THEY were the Scots “lions led by donkeys”. The established “fact” that in the First World War far more Scots soldiers died as a percentage of the population than in almost any other country is a nationalist “myth” according to a leading historian.
Sir Hew Strachan, a leading expert on the First World War, has criticised fellow historians, including Sir Tom Devine, for perpetuating the idea that Scottish soldiers died in relatively far greater numbers than their fellow soldiers from England.
The estimated number of Scots who died in the war has been put as high as 182,222. First Minister Alex Salmond last week quoted a lower figure of 145,000, however, Strachan, who is the Chichele Professor of the History of War at Oxford University, insists the actual figure was probably around 100,000 men.
His essay The Scottish Soldier and Scotland 1914-1918 is to be published by the National Museums of Scotland as part of a forthcoming book.
Strachan writes: “There is little reason to think that Scottish death rates in the war were massively out of line with those of Britain as a whole.
“This is not to deny either their scale or their impact. However, neither the history of Scotland in general, nor Scottish military history in particular, needs more myths.”
Strachan, who is speaking today at the Edinburgh International Festival, explains in his essay that the 1921 census of Scotland reported 74,000 deaths abroad as a result of the war.
This was viewed as an underestimate as it ignored those who died of wounds at home or from their wounds after 1921.
Later, in 1927, the Scottish National War Memorial commemorated the names of 85,548 dead from Scottish regiments.
He points out that later “nationalist propaganda” quickly reached a tally of 110,000 deaths then writes: “But this figure pales by comparison with current claims.
“In 2013 Colin Campbell, a former SNP defence spokesman and the author of a history of the 51st Highland Division in the war, claimed in an otherwise well-formed letter to the press that 26 per cent of Scots did not return from the war, and that the Scottish population was depleted by 3.1 per cent, when England’s fell by only 1.6 per cent.
“These figures have become standard in today’s Scotland. They are almost certainly wrong.”
Yesterday Sir Tom Devine agreed that in the past the number of Scottish dead in World War One had been exaggerated but was unconvinced by the historian’s argument that the nation suffered losses no greater than the rest of the UK.
He explained: “Any calculation of the proportion of the Scottish dead in the Great War leads the scholar into a methodological and statistical minefield. Strachan’s commentary is a contribution to the debate on this emotive subject; it is not by any means the last word on it. In particular, he does not in my view conclusively prove his contention that Scottish losses were no greater than the British average between 1914 and 1918.
At the same time, he is surely correct in suggesting that Niall Ferguson’s well- known estimates are exaggerated. Personally, I have changed my own views about the figures twice since The Scottish Nation was first published over 15 years ago. My revised estimates will be published in the next edition of the book.”