British history books are filled with accounts of wars and great commanders. The names of generals such as Marlborough, Wellington, Montgomery, Slim, Havelock, Clive and Wolfe spring from the pages, faces that peer from the powder-smoke and reap the rewards of bravery and skill. However, until relatively recently, the ordinary soldier was not considered. He filled the ranks, obeyed orders, endured incredible suffering and was then discarded to die in poverty.
In the days of the scarlet-coated solder, a few, a tiny percentage of the whole, might have been unbelievably fortunate and survived years in the ranks to come home with sufficient money to live a comfortable old age. The vast majority did not. Disease killed many more than shot and shell. Bad diet, harsh discipline and extremes of weather wore out men so the Army was constantly searching for recruits to take the King or Queen’s fatal shilling. Few of these men told their story. Their lives were often tragic, brutal and short.
However, there is always an exception to the rule. Sergeant Donald McLeod began his career in the Royal Scots, the First of Foot, Pontius Pilate’s Bodyguard and the oldest line regiment in the British Army. He must have been effective for at the age of 17 McLeod was promoted to sergeant. He was never to rise higher. McLeod was no parade-ground soldier, for he fought at Marlborough’s battles of the Schellenberg in 1704, Blenheim in 1704 and Ramilles in 1706.
With the outbreak of peace between the King of Scotland and England and King Louis XIV of France, McLeod improved his fencing, becoming the champion swordsman of the Royal Scots. He had various contests with famous opponents, defeating a French officer, a French sergeant, a German officer and a famous Irish giant named MacLean. This last bout took place in Dublin and was preceded by a handshake when the giant squeezed McLeod’s hand so hard he could barely use it. Naturally angered, MacLeod entered the fray with his temper high and lopped off the Irishman’s arm.
According to legend, McLeod fought at the Battle of Sheriffmuir, during the Jacobite Rising of 1715, but as the Royal Scots were in Ireland at the time, he either transferred to the Royal Scots Fusiliers or was not present. Legend says he killed two Frenchmen at the battle, and was wounded himself. McLeod was also said to have cut the sporran-strap from Captain MacDonald of Knoydart, a prominent Jacobite.
In 1730, with the rank of drill sergeant, he transferred to what was then known as the Independent Companies. These formations had originally been raised in 1667 from Highlanders to keep down cattle raiding in the Highlands. They were disbanded in 1717 but raised again. Unlike other British regiments, known to the Gaels as Saghdearan Dearg, ‘red soldiers’, the Independent Companies sported a dark-coloured tartan which earned them the name of am Freiceadan Dubh, or Black Watch. Altering from a quasi-military police force to a regiment of the line, the Black Watch, then the 43rd Regiment of Foot, fought at Fontenoy in 1745, where McLeod was wounded. For some reason McLeod later transferred to Fraser’s Highlanders, where he fought at the siege of Louisbourg in 1758 and the Plains of Abraham the following year. According to a history of the old 78th, Fraser’s Highlanders, Sergeant Donald McLeod (spelled Macleod in the history book) was heavily involved at Louisbourg, helped capture the Lighthouse Battery and was prominent in repelling a French sortie led by an Irishman, Colonel O’Donnel. Once again McLeod was wounded, this time by a musket ball on his nose.
If legend is to be believed, when Wolfe was mortally wounded at the Plains of Abraham, McLeod’s plaid was used to carry away the general. The sergeant helped guard Wolfe’s body back to Great Britain, where McLeod, now over seventy, became a Chelsea Pensioner. However, retirement did not suit him and he re-enlisted in Campbell’s Highlanders and fought in Germany where he was again wounded. He was nearly ninety when he eventually hung up his sword, and lived to be a hundred and three.
If even half the legends are correct, Sergeant McLeod had an impressive life. Most ranking soldiers would not see as much action, or live so long, but when service was for life, there are tens of thousands of stories that will never be known. In my Windrush series, I have tried to include the lives of private soldiers as well as the officers. Without them, there would have been no Army.