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The Reel of the 51st Division


The Reel of the 51st Division is one of the most popular Scottish country dances. It is a well-known fact that it was invented by Scots who were interned in Germany as prisoners of war during World War II, and people have asked me about that story so often that it makes sense to write it up (after some research). Also, as Jim Healy points out, “the myths and legends that have grown up around this dance” are awe-inspiring to read. Most of the information here derives from various postings to the Strathspey mailing list – where the Reel of the 51st Division and its history is a recurring topic – and several other sources.

The 51st (Highland) Division in 1940

At the beginning of World War II, Britain sent soldiers and equipment to France to support the country in case of a German invasion, which duly took place in mid-May, 1940. The 51st (Highland) Division under Major-General Victor Fortune formed part of the British Expeditionary Force’s GHQ reserve.

According to popular belief, the 51st (Highland) Division’s task was to cover the retreat at Dunkirk in late May/early June, 1940; as it turns out, when the evacuation of Dunkirk took place the 51st was nowhere near Dunkirk, instead helping the French Army slow the German’s advance on Paris near Abbeville (south of the river Somme, about 80 km from Dunkirk) as part of the French IX Corps under General Maxime Weygand. While other parts of the British Army escaped across the Channel, the 51st Division was ordered to stay put and fight in order to shame the French into not surrendering – supposedly on Churchill's orders. When the situation became hopeless and the French were about to throw in the towel, the commanders of the 51st decided to fight their way back to the coast in contravention of their orders. Parts of the division (the 7th and 8th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders) made it to Le Havre, taking heavy casualties, but the rest (the Seaforth Highlanders, Cameron Highlanders, Gordon Highlanders and the Black Watch) reached the sea near St Valéry-en-Caux. In spite of a half-heartedly supported attempt to get them out they didn’t make it across – five German divisions under Rommel had surrounded the place, and between German artillery fire and fog on the water it became impossible for the Scottish soldiers to be evacuated. In the face of this situation, and running out of ammunition after a valiant attempt to break out, Major-General Fortune surrendered the remainder of his division (about 10,000 men) to Rommel on 12 June 1940. Captain Ian Campbell, later the Duke of Argyll, who served as the divisional intelligence officer in 1940, wrote:

It has always been abundantly clear to me that no division has ever been more uselessly sacrificed. It could have got away a good week before, but the powers that be – owing I think to faulty information – had come to the conclusion that there was a capacity for resistance in France which was not actually there.

(Thanks to Harry Ways. See also this page, which gives even more details as well as photographs). The 51st Division was quickly reconstituted and went on to fight with distinction for the rest of the war.

Part of the officers of the original 51st (Highland) Division ended up in a POW camp near Salzburg (Oflag VII-C in Laufen – “Oflag” being an abbreviation of Offiziers-Lager or “officers’ prison camp”). Since dancing was always a big part of Scottish military life, it comes as no surprise that the POWs started a dance class to pass the time, of which they had lots on their hands: According to the Third Geneva Convention, captured officers were not obliged to work (although they could volunteer if they wanted). At first the dancers were reduced to hand clapping and counts for music, but later on managed to obtain musical instruments such as practice chanters and even an accordion through the Red Cross. Attire was military uniforms and field boots rather than kilts and ghillies, since the former were all that was available to the POWs. Their repertoire consisted of dances they remembered as well as newly-invented ones, the most famous of which is the topic of this article.

Invention of the dance

The Reel of the 51st Division, originally called The 51st Country Dance (Laufen Reel), was invented during the winter of 1940 by three officers, namely Lt. Jimmy Atkinson (7th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders), Lt. A. P. J. (Peter) Oliver (4th Seaforth Highlanders) and Lt. Col. Tom Harris Hunter (51st Division Logistics Group RASC). According to issue 20 of the London Branch newsletter, The Reel, Atkinson had been taken prisoner on the Somme (rather than later at St Valéry) and then met the other officers again in the POW camp:

The basic idea of a St. Andrew’s Cross (which was the Highland Division’s sign in 1940) and a circle occurred to me first on the march through Holland in June, 1940, after I had been taken prisoner, along with most of the 7th Argylls, on the Somme.

I had done a little country dancing spasmodically in Alloa before the war. The “Scottish Reform” balance-in-line-of-four across the set appealed to me, and I thought: Why not do it diagonally after turning corners, then circle as in Hamilton House? So far, so good. But I still required an opening phrase, and I had no ideas.

Lt. Peter Oliver was running the dance class in Oflag VII-C, and Atkinson approached him with his idea in November 1940. Together they put the dance into a workable form and tried it even though they were still unsure about the first 8 bars. These were eventually suggested by Lt. Col. Harris Hunter, who before the war had served as Chairman of the ®SCDS Perth & Perthshire Branch (and eventually did so again afterwards) and was therefore considered most authoritative as far as country dancing was concerned. Soon afterwards some of the group of officers were sent off to different camps in Poland and later near the Swiss border. They all eventually came together again in yet another POW camp (Oflag VI-B near Warburg, Westphalia), in the autumn of 1941. On Hallowe’en that year, the dance was given its first public performance before the 51st Division’s commander, Major-General Victor Fortune, to whom it was presented “as a mark of our esteem and affection for all the selfless work he had done for us as prisoners of war and earlier” [Atkinson], and who formally approved the dance and its name. (After his liberation in April, 1945, Major-General Fortune was made a KBE, having suffered a stroke in captivity in 1944 but refusing to let himself be sent home as he didn’t want to leave his men. He died in early 1949 at age 65.)

The original version of the dance looked somewhat different from the one popular today; it used a 5-couple set instead of today’s 4-couple set, and, according to some sources, the dance originally started not with set, cast off two places but instead with a cast off three places, lead up and bow to your corner! However, the dance description the POWs sent to Scotland later on does specify setting and then casting off three places, and the Society changed the dance before publication in order to adapt it to the customary 4-couple set. (Today’s 5-couple dances such as the Black Mountain Reel, with 1st and 3rd couples starting simultaneously and 1st couple progressing to 3rd place for their second turn, hadn’t been invented yet, and, in fact, no such dance has been published by the Society to date. [Update (27 Sep 2008): In the meantime the RSCDS has (re-)published Hugh Foss’s dance, Polharrow Burn.]) The original devisers never approved of the set change, and indeed RSCDS Perth Branch recently agreed to do the dance in 5-couple sets in their 80th anniversary year (2005).

Harris Hunter’s Society connection would also tend to counter the popular conception that the setting in the balance-in-line takes place not using pas de basque, but using high cuts (which the soldiers would know from Highland dancing). Some people feel that the Reel of the 51st should only be danced by men, but that restriction had much more to do with the fact that there were no women around in the Oflag where the dance was originally invented than with military “machismo”. The dance description does refer to “ladies”, and according to the devisers the dance was always intended as a standard social dance. By the same token, apparently “birling crept in some variations but that is not how the dance was devised or intended” [Jim Healy].

From Germany, with love

Lt. Col. Harris Hunter eventually managed to send a description of the 51st Country Dance to his wife in Perth, Scotland, which must have been quite an achievement – at first, the German censors considered the dance notation a type of code and didn’t want to pass it along. It appears that Harris Hunter arranged a demonstration in order to convince the camp authorities of the communication’s innocuousness. Mrs Harris Hunter tried the dance with her “little class” [Atkinson] in Perth and it became a runaway success. The Scottish Country Dance Society’s Perth branch printed the description and sold copies for the benefit of the Red Cross (Jean Milligan, the co-founder of the Society, is said to have raised more than £160 from sales of the leaflet). Also at that time, the dance was renamed to The St Valéry Reel.

After some deliberation the Society decided to publish the dance – a big step, since they had so far steadfastly refused to print newly-invented dances. It did take some Royal prodding, as the 1944 Bulletin of the SCDS tells us:

Mrs Hamilton-Meikle (Chairman) in a few well-chosen words asked Her Majesty to accept the book (Books 1–12) as a token of the SCDS’s loyalty and affection for the Throne; Mrs Stewart (Vice-President) then handed the book to the Queen, who was obviously very pleased and interested, and in the course of her reply showed her appreciation of the work of the Society in collecting dances from various parts of the country and publishing them. On hearing about the dance the 51st Division Reel, sent from a German Prisoner of War camp, Her Majesty said she hoped it would be published some day.

(Thanks to Alan Mair; the queen in those days, of course, was the late Queen Elizabeth, remembered today as “The Queen Mother”; her daughter, the present Queen Elizabeth II., was about to become – and remains – the Patron of the Society.)

So in spite of their reservations the Society could hardly refuse to publish the dance as soon as was conveniently possible, and it ended up in Book XIII, the Victory Book. The dance did get renamed to The Reel of the 51st Division, since it seemed a lot more appropriate to commemorate the military valour of the division than to be constantly reminded of the defeat at St Valéry or the bleak time in German captivity. According to Atkinson, the transition to a 4-couple set was also made at this point.

Unfortunately, the original music, composed by Hector Ross (4th Seaforths – London Scottish), has been lost; the dance acquired the music customary today, “The Drunken Piper”, when it was published by the SCDS, presumably because the original original music, “My Love She’s But A Lassie Yet”, was already spoken for in the RSCDS canon. Another “pleasant tune” [Atkinson] by Dugald Stuart of the 8th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders “arrived home too late to be of use”.

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