The Ladies From Hell

There’s an important difference between history and tradition. Both are ways of seeing and presenting our collective past, but tradition is not bound to comply with either objectivity or historical accuracy. Nowhere is this creative and imagination spin on the past more prevalent and important than in the annals of the world’s military forces. Tradition and history are both key binding elements that keep groups of otherwise diverse individuals together with a common purpose and sense of continuity. It can be very difficult to separate fact from fiction, especially once a particular meme has been written as regimental history. Tradition also helps soldiers deal with the difficult jobs they have to do; not least, killing other people and not being killed themselves. Fighting men like to be assured that they are both on the side of good, and more than capable of facing whatever hardships lie ahead. Because soldiers very often have more in common with their enemies individually and culturally than it might be healthy for them to admit, the bare bones of objective history won’t always do in the context of regimental and unit history. Which brings me to the subject at hand – nicknames. Specifically, the name “The Ladies From Hell” as applied to the kilted units of the British and Canadian armies in the First World War (another claim for the Canadians can be found here). Clearly this is meant to paint the men in question as something out of the ordinary; soldiers so tough that they can cross-dress and still be shining examples of fighting manhood.

kilts.jpg

This traditional image, as a feature of the propaganda of Empire, was parodied in the irreverent film Carry On Up The Khyber, released just four years after the rather more “on message” Zulu. Given how rare the variant nickname “Devils in Skirts” is in the literature, I have a feeling (unconfirmed!) that it was the Carry On team who coined that version as a deliberate subversion of “Ladies from Hell”. In any case, today you will find both names in use to describe the Highland soldiers of the past. I say “the past” because the kilt made its last operational appearance at Dunkirk in 1940, though it continues to be worn with more formal uniform and in pipe bands as a symbol of identity, with all the connotations and gallant actions that this recalls. The Highland warrior, as reinvented in the early 18th Century by the British Army, is a truly iconic figure.

So where does this colourful nickname come from? The traditional story, which you can find all over the web, including the official British Army website, goes like this. German troops, respectful and even outright fearful of these strange and fearsome warriors, who paradoxically, by their cultural standard were also transvestites, coined the name as an expression of these feelings. The problem is that, as with other such names that are attributed to an awestruck enemy in or immediately after time of war, is that the historical sources are very one-sided. A German historian, Benjamin Ziemann, asserts that the Germans were no more or less afraid of kilted troops as any other Allied unit, and claims of some official list of “most capable” enemy forces are unfounded. This caused a bit of an indignant reaction from Scots, and they have a point in that Ziemann’s refutation does nothing to address the perceptions of individual German soldiers. So this leaves quite a gap for the “Ladies from Hell” to hide in. Ziemann himself admits that there was commentary upon kilted soldiers that expressed at least curiosity, if not any special measure of respect.

The biggest problem with the whole story is not the outright lack of evidence. There are many sources, and many of these are contemporary, right back to 1917, so this is no latter-day rewriting of history that we’re dealing with. Poems of the day use it, and an entire book (1918) uses the name for a title. Rather, it’s that all of the sources are what students of the urban myth would call “FOAF” or Friend of a Friend. They mostly refer to other Allied soldiers using the term, whereas what we would wish to see as quality (though still anecdotal) evidence, is a claim to have heard this from a captured enemy. Likewise I can find little reference from German sources of this term. There are brief mentions here and here, the latter actually a mocking reference to the skirt-like kilt. Perhaps after the fact, the Germans were understandably reluctant to admit to their respect for the “kilties”? This would be unusual though, because German memoir writers that have been translated into English are not backward about coming forward with such sentiments though. Especially a phrase as ambiguous and potentially ironic as “Ladies from Hell”. It needn’t be read as a compliment. In fact one theory says that it was originally a good old fashioned Anglo-Saxon piss-take, “reclaimed” by the Jocks when they heard about it. So why would German writers hide it? I should point out that John Gibbons’ “Soldier and Sailor Words and Phrases 1914-18″ gives this explanation;

“..: Highland Regiments. Kilted troops. A name coined in the War by the German newspapers and adopted among the German troops on the Western Front.”

Some sources even claim that the nickname was official, something for which there is no corroborating evidence. “Private 12788” by John Jackson (a soldier’s memoirs of the Great War) that mentions the….

“…devil’s ladies, as the Kaiser himself had named us”.

However, I can find no further leads on either of these suggested German origins. If any German readers can point me to these sources, if indeed they exist, I would be very grateful. Meanwhile, and in the absence of testimony from PoWs, we have to ask how a private soldier would have known that this nickname had been bestowed. Something from the Allied press of the day perhaps? The alternative is that the name was an organic military myth, originating within the ranks. Whatever the case, the idea was propagated by these men during and after the war, but attributed to their enemy.

So is this just a piece of Allied propaganda? History being written by the victors? There is evidence that, like other unit nicknames, it may well have begun as such. But the culprits are not the armed forces. Then, even more so than today, civilian and soldier alike had limited access to news from the front. For all but the most senior officer and politician, it came from the media; the newspapers. A lack of concrete information, due to censorship and lack of sensational stories, led to some creative licence increasingly being taken, especially where it gave readers what they wanted – made them feel that the war was being won. Military commanders were of course quite happy for this mild form of propaganda to be put out. This was especially true of the American media, whose civilian audience were even more removed from the reality of war than Britons.

And so, two of the earliest references to the “Ladies From Hell” actually comes from an American newspaper – the New York Times, which refers to a visit by the pipe bands of Canadian contingents of the Gordon Highlanders:

“..it will be New York’s first glimpse of a really numerous body of Highlanders in uniform, who have earned from the Germans the nickname of “the ladies of hell”.

And from the edition of the following day..

“The Germans already know what they look like, and they call them ‘the ladies of hell’”.

This is significant because the first (or at least, most definitive) appearance of another contemporary military nickname, that of “Devil Dogs” to describe the US Marines, was also in the New York Times (see here). Direct reference is made to the Highlanders;

“Gee, those guys rank us with the ‘ Ladies from Hell,’” declared a grizzled old marine sergeant, swelling with pride when he heard the new title.”

The German origin story for “Devil Dogs”, or “Teufelhunde”, has been debunked, not least by H. L. Mencken as this site relates;

In The American Language (1921) Mencken comments on the Teufelshunde term in a footnote: “This is army slang, but promises to survive. The Germans, during the war, had no opprobrious nicknames for their foes. The French were usually simply die Franzosen, the English were die Engländer, and so on, even when most violently abused. Even der Yankee was rare. Teufelhunde (devil-dogs), for the American marines, was invented by an American correspondent; the Germans never used it.

I think he’s right. Despite a shared cultural history, snappy epithets were not in the German lexicon. They did not even typically differentiate between soldiers of the British nations, using “Englander” as a catch-all. Now, note in the header of original article the anonymous attribution to a “German writer”, and the generally vague nature of the full story. Similar media (in fact, New York Times!) origins can be argued for the other main nickname of this type in the Great War; the French “Blue Devils“. The same anecdotal quality is reflected not just in the paper, but in all mentions of the “Ladies” idea, right down to this recent US attribution that claims it’s a translation from the German. It’s always “as the Germans/Boche/Hun call them”, and never with reference to a German source or anecdote featuring one. To me, this suggests that the press were happy to plant the seeds of catchy new PR-friendly anti-German ideas in the minds of servicemen and those at home. Word of mouth as well as newsprint, would assure the meme a place in history, and victory over the Germans would make its origin unquestionable. The “noble savage” view of the Scottish Highland soldier in other media of the day was certainly bolstered by this idea.

I’d just like to touch again on the possibility of an organic military origin. It’s possible that other units, eyeing the “kilties” with a mixture of awe and amusement, might have conferred the nickname first, with the papers picking it up later and changing the origin for effect. The Indianapolis Star (not free unfortunately) for Wednesday 27th of March 1918 tells us that;

“‘Ladies From Hell’ is the cheerful name given to Scotch soldiers in kilts by their associates at the front”.

Bearing in mind the later date of the piece, this is just as likely to point to a media origin as to the ranks. You be the judge. What we can say is that these three names were almost certainly bestowed by friendlies, not the enemy.

In closing, I’d just like to stress that whatever the source of this classic nickname, this and other military nicknames are not “BS” history. Though by my estimation we are in the realm of tradition and folklore rather than pure history, we can’t have one without the other. The very existence of the name is a fascinating insight into the social history of the Great War and tells us a great deal about concepts of our own military and national identity rather than that of our former enemy. And though these names are not proof of the terrible fighting prowess of the Highlander, the US Marine, or the French Chasseur Alpins, the exploits of those men should, and do, speak for themselves.

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43 Responses to “The Ladies From Hell”

  1. John Says:

    Typical revisionist history by you’re standard self important self appointed liberal spokesperson….

    • bshistorian Says:

      Just for once it would be nice if someone could take issue with a specific claim or point I’ve made rather than going straight for the swivel-eyed bile.

      All history is revisionist, and that is no bad thing, as you would know if you’d (sorry, “youd”) actually read any of it.

  2. me Says:

    Really enjoyed the article. Very interesting and a good attempt at unbiased research.

  3. The Ladies From Hell - World War II Zone Forums Says:

    [...] [...]

  4. Ian Lawther Says:

    Whilst the kilt may have last been worn in battle in France in 1940 saying that its last appearance was at Dunkirk shows a lack of knowledge of the role of the Highland Division at that time. They fought in diversionary operations away from Dunkirk and the division was captured en mass at St. Valery over a week after the end of the Dunkirk evacuation.

  5. bshistorian Says:

    Thanks for catching that bit of rushed oversimplification on my part. You’re quite correct. In my defence, most people are familiar with ‘Dunkirk’, less so with the details of military history. But I could of course simply have said ‘France/1940′. These things will slip through when you have no proofreader, no editor, and no peer-review…

  6. Scott Hulslander Says:

    Having served in a unit that was a recipient of such a name, 28th INF DIV “Bloody Bucket”, I enjoyed the article.

    A bit off topic but as a fairly regular kilt-wearer I might have skipped over the cross-dressing bit. But that’s just me.

    Take care.

    • bshistorian Says:

      Rather a late reply here, sorry. I really don’t see how I could have written an article about people calling highlanders ‘ladies from hell’, without – you know – pointing out why they would have called them that. If we assume that the phrase existed, the Germans were clearly implying that THEY THOUGHT the Scots were cross-dressers. Not me, THEM.

  7. Rev Alex Muir Says:

    It is a fact that the Highland soldiers in the Crimean War were called
    ” the red devils in petticoats” by the Russians-and they did give a good
    account of themselves in that conflict. As to World War 1, in his book
    Mein Kampf Adolf Hitler spoke highly of the Scottish soldiers who would best be distinguished by the kilt. But neither of these stories prove the existence of the nickname in World War 1.

    • bshistorian Says:

      What Hitler is getting at isn’t so much that the Scots were the best fighters, but that his own nation’s propaganda regarding their comic appearance was inaccurate because he and his comrades had encountered ‘Tommies’ and found that “those Scotsmen were not like the ones we had seen described and caricatured in the comic papers and mentioned in the communiqués.” He goes no further than this. As to the ‘petticoats’ comment, I’ve only ever seen this said by our side – like all of these other nicknames. If you have evidence to the contrary, I’d love to see it.

  8. brian Says:

    i wish i could beat youre ass in my kilt soo bad right now, man i would kick the living shit outta you

  9. Homo Sum » Blog Archive » What’s a “bricht chaulmer”? Says:

    [...] fellow named Hamish Henderson, about his regiment (the 51st Highland Regiment, some of the supposed Ladies From Hell) taking their leave of Sicily. The World War II ballad “The 51st Highland Regiment’s [...]

  10. black scot hispanic and black Says:

    there are only two kind,s of lady,s from hell those who are and those who arn,t even scottish. o yah the nazi,s lost any way. learn my history b4 u try to tear it appart. celtic or death. celt,s wah hay.

  11. black scot hispanic and black Says:

    i was ask,d what does that mean on yur wall lad. it sayz pog mo thion. and the guy got mad. so i told him i cannie say it in english cuz yull take me away. to the funny farm in place u come from. not bad 4a black scot eye.

  12. pog mo thion Says:

    listen here if you dont like scottish kilt,s. ya must be a german.we kike,d there but,s in ww1 ww2. and id like 2 kik there but,z my self. u lost thank god 4 those guy,s were,n kilt,s kike,d yur ass,s back 2 square head,s land. so pog mo thion. and on the 8th day god made scotland on the 9th. he made kilt,s for sir william wallace and robert the bruce.

  13. watch the crazies online Says:

    Super-Duper web page! I am loving it!! Will come back again – getting your feed too, Many thanks.

  14. black scot hispanic and black Says:

    if u don,t like a kilt then wear a diaper. cuz yur gona need it.when our lady,s from hell come after you. haha celt or death. don,t be around when they come. cuz u won,t make back yuk yuk lol

  15. Ian S. Williams Says:

    In a recently discovered letter written by Piper James Richardson VC, in 1915 from the Western Front, he states that the kilted regiments were referred to by the enemy as ‘The Wives of the Devil.’ The letter was written to his father and uses the statement in the context that it was common knowledge that this was an accepted nickname is regular use.

    Much of this material will be made available to the public with the release of our films and various books.
    .

    • bshistorian Says:

      Hi Ian,

      Very interesting, but only goes to show that the nickname was in currency on our own side. I’m perfectly prepared to believe that the Germans did use something like it, but we really need a German source.

  16. Kenneth Steeples Says:

    i really like your writing

  17. artymcclench Says:

    I have only just come on this site. I find the hostility of some posters baffling but perhaps they haven’t read what you write with sufficient care.

    The subject of self-generated myths in the military context is fascinating. In the British army the process seems to really have got under way in the years after the Napoleonic Wars, which is where the origin of a number of cherished regimental stories and emblems seem to lie- at least in the forms that circulated for the following 180-odd years, some still surviving in the diminished regiments of 2012.

    Quite a few famous emblems are said to have originated fifty years, previously in events of the American War of Independence (for which no battle honours were awarded) and for which there is no contemporary evidence and little or no evidence in the intervening years.

    Many of these ‘traditions’ are ill-founded in fact if not inherently improbable and it takes little investigation for that to become apparent. However, because the story conveys an image of the soldier that is appealing, it circulates unquestioned down the ages.

    To explore the origins of such traditions and point out that they are may only be folklore is not an act of disrespect. To tell such stories is a profoundly human instinct. Without it we would have no Iliad, no Beowulf, no Morte d’Arthur. To question is also a positive human instinct, too!

    For, lazy cut-and-pasters,however, I have less respect….

    • bshistorian Says:

      Superbly put, thank you for articulating what it is that I’m trying to do when I tackle these subjects. I have a great deal of respect for the military – in fact, I’ve worked with many of them.

  18. paul khan durrani Says:

    Perhaps you can settle an argument for me? I was told by a family member that the desciption “ladies from hell” was also used by the Afghan tribesmen in reference to the Scottish regiments long before wwi .
    I am of Afghan descent as you can see by my name.
    I enjoyed the article by the way!.

    • bshistorian Says:

      Hi Paul,

      I wish that I could, but it’s a new one on me! Thank you for reporting another interesting usage of that phrase though. You don’t have the original (Pashtu?) form, do you?

      Thanks,

      BSH

  19. Coireall Says:

    I like the way you took this one one. We love names to define ourselves in a positive light, and I–of Scottish descent–have always loved the “Ladies from Hell” designation. I never believed, however, that its origin was German. I lived in Germany for several years. I often engaged German acquaintances in conversations about WW I and WW II. Being proud of my Scottish origins I used “Ladies from Hell” to describe the Scots. No German I talked to had ever heard of it. They simply referred to the Scots as Schottische Soldaten. And “Devil Dogs.” We know that the Marines hired publicists during WW I, and I’m surprised that they could not come up with a designation more terrifying than that.
    .

  20. Coireall Says:

    I have already commented and I did not identify myself as a kilt wearer. I am though, just not regularly–as every day. I wanted to add to my earlier comment something about some of those replying to your blog. What set some of them off, I could ask. When truth is viewed as an insult, I want to know why. One of my best friends was a soldier of the Black Watch (he passed on 18 years ago) who served in India, and Mesopotamia back between 1920 and 1925. He would not have been insulted if someone told him that the “Ladies from Hell” appellation did not come from the Germans. A real soldier from the Highland Division would not worry about it. He is comfortable in his role as a defender of his nation.

    • bshistorian Says:

      Completely agree. I think those secure in their heritage have no reason to flinch from the truth.

  21. snafu7x7 Says:

    Nice historical account, I appreciate you taking the time to post this for others to stumble upon. I’m a little torn though…on the one hand its always nice to know the truth behind the history but at the same time its a little sad to have these relatively harmless pieces of myth debunked. Before the written word became popular this is the kind of thing that would have been told and re-told around the fire and passed down through the generations. Not a precise or accurate mechanism to be sure and certainly prone to hyperbole, but definitely more romantic and exciting. As you note, the old saying of ‘history written by the victors’.

    • bshistorian Says:

      I understand and sympathise, but as Coireall says, the truth should not be viewed as an insult – unless it is intended as one. As someone of Scottish descent myself, who has lived and worked there helping to preserve its heritage, trust me when I say there is no such intent here.

  22. Plummer Says:

    Whether their foes ever called the Scottish troops “Ladies from Hell,” I’m sure they wouldn’t argue with the term after encountering the ferocity, tenacity and fighting spirit of the Highland regiments, whether it was the French and Indian War or World War Two.

  23. Brian Says:

    I came to the site from a Google search, as I was looking for an unbiased account of the origin of the term “Ladies from Hell.” You provided that by presenting objective, verifiable evidence, which I appreciate.

    My only issue with the article is, as someone else has pointed out, the use of the terms ‘cross-dressing’ and ‘transvestite’ when describing men wearing kilts. Both terms are defines as a person of one gender wearing clothing that is traditionally worn by the other gender. This term does not apply to the kilt, as it has traditionally been worn by men not only in Scotland for centuries, but also, according to archaeological record, by the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Chaldeans, and other Mesopotamian peoples.

    I certainly hope that the use of the term was not meant to be inflammatory or derogatory, but it does somewhat spoil the objectivity that is the theme of the article.

    With respect.

    • bshistorian Says:

      I don’t see how you can read these words in context and think that I’m expressing them as my own opinion;

      ‘Clearly this is meant to paint the men in question as something out of the ordinary; soldiers so tough that they can cross-dress and still be shining examples of fighting manhood.’

      and…

      ‘by their cultural standard were also transvestites’.

      Note the phrases ‘meant to paint’ and ‘by their cultural standard’.

      I could have used scare quotes around ‘cross-dress’ in the first sentence, but I think it’s pretty clear. The second sentence is fully qualified and frankly couldn’t be clearer.

      I’m well aware that men have worn skirt-like garments (there being no actual connection between Highland Scots and, say, ancient Egyptian ‘kilts’) for thousands of years, and that the kilt itself is a different garment than the modern female skirt. Had you read this, you might not have assumed malice on my part.

  24. craig Says:

    My father, an American veteran of WWII, told me that the kilted soldiers from the British Isles were referred to by German soldiers as the “Ladies from Hell.” As you have argued, this may only be a repetition of the myth passed on from other American or Allied soldiers. In addition he claimed that Irish or Scottish regiments played the bagpipes on the field of battle. The story appealed to us possibly because of our Scottish and Irish descent.

    I won’t say that this adds much to the discussion, just an anecdote.

  25. artymcclench Says:

    I thought you might be interested to read these entries from an anonymous Journal kept by a British officer during the unsuccessful campaign to prevent the French occupation of Holland in 1794-95, when the expeditionary force commanded by the Duke of York suffered abysmal mismanagement, being to prolonged sub zero temperatures without sufficient food, clothing or shelter.

    “29th June 1794

    It afforded great entertainment to the Army, to see with what surprize the Country people surveyed our Highlanders (the 42nd Regiment,) on account of their kelts, or short petticoats, and they could hardly be persuaded that they were but Women; especially as they only of all our Army, wore bonnets full of feathers; the Inhabitants absolutely gave them the name of the English frows, (Women,) which name they kept ever after.

    14th December 1794

    The highlanders, at this time, from the severity of the weather, were under the necessity of leaving off wearing their kelts, or short petticoats, and were furnished with pantaloons or close trousers which were much more comfortable for them; The French had distinguished them by the name of “Vrai Sans-Culottes.”

    Curiously, when Colonel David Stewart, prolific historian and impassioned promoter of the Highland culture, as he saw it, wrote his account of this campaign in 1822, he made a point of saying that it was the healthiness and toughness of the Highland lifestyle, as exemplified by the kilt, that contributed to the three Highland regiments in Holland suffering so few losses to disease and exposure. Stewart, who served with the Black Watch in that campaign, clearly decided to forget the shameful resort to ‘pantaloons’- (in fact, combat trousers of the day)

    By coincidence, the Dutch campaign was the alleged origin of the famed ‘red hackle’ which the Black Watch still sport in their headgear today having worn it for at least the last 200 years.

    The story of the red feather being won in battle at the Dutch village of Geldermalsen has now also been more or less discarded from the Regimental tradition as old soldiers’ tales. Curiously, Stewart, for reasons too complicated to go into here, chose to ignore the subject almost completely.

    • bshistorian Says:

      Absolutely fascinating, thank you! Who knows, perhaps at some point a similar reference will be found in a German account?

  26. artymcclench Says:

    Glad it was of interest. I should have said that in Holland the Scots were once again serving alongside Hessian contract troops as well as with contingents from King George’s ‘other’ kingdom, Hanover. After Hanover was occupied by the French, exiles went to serve with the British in the King’s German Legion. Add to that the Prussian alliance in 1815 and one might speculate whether the “vrow/frau” epithet endured in Germany for the next hundred years.
    Then again, one might not. However, I suspect the “from Hell” epithet maybe the more important.

  27. Ken Says:

    I remember my grandfather telling me in the late 1970s that American troops referred to the Scottish as the ladies from hell as a nickname based on their fighting ferocity versus their appearance. It was out of respect, and supports the fact that military sources may have borrowed the name and attributed it to the Germans to bolster pride. As a red-headed American boy with Scottish blood lines, I was proud of that nickname.

  28. James Says:

    What a very interesting article. I share your scepticism about nicknames (especially if the word “dubbed” is used). The Belgian Rattlesnake, the Devil’s Chariots, and others owe their existence to journalists, not to the soldiers at the Front. Their nicknames for friend and foe tend to be short, pithy, and, often, derogatory.

    Here’s one to add. It is said that in 1914 the Belgian Carabinier Cyclists fought with such ferocity at the Battle of Haelen that the Germans, er, “dubbed” them “The Black Devils”. The Regiment carries on its badge, to this day, a figure of a black devil and a bicycle wheel. Yet at the time the Cyclists’ uniform comprised: hunting green tunic and cap, with yellow piping, and light grey trousers. Nothing black at all, and no primary evidence in German accounts. Yet the name is cited in numerous articles on the subject.

  29. gazza Says:

    Fascinating

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