The “poor bloody infantry” arguably had one of the toughest jobs in battle, building and supplying the front line, and no-one has been “keeping the line” longer than the Royal Scots, the oldest regiment in the British Army. Known as “Pontius Pilate’s Bodyguards” – after a 17th-century bragging competition with the French – they have, since 2006, been amalgamated with five other regiments to form The Royal Scots Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland.
The Royal Scots was raised on this day in history in 1633 by renowned fighter Sir John Hepburn, under a Royal Warrant from Charles I. Made up mostly from Scottish mercenaries, they fought predominantly in Europe for the first 30 years of their fighting lives until they were recalled to Britain in 1661. There they became the inspiration for the New Model Army – the Royal Scots could be considered the prototype for every British fighting unit.
Their history has been long, busy and bloody and has seen them fight in battles, wars and conflicts across the world. The 17th century saw them in Tangiers where they won their first Battle Honour. For their bravery, Charles II conferred on them the title “The Royal Regiment of Foot”. This in turn has led to them being known as “First of foot, right of the line and the pride of the British Army”.
It was in the 17th century that the regiment was divided into two battalions, and was not to have fewer until 1949. These two battalions were split up, seeing varied duty through the 19th century. They served under Marlborough during the War of the Spanish Succession, then fought across Europe in the Austrian War of Succession before returning to Scotland to defeat the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden.
The regiment was often posted east, to India and China, helping both to maintain and to enlarge the Empire, and to ensure trading could continue. In the West Indies they suffered huge losses, not through fighting, but from disease, which saw them lose more than half of their battalion.
During the First World War the regiment rose to 35 battalion, 15 of which served in the front line. They suffered many casualties during the conflict; of the 100,000 men who fought for the regiment during this time, 40,000 were wounded and nearly 12,000 killed. Of particular poignancy is the number of brothers who were killed, some on the same day.
On July 1915, brothers Robert and William Archibald died near La Boissell. The men had adjacent regimental numbers, suggesting that they enlisted together. On the same day 23-year-old twins Alexander and John Laing were killed in France. John, a baker from Penicuik, died trying to provide cover for survivors from C Company. His brother Sandy, a Leith policeman, died by his side.
One of the darkest days in the Regiment’s history was 22 May, 1915. A special troops train carrying the Leith-based 7th Battalion was en route to Liverpool, from where they would then embark for Gallipoli. The signalmen outside Gretna forgot that a local train was still on the tracks and gave the all-clear to the troop train. The impact was so intense that the troop train was reduced to half its previous length. Minutes after the northbound express from Euston crashed into it, setting it on fire.
It is still Britain’s worst ever train crash, killing three officers, 29 non-commissioned officers and 182 soldiers who were either killed outright or burnt to death.
Today the regiment, albeit functioning as part of a larger battalion, is still seeing action and still suffering losses. The 1 Scots have just arrived back from a six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan. Company Commander Major Graeme Wearmouth describing the country as a “minefield” but says his warriors were every bit as good as the jocks of old.
“We had a tough six months, they fought well, they fought hard and they made progress.” he says of their fighting in the notoriously dangerous Helmand Province.
Unlike the fighting days of old, he says that their role nowadays is as much about winning over the locals. “When we arrived, the relationship with the locals wasn’t that great and it was a bit of an uphill struggle,” he said. However, in the end they began to break down the barriers, to the extent that they set up a neighbourhood watch scheme.
During the tour the company lost two men, Corporal John Moore and Private Sean McDonald, and a number of other soldiers were injured. And although the men were glad to be returning home, their thoughts were never far from the ones who didn’t make it.
“As we got on that helicopter,” says Wearmouth, talking of the day they left, “every man was thinking of John and Sean. But we made progress and their deaths were not in vain.”