The story of Surgeon William Munro

The Kings Old Building in Stirling Castle is home to the regimental museum of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.  A regiment that was formed in 1881 with the amalgamation of the 91st Argyllshire Highlanders and the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders. It holds artefacts that tell, not only of battles, but of the stories of the men and officers that served in those famous regiments.

One of the most important and interesting of these stories is that of regimental surgeon – William Munro.

Surgeon William Munro
Photo credits: The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Museum

William Munro was born in Antigua in 1823 where his father was serving as surgeon to the 35th Regiment of Foot.  He gained his medical degree from Glasgow University and went on to achieve his surgical qualifications from Edinburgh University where he graduated in 1844.  He went on to enter the Army Medical Service and took up his position with the 91st Argyllshire Highlanders  in 1845 in South Africa and would serve with them until 1850.  After being stationed in Halifax and Bermuda (where he would have to deal with a yellow fever epidemic) William Munro was appointed for active service in 1854 with the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders.  Britain joined forces with France and the Turks against Russian spread of power into Crimea.  In September 1854 he travelled with his new regiment to Crimea and described the arrival in  Balaklava of the two hundred ships of the Allied fleet as ‘an impressive sight’.

The Harbour at Balaklava
Photo credits: The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Museum

He disembarked on 13 September 1854 with the Generals and staff and he records in his memoir,

‘We carried with us only what we had on our backs and enough cooked provisions for 3 days in knapsacks.  In addition to these, I carried in my hand a large case of surgical instruments.’

That very surgical kit is on display in the Museum.  The wooden case bears a brass plaque engraved simply ‘Wm Munro, MD, 93rd Highlanders’.  

Inside William Munro’s surgical case which the museum now cares for
Photo credits: The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Museum

Surgeon Munro would, over the following months, tend to the soldiers of his regiment who were involved in some of the most famous battles of the nineteenth Century, amongst them Alma, Sebastopol, and Balaklava. It was at Balaklava that the bravery of the men of the 93rd in the face of a Russian cavalry charge would be immortalised by the Times Correspondent William Russell who described the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders as a ‘a thin red streak topped with line of steel’, often misquoted as The Thin Red Line.

The Thin Red Line by Robert Gibb
Photo credits: The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Museum

In his memoir Surgeon Munro openly criticises the Army administration for the problems faced in Crimea and how ‘the finest soldiers that I ever saw in stature, physique and appearance’ were let down by the lack of supplies and medical care. Surgeon Munro admitted,

‘We did not understand how to take care of them or, to speak more plainly, because we failed to take care of them.’

The men had to endure not only the horrors of warfare but also lack of supplies that meant they had only great coats for bedding and poor rations.  The living conditions would lead to the spread of diseases like cholera and dysentery.

When hostilities ended in 1856, they returned to Britain. The Regiment was even reviewed by Queen Victoria. The 93rd were soon deployed again, embarking on a journey to the Far East. They were however, rerouted in 1857 at the commencement of the Indian Wars of Independence.

It was in India that Surgeon Munro’s skills of a surgeon became famous.  In December 1857 marching towards Cawnpore Brevet Lt Col John Ewart was dismounting when a round shattered his left arm. Surgeon Munro had to amputate his arm. Ewart remembers,

Surgeon Munro who cut, with a pair of scissors, the piece of skin by which my arm had been left hanging … I was carried to the amputating table, some chloroform administered to me, and I became insensible.

Lt Col Ewart
Photo credits: The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Museum

Lt Col Ewart was placed in care of the field Hospital  while Surgeon Munro marched on with the column .  Some days later at Bithoor he received word that Ewart was dying.  Surgeon Munro rode twenty miles back to Cawnpore to find that Ewart’s dressing had not been changed and his wound was infected and gangrenous.  After cleaning and redressing the stump, Surgeon Munro left detailed instructions to an orderly on the care of Lt Col Ewart for, as he said in his memoir ‘I could find no medical officer.’  He then headed back to the column.

When he arrived he had to carry out another amputation.  Lieutenant Nightingale had to have his injured hand amputated.  This time Surgeon Munro would not leave him and made sure the injured man travelled with him as the column moved on, nursing the injured man himself.  This was to ensure that the wound was taken care of  properly.

Ewart and Nightingale survived their operations perhaps due in no small part to the fact that Surgeon Munro, in his own words ‘never operated without chloroform.’  Nightingale was invalided out the army, but Ewart would continue his military career, gaining the rank of General. He would wear his left sleeve pinned to his tunic.  

General Ewart
Photo credits: The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Museum

You can see Ewart’s tunic in the Museum today, displayed above Surgeon Munro’s surgical kit.

The simple box that contains Surgeon Munro’s instruments has marked on the lid the names of the battles in which he had looked after the men of the 93rd  Sutherland Highlanders.  These battles were at the centre of the most well-known events of the nineteenth century.

Close up of Surgeon Munro’s case
Photo credits: The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Museum

William Munro was promoted to Surgeon General in 1874 and would go on to use the lessons learned on the battlefields of Alma, Balaklava and in the fever ridden tents of India to change the way soldiers were treated.  The reforms implemented would lay the basis of how the Army Medical Corps would be administered and the importance given to wound care and the treatment of diseases like cholera, typhoid, and dysentery.  

If you visit the Museum today, you will see displayed in the Staying Alive Room not only Lt Col Ewart’s tunic but the very surgical kit and instruments that William Munro would carry with him and use throughout his illustrious career.

Museum case showing Munro’s story
Photo credits: The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Museum

Written by Tricia McKeown. Tricia once travelled the world with Foreign Office but settled back in Scotland with her family in 2005.  She would go on to raise her kids while studying at Stirling University, graduating in 2014 and going on to do Masters in Creative Writing. As Stirling Castle guide Tricia spends her days telling tales of Kings and Queens but it is often the stories that are less well known that are most interesting. This is why she wanted to tell the story of Surgeon Munro.