He was in a Highland regiment during World War II, rising to the splendid rank of Lance-Corporal, and wrote one of the finest soldier's autobiographies of the war in the Far East, "Quartered Safe Out Here". It has an honored place in my collection. He was later commissioned as a second lieutenant (in British parlance, a "subaltern") in the same regiment, serving after the War in a garrison role in Egypt. He wrote a trilogy of short story collections about his service there: "The General Danced at Dawn", "McAuslan in the Rough", and "The Sheik and the Dustbin". After his death, they were gathered into a single volume, "The Complete McAuslan".
From that collection (and originally from the first volume of the trilogy) here's the story "The General Danced at Dawn". Many of the customs and traditions it describes will be (extremely!) foreign to American readers, but they're the way things were in that regiment, in that place, way back then. It was a different world, and I'm not sure we're the better for its passing.
Friday night was always dancing night. On the six other evenings of the week the officers’ mess was informal, and we had supper in various states of uniform, mufti and undress, throwing bits of bread across the table and invading the kitchen for second helpings of caramel pudding. The veranda was always open, and the soft, dark night of North Africa hung around pleasantly beyond the screens.
Afterwards in the ante-room we played cards, or ludo, or occasional games of touch rugby, or just talked the kind of nonsense that subalterns talk, and whichever of these things we did our seniors either joined in or ignored completely; I have seen a game of touch rugby in progress, with the chairs and tables pushed back against the wall, and a heaving mass of Young Scotland wrestling for a ‘ball’ made of a sock stuffed with rags, while less than a yard away the Adjutant, two company commanders, and the M.O. were sitting round a card table holding an inquest on five spades doubled. There was great toleration.
Friday night was different. On that evening we dressed in our best tartans and walked over to the mess in two’s and three’s as soon as the solitary piper, who had been playing outside the mess for about twenty minutes, broke into the slow, plaintive ‘Battle of the Somme’ – or, as it is known colloquially, ‘See’s the key, or I’ll roar up yer lobby’.
In the mess we would have a drink in the ante-room, the captains and the majors sniffing at their Talisker and Glengrant, and the rest of us having beer or orange juice – I have known messes where subalterns felt they had to drink hard stuff for fear of being thought cissies, but in a Highland mess nobody presses anybody. For one thing, no senior officer with a whisky throat wants to see his single malt being wasted on some pink and eager one-pipper.
Presently the Colonel would knock his pipe out and limp into the dining-room, and we would follow in to sit round the huge white table. I never saw a table like it, and never expect to; Lord Mayor’s banquets, college dinners, and American conventions at 100 dollars a plate may surpass it in spectacular grandeur, but when you sat down at this table you were conscious of sitting at a dinner that had lasted for centuries.
The table was a mass of silver: the horse’s-hoof snuff-box that was a relic of the few minutes at Waterloo when the regiment broke Napoleon’s cavalry, and Wellington himself took off his hat and said, ‘Thank you, gentlemen’; the set of spoons from some forgotten Indian palace with strange gods carved on the handles; the great bowl, magnificently engraved, presented by an American infantry regiment in Normandy, and the little quaich that had been found in the dust at Magersfontein; loot that had come from Vienna, Moscow, Berlin, Rome, the Taku Forts, and God knows where, some direct and some via French, Prussian, Polish, Spanish, and other regiments from half the countries on earth – stolen, presented, captured, bought, won, given, taken, and acquired by accident. It was priceless, and as you sat and contemplated it you could almost feel the shades elbowing you round the table.
At any rate, it enabled us to get through the tinned tomato soup, rissoles and jam tart, which seemed barely adequate to such a splendid setting, or to the sonorous grace which the padre had said beforehand (‘I say, padre, can you say it in Gaelic?’ ‘Away, a’ he talks is Glesca.’ ‘Whessht for the minister’). And when it was done and the youth who was vice-president had said, ‘The King, passed the port in the wrong direction, giggled, upset his glass, and been sorrowfully rebuked from the table head, we lit up and waited for the piper. The voices, English of Sandhurst and Scottish of Kelvinside, Perthshire, and Peterhead, died away, and the pipe-major strode in and let us have it.
A twenty-minute pibroch is no small thing at a range of four feet. Some liked it, some affected to like it, and some buried their heads in their hands and endured it. But in everyone the harsh, keening siren-sound at least provoked thought. I can see them still, the faces round the table; the sad padre, tapping slowly to ‘The Battle of the Spoiled Dyke’; the junior subaltern, with his mouth slightly open, watching the tobacco smoke wreathing in low clouds over the white cloth; the signals officer, tapping his thumb-nail against his teeth and shifting restlessly as he wondered if he would get away in time to meet that Ensa singer at the club; the Colonel, chin on fist like a great bald eagle with his pipe clamped between his teeth and his eyes two generations away; the men, the boys, the dreamer’s eyes and the boozer’s melancholy, all silent while the music enveloped them.
When it was over, and we had thumped the table, and the pipe-major had downed his whisky with a Gaelic toast, we would troop out again, and the Colonel would grin and rub tobacco between his palms, and say:
‘Right, gentlemen, shall we dance?’
This was part of the weekly ritual. We would take off our tunics, and the pipers would make preparatory whines, and the Colonel would perch on a table, swinging his game leg which the Japanese had broken for him on the railway, and would say:
‘Now, gentlemen, as you know there is Highland dancing as performed when ladies are present, and there is Highland dancing. We will have Highland dancing. In Valetta in ’21 I saw a Strip the Willow performed in eighty-nine seconds, and an Eightsome reel in two minutes twenty-two seconds. These are our targets. All right, pipey.’
We lined up and went at it. You probably know both the dances referred to, but until you have seen Highland subalterns and captains giving them the treatment you just don’t appreciate them. Strip the Willow at speed is lethal; there is much swinging round, and when fifteen stone of heughing humanity is whirled at you at close range you have to be wide awake to sidestep, scoop him in, and hurl him back again. I have gone up the line many times, and it is like being bounced from wall to wall of a long corridor with heavy weights attached to your arms. You just have to relax and concentrate on keeping upright.
Occasionally there would be an accident, as when the padre, his Hebridean paganism surging up through his Calvinstic crust, swung into the M.O., and the latter, his constitution undermined by drink and peering through microscopes, mistimed him and received him heavily amidships. The padre simply cried: ‘The sword of the Lord and of Gideon!’ and danced on, but the M.O. had to be carried to the rear and his place taken by the second-in-command, who was six feet four and a danger in traffic.
The Eightsome was even faster, but not so hazardous, and when it was over we would have a breather while the Adjutant, a lanky Englishman who was transformed by pipe music to a kind of Fred Astaire, danced a ‘ragged trousers’ and the cooks and mess waiters came through to watch and join in the gradually mounting rumble of stamping and applause. He was the clumsiest creature in everyday walking and moving, but out there, with his fair hair falling over his face and his shirt hanging open, he was like thistledown on the air; he could have left Nijinsky frozen against the cushion.
The pipe-sergeant loved him, and the pipe-sergeant had skipped nimbly off with prizes uncounted at gatherings and games all over Scotland. He was a tiny, india-rubber man, one of your technically perfect dancers who had performed before crowned heads, viceroys, ambassadors, ‘and all sorts of wog presidents and the like of that’. It was to mollify him that the Colonel would encourage the Adjutant to perform, for the pipe-sergeant disliked ‘wild’ dancing of the Strip the Willow variety, and while we were on the floor he would stand with his mouth primly pursed and his glengarry pulled down, glancing occasionally at the Colonel and sniffing.
‘What’s up, pipe-sarnt,’ the Colonel would say, ‘too slow for you?’
‘Slow?’ the pipe-sergeant would say. ‘Fine you know, sir, it’s not too slow for me. It’s a godless stramash is what it is, and shouldn’t be allowed. Look at the unfortunate Mr Cameron, the condition of him; he doesn’t know whether it’s Tuesday or breakfast.’
‘They love it; anyway, you don’t want them dancing like a bunch of old women.’
‘No, not like old women, but chust like proper Highlandmen. There is a form, and a time, and a one-two-three, and a one-two-three, and thank God it’s done and here’s the lovely Adjutant.’
‘Well, don’t worry,’ said the Colonel, clapping him on the shoulder. ‘You get ’em twice a week in the mornings to show them how it ought to be done.’
This was so. On Tuesdays and Thursdays batmen would rouse officers with malicious satisfaction at 5.30, and we would stumble down, bleary and unshaven, to the M.T. sheds, where the pipe-sergeant would be waiting, skipping in the cold to put us through our session of practice dancing. He was in his element, bounding about in his laced pumps, squeaking at us while the piper played and we galumphed through our eightsomes and foursomes. Unlovely we were, but the pipe-sergeant was lost in the music and the mists of time, emerging from time to time to rebuke, encourage and commend.
‘Ah, the fine sound,’ he would cry, pirouetting among us. ‘And a one, two, three, and a one, two, three. And there we are, Captain MacAlpine, going grand, going capital! One, two, three and oh, observe the fine feet of Captain MacAlpine! He springs like a startled ewe, he does! And a one, two, three, Mr Elphinstone-Hamilton, and a pas-de-bas, and, yes, Mr Cameron, once again. But now a one, two, three, four, Mr Cameron, and a one, two, three, four, and the rocking-step. Come to me, Mr Cameron, like a full-rigged ship. But, oh, dear God, the horns of the deer! Boldly, proudly, that’s the style of the masterful Mr Cameron; his caber feidh is wonderful, it is fit to frighten Napoleon.’
He and Ninette de Valois would have got on a fair treat. The Colonel would sometimes loaf down, with his greatcoat over his pyjamas, and lean on his cromach, smoking and smiling quietly. And the pipe-sergeant, carried away, would skip all the harder and direct his running commentary at his audience of one.
‘And a one, two, three, good morning to you, sir, see the fine dancing, and especially of Captain MacAlpine! One, two, three, and a wee bit more, Mr Cameron, see the fine horns of the deer, colonel sir, how he knacks his thoos, God bless him. Ah, yes, that is it, Mr Elphinstone-Hamilton, a most proper appearance, is it not, Colonel?’
‘I used to think,’ the Colonel would say later, ‘that the pipe-sergeant must drink steadily from three a.m. to get into that elevated condition. Now I know better. The man’s bewitched.’
So we danced, and it was just part of garrison life, until the word came of one of our periodic inspections, which meant that a general would descend from Cairo and storm through us, and report to G.H.Q. on our condition, and the Colonel, Adjutant, Regimental Sergeant Major and so on would either receive respective rockets or pats on the back. Especially the Colonel. And this inspection was rather more than ordinarily important to the old boy, because in two months he and the battalion would be going home, and soon after that he would be retiring. He should by rights have retired long before, but the war had kept him on, and he had stayed to the last possible minute. After all it was his life: he had gone with this battalion to France in ‘14 and hardly left it since; now he was going for good, and word went round that his last inspection on active service must be something for him to remember in his old age, when he could look back on a battalion so perfect that the inspecting general had not been able to find so much as a speck of whitewash out of place. So we hoped.
Now, it chanced that, possibly in deference to the Colonel, the Very Senior Officer who made this inspection was also very Highland. The pipe-sergeant rubbed his hands at the news. ‘There will be dancing,’ he said, with the air of the Creator establishing land and sea. ‘General MacCrimmon will be enchanted; he was in the Argylls, where they dance a wee bit. Of course, being an Argyll he is chust a kind of Campbell, but it will have to be right dancing for him, I can assure you, one, two, three, and no lascivious jiving.’
Bursting with zeal, he worked our junior officers’ dancing class harder than ever, leaping and exhorting until he had us exhausted; meanwhile, the whole barracks was humming with increased activity as we prepared for inspection. Arab sweepers brushed the parade ground with hand brushes to free it of dust, whitewash squads were everywhere with their buckets and stained overalls; every weapon in the place, from dirks and revolvers to the three-inch mortars, was stripped and oiled and cleaned three times over; the cookhouses, transport sheds, and even the little church, were meticulously gone over; Private McAuslan, the dirtiest soldier in the world, was sent on leave, squads roamed the barrack grounds continually, picking up paper, twigs, leaves, stones, and anything that might offend military symmetry; the Colonel snapped and twisted his handkerchief and broke his favourite pipe; sergeants became hoarse and fretful, corporals fearful, and the quartermasters and company clerks moved uneasily in the dark places of their stores, sweating in the knowledge of duty ill-done and judgment at hand. But, finally, we were ready; in other words we were clean. We were so tired that we couldn’t have withstood an attack by the Tiller Girls, but we were clean.
The day came, and disaster struck immediately. The sentry at the main gate turned out the guard at the approach of the General’s car, and dropped his rifle in presenting arms. That was fairly trivial, but the General commented on it as he stepped out to be welcomed by the Colonel, and that put everyone’s nerves on edge; matters were not improved by the obvious fact that he was pleased to have found a fault so early, and was intent on finding more.
He didn’t have far to look. He was a big, beefy man, turned out in a yellowing balmoral and an ancient, but beautifully cut kilt, and his aide was seven feet of sideways invisibility in one of the Guards regiments. The General announced that he would begin with the men’s canteen (‘men’s welfare comes first with me; should come first with every officer’), and in the panic that ensued on this unexpected move the canteen staff upset a swill-tub in the middle of the floor five seconds before he arrived; it had been a fine swill-tub, specially prepared to show that we had such things, and he shouldn’t have seen it until it had been placed at a proper distance from the premises.
The General looked at the mess, said ‘Mmh,’ and asked to see the medical room (‘always assuming it isn’t rife with bubonic plague’); it wasn’t, as it happened, but the M.O.’s terrier had chosen that morning to give birth to puppies, beating the Adjutant to it by a short head. Thereafter a fire broke out in the cookhouse, a bren-gun carrier broke down, an empty cigarette packet was found in ‘B’ company’s garden, and Private McAuslan came back off leave. He was tastefully dressed in shirt and boots, but no kilt, and entered the main gate in the company of three military policemen who had foolishly rescued him from a canal into which he had fallen. The General noted his progress to the guardroom with interest; McAuslan was alternately singing the Twenty-third Psalm and threatening to write to his Member of Parliament.
So it went on; anything that could go wrong, seemed to go wrong, and by dinner-time that night the General was wearing a sour and satisfied expression, his aide was silently contemptuous, the battalion was boiling with frustration and resentment, and the Colonel was looking old and ill. Only once did he show a flash of spirit, and that was when the junior subaltern passed the port the wrong way again, and the General sighed, and the Colonel caught the subaltern’s eye and said loudly and clearly: ‘Don’t worry, Ian; it doesn’t matter a damn.’
That finally froze the evening over, so to speak, and when we were all back in the ante-room and the senior major remarked that the pipe-sergeant was all set for the dancing to begin, the Colonel barely nodded, and the General lit a cigar and sat back with the air of one who was only mildly interested to see how big a hash we could make of this too.
Oddly enough, we didn’t. We danced very well, with the pipe-sergeant fidgeting on the outskirts, hoarsely whispering, ‘One, two, three,’ and afterwards he and the Adjutant and two of the best subalterns danced a foursome that would have swept the decks at Braemar. It was good stuff, really good, and the General must have known it, but he seemed rather irritated than pleased. He kept moving in his seat, frowning, and when we had danced an eightsome he finally turned to the Colonel.
‘Yes, it’s all right,’ he said. ‘But, you know, I never cared much for the set stuff. Did you never dance a sixteensome?’
The Colonel said he had heard of such a thing, but had not, personally, danced it.
‘Quite simple,’ said the General, rising. ‘Now, then. Eight more officers on the floor. I think I remember it, although it’s years now . . .’
He did remember; a sixteensome is complicated, but its execution gives you the satisfaction that you get from any complex manoeuvre; we danced it twice, the General calling the changes and clapping (his aide was studying the ceiling with the air of an archbishop at a cannibal feast), and when it was over the General actually smiled and called for a large whisky. He then summoned the pipe-sergeant, who was looking disapproving.
‘Pipe-sergeant, tell you what,’ said the General. ‘I have been told that back in the ’nineties the First Black Watch sergeants danced a thirty-twosome. Always doubted it, but suppose it’s possible. What do you think? Yes, another whisky, please.’
The pipe-sergeant, flattered but slightly outraged, gave his opinion. All things were possible; right, said the General, wiping his mouth, we would try it.
The convolutions of an eightsome are fairly simple; those of a sixteensome are difficult, but a thirty-twosome is just murder. When you have thirty-two people weaving and circling it is necessary that each one should move precisely right, and that takes organisation. The General was an organiser; his tunic came off after half an hour, and his voice hoarsely thundered the time and the changes. The mess shook to the crash of feet and the skirling of the pipes, and at last the thirty-twosome rumbled, successfully, to its ponderous close.
‘Dam’ good! Dam’ good!’ exclaimed the General, flushed and applauding. ‘Well danced, gen’men. Good show, pipe-sarn’t! Thanks, Tom, don’t mind if I do. Dam’ fine dancing. Thirty-twosome, eh? That’ll show the Black Watch!’
He seemed to sway a little as he put down his glass. It was midnight, but he was plainly waking up. ‘Thirty-twosome, by Jove! Wouldn’t have thought it possible.’ A thought seemed to strike him. ‘I say, pipe-sarn’t, I wonder . . . d’you suppose that’s as far as we can go? I mean is there any reason . . . ?’
He talked, and the pipe-sergeant’s eyes bulged. He shook his head, the General persisted, and five minutes later we were all outside on the lawn and trucks were being sent for so that their headlights could provide illumination, and sixty-four of us were being thrust into our positions, and the General was shouting orders through cupped hands from the verandah.
‘Taking the time from me! Right, pipers? It’s p’fickly simple. S’easy. One, two, an’ off we go!’
It was a nightmare, it really was. I had avoided being in the sixty-four; from where I was standing it looked like a crowd scene from ‘The Ten Commandments’, with the General playing Cecil de Mille. Officers, mess-waiters, batmen, swung into the dance as the pipes shrilled, setting to partners, circling forwards and back, forming an enormous ring, and heughing like things demented. The General bounded about the verandah, shouting; the pipe-sergeant hurtled through the sets, pulling, directing, exhorting; those of us watching clapped and stamped as the mammoth dance surged on, filling the night with its sound and fury.
It took, I am told, one hour and thirteen minutes by the Adjutant’s watch, and by the time it was over the Fusiliers from the adjoining barracks were roused and lined along the wall, assorted Arabs had come to gaze on the wonders of civilisation, and the military police mobile patrol was also on hand. But the General was tireless; I have a vague memory of him standing on the tailboard of a truck, addressing the assembled mob; I actually got close enough to hear him exhorting the pipe-sergeant in tones of enthusiasm and entreaty:
‘Pipe-sarn’t! Pipey! May I call you Pipey? . . . never been done . . . three figures . . . think of it . . . hunner’n-twenty-eightsome . . . never another chance . . . try it . . . rope in the Fusiliers . . . massed pipers . . . regimental history . . . please, Pipey, for me . . .’
Some say that it actually happened, that a one hundred and twenty-eightsome reel was danced on the parade ground that night, General Sir Roderick MacCrimmon, K.C.B., D.S.O., and bar, presiding; that it was danced by Highlanders, Fusiliers, Arabs, military police, and three German prisoners of war; that it was danced to a conclusion, all figures. It may well have been; all I remember is a heaving, rushing crowd, like a mixture of Latin Carnival and Scarlett’s uphill charge at Balaclava, surging ponderously to the sound of the pipes; but I distinctly recall one set in which the General, the pipe-sergeant, and what looked like a genuine Senussi in a burnous, swept by roaring, ‘One, two, three,’ and I know, too, that at one point I personally was part of a swinging human chain in which my immediate partners were the Fusiliers’ cook-sergeant and an Italian café proprietor from down the road. My memory tells me that it rose to a tremendous crescendo just as the first light of dawn stole over Africa, and then all faded away, silently, in the tartan-strewn morning.
No one remembers the General leaving later in the day, although the Colonel said he believed he was there, and that the General cried with emotion. It may have been so, for the inspection report later congratulated the battalion, and highly commended the pipe-sergeant on the standard of the officers’ dancing. Which was a mixed pleasure to the pipe-sergeant, since the night’s proceedings had been an offence to his orthodox soul.
‘Mind you,’ he would say, ‘General MacCrimmon had a fine agility at the pas-de-bas, and a decent sense of the time. Och, aye, he wass not bad, not bad . . . for a Campbell.’
There are many other stories in the collection, and I'm very fond of all of them. Highly recommended reading, if you're into military reminiscences with more than a touch of deadpan (and sometimes riotous) humor.