The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 2 No 4 - December 1972

The Silver Highlander

(Copyright reserved)

Down the centre of the long, highly polished table in the Officers’ Mess of the Cape Town Highlanders, in the Castle at Cape Town, runs a length of Gordon tartan material the Regimental Tartan. On it stands a small silver statuette of an officer in the levee dress of the Gordon Highlanders. It is a beautiful example of the silversmith’s craft, correct even to the detail of the dress sporran, and there can be few pieces of regimental silver anywhere in the world treated with greater ceremony and deference than the “Silver Highlander”.

The Silver Highlander

When the officers of the Regiment dine formally in Mess with all the ceremony and colour traditional in Highland Regiments, the Silver Highlander is accorded an honour reserved normally only for Scottish Chiefs and a few other dignitaries. Once the officers and their guests have entered the dining-room and are standing at their places before grace is said, silence is called for the Silver Highlander. The Pipe-Major enters playing, followed by a drummer bearing a silver salver on which stands the statuette, more than usually polished and shining for the occasion. The Pipe-Major halts behind the Commanding Officer and stops playing. The drummer moves forward and proffers the statuette to his Commanding Officer who takes it off the salver, placing it carefully on the table in front of him in the place of honour amongst all the silver displayed. This done, the Pipe-Major and the drummer salute and withdraw. Grace is then said, the officers and their guests take their seats at table and the dinner proceeds. At its conclusion, after the toasts have been proposed and drunk, the Pipe-Major and drummer again enter the Mess, the statuette is placed back on the salver and, with the officers and guests standing in silence, the Silver highlander is piped out of the room.

Who was the man now represented by the Silver Highlander? Why is such an honour accorded this statuette and what is the connection between this Gordon officer and the Cape Town Highlanders?

This is the story.

From the time that the regiment was raised on the 24th April, 1885, the Cape Town Highlanders have worn the Gordon tartan, but apart from this, there was no official link between them and the Gordon Highlanders until the 29th February, 1932, when the official affiliation of the two regiments was published in British Army Orders. Lt.-Col. McLintock, commanding the 2nd Gordon Highlanders in Scotland at the time (the 1st Battalion was on overseas service), felt that it would be a fitting gesture to present the officers of their new South African sister-regiment with a piece of silver for their Mess. In the Gordons’ Regimental Headquarters Mess in Aberdeen is a silver statuette said to have been modelled from a Gordon officer whose heroism on two occasions during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902 had won him the Victoria Cross. This man’s fortitude and determination after the second of his two brave acts (which had cost him his sight) gained him further honours and awards and even greater admiration by his fellowmen. What could be more appropriate than to present the newly affiliated regiment with a replica of the statuette of a man whose greatest distinction had its origin on the South African veld? An exact copy was made and sent out to Cape Town where it was received with gratitude and appreciation by the officers of the Cape Town Highlanders.

In the years between 1932 and the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the Silver Highlander came to mean far more to the officers in the Highlanders’ Mess at the Castle than a mere piece of silver. He almost reached mascot status; the officers (and the Regiment, for that matter) coming to regard him as “one of us”. So much so that, when a battalion of the Cape Town Highlanders sailed for active service in the Middle East on the 7th June, 1941, the statuette went with them.

For the next year, the history of the Silver Highlander is that of the Battalion Headquarters of the Cape Town Highlanders, sharing with it all the vicissitudes of the Western Desert campaign — the dive-bombing, shelling, the rest periods in “Alex”, Mersa Matruh, Charing Cross, Halfaya Pass, Gazala and the “Gallop” back to El Alamein in 1942. With Allied fortunes at a low ebb during that year, it was thought too risky to keep the Silver Highlander in the Middle East - the officers would never have forgiven themselves had he fallen into enemy hands, nor the RSM the officers! - and he was sent back to Cape Town for safe-keeping till the end of the war. Few of the officers saw him again until late 1945, after the regiment had returned home and the Mess at the Castle returned to life. Some of the old familiar faces had gone, many never to return; new and younger ones were taking their places and through these changes and even greater ones to come, the Silver Highlander retained his place in the Mess, acquiring yet greater dignity as legends were woven about him. When South Africa became a Republic in 1961, the official link between the Gordons and the Cape Town Highlanders was broken, but Captain Towse - the Silver Highlander — stood firm and is today a link between the past and the future.

Who was Captain Sir Ernest Beachcroft Beckwith Towse, Victoria Cross, Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order, Commander of the Order of the British Empire, Gentleman-at-Arms, a Knight of Grace of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, and in whose honour a march on the Highland bagpipe has been composed and named?

Born in 1864, Towse intended originally to make his career in the Royal Navy, but it was later decided that he should go into the Army instead and, in 1883, he joined the 3rd Seaforth Highlanders. Two years later he was gazetted in the Wiltshire Regiment, but during the following year, in 1886, he transferred to the 1st Gordon Highlanders and saw service with them in Egypt, Malta, Ceylon and India. During his period of Indian service, he took part in the Chitral Relief Expedition and was present at the storming of the Malakand Pass in 1897, receiving the India Medal with the Relief of Chitral Bar.(1) He had been promoted Captain in 1896 and was also with his regiment during the North-West Frontier and Tirah Campaigns of 1897-98, receiving a further two bars to the India medal. It was during this latter camapign that Piper Findlater, also of the Gordon Highlanders, won the Victoria Cross and almost legendary fame by playing the Gordons into their final victorious bayonet charge at the heights of Dargai, even though he had been wounded in the legs and had to prop himself against a boulder.

Captain E.B.B. Towse, VC

By the time his battalion returned to Scotland in October, 1898, Towse, who was a strikingly good-looking man (once described as the only soldier who could wear a monocle and not lose by it!), had established a reputation, not only for fearless leadership and a great consideration for his men, but also for remarkable powers of endurance and determination. One of many tales told about him at the time concerns an occasion when he was out elephant-hunting in the Indian jungle. He had trailed and made his kill, when he and his tracker became separated and he was unable to find his path back to camp. All that Towse had with him that was edible was the proof of his kill - the elephant's tail - and on this raw and unappetising dish he subsisted for four days as he wandered in the jungle seeking and eventually finding his way to camp!

After a year at home, the 1st Gordons were mobilised for active service as a result of the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War and sailed for South Africa, landing at Cape Town on the 29th November, 1899.(2) It is possible that the Gordons’ officers may have paid a visit to the Cape Town Highlanders Officers’ Mess after landing and Towse may have been amongst them. There is no record, as far as I know, of such a visit. The battalion entrained for De Aar the next day and, after brief stops at that place, Orange River Station and Belmont, joined Lt.-Gen. Lord Methuen’s 1st Division at Modder River late on the 9th December — just in time for the Battle of Magersfontein.

The Gordons, at that stage, were unbrigaded and had been given the task of escorting the Supply Column during the coming battle. Things went seriously wrong, however, and during the morning of the 11th December they were ordered to cross some 3 000 m of open plain to reinforce the stricken Highland Brigade pinned to the flat ground south and south-east of Magersfontein Kop. The leading companies of the battalion, Towse’s included, and their commanding officer (Lt.-Col. Downman) got to within 300 m of the Boer trenches when intense rifle fire made further progress impossible and they were forced to take what cover they could find or make. A little after 1.30 p.m. that afternoon, just as the Highland Brigade was commencing its final disastrous retreat, Lt.-Col. Downman was seriously wounded about 30 m from where Towse was lying. As the Gordons had little alternative but to fall back as well, Towse tried to carry his commanding officer to safety but the task proved physically impossible. He then remained with Downman under a very heavy fire directed at them by the Boers at a range of less than 300 m. Eventually, when the firing had died down somewhat and assisted by two NCOs, Towse was able to carry his colonel back to the nearest medical post some 1 200 m in rear. Lt.-Col. Downman died next day of his wounds and, for his bravery, Towse was specially mentioned in Lord Methuen’s despatch on the battle.

Some months later, when the Gordons formed part of the 19th Infantry Brigade in Maj.-Gen. Hamilton’s column operating towards Winburg, Towse performed his second act of gallantry. On the 30th April, 1900, General Hamilton’s troops met strong opposition from General de Wet’s forces holding positions astride Hout Nek, about 20 km north of Thaba Nchu. Seven kilometres south-west of the Nek is a large, plateau-like, 180 in-high hill known then as Mount Thaba(3), which the Boers were not holding in any strength at the commencement of the action. Hamilton quickly realised that with this hill in his possession, the Boer defences astride Hout Nek would not only be overlooked, but could be outflanked. Maj.-Gen. Smith-Dorrien’s 19th Brigade was ordered to capture it forthwith. The Shropshire Light Infantry and Kitchener’s Horse established a foothold along the southern crest of the feature, but could make no further progress because of increasingly heavy enemy fire coming from the notherm end of the hill which the Boers were rapidly reinforcing. The Gordon Highlanders and two companies of Canadian infantry were sent to reinforce the British troops on the hill, but found that a concerted advance was out of the question and progress could be made only by small parties of men advancing independently and making use of all the cover afforded by the bushes and rocks. One of these, led by Towse, and consisting of 10 Highlanders and three members of Kitchener's Horse, had got well ahead of the other groups. They were clearly visible to Generals Hamilton and Smith-Dorrien, and to others, as they worked their way up a spur on the eastern side of the plateau, unaware of a larger force of the enemy who could also be seen climbing the same spur from the opposite side. To the anxious watchers below it was obvious that neither party knew of the presence of the other.

Both parties reached the crest at almost the same instant, meeting face-to-face at a distance of about 40 m. Colonel Maximoff, a Russian officer commanding the mixed force of about 150 foreign adventurers and Boers, called on Towse and his men to surrender. According to the Gordon Highlanders’ regimental records, Towse’s reply was couched in the most forcible possible language of refusal! Watchers below saw the little band of British soldiers fix bayonets and charge, firing as they ran, Maximoff himself being wounded by a shot from Towse’s carbine. The sheer audacity of this impetuous charge was too much for Maximoff’s men who turned tail and fled the way they had come. The seven unharmed members of Towse’s party held the crest until they were reinforced; seven had been killed or wounded, Towse himself having been hit in the face by a bullet which had rendered him totally blind. He was once again recommended for his bravery and this time was awarded the Victoria Cross, not only for his gallantry in this action, but also for what he had done at Magersfontein.

Of Captain Towse, General Smith-Dorrien later wrote: “I shall never forget the pathetic sight of the stricken Towse, shot through both eyes; certain he would never see again, not a thought for himself, but plenty for his men, hoping he had done his duty, and with it all so cheerful and happy. He spoke as quietly and lucidly as if he were in the best of health.”

His soldiering days over, Towse determined to master his blindness, not let it master him. He taught himself a wide range of accomplishments and then commenced his great life’s work — helping the blind. In 1901, when he joined the National Institute for the Blind, its total income was only £9 700; in 1944, when ill-health forced him to resign the chairmanship after 21 years, its income was over £500 000. For this and similar causes, he had worked untiringly and travelled many thousands of miles. As a result of an ex-Servicemen’s Congress held in Kimberley in 1919, the British Empire Service League was formed in 1921. Its inaugural meeting was held in Cape Town in February of that year and was attended by delegates from the countries of the British Empire, Field-Marshal Earl Haig and Captain Towse representing Great Britain. The B.E.S.L. is today known in South Africa as the South African Legion and Towse may justly be said to have had a hand in its foundation.

When the Great War of 1914-18 broke out, Towse persuaded the War Office in London that he could be of service, and he was sent to France as an unpaid Staff Captain to assist the wounded in the base hospitals. He visited patients daily, particularly those blinded in action taking notes in braille of their condition and any messages they wished sent home. Then, late into every night, he sat at his typewriter, typing letters to the next-of-kin of the men to whom he had spoken during the day. For this work Towse was mentioned in despatches and awarded the three medals given to all who had served throughout the war.

In 1900, Queen Victoria had appointed him a Segeant-at-Arms in Ordinary, while from 1903 till 1939 he was a member of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen-st-Arms, standing guard at the lying-in-state of three British sovereigns — Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and King George V, and also that, of Queen Alexandra. He was made a CBE in 1920 and created a KCVO in 1927, becoming a Knight of Grace of the Order of St John of Jerusalem in the same year. After his wife died in 1935, his niece came to live with him, helping him in his work and nursing him through a long illness up to the time of his death in 1948.

That is the story, briefly, of the Silver Highlander — a symbol of courage and a source of inspiration to all who knew him.

1. Some accounts say he was awarded the Chitral Medal and bar. According to Maj. L. Gordon (“British Battles and Medals”, Gale and Polden, Aldershot, 1954) there was no such medal, “Relief of Chitral” bar to the India Medal (1895-1902) being awarded for this campaign.

2. The “Times History”, Vol. 11, p. 390, says that the Gordons landed at East London on the 3rd December, 1899. According to their Regimental History this is incorrect. See also the British “Official History” (Maj.-Gen. Sir F. Maurice), Vol. 1, p. 476.

3. On the 1964, 1:50 000 Trigonometrical Survey map this feature is shown as “Toba”.

NOTE: For facts and photographs in this article, I am indebted to:

Col. D. M. Loveland, ED; Regimental Council of the Cape Town Highlanders.

Lt.-Col. G. R. Elsmie, OBE; Regimental Headquarters, The Gordon Highlanders, Aberdeen.

Lt.-Col. A. D. Greenhill Gardyne; “The Life of a Regiment — The History of the Gordon Highlanders”, Vol. III, 1885-1914.

Neil Orpen; “The Cape Town Highlanders, 1885-1970.” Alexander McGregor Memorial Museum, Kimberley.

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