DEVILS IN SKIRTS AND LADIES FROM HELL
The German perception of kilted troops in the First World War - What's in a nickname...?
DEVILS IN SKIRTS AND LADIES FROM HELL
by Robin Schäfer
“They called them the 'Ladies From Hell', and their story I would tell
Of blood-splattered kilts and torn tartan trews on the fields of the Somme, Mons and Loos
From the highlands and lowlands they came, to fight in the Empire's name
With bayonet and gun – they would charge at the Hun
Those glorious 'Ladies From Hell'
The ‘Ladies from Hell’, a respectful nickname given by German soldiers to the kilted regiments of the British Army. A nickname which found its way into poems and literature even before it had become part of the rich folklore of the Great War. A proud nickname and sign of respect, earned by feats of astonishing personal bravery displayed in the mud, blood and horror of the battlefields of Belgium and France, where just the sight of a Scottish soldier was sufficient to strike fear into the hearts of the kraut and sausage munching foe.
It is admittedly a fantastic story, but is there any evidence that this term, or a similar one, was actually coined and used by the men of the German Army? What did the German soldier of the First World War really think about his Scottish adversary? In 2007 German historian Dr. Benjamin Ziemann caused outrage in the Scottish press when he explained that German soldiers were not more or less afraid of Scottish soldiers than any other of their adversaries. While this is entirely true, his refutation failed to address the actual perceptions of individual German soldiers and as such left lots of room for skirted devils and infernal ladies to exist in.
This is tragic, as breaking into the world of the thoughts of the Kaiser’s soldiers is quite easy. No army of the Great War left a larger amount of personal testimony than the German one. Many German soldiers kept personal diaries and on each day of the war an average of 6.8 million letters were sent from the front to the Fatherland. Letters were seen to be of immense importance to maintain the mental motivation of the soldiers and the loved ones at home. Censorship only existed on a sample basis, so soldiers were relatively free to express their fears, hopes, needs and also their individual perceptions on the war in great detail. Today much of that written testimony survives in private households, archives and collections - a fascinating pool of thoughts and stories, where we can find the true German opinion of the Scottish soldier.
CURIOSITY AND SKIRTS
To make one thing clear from the start: the nicknames ‘Ladies from Hell’ or ‘Devils in Skirts’ were neither invented, nor ever used by German soldiers to describe kilted Scottish troops. The simple and unshakeable truth is that contemporary German sources do not mention these nicknames at all. The sources which do, on the other hand, are never German and always refer to Allied soldiers using those names to describe themselves and even though these usually attribute the nickname to the Germans, nowhere is there any factual or even anecdotal evidence that a German soldier ever used them. First of all, it is important to know that German soldier’s slang hardly had any flattering, contemptuous or scoffing nicknames for the foe. Usually German soldiers did not even differentiate between English, Scottish or even Australian troops, all of which were commonly known and described as Engländer [English or Englishmen]. The average German soldier understood little and cared even less about the cultural and national differences of Britain and the Commonwealth.
Leutnant Bernhard von Kortzfleisch reported to his brother in October 1914 that ‘the English soldiers’ who were serving opposite the German lines were ‘men from the Scottish Highlands’, but added that even though these ‘consider themselves to be an elite’, they ‘fall just like the rest’. Gefreiter Richard Wientzek of Reserve-Infanterie-Regiment 11, who wrote to his wife on 11 October 1915, was keen to explain that: ‘The English soldiers here are mostly Scots’ and felt it necessary to point out that ‘even though they are strong men they wear short skirts (no trousers), which only just cover their knees’.
‘On the roadside a number of English dead. Some wear skirts and as it seems no undergarments of any kind which is quite disgusting.’ wrote an unidentified German soldier on 31 October 1914. And indeed, when Scottish soldiers were identified as such, it was usually only due to their traditional attire which continued to be a matter of fascination for the German soldier and mocking references to the skirt-like kilt feature prominently in their letters and diaries; as a matter of curiosity rather than paying any special attention to their bravery or fighting prowess.
‘Of the 15 Englishmen who tried to escape in that manner we managed to shoot a dozen. A number of those were Scotsmen who were easily distinguishable by the short skirts they are wearing. Skirts and long socks, no trousers or even undergarments! How they manage to cope with the climate of Flanders wearing garments like this I do not know.’ Gefreiter Ernst Kurz, Infanterie-Regiment Nr. 122, 31 October 1914
Another, very strong indicator against the use of such nicknames by German troops, one which is never mentioned, but is immediately obvious to any native German speaker is that the German translations [YOU HAVE REACHED THE END OF THE FREE HALF OF THIS FEATURE. SUBSCRIBE TO SUPPORT ME AND THE IRON TIME AND TO READ ON…]
of Ladies from Hell (‘Die Damen aus der Hölle’ or ‘Die Höllendamen’), or of Devils in Skirts (‘Teufel in Röcken’) sound awkward, if not outright silly and certainly haven’t got any potential to have turned into well-established nicknames like Tommy (for the British), Franzmann (for the French) or Ivan (for the Russians).
‘We are now facing the English who are not as easily defeated as the puny Belgians or even the French. A while ago we faced a unit of English Highlanders who fight in the traditional Scottish national dress which consists of a short skirt which barely reaches the knees and long socks. How a man can find it agreeable to go to war dressed like that remains a mystery.’ - Unteroffizier Wilhelm Ehnle, Reserve-Infanterie-Regiment Nr. 121, 5 November 1914
MEN IN SKIRTS
There is however no doubt, that German troops respected their Scottish adversaries, whom they saw, especially in the early months of the war, as a very exotic foe. By the cultural standards of the German Empire men wearing skirts could be found in tobacco smoke filled back rooms of Berlin’s underworld, but certainly not on the battlefield. In some cases this could lead to outright confusion. ‘We were facing a tough enemy, big robust Scotsmen – Scots Guards who despite the lateness of the season were fighting in their characteristic uniforms with bare knees and thighs. This caused my batman to shout out: “Leutnant! Hold fire! There are women there!” (...) They fought on to the last, but soon they were lying on the ground dead and severely wounded.’ wrote Leutnant der Reserve Karl Henderkott, of 3. Garde-Regiment zu Fuß in 1914.
Yet even in those confusing early engagements, the fighting capabilities of the kilted warriors facing them quickly became clear and an undertone of respect is clearly evident in written testimony:
‘For a start we were astonished by the sight of the Scots in their extraordinary uniforms of short, pleated knee length skirts and we thought that we must be facing women […] later it became clear that they were stubborn fighters and excellent shots […] Unteroffizier Ernst Quest, 1. Garde-Regiment zu Fuß
“We were to attack at three in the morning. Our adversaries were Englishmen, Highlanders dressed in women’s skirts, but we were told not to underestimate them.”
Ersatz-Reservist Karl Reißnagel, 2. November 1915
Throughout the war the fascination for the kilt mixed with a certain kind grudging respect remained the prevalent theme in German descriptions of the Scots.
‘Here we face Englishmen of which the strongest and toughest are from Scotland. They fight in their traditional national attire which consists of a short skirt! A few days ago one of our patrols took six of them prisoner, among them one who was nearly a head taller than I am! In their country they are considered to be elite troops. All good looking young men with a noble bearing’ wrote Wehrmann Johann Fiskal of Grenadier-Regiment Nr. 10 on 28 June 1915
In the German press and in propaganda publications of the period Highland soldiers were often portrayed as victims of British Imperialism. A theme that can also be found in German letters like this highly interesting one written by Pionier Franz Peine on 13 October 1915 near Ypres:
‘To the left of our company the English had blown a mine which had ripped a mighty crater of 30 metres diameter into the ground and we were showered with uprooted trees, sacks of sand, rock and all kinds of other debris. We had not even recovered from that blow when a second mine opened another crater which threatened to bury all of us comrades alive. Now the English broke through on our left and the Scottish on our right - we had been surrounded. What remained of our company was taken prisoner and led to the rear. It has to be noted that the English know no mercy, while the Scottish act like comrades and treat us in a friendly manner. Due to their martial qualities the English throw them to wherever the fighting is hardest and as such the Scots suffer most of the casualties while the English stay behind and look on.’
Another beautiful account which shows the regard in which German troops held their Scottish foe and picks up many of the themes mentioned above, has been written by Reservist Josef Kunze, a soldier of an unidentified Prussian Reserve Infantry Regiment who in Summer 1917 was only a stone throw away from a Scottish position:
‘We had to be very careful as there were Scotsmen entrenched in front of us. These British fighters were cunning chaps and watched like hawks although they were overly nervous and had a tendency to open fire as soon as one of the branches of the blackthorn bushes in front of their position moved in the wind (...) Then suddenly voices ahead, the muffled sound of a cough and the rattle of equipment. Dark silhouettes rose from the ground - knee length skirts fluttering about their legs. I could not help noticing that they reminded me of Black Forest farmer’s lasses. It was an eerie kind of masquerade. Their fate was sealed when they reached our wire. As soon as they entered the entanglements their advance stalled when their skirts became stuck and at the same moment we opened fire. The shouts of wounded and dying men, soldiers running around in panic, it was total chaos. When our artillery began laying a brilliantly aimed curtain of protective fire behind them there was no way the attackers could retreat. The detonations of our shells showed the Scots that they had reached a point of no return. The area between the wire entanglement had been turned into a slaughterhouse by our bullets and hand grenades. The piles of the dead rose higher while the number of those with a chance to escape got smaller with every passing minute. Yet there was no surrender. Some of the Scots charged backwards right into the barrage of our artillery while others, screaming their war cries, threw themselves bravely forward into their death.’
It is true that in 1918, German Army intelligence rated the 51st (Highland) Division to be a besonders gute Angriffsdivision (particularly good assault division), yet the idea that the Germans feared the Highlanders more than any other unit of the Allied armies has to remain a myth based on Scottish projection and self-perception. Scottish troops were respected, but not more or less than other British units.
"We Germans fear God and nothing else in the world!"
Otto von Bismarck, 6 February 1888
Whoever coined the nicknames Ladies of Hell and the Devils in Skirts, if it was the press in the UK or overseas, or some members of a kilted regiment; the fact that they still exist tells us a lot more of pride and the strong feeling of Scottish national identity than it does about the Germans. And no matter if the German Army used these terms or not - the combat prowess and bravery of Scottish troops in the First World War was never in question.
Excellent stuff, Rob