The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 occasioned soul-searching in one young American born in Spain in 1919. Well-educated and possessed of a fine mind and a romantic sensibility, young Hugh Maclean was determined, like his father had in the First World War, to serve with a Highland unit. In the summer of 1940 he travelled from New York to Ontario to join a Canadian unit. As luck would have it, the 48th Highlanders had reached their establishment and he was sent to Hamilton. Having spent a night in a rundown Hamilton hotel, which Hugh imagined was some version of hell as envisaged by Dante, he joined the unit. He had a BA and the adjutant, Johnny Farmer, thought this qualified him to be a clerk in the battalion orderly room. Hugh was taken on strength and spent his first night as an Argyll in the makeshift Stanley Barracks, a place awash, as he put it, “in blood, urine, and vomit.”
Young Maclean, a modest soul if ever there was one, made an impression. On 3 September 1940, the Intelligence Officer, Don Seldon, noted in the war diary, an episode bringing credit to Maclean. But Seldon took the opportunity to get something on record about this rather unlikely private:
Born in Aguilas, Spain, 21 years previously, of Scottish parentage, he had graduated from Princeton university with his B.A. degree, and had being continuing his studies in New York City when the Argylls mobilized. The call of the blood overcame the seeking for knowledge which has always distinguished this young man, and he was one of the first outsiders to enlist with the Argylls, being sworn in on June 26th, 1940.
Later in the month, Maclean was commissioned from the ranks along with Jack Harper and Bill Milner. Hugh recalled: “… They [all ranks] tried to help me, and I can remember figures or NCOs who really helped me … I really look back on those days with wonder and amazement. It’s really incredible I knew so little and that I was treated with such tolerance … It’s very moving for me to think of that.” He also recalled the “wetting of his pips” in the Officers’ Mess and having to be carried out.
Maclean carried out his duties, took his courses, noted with wonderment the goings-on of Regimental life, and became transport officers. By the time the Battalion was in Jamaica, it had acquired transport. On one occasion there, “after a few drinks,” he took it upon himself to ask Gen Neil Ritchie “a few questions about how Stonewall Jackson would have fought in the desert. And Hay [the adjustant] took me aside into the Mess and said, ‘Maclean, don’t you ever speak like that to a general officer.’ He said, “’ think you better go back to your barrack now.’ So I did.”
Maclean had another encounter with Hay in September 1943. Hay was acting commanding officer (CO)and the new CO Dave Stewart was with him. Hugh had authorized the use of the CO’s vehicle and, shortly thereafter, the CO wanted it. He was called to the CO’s office:
“Who gave the authority, Maclean?” He [Hay] tore a strip off me the like of which I’ve never had, right in front of Stewart. He really tore a strip off me, and he was right. And I sort of crept back to my tent and the next thing I remember is that a shadow came across the tent about fifteen minutes later, and it was Stewart. And I thought, “Oh, God. I’m going to get it again.” And I got up and he said something like, “That was a damn foolish thing to do.” I said, “Yes. Yes it was, sir.” And he said, as I recall, “Well, don’t do it again, will you?” I said, “No, sir.” And I was Stewart’s from that time on…
Maclean became the officer commanding the Bren gun carrier platoon. By July 1944, they were in France and, at this juncture, he became acutely aware of what might be next:
… the moment I suddenly said to myself — and typical of me, so late, so dumb really — the moment I said to myself, “Wait a minute, the only way I’m going to get out of this is to be wounded badly enough to get sent back to England, or killed, or behave in some cowardly way” … that moment occurred to me after we had been over in France for the first day and we were sitting playing cards in some field. And suddenly, reality hit me. I thought, “Wow, this is really it.” And a few days later, I was hit. I guess I was the first officer to be hit. And I hadn’t thought — I hadn’t permitted myself to think — about it much. So strong was the romantic aura, I guess…
His sense of foreboding proved prescient. Hugh Maclean was badly wounded on 2 August in one of the unit’s first engagements:
About 8 o’clock, I went out and around to all the pits. They were all quiet and pretty tense, but seemed a hell of a lot more dependable than I felt myself to be. [A/L/Sgt] Guild, especially, with his broad Scots, made me feel pretty good. In fact, I felt so good that I stood up, tired of the crouching run between posts, and moved back to the entrance of the dugout that way, still half erect. So perhaps what happened was my own fault … I sat down at the edge of the dugout entrance, half in and half out of cover. Almost at once, there was a deafening crack, accompanied inseparably by the same hot rush of air I’d felt from the close one earlier. There was no warning whine, nor had I heard — as the books will tell you when your special shell is on the way — the explosion in the enemy rear. I did think, “Christ, that was really close,” but discovered at once, and to my intense surprise, that I was flat on my back inside the dugout. Right across from me sat P_____, looking exactly like a terrified rabbit, staring, fascinatedly at me. Then I found that I couldn’t breath. Well, not precisely that; but that there was a fearful tightness in my chest, and only shallow gasps could come … I looked down at my chest. Then for the first time I was really afraid. Instead of the familiar battle-dress tunic, there was a big, confused splotch of red, brown and white, spreading while I watched … I opened my mouth, and, with an effort, croaked, “Get Foster.” He ducked out at once. I hardly noticed his departure; obsessed with a new problem. As I’d mouthed the words, a trickle of blood came out with them and slid down my cheek … From the dark recesses there was a little whisper, “You’re going to die, Maclean.” And another, hysterical one cackled, “This is it; just like in the books … THIS IS IT!”
Bob Paterson, later Hugh’s brother-in-law, remembered: …The first casualty [that] hit you was [Capt] Hugh Maclean at Bourguébus. I heard about it immediately … Those early ones hit you, but after that…” For Maclean, the wound meant six weeks in hospital and then another two weeks of recovery before he was ready to return. By 25 October, he was back:
…the first thing I saw was a jeep-load of dead men. When they let me out, here was a jeep of our people. And they were all covered with blankets and all we saw was the boots sticking out. Some return.
And [I] went over to the Carrier Platoon, and they seemed to be overjoyed to see me. It was so lovely. And they were just serving out in these mess tins … So I … was served something. And at the moment, there was a mortar shelling going on maybe fifty yards away in the woods, something like that. And then one came quite close, and I remember I was holding the stuff in the mess tins like this, and when I came down I went “Umph,” and the stuff went right out of the mess tins and back into those [same] tins. And I looked quickly at [Sgt] Foster. Nobody said a word. Nobody laughed or anything … I thought, “Okay, I’ll just have to get a hold of myself.”
Maclean settled in again to life in the Battalion. Aside from the grim business of battle, there were mild diversions of the sort that allowed some remote semblance of normalcy. The adjutant, Capt Mac Smith, wrote in November to his wife that: “Indoors, I play chess with a skilful Semite named [Kurt] Loeb, who always beats me, and argue about politics, culture, etc. with [Claude] Bissell and [Hugh] McLean [Maclean] (Cornell + Princeton).” Bill Whiteside, OC Support Coy, recalled that: “…Maclean, Bissell and Smith were just a complete joy whenever they got together … crazy, crazy talk. They would think up a subject to discuss and go into ridiculous lengths.” Padre Charlie MacLean shared Whiteside’s evident joy: “it was quite an intellectual feast, as they were all very well-informed men.”
On 29 November, Maclean’s carrier platoon put on a flame-throwing display for the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight Eisenhower. “I didn’t think,” Maclean noted, “we were going to be able to do it properly, and I made representations to that effect to someone or other in the Regiment.”
And I was told, “It doesn’t make any difference, you gotta do it.” So we did it, and it made quite a big hit. At any rate, old Ike stood next to me and said — as they came flaming up — “Hot damn!” he said, “That’s great!” And then he shook hands with me and said, “Great platoon, Captain,” and away he went. And I thought, “Well, okay, I guess it is…”
There was also time to help a young reinforcement officer, Lt Alan Earp, find his way to the Argylls. Hugh was a friend of Earp’s sister. On 29 November, young Earp, as he was always called, wrote in his diary: “I messed with the Argyles & Hugh introduced me to the Colonel [Dave Stewart] (now D.S.O.) whom they all worship & said I wanted to make the Argyles. He asked why & then said he would try to fix it.”
Maclean, like others, was weary from the strains of battle. Ever diffident, he declined LCol Fred Wigle’s offer of command of Support Company. In fact, Hugh recommended another officer; an irritated Wigle had to be convinced by Adjutant Claude Bissell, not to transfer Hugh. In time, however, he would command it. On 8 April 1945, Mac Smith, OC, Support Coy, was killed whilst standing beside Lt Alan Earp during a canal crossing. “Wigle called me in and said, ‘You’re appointed to Support Company, Maclean.’ And I said, “Alright, sir,” and I … staggered through for the rest of the war…” Several days later, Wigle was killed and Earp badly wounded. Hugh wrote to Alan Earp’s sister: “and I need hardly say that he was conducting himself in a very gallant manner at the time. I saw him myself approximately one-half hour afterward, and he was as cool and self-possessed as ever. He is of course a wonderful guy and a fine officer. I am proud to call him my friend.”
The last weeks of fighting proved bitter. At the Kusten Canal, on 21 April, Maclean and his sergeant tried to relax after being forward with the rifle companies:
After they’d all gone, Sergeant Anderson and myself left the house and walked back slowly through the fields. I felt very tired now that the tension was relaxed and we just plodded along in silence. When we got to the road, though, we were feeling better at the thought of a hot meal and maybe some sleep for a little.
We got into the jeep, Anderson turned her, and we started down the road. I said, “Well, never a dull moment” or something of that sort. He opened his mouth to answer but the sound was lost in a terrific crash just behind us on the road. I didn’t have long to fling that one glance back at the billowing dust to know that the long-silent 88 was trying for us. I said, “Step on it, for Christ’s sake!” but the jeep was already leaping ahead; then, another stunning explosion, right in front this time, sending steel splinters and pieces of road surface flying around us. Anderson jammed the jeep to a slithering stop and we flung ourselves out, diving for the side of the road; though I remember thinking something like “This is the one, you can’t get away this time, you haven’t got a chance.” I’d certainly never been in as nasty a spot before; he had us right in the open and his shells were hitting right there, they came in an uninterrupted stream and they exploded on the road itself. It was impossible that we should escape. I knew it, and lay, quivering, deafened by the continuing roar. I was utterly terrified. It was as if some malignant giant stood over us with a spear and vindictively, not idly, thrust at us. My mind rushed back to the first time and tried to recall what being hit had felt like; but I couldn’t even concentrate on that; because this time I was really badly afraid; before, I hadn’t known enough to be. And yet, even in that moment of absolute terror and the feeling of being marked for destruction, a little corner of my brain kept saying “Maybe, maybe you’ll be lucky.” All the rest of me, all the reasonable parts screamed in certainty of doom, but the other little bit kept on being perverse, though it knew things couldn’t turn out that way. I can’t even say that I prayed, or thought for a moment about God, or even (and this I’d not have believed) about loved ones; at other times of danger, with death hovering but not quite so imminently and all-powerfully present, such things were in my thoughts, but not this time. This was the worst one. This didn’t leave room for anything but paralyzing fear — and the impossible, emotional hope.
The shells felt for us, searching all around, tearing the air above and on all sides with their vicious fragments, ripping the trees to bits, punching new holes in the concrete road. A tiny splinter, no larger than a pin, did, indeed, enter my leg; I felt it, but the sensation, only momentary, rushed away at once with all other thoughts. Only later did I remember, and examine the scratch. There came a pause, perhaps a few seconds; Anderson yelled, “Let’s go”; I croaked “No,” and was at once vindicated as another salvo initiated a renewal of the awful hammer-strokes. Perhaps instinctive caution guided me; more probably (I believe) my limbs would simply not at once obey the effort to move. For the dragging minutes (five? ten? a life’s span, in any case) the storm raged about us. We were not hit.
The gun packed up finally, of course. After waiting a moment more in the sudden echoing stillness, we got up laboriously and made our way down the road, toward headquarters. The gun let us go. As I turned up the path, I experienced another thing I’d read about and heard of, but which had never before happened to me: my legs were suddenly water. I had to grab for a tree; Anderson and I grinned weakly at each other, muttering the usual banalities. In a few seconds it was all right. I went on in and sat down on the floor. [Capt Claude] Bissell looked at me, and got right up, poured out a big crack of rum, and gave it to me. I put it all down at a gulp. Soon after that I felt better.
This was the worst one. They’d hit me before, of course, but at the beginning, when we were all too green to be properly aware of things. That hadn’t been nearly as bad. I think what made this one especially terrible was the feeling that a particular and accurate gun was trying, specifically, to hit two particular people — Anderson and me. A sniper does that, of course; but a sniper shoots with a Schmeisser or a rifle; this was a sniper with an 88. That’s loading the dice. As well, both of us had seen plenty of dead ones, and we didn’t fancy ourselves ending up on some lousy little fight after all the big stuff we’d come through … We should have been killed there, on the road; but we survived. It was a miracle. But it finished me. My nerves were shot from then on; and the rum-jug, never before any particular crony of mine, became gradually more important. I went on, all right, and got shot at by plenty of other guns, and even stuck my neck out, once, near Bad Zwischenahn; but I wasn’t the same, and I knew it, even if not too many other people did. But if the war had lasted, say, two weeks or more than it did, I’d have been sunk. Lying there on the road, my imagination had started to work again, after a long coma; and when that happens, it’s only a matter of time.
After Kusten, tough going became even tougher. For Hugh, “ …after Küsten, some sort of bloody big stuff came down and something near me, and I was so shattered. I got right under the stove, which was almost impossible, in that building. And I remember thinking later, ‘God, I’m really getting in tough shape. This isn’t good…’” Mercifully, the war soon ended. The new CO (Wigle was killed on 10 April) sent Hugh back to England where he wrote the history of the lst Battalion.
After the war, Hugh took an MA and PhD in English at the University of Toronto. Subsequently he taught at the Royal Military College, the University of Cincinnati, York University, and from 1963 until he retired in 1986, at the State University of New York at Albany, where he received the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. From 1974 on he had held the rank of distinguished teaching professor. Siena College awarded him an honorary doctorate of humane letters in 1991. He authored and published articles and reviews in numerous literary journals, primarily on English Renaissance literature. With Lt.-Col. Sir John Baynes, Bt., he published in 1990 A Tale of Two Captains, a memoir and letters recording the military experiences of the editors’ fathers in the British Army during WWI. Earlier he served as president of the Spenser Society; his history of the Argylls was published, albeit (and sadly) unattributed and sandwiched between two rather insipid chapters, lists really, outlining the Regiment’s history from 1928 to 1940 and from 1946 to 1953.
Hugh married Janet Malcolm Paterson, Bob Paterson’s sister in 1949; the reception was in the Argyll Officers’ Mess. They had three children; a daughter died early in life but his wife; a daughter, Susan Mary Buda; and a son, Alan Peter survived him on his death in December 1997.
Like so many fine wartime officers, Hugh Maclean got on with an interrupted life after the war. But the Regiment was never far from him. He joined his wartime comrades-in-arms for Mess dinners in the late 1980s and the early 1990s; he wrote an eloquent forward to Black yesterdays, and, in 1986, he delivered what is considered the most moving Toast to the Regiment in the Argylls’ long history. He captured, at once, the essence of the spirit of Argyll soldiering, in memorable and oft’ quoted terms:
As I leafed through our earlier regimental history of 1953 … I recalled, with a rueful sigh, and some pain, what Jonathan Swift in old age murmured as he read his earlier works: “What a genius I had then!” Mine was a rueful sigh, of course, because all I could say to myself as I browsed through those pages, with their youthful fondness for adjectives and their too frequent sentimentality, was, rather, “My salad days, When I was green in judgement, cold in blood, To say as I said then…”
Still: at least I had then the wit to recall Bunyan — “Yea how they stood in battle array, I shall remember to my dying day.” And the historical section had sense enough to leave that passage on the title-page. And, in fact, as I read the story over again, something of the regiment’s character — as I felt its subtle power in those war years (even, dimly, began to understand the roots of that power) — some things that were central to the regiment’s character loomed again through the mists of failing memory. I thought first of the regiment’s cheerful humanity. Then, of the regiment’s extraordinary morale. And at length (and most piercingly) of its inimitable style, with which the regiment adorned all its occasions, in and out of battle. And if my remarks … necessarily look to my years with the First Battalion, let me emphasize that the battalion’s humanity, morale, style continuously of course, in a larger sense, reflected the traditions and quality of the regiment itself, over the years since 1903: its Scottish tenacity and verve, its Canadian common sense and taste for irony, its soldierly bearing and pride — still ready at hand to confront threats of every sort…
The regiment’s humanity came first, for me: its considerate and cheery kindness to all its sons, not excluding even this innocent stranger, never a “real soldier” so much as “a harmless young shepherd in a soldier’s coat” (as Edmund Blunden calls himself in Undertones of War), who came to the wars, most fortunately, by way of Johnny Farmer’s office in the Armouries on a very hot July day in 1940. I was a stranger, as scripture has it, and ye took me in. I experienced the regiment’s humanity in so many ways. that other bit from scripture has point here, as it happens: I was thirsty, and y gave me to drink. One threat in the crazy-quilt tapestry of Maclean’s military career, such as it was (knowing nothing of women and unable to carry a tune) records the continuing series of disastrous encounters with strong drink — in the effort, I suppose, to assert manhood, or some such thing. The ceremonial wetting of my pips in the Sergeants’ Mess soon turned to a drenching — but my wiser fellows, Jack Harper and Bill Milner, always ready at hand, saw me gently to bed. There was a memorable 2-day hangover in Montego Bay (I seem to recall); others at Up Park Camp; later again at Uckfield House. A melancholy tale! Yet the regiment took an amused and tolerant view of all that. And when more serious slips came in question — mistakes of judgement, stupid errors — the regiment’s humanity bore me up, in effect saved me from myself. And this extended to all our ranks: private soldiers, sergeants and sergeant-majors as well as officers…
A little curiously, perhaps, the regiment’s humanity and persistent good-fellowship is epitomized for me by the group who met nightly in the Mess at Up Park Camp for their post-prandial poker game: Pappy Coons, Mait Roy, Jack Wright, Lee Craven, Jack Bell — and the rest of that memorable band. Sitting in a quiet corner with the London News, I positively shivered with pleasure as I watched and listened to those warriors at play — especially Pappy Coons, raising his arm high for a card, would joyfully shout, “Be careful and hit!” What I thought was, “How exciting, how delightful, to be a part of all this … I wonder what will happen next.” Their strong and cheerful humanity reached out to me then — and it does still…
Musing on what the regiment meant to me, I think too of that soldierly virtue, morale. In his wonderful book on that topic, Colonel John Baynes seems at length to identify it, in war, as the soldier’s absolute determination to do his duty to the best of his ability in any circumstances. Baynes takes for his model and example the Second Battalion of The Cameronians, at Neuve Chapelle in 1915. Yet the actions of our own regiment might equally have served: for choice, perhaps, Hill 195; Gil Armour’s platoon at St. Lambert; Paterson and Mackenzie at Moerbrugge; Armstrong and McCordic at Bergen-op-Zoom; Wigle at Friesoythe. Whiteside and all the rest on the Kusten Canal. The names, the encounters epitomize morale in action. But as Baynes takes care to notice, these active effects have their several causes. He speaks in particular to the role of wise, thoughtful, compassionate leadership; and to that of “intense group loyalty at every level.” For this latter, I need say only that the intense group loyalty which took flame at Hill 195 burned as brightly at the Kusten Canal — and at all the battles between…
…leadership matters too — most of all, no doubt. We were lucky in this as in so much else: leadership and to spare up and down the ladder of command. But the best of our leaders was Dave Stewart. Wise, thoughtful, and compassionate he was, as Baynes could wish. Cheerful and courageous, whatever winds blew, what top-brass changes of plan bedeviled his careful arrangements. And something else — something very unusual indeed. T.E. Lawrence remarks in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom that
the greatest commander of men was he whose intuitions most nearly happened. Nine-tenths of tactics were certain enough to be teachable in school, but the irrational tenth was like the kingfisher flashing across the pool, and in it lay the test of generals. It could be assured only by intellect, sharpened by thought practising the stroke, until the crisis it came naturally, a reflex.
Such was the gift of our finest leader, Colonel Stewart, chief source and root, at last, of our regiment’s high-spirited morale — whatever might befall.
I think finally of the regiment’s style … Of course there were individual styles of every sort within our ranks. The spirit of Culloden and the ‘45 that flashed again through Al Logie; the stalwart, unassuming, old-shoe style of Pete McCordic; Lloyd Johnston’s laconic street-smarts; the composed, quiet strength of a Mackenzie or an Armstrong. Bill Whiteside’s coolly amused insouciance. And in some sense of course the regiment’s style was Stewart’s style … there was a battle to win, or lose, and a certain style to maintain. A manner, if you like, with which to confront the inscrutable face of battle, and endure in spite of it.
Our own leaders knew all about that. The world may be a dangerous place, but one has a part to play just the same. Much the best, then, to act with style — to cultivate a touch of class. I call our regiment’s style one of cool gallantry; a style regularly serious, but never solemn; the style of a regiment in every passage-at-arms marked by grim determination and resolve; yet resilient enough to endure with good cheer, even a light heart. A style that pulsed through the regiment and drew us together — as, if you will, Mac Smith could draw us together in his common “doctoral” denominator. For Mac Smith, we were all doctors, in the discipline of war — of life, at last, and death too.
…I did not “grow up” in the regiment — that came later, with the thrust and parry of graduate school at Toronto. The years have shown me, however, that the regiment was, of all my teachers, the most powerful and subtly influential. The regiment taught me much. But I think chiefly of three things. To be a member of the regiment was to know that, if one might often be lonely, one need never be altogether lonesome — never altogether alone. The regiment taught me to expect the unexpected: not to be forever flurried or jarred by chance or happenstance, but to meet such turns with a measure of equanimity. And lastly — as perfection is last — the regiment taught me the meaning of humility, and, most of all, of pride: pride in belonging to the splendid First Battalion of this great regiment, whose leaders and their men today can still take for their example the quiet courage, the discipline, the mutual confidence and good will, the fortitude of those who wore the Argyll badge in the wars…
Hugh Maclean was a fine soldier, distinguished by his own keen intellect, his unsparing honesty, his concern for others, and his doggedness. He styled himself more of a shepherd than a soldier but others saw him differently. And, like Alex Logie, he was respected by the hard-bitten men he led, men whose respect could only be earned, men like Danny Anderson, George Guild, and Frank Foster. The lifelong admiration of such men is equal to an honorary degree or a medal; at least it is in the estimation of soldiers.