Good Old Days
And now we hear cries of alarm, and threats from terrorists, about the redeployment of the famed Scottish Black Watch Regiment to the hotspots around Baghdad.
Well gather 'round.
I'd like to tell a little story about the good old days before everyone turned into frightened "girlie-men", that feature other Highland regiments.
The time: 1857.
The place: mutinous India.
In parts of India, a mutiny flared up. Most British outposts were taken by surprise as their native contingents suddenly changed sides and joined the mutineers and princelings. A new Emperor of Hindustan was declared, and a bin-Laden-like character Nana Sahib emerged as a rebel leader.
Many outposts were massacred outright, along with their women and children. Others found themselves besieged, isolated and in desperate straits.
One group of about 350 British troops with a few hundred natives troops of uncertain morale, and over 500 women and children, were trapped in the Residency compound at Lucknow.
What to do?
Declare a quagmire?
Beg for forgiveness?
Remember, this is 1857 -- before the days of body armor, helicopter medevac, and air superiority. Before antibiotics and anesthesia. Before humvees, armored or otherwise. Before tanks and armored personnel carriers. Before satellite-guided bombs.
This was halfway around the world, in a gigantic country, now hostile.
And at the peak of the hot season with 100-degree temperatures.
They'd have to march on foot through densely-populated cities in house-to-house fighting, and all they had were muskets and whatever supplies and artillery they could drag themselves.
Rather than fret in fear and doubt, the Brits got down to business.
This was May, and the Lucknow garrison believed it could hold out until September.
There being many trouble spots, the Lucknow relief force began with under 2,000 troops. And the Residence -- with only about 500 or so defenders -- was surrounded by between 50,000 and 100,000 mutineers.
Many of them not a rabble, but well-armed and trained former native troops.
Nobody kept carping that there "weren't enought troops" to get the job done, they just set out to do it, with discipline and determination.
By July, the relief column had reached Cawnpore, still some distance from Lucknow. And nobody was screaming "Quagmire!" even though 2 months had already gone by.
The original garrison of Cawnpore had negotiated a surrender, and upon marching out, all the men were immediately murdered. The hundreds of women and children were taken as hostages, and just before the relief column arrived, they were taken to a room and systematically hacked apart with swords and cleavers.
Among the relief column were the 78th Highlanders, and nobody in the world is as motivatible by sentimental fury as a Victorian Scot.
The Highlanders arrived to find the entire floor was drenched in blood. The walls were smeared red, with hack-marks matted with human hair. The room had a well, into which the dead and dying were stuffed, until it overflowed with body parts.
And if the newspapers of the day are to be believed, scrawled on the walls, presumably in blood, was the message "countrymen, avenge us!"
And nobody found that sentiment insensitive or offensive.
In the well was found the head of one of the former commander's daughters, from which the Highlanders requested cuttings of locks of hair. Passing them around, each Highlander counted the strands and swore a blood oath to personally slay at least one rebel for each hair received.
Eventually reinforced to a strengh of about 3,000 by September, the relief force finally forced its way into the Residency, spurred on by the battle cry, "Remember Cawnpore!"
But still being surrounded by a huge hostile force, they could not safely escort the defenders, many of them sick or wounded. The garrison was now, however, able to hold out longer with this injection of reinforcements.
Was the operation declared a failure? Did the media ask for an "exit strategy"?
No, a new force of around 5,000 was formed to finish the relief in November, which included 2 other Highland regiments (among others), as well as a naval artillery force. The 93rd Highlanders, newly arrived in country, were still in the tartan kilts and feathered bonnets.
Making its way through the maze of deadly streets and compounds, with attackers in every mosque (nothing has changed...) and alley the column would not be denied, the massacre at Cawnpore still fresh in their minds.
The sailors with the unit manhandled their heavy artillery right up to the skirmish lines, as if they were delivering broadsides from their warship at sea, to withering effect, and progress was good until they ran into the Secundrabagh, a large fortified and walled compound.
The plan was for the artillery to breach a small hole in the wall, through which a party of Highlanders would charge to open the gates for the rest.
As soon as the breach appeared, however, the Highlanders could not be restrained, and the entire regiment of 700 surged forward "with a terrifying yell of long-suppressed rage" as the pipes skirled up The Haughs of Cromdell, aka The Old Highland Charge, "the sound of which raised the men's fury to a berserk level."
There being no time to reload in the close-quarter fighting, this was to be an argument in cold steel, with death coming from distances under 3 feet from broadsword, dirk, and bayonet.
When it was all over, the bodies of over 2,000 mutineers were piled in the courtyard, with not a single one knowingly let to escape, for a loss of 22 Highlanders.
The next obstacle was the Shah Najaf mosque, an apparently even tougher nut, but after the bombardment started, given the grim outcome at the Secundabragh, the defenders soon abandoned the position.
And thus the Residency was relieved, and its occupants escorted to safety, after holding out for 6 months.
Mopping-up operations would continue for another year, with the Nana Sahib fleeing to the remote regions of Nepal, and was rumored to have died the next year but was never found.
We would do well to reclaim the steadfastness and confidence of the Victorians.
[this account paraphrased and quoted from "Impossible Victories" by Bryan Perrett.]
UPDATE: Other sources give the title of the Highland Charge as "The Haughs of Cromdale" rather than Cromdell (as in the source I quoted).