Regimental Histories…

Regimental histories are mines of information, but they often seem as if they were written for the men of a given regiment, rather than for the public at large.  They tend to be plagued by in-jokes that aren’t explained, cryptic references, and glaring omissions.  Passages that critique unit command decisions are often so vague and so obscure that only insiders, historians and aficionados really have a firm grasp on what’s being described, while general readers are left sailing over seemingly unimportant passages.

-2Kim Beattie’s A History of the 48th Highlanders of Canada, 1891-1928 is a wonderful regimental history (as is the follow-up volume: Dileas: A History of the 48th Highlanders of Canada, 1929-1956).  Volume I is quite difficult to come by: I’ve been hunting for a copy for several years now, and anecdotal evidence suggests one should expect to part with several hundred dollars to secure a copy.  I ended up requesting a copy through inter-library loan from the University of Alberta, and photocopied it.  There are a little more than a dozen copies scattered through academic libraries across Canada; should you want to request one, the L&AC listing is here.

Kim Beattie is another of those forgotten Canadian writers of the First World War that I intend to get on punishment detail sometime soon.  His literary output is slim: a single volume of poetry titled And You! which, like his first regimental history, is extremely difficult to find, and more importantly, a joy to read.

Briefly, Beattie lied about his age to enlist and officially joined the 48th Highlanders in November of 1915, claiming he was 18 years and 8 months of age, when he was in fact 15 years 8 months old.  I write “officially” because that is the final date on his heavily corrected and annotated attestation papers.  The date on the backpage of his attestation papers is August of ’15.  To view them yourself, click here.  Beattie’s daughter Margaret Milne, writing in the Guelph Mercury newspaper in 2001, claims he took the shilling but a month after his 15th birthday.  Given what I’ve unearthed about Beattie, and the minor scandal his age caused when he distinguished himself at the front, I suspect he was a lot closer to 15 than 16 years old when he donned the khaki of the Canadian Corps.

As a sidebar, when I went through infantry basic training in the summer of 2002, our CO told us in a lecture that the only thing we could lie about to military authorities without risk of being court martialed was our age.  Whether that’s true, or if true remains the case, I can’t say.

After the war, at the ripe old age of twenty, Beattie began writing for the Toronto Telegram newspaper, was a charter member of the Toronto Flying Club and had exclusive rights to all military assignments for the paper.  In 1929 (the same year All Else is Folly appeared) MacMillian published Beattie’s collection of poetry And You!  He would follow this up with his first volume of the history of the 48th Highlanders in 1932.

Beattie chronicles the history of the regiment with a newspaperman’s pacing, and frequently adds the sort of relevant detail uncommon in official histories: the films they watched when out of the line, when new equipment, such as the ‘tin hats’ were issued, the slang that fell in and out of fashion, etc.  He doesn’t shy from offering the reader glimpses of a private’s view of the war, before effortlessly transitioning to a more traditional, authoritative historical perspective.  Here’s a taste from his account of the battle of Mont Sorrel:

The assault was launched at 1:07 p.m. on June 2nd.  That the situation was both desperate and critical was instantly seen and stand-to orders were rushed to all battalions in the back lines.  The Salient seemed about to be hopelessly smashed, as a short section of the line was.  H.Q. of the Corps spent anxious hours for once more there gaped a hole between the Hun and Ypres.  Early in the afternoon, it became known, nothing stood between the enemy and the Menin Gate but occasional details.  Definite news could not be obtained of the situation during the afternoon and orders were issued that units of the 1st Division must be rushed in to plug the gap.  Early in the evening, the 15th Battalion received the order in Scottish Lines and at 7:30 p.m. they were falling in.

There was no ceremony to that march-out, and in a brief while, that spoke much for their discipline, one of the finest bodies of men that ever trod the Flemish pavé in the tartan of the 48th Highlanders moved forward to get into the trouble.  As Ouderdom fell behind, a lowering twilight began to settle over the disturbed back-lines.  It was a forced march, without rests, and at a pace which slowed not for weary limbs.  No one in the ranks knew just where the Regiment was going, nor why, nor what it was all about.  There was trouble and there was urgency, so there wasn’t a grouse at the pace.  Years afterwards other men of other units who had been forward that night said: “You were at-the-double.”  They had seen the rear of the column doubling to keep up to that pace.

The enemy was shelling the rear areas and, as the companies turned off the Dickebusch Road to follow the narrow-gauge track, a sudden burst of terrific fire broke out in the pulsing dark ahead.  The night grew more resonant as they went on, with those sudden, smashing flurries of fire constantly recurring.  The fields were saturated with tear gas and goggles were only a detriment, as usual, in moving through the blackness.  All eyes were streaming and sore long before they came to the Lille Gate Road.  The rat-infested canal dugouts were being shelled with heavies and as the Battalion crossed the bridge over the Ypres-Commines Canal heavy shrapnel was breaking overhead.  Big Sgt. Tom Reid of No.1 Company went down with a crash and a mighty curse as shrapnel pellets knocked his legs from under him.  He was the first casualty of the many the Battalion was to have before another night had come.  It was a thrilling march for everything was doubt.  The night sky towards which they moved was vaulted with flame and once again the guns of Ypres were in full cry.  (Beattie: 129-30).

Now tell me you don’t want to read the rest of that account.

img011Beattie continued writing for the Toronto Telegram throughout the 1930’s, and had just finished a biography of Klondike Boyle, titled Brother, Here’s a Man!  The Saga of Klondike Boyle, (published by MacMillan in 1940) when Canada entered the Second World War.  Beattie had been warning his readers about the threats posed by Hitler and a re-militarized Germany since the mid-1930’s, often being slandered as a war-monger for his efforts, and so re-enlisted in the 48th Highlanders, took a commission and given his media credentials, eventually became the press relations officer for the Canadian Corps.

Post World War Two Beattie wrote a follow-up history of the 48th Highlanders titled Dileas (1957) that covered the inter-war period, WWII and Korea.  This was followed by a two-volume history of Ridley College School in 1963.  He died later that year.

♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦

Over the next few days I am going to be posting some excerpts from Kim Beattie’s history of the 48th Highlanders that deal specifically with Peregrine Acland.  Some are quite brief, establishing no more than where Acland was at a given time, others are part of longer and larger narrative, and will need paring down and context.  I felt I’d be remiss if I didn’t take some time to introduce Beattie before citing him, as he is one of those thoroughly neglected writers this blog seeks to illuminate.

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