Scots up in arms as warrior spirit attacked

THEY WERE the "Devils in Skirts" or the "Ladies from Hell" and their battlefield exploits were legendary.

Their reputation was forged by feats of astonishing bravery amid the carnage of the First World War and just the sight of Scots soldiers dressed in traditional kilts was said to strike fear into the hearts of their German enemy.

But a leading German military historian has now dismissed as a "myth" the idea that Scottish soldiers terrified the Kaiser's army and claims there is no evidence to show that the Scots were feared more than any other British troops. The Scottish regiments attracted interest more for their wearing of the kilt than because of their prowess in battle, he says, adding that the Germans were far more scared of coming up against black troops from the French African colonies.

But the claims have provoked fury from representatives of the Scottish regiments, which traditionally regard their soldiers as charging fearlessly into battle to the bloodcurdling sound of the bagpipes. Major George Burns, of the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders Association, said: "We all know that the sight of the kilt frightened the lives out of the Germans. It is a fact that the bravery and fighting ability of the Scottish regiments impressed all the sides in both world wars."

Almost 700,000 Scots served in the Great War, mostly on the Western Front, with 150,000 losing their lives. What is beyond doubt is their role in fighting ferocious rearguard actions that slowed the German advance across Europe in 1914.

The "Devils in Skirts" nickname was supposed to have been given to the soldiers of the 51st Highland Division during the Battle of Ancre in 1916.

They had to cross a battlefield littered with the fallen from a previous assault and enter a deep depression, called the Y ravine, to reach enemy positions. But they stormed the German troops with such determination that thousands of prisoners were taken. By the end of the conflict in 1918, the 51st Highlanders were known as the best fighting division in France despite horrific losses.

But German historians believe their reputation owed as much to Allied propaganda as it did to their feats of arms.

Dr Benjamin Ziemann, who has written or co-written six books on the Great War and the period, said nothing in the German war archives supports the suggestion that the Kaiser's soldiers feared the Scots more than other Allied troops.

He said: "I have never ever in years of studying a broad variety of sources from the German military come across a text which referred explicitly to the Scots as one particular group or gave special attention to their allegedly superior bravery.

"The popular view seems to me rather to be a Scottish projection and self-perception."

Ziemann, whose works include a "myth-busting" book entitled Everyday Life On The Front During The First World War, said: "These rumours and tales were created on both sides, partially to boost morale. The Germans had them too. Bavarian troops were often relied on to hold a line if it seemed the Allies might break through and so it came to be said that the Bavarians had this great reputation and were feared."

Ziemann, now a lecturer in history at Sheffield University, added that the documents showed that the Kaiser's soldiers did fear some Allied forces. Racial stereotyping led them to believe that black French troops would mistreat prisoners and the wounded.

In a war characterised by gruesome new weapons such as poison gas and flamethrowers, the Germans believed that fielding Africans in battle was a breach of "etiquette". In total, 475,000 French Empire troops fought, with 57,000 losing their lives.

Another leading German military historian backs Ziemann's claims. Professor Gerhard Hirschfeld, of the Netherlands Institute of Advanced Study, who has written on the Battle of the Somme, said: "There isn't any evidence that German soldiers were especially frightened of Scottish soldiers. They were fascinated by the kilt though, and my own grandfather used to tell me - and this comes up in other interviews too - that they used to send soldiers out into No Man's Land to check the bodies of fallen Scots because they were fascinated by the question of what was under the kilt."

But veterans insist the Germans did fear the Scots. Dr Tom Renouf, the 82-year-old secretary of the Highland Divisions Veterans Association and a former lieutenant said: "I think Scots have got a natural ability for fighting. It became part of our nature - and grew from the clan system into the Scottish Highland regiments. It was part of our inheritance and psyche."

Major Graham Pilcher, who received the Military Cross for service with the Black Watch during the Second World War and is the husband of best-selling romantic author Rosamunde Pilcher, added: "A chap like that - a German academic who is probably quite young - doesn't have the remotest idea. Of course one always blows up one's own organisation, but we were really very good."

Bravery in battle

Examples abound of Scots showing extraordinary bravery on the battlefield.

During the First World War, former Celtic footballer William Angus voluntarily left his trench in the face of enemy fire to rescue an officer lying unconscious just yards from the German trenches. A rope was tied around his waist so he could be dragged back to the British side if he was killed.

The successful rescue left Angus with 40 gunshot wounds and the loss of an eye, and was later described by commanders as "the bravest deed done in the history of the British Army".

In all, 117 Victoria Crosses, the highest military honour, have been awarded to soldiers serving in Scottish regiments through history, according to research by the Victoria Cross & George Cross Association.