Topic: British Army
Who Shot the Cheese?
By George Fraser
The Glasgow Herald, 23 May 1968
Who shot the Cheese? Who stole the wire? What soldiers were permitted to take a woman into barracks? Why should it be contentious and even dangerous, in certain company to call for "a pint of broken squares"?
Why should the men of the Border Regiment have enjoyed a particular reputation for kleptomania? And why should soldiers of Highland regiments, against common sense and nature, wear their bonnets puller down over their eyes?
And so on; one could compile this type of military quiz ad infinitum. The questions are asked here, not for the sake of their answers, which may be of passing interest, but because within both questions and answers there may lie matter of importance to the historian and the sociologist (and, who knows, the anthropologist). They are bound into British regimental traditions; their investigation could tell more about the British soldier than is to be found in standard military histories. These are things that the military historian seldom touches.
Of course, military history is a long way out of date. To paraphrase Adlai Stephenson, it has not yet been marched, strutted and puffing, out of the nineteenth century. It remains, unfortunately, at Establishment level; official accounts of campaigns, memoirs of generals, regimental histories almost invariably written by ex-officers whose manly lump in the throat sometimes threatens to obscure the reader's vision. Not that there's anything wrong with manly lumps, but there is more to the history of a regiment than that, and more than battle honours and campaigns and well-worn legends.
It does not tell us much about the men to know that they were cut to bits at Maiwand or that they shot hordes of Zulus at Rorke's Drift. It has been said that to every official war history or general's memoir there should be a companion version giving the private soldier's account; they might even occasionally be recognisably about the same thing. But unfortunately privates seldom wrote their memoirs, and those who did were not trivial men. Yet it is out of the trivia that one can build a picture of reality.
Thus: Who shot the cheese? This question, asked of an ex-Gordon Highlander (they also stole the wire), will elicit more of the essence of his regiment, of its spirit, and of those qualities and characteristics that distinguish it from all others, than any amount of reading in its official history.
Highland soldiers may appear to be ordinary soldiers, but with big chests and kilts; only experience can bring home the great gulf in attitude that exists between them and, say, English North Country soldiers. It is much more than national difference, and far stronger; the phenomenon of the Englishman who turns into a Highlander simply by serving in a Highland regiment is well known; the same thing doesn't happen to him if he simply lives or works in Scotland, but it happens in a regiment.
To define these regimental influences, to discover why they operate so powerfully, is not easy. But most people who have experience of them would probably agree that whereas the Gordons were lighthearted and easygoing The Cameronians were undeniably stern and hard, and so on. The King's Liverpool have always been downright rough, and of the Border Regiment I can speak with personal experience.
As a young soldier in their 9th Battalion I was in a party detached to collect rations dropped on a Burmese airstrip. Parties had come from various units, British and Indian, but when the officer in charge saw the Border badges his face fell. He took us aside and addressed us confidentially.
"Look," he said, "I know you lot. Don't, please, pinch anything, I'll see you get buckshees after. Just don't half-inch the stuff; it throws my calculations out. All right?"
I was astonished, and rather hurt. Why, I wondered, should he single us out? Only afterwards, when I discovered that every man in my party had left the airstrip with his trouser-legs stuffed with stolen sugar, with bush hats crammed with cigarettes, and water-skins packed with dry tea—only then did I understand what that officer had been talking about. Nothing was too hot or too heavy for the Borders; they would have solen the Shwe Dagon pagoda if there had been transport available.
The point is that the men were not light-fingered or dishonest in themselves—not more than anyone else in XIVth Army, anyway. But as Border Regiment soldiers they were continuing a regimental tradition which you will not find in any regimental history. Retired senior officers may deny it, but everyone knows it to be true.
Now it may seem fanciful to associate this kind of thing with military history. But the men make the history, and there is no question that regimental spirit, tradition, ethos, call it what you like, profoundly influenced the men. And it seems that there is a useful field of study here for military historians. It is not impossible that one may understand what caused the stirrup charge at Waterloo a little better, if one knows who shot the cheese.
These thoughts are prompted by the publication of a new series of regimental histories under the editorship of Sir Brian Horrocks. As histories go they are extremely competent, good to look at, and no doubt as accurate and balanced as research can make them. And some of them, notably Michael Foss's "Royal Fusiliers" and Philip Howard's "Black Watch," show signs of leaning towards the less stereotyped kind of history which, I suggest, is as important as the rolls of battle honours and serving officers.
>Just for interest the regiment which can take a woman into barracks is the Royal Norfolks, because they carry Britannia's image on their badges (this is the kind of Army joke that once set the corporals' mess in a roar); the pint of broken squares is too painful to discuss here, and no-one knows why Highlanders wear their bonnets down their foreheads. Gravity, possibly, and sheer blind contrariness.
Hamish Hamilton's "Famous Regiments" series so far includes the Gordons, Black Watch, K.R.R.C., Royal Fusiliers, Royal Flying Corps, the Queen's Royal berks, Somerset L.I., and Royal Norfolks. Prices are from 21s to 25s.