Happy Veteran’s Day! In honor of the holiday and our nation’s veterans, we’d like to offer a little bit of military kilt history.
The roots of this federal holiday, observed annually on November 11, lie in Armistice Day. Now known as Remembrance Day in the UK, Armistice Day commemorated the armistice signed between the Allies of World War I and Germany at Compiègne, France, for the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front; the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918.
Most countries changed the name of the holiday just prior to or after World War II, to honor veterans of that and subsequent conflicts. The United States officially changed to ‘All Veterans Day’ (later shortened to ‘Veterans Day’) in 1954. Veterans Day should never be confused with Memorial Day. Veterans Day celebrates the service of all U.S. military veterans, while Memorial Day specifically commemorates men and women who gave their lives in service.
THE LAST MILITARY KILTS IN BATTLE
The beginnings of this most important holiday coincide, for the most part, with the end of the use of military kilts on the battle field.
During the Great War, many regiments of the Commonwealth forces wore the kilt not only as a dress or garrison uniform element, but also in the field. Among these units, the most well known were the Royal Highlanders (Black Watch tartan), Cameron Highlanders (Cameron tartan), Gordon Highlanders (Gordon tartan), the Seaforth Highlanders (MacKenzie tartan), and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
Of the Territorial Forces, a few individual battalions of certain regiments wore kilts such as the 6th Battalion and 9th Battalions of the Highland Light Infantry and the 9th Battalion (The Dandy Ninth) of the Royal Scots. In addition other Regiments contained kilted battalions. The London Regiment contained the famous London Scottish, 14th Battalion, which wore a Hodden Grey kilt pictured here.
The practicality of the military kilt in modern war was, even then, a matter of controversy. Did its effect on morale out-weigh its seeming impracticality? Most kilted troops were issued canvas kilt covers; apron-like garments which protected the kilt from mud. An odd thing to do if the kilt itself was up to the task. (see the photo of our own Dan McMichael in his Canadian WWI uniform). Many soldiers suffered for their kilts. A common experience was that when the bottom hem became damp and then froze in cold weather, the edge of the kilt would cut into the backs of the wearer’s knees, even drawing blood. Many units in Canada were initially issued kilts, but switched over to trousers before going to the front.
And yet one British officer, Lt/Col Norman MacLeod, specifically argued the opposite — that kilts were better for a soldier’s health, as well as easier to move in during combat. He felt that kilts prevented trench foot , provided better torso warmth (due to the thickness of the woolen layers worn very high on the body; the “military rise”), and helped a trooper stay dry in the trenches. He even thought it helped mitigate the effects of mustard gas, a skin inflammatory, by allowing air flow around the legs, dissipating the pooling gas. Finally, MacLeod pronounced, “With reference to morale, I believe that the association of the kilt with the great deeds of valour on the part of the Highland Regiments, inspires their members. I know of no inspiration to be got from trousers.”
Indeed, kilts did seem to boost pride and in doing so, may have worked as a psychological weapon. Many pipe bands went kilted into the trenches. Most famously, the ferociousness of the Black Watch led to the Germans nicknaming them the “Ladies from Hell.”
By the beginning of the Second World War, the kilt had lost its practical credibility. Highland regiments entered the conflict in kilts, but the garments were rapidly recognized as impractical for modern warfare. In the first year of the war, they were officially banned as combat dress. The kilt may have had its last major appearance during the evacuation of Dunkirk in May 1940. You will still see photos of WWII Tommys in kilts, but these are usually parade occasions or propaganda photo shoots.
As for Scots in WWII, we should certainly note the famous D-Day episode of Lord Lovat, commander of 1 Special Service Brigade, who came ashore at Normandy in 1944 accompanied by his personal piper Bill Millin, who played the pipes while German bullets whizzed around him. Bill had at first questioned the very idea, which was in defiance of specific orders against such an action. Lord Lovat told him, “Ah, but that’s the English War Office. You and I are both Scottish, and that doesn’t apply.”
MILITARY KILTS IN SERVICE TODAY
Military kilts are still worn with pride today by many units of the British, Canadian and Australian armies. They are largely relegated to honor guard duty and dress occasions, but their impact on the martial spirit is as powerful as ever. Naturally, many military units across the globe support pipe bands. And of course, many veterans wear the kilt on their own time as a mark of pride both in their heritage and their service. In the USA, all five branches of the Armed Forces (Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard) have registered tartans. Of those, the only one to be “officially approved” by a branch of the military service is the US Coast Guard tartan (the others have been adopted through wont and usage).
Though it is not as common as in the UK, some specific military units also have their own tartans, such as the U.S. Army Rangers. Tartans have also been designed and registered to commemorate important military events, such as the Federal and Confederate Memorial tartans which honor the deeds of Civil War combatants.
This Veterans Day, kilt up and thank a vet.