Inverness 1914- the beginning of the First World War in Invernesss

WW1 Inverness mobilizationWe’re grateful to Colonel Angus Fairrie, Secretary of the Cameron Highlanders Association, for providing this brief history note about the mobilisation of the military in the Inverness area at the outbreak of World War 1. It was read by Bishop Mark Strange (Scottish Episcopal Church) at the service to commemorate the outbreak of the First World War, held in the Old High on 4 August 2014

Inverness – August 1914

Many people in the modern City of Inverness take great family pride in forebears who served for King and Country in the Great War.

There are powerful reminders of the conflict, such as the elegant memorial on the south side of the Old High Church, commemorating the 61 members of the congregation who lost their lives in the war. But 100 years later, neither war memorials, nor the green farmland of Flanders, nor the immaculate cemeteries maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, can give any idea of how people felt when war began: when during the first week of August 1914 over 6,000 troops concentrated in Inverness, arriving by road, railway and ship.

The British Expeditionary Force

During the years before 1914, when it became clear that the likely theatre of war was the continent of Europe, it was planned that the Regular Army would form a British Expeditionary Force for service across the English Channel. Every county of Great Britain became part of a Regimental District, with well-defined military responsibilities. Inverness and Nairn formed the Regimental District of The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders. Its primary task was to maintain two Regular Army battalions, with the necessary reserves. These were the 1st Battalion stationed in Edinburgh Castle, and the 2nd Battalion on foreign service in India.

When war was declared on 4 August 1914, the order to mobilize was given, and a well planned procedure began. Over 1,000 Regular Army Reservists from Inverness and all over Scotland reported to the Cameron Barracks, where they were equipped and sent off to bring the two Regular battalions up to war strength.

If hostilities began, casualties would have to be quickly replaced. These reinforcements were to come from the volunteers of the 3rd (Special Reserve) Battalion The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders. Recruited mainly from rural communities of the County of Inverness and the Western Isles, and largely Gaelic speaking, they had been trained in drill, marksmanship and fieldcraft, at annual camp. Nearly 1,000 of these Special Reservists also reported to Inverness.

The Territorial Force

Looking further ahead, Great Britain’s next line of defence was the Territorial Force. Formed in 1908 from the old Rifle Volunteers, the Territorial Force had the role of providing a duplicate Expeditionary Force for service on the Continent. It comprised infantry, artillery and engineers, and also their supporting services. It too was organized on a county basis.

Within the Town and County of Inverness the infantry element was the 4th (Territorial) Battalion The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, while the local territorials also included the gunners of the Inverness Battery Royal Horse Artillery, the mounted yeomanry of the Lovat Scouts, and were supported by the Highland Transport Column and the Highland Field Ambulance.

Seen in retrospect today, the size of commitment made so willingly by the people of the Town and County of Inverness is astonishing.

The Town and County of Inverness in 1914

In 1914 the Royal Burgh of Inverness had a population of about 22,000, about a third of the size of the City today. Although the County of Inverness was the largest county in Scotland in acreage, it was one of the least populated areas in Britain. But since the late 18th century Inverness had always had a strong tradition of military service. This was quickly apparent during the first year of the war when over 60% of the men of military age in Inverness-shire volunteered for military service.

The effect on the normal life of town and county was profound. The reservists and territorial soldiers came from every walk of life. They included skilled tradesmen and apprentices, crofters, farm workers, estate staff, mechanics, office workers, railwaymen, fishermen. Their officers included businessmen, lawyers, bankers, accountants, estate factors, hoteliers, schoolmasters, shopkeepers, excisemen and clergymen: the Minister of the Old High Church, the Reverend Donald MacLeod, became an Army Chaplain in the Territorial Force.

The Old High Church War Memorial and the War Grave in the burial ground tell their own stories. They highlight the fundamental role of the regimental structure which recruited the Expeditionary Forces, put them into the field, and provided reinforcements. Of the 62 names commemorated at the Old High Church, 31, exactly 50%, are Cameron Highlanders.

The record of the Old High Church (‘Tales of the Old High’) also gives a remarkable example of how the community of Inverness responded to the national cause. During the course of the war the Minister and 431 of his congregation, volunteered to serve their country.

1914 is a milestone in the history of both the Town and the County of Inverness. It is a reminder of public spirited response to the national need that has never been surpassed.

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