The Black Watch
(Royal Highlanders) 1881-

It was in Edinburgh on 1st July 1881 that as a result of the Cardwell Reforms the 42nd and 73rd Regiments were combined into a single new regiment – The Black Watch (Royal Highlanders), a title they were to bear for the next 41 years.

In accordance with the Cardwell Reforms, the 1st Battalions of the newly formed regiments remained at home, whilst the 2nd Battalion served overseas. So it was with The Royal Highlanders, the 1st Battalion went to Egypt and the 2nd remained at home for the next 18 years, serving in England, Ireland, Scotland and England again before they became due for their own tour of foreign duties. The Regimental Depot was established at Perth.

Egypt 1882-1885

In 1882 in Egypt a rebellion, supported by a large part of the Egyptian army, had flared under one Arabi Pasha. A British Expeditionary Force under Lieutenant general Wolseley was sent to Egypt to restore order. The 1st Battalion the Royal Highlanders (The Black Watch) formed a part of this force, serving in Major General Alison’s Highland Brigade in Lieutenant General Sir Edward Hamley’s 2nd Infantry Division.

The first action was at Qassassin Lock on 28th August, followed by an assault on strong enemy positions around Tel-el-Kebir on 13th September. Following an approach under the cover of darkness, the Highland Brigade led the attack which rapidly closed on the Egyptian defences.

Fixing bayonets on the march, the Highlanders charged the enemy parapet, establishing themselves on the earthworks in the face of heavy fire, but at considerable cost. They pressed home their attack and the defenders broke, to be pursued by cavalry.

During 1883 the Regiment operated in detachments, but the following year they were together once more to take part in an expedition against Osman Digna who was stirring up unrest. The battle of El Teb (29th February 1884) and Tamai (13th March 1884) were fought against fiercely brave Dervish tribesmen celebrated in Kipling’s poem as "Fuzzy-Wuzzies".

In 1881 a man announcing himself as the Mahdi and made himself master of most the Sudan, although Khartoum under General Gordon still held out against him. In September 1884 the Gordon Relief Expedition was organised to advance to the rescue of General Gordon at Khartoum. The Expedition had two columns, one to travel overland and the other up the Nile River.

The main part of the Regiment were in the latter force, although and officer and 30 men also joined "A" Company of the Mounted Infantry Camel Regiment which was in the desert column.

The desert column fought at Abu Klea on 17th January 1885 whilst the river column engaged the enemy at Kirbeakan 19th February 1885. The actions were successful, but it was all to no avail as Khartoum had fallen on 26th January 1885 after a siege which lasted 317 days.

The Boer War

The 2nd Battalion was one of the first units to be sent to South Africa as a result of the Boer War. Forming part of the Highland Brigade under Major General Wauchope – himself a former officer in the Regiment the Battalion was soon in action as the Brigade advanced in a badly managed attack on the 200 feet high Magersfontein Ridge, losing 301 out of 943 men and 17 out of 27 officers, including Wauchope himself.

Despite these losses, two months later the Highland Brigade was fighting again and during the first 10 weeks of 1900 the Battalion distinguished itself in various actions such as Koodoosbuerg Drift and Paardeberg Drift.

The 1st Battalion, having gone to Malta in 1886 and Gibraltar in 1889 was split into two wings in 1893. Headquarters and half the Battalion went to South Africa, the rest to Mauritius. In 1896 the Battalion as a whole sailed for India, picking up the Mauritius companies en route. After remaining in India until 1901, the 1st Battalion sailed to South Africa, where the Boer War was two years old.

The Regiment’s Volunteer Battalions sent men in Volunteer Service Companies to reinforce the Regular Battalions throughout the Boer War. Indeed the 6th Volunteer Battalion were awarded the Battle Honour "South Africa 1900-02" for the service of its members during the conflict.

The First World War

The Western Front

When the First World War broke out in 1914, the 1st Battalion were in Aldershot, the 2nd Battalion in India.

The 1st Battalion was fully mobilised by 8th August and landed at Le Havre on the 14th as part of 1st (Guards) Brigade. Acquitting themselves splendidly during the retreat from Mons, the Battalion took part in the tide turning action at the River Marne and the subsequent advance to the River Aisne. At the 1st Battle of Ypres the Battalion lost 29 officers and 478 men, but wiped out one of the crack regiments of the Prussian guard.

The 2nd Battalion arrived in France in January 1915 with the Bareilly Indian Brigade of the Meerut Division, with which it was to serve throughout the war and joined the fighting near Givenchy before the end of the month, in which the 1st Battalion also took part.

Both battalions were also at Aubers Ridge on 9th May 1915 and for what was probably the last occasion in the war – as gas masks were subsequently worn – advanced to the sound of the pipes. Throughout 1915 the 1st and 2nd Battalion were hardly out of action, losing 350 killed and 1,080 wounded.

The Territorials

The Territorial Battalions were also coming into action. The 4th Battalion landed in March 1915 and fought at Neuve Chapelle with the 5th Battalion, which had been the first territorial Battalion to arrive in France, going into action on 13th November 1914. The 6th and 7th Battalions landed in May 1915 and at the battle of Festubert no fewer than six of the Regiment’s battalions were engaged.

By the end of 1914 the 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th "Service Battalions" had been raised in Scotland. The 8th Battalion arrived in France in May 1915 and the 9th Battalion in July 1915 – both fought at the great battle of Loos and suffered heavily. The 10th Battalion spent almost the entire war in Salonika in a forgotten, tedious conflict as British, French and Serbian armies faced Austrian and Bulgarian trenches. When at last the 10th Battalion were posted to France, they were broken up and divided among the other Black Watch battalions, which were ever short of men.

The 13th (Scottish Horse) Battalion were formed from the Scottish Horse Yeomanry in Egypt to serve in a dismounted role. Serving with 27th Division, the 13th spent their war in Salonika and Macedonia before going to France for the final advance. The 14th (Fife and Forfar Yeomanry) Battalion were also raised in Egypt in December 1916 from the 1/1st Fife and Forfar Yeomanry serving as infantry with the 2nd Dismounted Brigade. After taking part in the invasion of Palestine in 1917, fighting at Gaza, Beersheba and Sheria, the Battalion moved to France and Flanders in 1918.

In February 1916 the 4th and 5th Battalions which had been badly mauled were amalgamated as the 4th/5th Black Watch. In July 1916 the 1st, 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th Battalions all took part in the battle of the Somme, fighting at Contalmaison, Delville Wood, Longueval and many other places. In the Spring of 1917 at Guemappe, Captain Morrison and 70 men of the 9th Battalion proved worthy successors of "Lawsons’ men", maintaining their position for many hours after both flanks had been turned.

The Closing Stages

The 1st Battalion were withdrawn to train for a proposed, but eventually cancelled, amphibious landing behind German lines. They returned to the line in time for 3rd Ypres, followed by the mud of Passchendale. All the Regiment’s battalions apart from the 1st and 4th/5th had fought at the 1st Battle of Arras in the Spring of 1917 and then in July and August came the 3rd Battle of Ypres, in which the 4th/5th were reduced by losses to the strength of a single company.

In March 1918 the German last offensive, designed to break the Allied front was contained with each Battalion gallantly playing their part, losing 49 officers and men, with 74 wounded and 258 missing.

In the Summer of 1918 the 6th Battalion fought in support of the French near Rheims, losing 26 officers and 428 men and received the Croix de Guerre as a unit award. The ribbon of the award is worn to this day by the successors of the 6th Battalion.

Interestingly, Armistice Day 11th November 1918 found the 4th/5th Battalion advancing across the very field of Fontenoy where the Regiment had fought their first battle 173 years previously.


After the battle of Loos on 2nd December 1915 the 2nd battalion and the Indian Division were sent to Basra for service in Mesopotamia. Here the battalion were moved to the relief of the British Mesopotamian Expedition, besieged by the Turks in Kut-al-Amara.

At Shaikh Sa’ad, after a 20 mile march, advancing in broad daylight across a bullet swept area against well held Turkish positions, the battalion again suffered heavy casualties in this pointless and unsuccessful attack, after which only 99 officers and men were left from the 900 strong unit which had landed at Basra. Such were the battalion’s losses that a temporary amalgamation with the 1st Battalion Seaforth Highlanders followed and they fought as such at Sannaiyat.

In mid July 1916 the battalion reformed with 15 officers and 226 other ranks and in December began the advance on Baghdad. Patrols of the 2nd Battalion were the first British troops to enter the city. The Turks withdrew to Istbulat to the north, where there was severe fighting as the enemy defended some of the oldest fortifications in the world. The battalion dashed forward under heavy fire and cleared the position, losing 10 officers and 173 men killed and wounded in the process.

From Mesopotamia the battalion was sent to Palestine where Jerusalem had been taken and took part in the general advance. On 19th September 1918 the 2nd Battalion was at the battle of Megiddo where the enemy were completely broken. Following up the retreating Turks, the battalion moved to Haifa, Beirut and Tripoloi where word was received of the enemy surrender.

In all, 25 battalions of the Black Watch served in the First World War. More than 50,000 men passed through the Regiment, of whom 8,000 were killed and over 20,000 wounded. Before 1914 the Regiment had won 20 Battle Honours, after this war they gained another 69, as well as four Victoria Crosses.

Between the Wars

After the war the Service Battalions were disbanded and the Territorials returned to weekend soldiering. The regular battalions served in garrisons in India and Germany.

In 1934 the Regiment title was changed to The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment), reverting in parentheses to the old title given to the Regiment by King George 11 after Fontenoy. This is still the Regiment’s title today.

The Second World War:

The Early Years

During World War Two, The Black Watch had a total of nine battalions, six of which were on active service in every campaign except Norway and the South Pacific.

In 1939 the 1st Battalion was in Dover, whilst the 2nd Battalion was already on active service in Palestine against armed Arab bands. The 1st Battalion went to France just after the outbreak of the Second World War, followed by the 51st Highland Division, which contained the Regiment’s two Territorial Battalions, the 4th and 6th, in January 1940. The 6th Battalion then moved to the 4th Division and was replaced in the 51st Division by the 1st Battalion. The 6th served in Flanders and were caught up in the retreat to Dunkirk, most of the men being safely evacuated.

The Highland Division meantime was in the Saar and was driven back to St Valery where they had no option but to surrender. Fortunately the 4th Battalion was scouting ahead and were successfully picked up from Cherbourg. After just 48 hours leave the battalion moved to Gibraltar, where they remained for most of the war.

The 2nd Battalion moved from Palestine to British Somaliland and covered the withdrawal. They then went to Crete. Whilst the battalion was holding defensive positions around Heraklion airfield in May 1941, the Germans launched an airborne invasion. The decision was taken to abandon Crete and the battalion were shipped to Alexandria, suffering losses of more than 200 to German bombers en route.

The 2nd Battalion was then put in to garrison Tobruk, relieving the beleaguered Australian defenders who had been under siege for six months. As part of the break out, the 2nd Battalion took part in one of the most fiercely fought battles in its history, gallantly advancing through machine gun fire to take the German positions surrounding Tobruk. There were more than 600 men as the attack was launched, but only eight officers and 60 men survived to take the final objective.


In late 1941 the 2nd Battalion moved to Syna and then, after the fall of Burma, their intended destination, to Bombay. The battalion formed part of the Chindit force – Columns 42 and 73 – fighting the Japanese, disease and the conditions which extracted a dreadful toll.

Moving out into the jungle in March 1944 for long range patrolling across the Chindwin River, the men skirmished, marched and fought. After six long months of intense fighting over difficult terrain against a cunning and cruel enemy, the battalion were flown back to India to recuperate after their ordeal. It is worth pointing out that throughout the entire duration of World War Two, the 2nd Battalion never came home.

51st Highland Division

The 1st, 5th and 7th Battalions were a part of the reformed 51st Highland Division, which after intensive training sailed Suez, to join the Eighth Army, arriving in August 1942. All three of the Regiment’s battalions played a gallant part in the ensuing battle of El Alamein in the October and took part in the pursuit which followed. Tripoli was captured in January 1943 and all three battalions fought at Medenine, which broke the Mareth Line.

Following amphibious training the Highland Division landed in Sicily, helping to drive enemy troops from the island, hard fought actions at Vizzini and Gerbini followed before the Germans were driven out. The 51st Highland Division crossed briefly to Italy, but sailed for home. By this time (March 1944) the 6th Battalion, as part of the First Army, had arrived in Italy from Tunisia and they fought at Cassino, on the road to Rome and at Florence. On September the 6th Battalion moved to the Adriatic coast to attack the Gothic Line before sailing to counter insurgency duties in Greece in December 1944.

D Day Onwards

The first of the Regiment’s battalions to land after D Day was the 5th and they were soon fighting at Breville, north east of Caen. On 9th June the 1st and 7th Battalions sailed with the 51st Highland Division and all three battalions were in action when the Caen breakout took place. The Seine was crossed on 31st August 1944 and on 2nd September, the Highland Division fittingly returned to St Valery.

After a detached operation to overcome the German garrison at Le Havre which involved the 5th and 7th Battalions, and at Dunkirk (1st and 7th Battalion), the Highland Division advanced ever eastwards. The German Ardennes thrust was countered and on 8th February the 1st and 7th Battalion led the successful assault on the Siegfried Line. The 1st Battalion became the first British unit to enter German territory and all three battalions – 1st, 5th and 7th – crossed the River Rhine on 22nd March 1945, achieving a breakthrough, but with heavy casualties.

The Post War Years

After the war, the 1st Battalion served with the Army of Occupation in Germany and the 2nd Battalion was in India training for gliding and parachuting. In 1947 the 2nd Battalion was moved to the North West Frontier and when independence came to India in 1948, the 2nd Battalion was the last British unit to leave Pakistan.

On 7th July 1948 at Duisburg in Germany, the 1st and 2nd Battalions were amalgamated into one battalion, in pursuance of a decree that all infantry regiments should consist of only one battalion.

The Hook

In 1952 the 1st Battalion joined the Commonwealth Division in the Korean War. In November of that year the Battalion occupied a feature of the firing line known as The Hook, which projected as a salient into the enemy lines. No sooner had the Battalion taken up position than on the night of 18th November, preceded by two days of intense artillery bombardment, a frenzied attack by wave after wave of Chinese troops was launched on the feature.

All through the night the enemy attacked The Hook, but the Battalion counter attacked and American artillery was fired in support. The Black Watch had lost 16 men killed, 76 wounded and 15 captured, but they held frim and daylight found the position still in their hands.

Policing and Changes

In 1953 the 1st Battalion sailed home from Korea, but were diverted to Kenya to seek out Mau Mau by mounting patrols from company sized posts.

In 1951 the 2nd Battalion was resurrected once again and went to British Guiana in 1954 to keep the peace there. The 1st Battalion was in Berlin in 1956, to be joined by the 2nd Battalion and amalgamated once more.

After a spell at the Edinburgh Tattoo and guarding Balmoral 1958 saw the Regiment policing Cyprus against EOKA.

The Regimental Depot at Queen’s Barracks in Perth was shut down in 1962 after 80 years and the Highland regiments were all trained together at various locations in Scotland.

In 1964 the Regiment was in Minden and were the first battalions to be equipped with the British Army’s (then) new Armoured Personnel Carrier FN432.

In 1967 the Battalion reinforced United Nations troops in Cyprus and in 1968 The Black Watch returned to Edinburgh as part of the Strategic Reserve.

In 1970 the Black Watch had two short tours of Northern Ireland. A full tour was spent in the border area around Armagh early the following year, followed by a two month tour in Belfast later that same year.

Two years in Hong Kong followed, before a return to Colchester in 1974. In 1975 new colours were presented in Colchester by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. Numerous tours in Ulster followed.

The Black Watch was the last British Regiment to serve in Hong Kong which was handed back to the Peoples Republic of China on June 31st, 1997. The Black Watch continues to serve world-wide.

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