Book Review: D. Bird, The Spirit of the Troops is Excellent, The 6th (Morayshire) Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders in the Great War 1914 – 1919 (Moray, 2008)

Derek Bird’s chronological account of the 1/6th (Morayshire) Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders, in the Great War is a solid unit history.

This unit was probably most famous for the picture on the front of Derek Bird’s book showing a successful raiding party with trophies of their recent exploits, including one man wearing the regulation German spiked pickelhaube. In front of them is a chalk board spelling out ‘Hun Catchers’ and ‘the spirit of the troops is excellent’, the latter inscription being the origin of the book’s name.

The 1/6th were a Territorial Force unit created in the 1860’s as part of the volunteer movement, a popular response to a threatened French invasion. It recruited local men from the Moray area in north east Scotland. On the declaration of war in August 1914, the 1/6th  was mobilised and sent to France with the 51st (Highland) Division in May 1915.[1] The formation remained with that Division and fought in all the major battles from the Somme to the Armistice.

This is a good narrative history of the unit’s operational service over the course of the war. It is the result of painstaking research and contains many biographical cameos, interesting anecdotes and fascinating statistics. For example, the book states that 4,888 men served with the 1/6th during the war and 79% of these men were wounded or killed.[2] This number of casualties appears very high as official statistics suggested that only 55% of men sent to the Western Front were killed, wounded or became ill.[3]

This book is not intended for an academic audience. It does not, for example, use the experience of battalion members to explore scholarly debates that First World War historians have conducted on issues such as leadership, discipline or morale. This work is aimed at a much broader readership and, in many ways, follows the traditions of regimental histories written after the First World War that set the role of particular units within the time, place and narrative of the Great War. For those who have an interest in soldiers who served in the 1/6th, this book will be a valuable resource as the 1/6th was one of the few units not to have a battalion account written after the Armistice.

[1] D. Bird, The Spirit of the Troops is Excellent, The 6th (Morayshire) Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders in the Great War 1914 – 1919 (Moray, 2008), p.43.

[2] Ibid, p.214.

[3] Statistics of Military Effort of the British Empire during the Great War (London, 1922), p.48.