The History of the Gordon Highlanders

From the book "History and Handbook of The Gordon Highlanders"

In 1787 the 75th Regiment, the forerunner of the 1st battalion The Gordon Highlanders, was raised for service in the Far east, but it was not until 1793 when the French Revolutionary Government had declared war on Great Britain that the Government asked the Duke of Gordon to raise another regiment.

    The Duke having agreed, he received the authority on the 10th February, 1794, and the command was given to his son, the Marquess of Huntly, at that time a Lieutenant-Colonel in the 3rd, now the Scots Guards. The Duke himself, and his son, took a personal interest in the recruiting and the celebrated Duchess Jean, still a beautiful woman, lent to it all the prestige of her high position and the grace and charm of manner for which she was famed. She rode to the country fairs in Highland bonnet and regimental jacket and it is told how she gave a kiss to the men she enlisted. Sometimes she is said to have placed a guinea between her lips.

  On the 24th June, 1794 the newly embodied regiment was paraded for the first time at Aberdeen when they wore the then almost new, and now famous, tartan which had been devised by Forsythe of Huntly. Forsythe had taken the standard plaid and woven in a yellow stripe, which, as he wrote to Lord Huntly, he trusted would appear "very lively."

    It was at Gibraltar that the regiment, at that time not yet the 92nd, but the 100th Regiment of Foot, received their first colours and soon afterwards they were in Ireland making the acquaintance of Major-General John Moore with whom they were to serve on many historic occasions. In 1798 they were numbered the 92nd and in 1799 were fighting for a foothold on the sand-dunes of Holland at Egmont-op-Zee, the 75th were plodding through the jungles of Mysore with Colonel Wellesley on their way to Seringapatam, where the ultimately stormed the breach and trampled Tippoo Sahib underfoot. Ten years later at Corunna, at the end of the great retreat, the regiment had a prominent place at the funeral of their distinguished commander and it is in Sir John Moore`s memory that black buttons are worn on the spats.

By the autumn of 1810 the 92nd had joined Wellingtons army before Lisbon to spend more than a year preparing to breach the defences of the Spanish frontier. 1812 was the decisive year when the British army moved steadily northwards driving the Emperor's forces back to France. Famous actions followed in quick succession, no less than six battle honours being added to the colours, but it was in the mountainous Pyrenees that the Gordon Highlanders really came into their own and were in at every skirmish. They would attack with fury when Soult turned to face them on the Nivelle, and as the year came to an end they were campaigning outside Bayonne remembering the gallantry of their three pipers at St. Pierre, where, as they went into battle, one piper died and another took up the air; and when death silenced him, a third continued it. Soon the war was over, Wellington was a Duke and the Gordon Highlanders returned to Ireland.

       But their recall to service was not long in coming when the Emperor Napoleon, having escaped from Elba, landed near Cannes on 1st March, 1815. Thus they soon found themselves once more under Wellington's command and by mid-May they were in Belgian billets. On the evening of the day early in June when Napoleon hurled his whole command towards Brussels four Sergeants of the Gordon Highlanders were dancing reels to amuse the guests at a ball given by the Duchess of Richmond, the eldest daughter of Jean, Duchess of Gordon. Among those present was Cameron of Fassifern their commanding officer, but the military guests left early and at dawn the regiment was marching out of the city and by afternoon they had joined a mixed force of Dutch and Germans holding a position near the cross-roads of Quatre Bras. In the savage fighting which followed the 92nd lost their Colonel, that Cameron of Fassifern who had joined the regiment when first raised and of him Sir Walter Scott wrote :-

                        During twenty years of active military service,

                        With a spirit that knew no fear and shunned no danger

                        He accompanied or led

                        In marches, sieges, in battle

                        The gallant 92nd regiment of Scottish Highlanders.

                        Always to honour, almost always to victory.

        And it was not only Fassifern who had gone. That night though the men of the 92nd cooked their supper in the breastplates of the French Cuirassiers they had killed and the Pipe-Major played his music at the cross-roads, he played for half the men in vain

    In the chill of the next dawn Wellington came to the Gordon Highlanders and it was there he came to his great decision that he would "get back to the position at Mont St. Jean, where I will accept battle with Napoleon if I am supported by one Prussian Corps." Thus on Sunday, 18th June, the two armies faced each other at Waterloo. While Grouchy sought for the Prussians the Emperor brought 70,000 men to bear upon Wellington's position in which he had scarcely 63,000 of whom 42,000 were foreigners.

       The Gordon Highlanders were in the second line behind the Netherlands Brigade when they heard the good news that the Prussians were on their way, but as the main attack developed they heard their Brigadier shouting to them "92nd you must charge, for all the troops to your right and left have given way." And that was their signal for the Dutch were no longer ahead and the French were on the ridge. But the 92nd came on four deep with levelled bayonets and screaming pipes; and beside them beyond all belief, a pounding charge of British cavalry thundered towards the French.

        And then the horsemen recognised their countrymen and a great cry went up "Scotland for Ever," and the Gordon Highlanders seized hold of the stirrups of the Scots Greys as they gave back the cry; and all together the whole thundering mass of men and horses, sabres, bayonets and muskets were hurled into the midst of the French lines. The Gordons were beside themselves as they took to the slaughter and an old piper shouted that he could see Fassifern, still leading them, his bonnet lifted as it always used to be. And there was nothing that could stand against Highland frenzy, but the Brigadier recalled them saying "You have saved the day Highlanders, but you must return to your former position; there is more work to be done." It was then only half past three and there remained five hours of daylight. The summer afternoon wore on and wave after wave of French cavalry came charging up the slope, but the squares of the 92nd did not flinch.

        But now they could hear the Prussian guns and, as the light began to fade, the last attack, the massed bearskins of the Emperor's Guards came up the hill, came closer still and then withered away under the blast of British musketry. And the whole allied line swept forward and the Gordon Highlanders found themselves cheering their allies at La Belle Alliance. The great day was over; they had lost Fassifern and half their strength at Quatre Bras. At Waterloo they had lost almost half that had remained, but those two days of savage fighting brought to the Gordon Highlanders imperishable honour such as can never be outdone.

        After Waterloo Europe was to enjoy almost forty years of peace and the regiment did uneventful garrison duty at home and overseas including many years in the West Indies where they suffered much from disease. They were at Gibraltar in 1854 when Russian interference with Turkish sovereignty brought France and Britain to her aid in the Crimean War. But although, as a regiment, the 92nd saw no service in the Crimea between three and four hundred of their number had fought there with other units and amongst those who now returned to their original regiment was Private Thomas Beach, a native of Forfar, who rejoined with the newly established Victoria Cross pinned to his breast.

        Two years later the 92nd were sent to India to take part in the closing stages of the Indian Mutiny. The 75th were already in India, and the officers and men, who had established for themselves a reputation as the first mounted infantry and employed as such in the Kaffir War of 1835, were now rushed on elephants to bring in outlying settlers, and when this had been successfully accomplished, they prepared to advance, by a series of forced marches, against the mutineers who what murdered the inhabitants of Delhi. The 75th had also a reputation as infantry for, a short time before this they had reached Umballa, a distance of 48 miles from their base, in 38 hours.

        It was in June, 1857, that they came in front of Delhi as part of the 1st Brigade, and here they found themselves for the first time opposed by organised and intelligently led Indians. Thus they spent three months outside the city until Brigadier John Nicholson led them through a breach in the walls and fell mortally wounded in the hour of the 75th`s victory, a victory which earned three of their number the Victoria Cross, namely Private Patrick Green, Lieutenant Richard Wadeson and Colour-Sergeant Cornelius Coghlan . After Delhi they became part of a flying column which did brilliant work in saving Agra, and took part in the relief of Lucknow by Sir Colin Campbell. They returned home in 1862, to be followed shortly by the 92nd.

        In 1878 a sudden crisis blew up on the North-West Frontier of India due to intrigue between the Russians and the Amir of Afghanistan and the Gordon Highlanders joined a force under Lord Roberts who in his "Forty one years in India" says; `Towards the end of February, 1879, I paid a visit to Kohat and had the pleasure of welcoming to the frontier that grand regiment the 92nd Highlanders, which has been sent up in readiness to join my column in the event of an advance on Kabul becoming necessary.`

        A few months later the whole of the British Embassy staff in Kabul was murdered and there followed a period of mountain fighting when all the advantages were with the Afghans and even the Highlanders found it possible to curse the inclemency of the weather fighting 8000 feet above sea level. Some idea of the temperature may be gathered from the fact that on several occasions the rum had frozen in the barrels and once hard-boiled eggs in haversack ration had to be thawed out before they could be eaten.

        The war soon reached the hills around Kabul and the 92nd under Major White, raced for a hill and crowned it with a charge of great gallantry so that it is still known as Whites hill in commemoration of that Gordon major who was later as Field Marshal Sir George Stuart White, V.C.,  to be honoured with the Colonelcy of the Regiment. But though Kabul was captured and Roberts had assumed the rule of the country, Afghanistan was by no means at peace.

        In July, 1880, far away to the south-east a force of 2,500 under General Burrows had defeated as Maiwand with casualties of 1,000 and the survivors were now besieged in Kandahar. It was just such a defeat of European troops by native forces which was calculated to bring the latent unrest in North India into open rebellion and it was imperative that the beleagured force be relieved.

        The distance from Kabul to Kandahar is 300 miles and Lord Roberts, his guard throughout the march provided by 24 Gordon Highlanders, led a force of 10,000 through enemy country without news of their progress reaching besieged or besiegers at Kandahar. At the end of the long march came the culminating scene when Gordons and Gurkhas raced each other to capture the Afghan guns. And when Lord Roberts was Knighted being made a G.C.B.,(Grand Cross of the Bath) he, like Sir John Moore before him, chose to have as one of the supporters of his coat of arms, a private of the Gordon Highlanders.

        In the following year the regiment sailed for home, but were diverted to South Africa where a dispute between the British and the Boers was deepening into hostilities and arrived in time to suffer heavy casualties at the melancholy action of Majuba Hill. The 92nd were still in South Africa when in 1881 came the merging with the 75th, which was to be known as the Gordon Highlanders and neither regiment would seem to be very pleased with this enforced marriage. At midnight on 30th June, they solemnly interred a flag decorated with the figures `92,` while all the officers in full Highland dress walked behind as chief mourners, and the Colonel of the 15th Hussars delivered the funeral oration before the proceedings ended with three volleys over the grave and a piper's lament. Next morning when the flag was exhumed it was found to be inscribed `No died yet.` At the same time in Malta the 75th were registering their grief by raising a Roman altar below the ramparts of Floriana on which was inscribed :-

                        Here lies the poor 75th

                        But under God's protection

                        They'll rise again in kilt and hose

                        A glorious resurrection.

                        For by the transformation powers

                        Of Parliamentary laws

                        They go to bed the 75th

                        And rise the ninety twas.

But any feeling of regret was soon forgotten and before long the Gordon Highlanders were to prove that they were by no means `deid yet.`

        In August, 1882, the 1st Battalion disembarked at Alexandria to take part in the suppression of an armed insurrection. The rebels were threatening the Suez Canal and Sir Garnet Wolseley found them entrenched at Tel-el-Kebir and realised at once that it would be useless to attack by daylight. So, by a night march of 8 miles, two divisions advanced simultaneously upon the enemy and dawn found them passed through the enemy's forward line without being discovered. And then as the Egyptian bugles called to action and a stream of rifle fire opened on the British forces the Gordons went in with fixed bayonets and pipers playing and in twenty minutes Arabi Pasha and his army were in full retreat. Though order was soon restored in Egypt, the Sudan was in a turmoil and the 1st Battalion took part with both the desert and river columns in the attempt to save Gordon at Khartoum.

        In 1888 the 1st Battalion went to India living uneventfully enough until 1895 when they were called to service with the Chitral Relief Force and two years later they again saw fighting on the frontier, this time against the Afridis. The tribesmen held the heights before Dargai and had withstood for half a day the onslaught of a Brigade when it was decided that once again the classic combination of Gordons and Gurkhas should clear the way. But the Gurkhas were checked and the Gordons heard their Colonel, colonel Matthias, tell them ` The General says the hill must be taken at all costs  the Gordon Highlanders will take it.` Then they left cover for a dash across the bullet-swept approaches, the pipes screaming. Almost at once there were casualties and through the pipes played on they did not go with the advance for Piper (George) Findlater had been shot through both feet. yet under heavy fire he sat there playing doggedly and both he and Private (Edward) Lawson received the Victoria Cross for their work that day.

        Dargai was captured. The swift march against the enemy, the short and dashing battle without too many casualties and the touch of romance added by the wounded piper captured the imagination of the British public in a remarkable way, so that when the battalion returned home their progress from Liverpool to Edinburgh was triumphal and in the capital itself it required a squadron of the Scots Greys to clear a way for them.

        But clouds were gathering in South Africa as Queen Victoria's reign drew to its close. The 2nd Battalion had reached there from Bombay and were at Ladysmith when war was declared. Resolved to stem the Boer invasion of Natal the garrison made a thrust towards Elandslaagte and it was there in October, 1899, that they first met the Boers in battle. The Boers were in a strong position and their arms and musketry were more modern and better than those of the British forces. The Gordons attacked as the pipers played and paid a heavy price, but the contested ridge was reached at last and shouting `Majuba` to remind them of what had befallen their comrades there at the hands of the Boers, they went after the retreating enemy. But the victory failed to disengage Ladysmith and they settled down to the dwindling amenities of a siege life which was to last until the 28th February, 1900.

        The 1st Battalion came out from Britain in time to join Lord Methuen`s attempt to relieve Kimberley and suffered heavily with the rest of the Highland brigade at Magersfontien so that the century ended in dismal fashion for the British troops. But with the arrival of Lord Roberts to take command the tide began to turn. The 1st Battalion saw Kitchener win his victory at Paardeberg and then they swept on to Bloemfontein, while in the east relief came to Ladysmith.

        The 1st Battalion distinguished themselves with rare gallantry at Hout Nek and then at Doornkop, led by Ian Hamilton, the Gordons won fresh laurels. Much has been written of that battle, but there is surely no better account than that given by Winston Churchill in his book, "Ian Hamilton's March." ` The honours, equally with the cost of victory, making every allowance for skilful direction and bold leading, belongs to the 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders more than to all the troops put together. The rocks against which they marched proved to be the very heart of the enemy's position. The grass in front of the position was burnt and burning, and against this dark background the khaki figures showed distinctly. The Boers held their heaviest fire until the attack was within 800 yards, and then the ominous rattle of concentrated rifle fire burst forth. The advance neither checked or quickened. With remorseless stride, undisturbed by peril or enthusiasm. the Gordon Highlanders swept steadily onwards, changed direction half left to avoid as far as possible an enfilade fire, changed again to effect a lodgement on the end of the ridge most suitable to attack and at last rose up together to charge. The Boers shrunk from the attack......they fled in confusion......"

        The South African war ended, the 2nd Battalion returned to India and by summer of 1914 had been stationed at Kase-el-Nil, Cairo, for two years. The 1st Battalion had come home and at this time were at Crownhill Barracks, Plymouth.

        When on the 4th August the Germans struck through Belgium the shock had to be met at the fields of Flanders and France and within a few days the `contemptible little army` as the Kaiser called it had been thrown across the channel and by the 22nd of the month had reached Mons. The 1st Battalion as part of the 8th Brigade in the 3rd Division helped to line the Conde-Mons canal near Nimy Bridge and it was here on the morning of the following day that the brunt of the German onslaught fell and two days later, after the longest march of the retreat, they made their famous stand at Le Cateau. At last after 8 days of retreat and with only one company left they reached a line behind the river Marne and it was from here that General Joffre struck at the German flank and turned the tide of invasion away from Paris.

        Meanwhile the 2nd Battalion had taken the field with the 7th Division at the first battle of Ypres held the line against a force, six times its strength, which was aimed at the channel ports. And now at intervals there arrived four territorial and three service battalions to join the regulars so that the year 1915 was to see all the Gordon battalions in action from Neuve Chapelle in March, Festubert in May to the autumn battle of Loos.

        A year later the allies in the west found themselves on something like equal terms with the enemy and after heavy losses of the French at Verdun the brunt of the fighting fell on the British. Throughout the five months` long battle of the Somme, every Gordon Battalion took its full share, the 1st Battalion with the `Fighting 3rd` and the 2nd in the no-less famous 7th Division. The four territorial Battalions were by now brigaded with the 51st, while the two service battalions, which hat fought so well at Loos, served in the 15th (Scottish) Division.

        The fight of the 2nd Battalion at Mametz was a typical Somme action in which a dour and ready enemy sold ground at the highest possible price. Three lines of trenches had to be won and crossed before the village of Mametz was reached and at the end of the long day the battalion had lost 16 officers and 445 other ranks.

        As the battle progresses the other Battalions were drawn in. The 1st had a memorable engagement at Delville Wood. The four Battalions in the 51st fought at High Wood and the service Battalions at Flers and Pozieres Ridge. Each Battalion was engaged over and over again and it was not until August that the great day came when all those tired Battalions were to meet. The regulars were resting at Mericourt, the remainder at Happy Valley. The 1st had the longest way to go, but by a forced march they managed to reach the scene of that great gathering of eight Gordon Battalions.

        Throughout 1917 the struggle raged and the Gordons were there at Vimy Ridge and Bullecourt, at the battles of Third Ypres and Cambrai and countless other actions. 

        In the spring of the following year came the supreme crisis of the war and on 21st March the mighty German blow fell. The 2nd Battalion had by now moved to the Italian front to help stem the tide after the disaster to the Italian army at Caporetto, but the other seven battalions were engaged in the second battle of the Somme and an indication of the ferocity of the strugle is given by the casualties of the 5th Battalion in six days` fighting at Doignie and Mezieres, 22 officers and 560 other ranks.

        To atone for his partial failure on the Somme the enemy now threw in 35 fresh divisions at the battle of the Lys on the Flanders front and when this was no more successful Ludenorff launched his last and greatest effort to force a decisive victory. He forced the Aisne and reached the Marne at Chateau Thierry and it was here that history was to repeat itself, just as Joffe had thrown back the first German rush from this line, so now, they were to meet a more disastrous fate at the hands of Foch.

        And throughout these great battles and those that followed all the Gordon battalions played their part and when, on 11th November, 1918, the Armistice was signed, victory was celebrated where each battalion stood. the 1st at Longueville, the 2nd on the Piave, the 6/7th at Thu-Leveque and the 9th east of the Scheldt. The regiment had suffered casualties close on 30,000 of all ranks.

        The 1st Battalion now did a spell at Cologne before coming home to prepare for foreign sevice. Early in 1920 they landed at Constantinople as part of the Army of the Black Sea. here internal trouble in Turkey and quarrels with Greece had led to a dangerous situation. Soon they were in Malta though two years later a further call came for sevice in Turkey, but the crisis passed. Again in 1924 they were called upon to leave the island at short notice when they sailed in the Aircraft Carrier Eagle for Eygpt where a nationalist agitation had arisen, but after a month on the outskirts of Cario the battalion was again on board ship bound for Bambay and the fourth Indian tour in its history.

        Sevice in Deccan, at Delhi and on the North-West Frontier occupied the next ten years and then after a short stay in Palestine they sailed for home and, en-route, disembarked at Gibraltar to spend a day with the 2nd Battalion which was stationed on the rock. This was in 1935, the year in which the Depot moved to the Bridge of Don and the new barracks in their spacious setting of 50 acres, a great contrast to the cramped two acres of Castlhill, which had been the home of the regiment for more than 140 years.

        The 2nd Battalion began its post=war reconstruction in Phoenix Park, Dublin, and thereafter served in Scotland, Ulster and England before leaving for Gibraltar and the start of their foreign service tour. September, 1939, found them as part of the garrison of Singapore, while the 1st Battalion was at Aldershot. There were three territorial battalions and during the summer months these had been in the process of doubling, thus at the outbreak of the war the regiment had five battalions and three more forming.

        It was not long before four of these had crossed the channel and when in 1940 the German break-through came, two of them, the 1st and the 5th, part of the 51st Division, were holding a section of the Maginot Line and from here they were withdrawn to fight their way west and south by way of Amiens to Saint Valery. And it was here, faced with overwhelming force and all hope of escape by sea gone, that the rest of the division , laid down their arms. Meanwhile to the North the 4th and 6th Battalions having moved forward into Belgium were obliged to fall back on Dunkirk from whence they were evacuated to England.

        There followed a long period of reorganisation and training during which new 1st and 5th Battalions were formed and three units of the regiment were converted to other arms. The 4th and 8th Battalions became respectively the 92nd and 100th Anti/Tank Regiments R.A., (Royal Artillery) while the 9th Battalion became the 116th regiment R.A.C. (Royal Armoured Corp)

        When in December, 1941, the Japanese opened hostilities, the 2nd Battalion were drawn into the fight. As part of the garrison of Singapore they were not thrown in to resist the Japanese advance down the Malayan peninsular until late in the campaign and by then the position was desperate. But they withdrew in good order over the causeway to Singapore to play a full part in the battle which ended with the surrender of the garrison.

        Nearer home Britain was building up her forces and the time was not far away when, with her American allies, they were to go over to the offensive. Thus the 1st and 5/7th Battalions in the new 51st Division had rounded the Cape and were now training in the Nile delta for the task of ridding Africa of the Germans ans Italians. And these two battalions marched with the 8th army from El Alamein westwards to Tripoli and beyond, while from the west came the 6th Battalion in the 1st Army to meet them, their task accomplished, on the tip of Tunisia.

        There followed the invasion and rapid conquest of Sicily before the 51st Division was withdrawn to prepare for yet a more important task. The 6th battalion remained in this theatre, however, and was soon to land on the beaches of Anzio and take the road which led them to Rome.

        At home a new 2nd Battalion was rising and was ready to take the field with the 15th (Scottish) Division in the invasion of Normandy. They followed closely on the heels of the 1st and 5/7th Battalions in the 51st Division which had landed on D day, and from then onward until the final surrender of Germany there were three Gordon Battalions in the fight which led them across France and over the Rhine to avenge their comrades of Saint Valery.

        And in the East two other units of the regiment, 100th Anti/Tank Regiment Royal Artillery, (The Gordon Highlanders) and the 116th Regiment, Royal Armoured Corp, (The Gordon Highlanders) were there at the defence of Kohima and N.E India, and in the drive which cleared Burma of the Japanese. Four and a half years` fighting had cost the regiment 2,500 lives.


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