Ireland carried ‘personal weapons,’ to which those in authority had turned a blind eye.
Murders in Aden
The story did not end there, because the veteran who had revealed the information had 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 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 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 thin walls, the heavy velocity bullets must have caused untold deaths and destruction.
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.’
Clearly showing the racist way Arabs were viewed by the military, officers had initiated inter-platoon rivalry by awarding Robertson’s Jam ‘golliwog’ stickers to units for each killing of an Arab. An ex-soldier 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.’
[Sunday Mail (Scotland) 17th Dec. 1978; also the editions of the paper on 26th April, 3rd May, 10th May and 17th May 1981].
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 the Lord Advocate had decided that no proceedings should be instituted in this case.
The military unit involved in those incidents in County Fermanagh and Aden was the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. In Aden the regiment had been led by Lt-Colonel Colin ‘Mad Mitch’ Mitchell, a British ‘war hero’ who became a right-wing Tory MP after leaving the army.
From the end of the Second World War British Governments had been confronted with freedom demands from national movements in British colonies. At first Westminster ignored these pleas and then used armed force in attempts to crush them. These conflicts are a hidden history for most British people, because they were often concealed from view and/or had their events distorted by biased reporting. 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. During these conflicts the press, cinema news and later TV 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 quite different as these ‘small wars’ were about the hegemony of strategic areas – as well as plundering natural resources, exploiting cheap labour and making vast profits. Conflicts where intimidation, internment, torture and mass murder was systematically used to protect ‘British interests.’
The late James Cameron was a journalist who covered many of Britain’s colonial conflicts. His reporting was an honourable exception to the usual jingoistic type of coverage. In an article about Northern Ireland, published in The Guardian in 1975, he made these comments about the previous small wars:
‘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 1940’s, 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].
The murders committed by the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders in Northern Ireland and Aden would not have become know about if a veteran in civvy street had not been so worried by the circumstances of the ‘Ripper killings’ that he’d felt compelled to disclose the events he had witnessed while serving – and revealed the guilty secrets of his old regiment. How many other regiments of the British Army have similar guilty secrets that are yet to be uncovered? While they claim a ‘proud,’ ‘glorious’ and ‘honourable’ history.