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The Pipes of War
Introduction


THE history of the bagpipes as a military institution is a long and honourable one, inseparable from that of Scottish troops, Highland and Lowland, wherever they have fought, for centuries past. The strains of piob mhor have been heard all over those bloody European battlefields on which Scottish soldiers of fortune died—too often for lost causes—from the time when Buchan's force joined the Lilies of France in 1422, throughout the Hundred Years' War, in the Low Countries, in Germany, in Austria; and they have handed on a tradition which has been lived up to in the later days of the regular Scottish units of the British Army.

But memories are short; and, in the army as elsewhere, the passion for reform before the greatest war of all was threatening many old-established institutions whose utility was not immediately apparent.

And so it came about that to many observers, indeed to a considerable section of military opinion, it appeared likely that along with the kilt, the use of tartan, bonnet, doublet and other special features of the dress of Scottish regiments, the bagpipe must be regarded as a picturesque anachronism destined to disappear as the conditions of war changed and as the yearning of high military authorities for a deadly khaki uniformity of clothing and equipment became more insistent.

"Why," it has often been said, "should Scottish units find it necessary, either in peace or on active service to retain an obsolete musical instrument of their own ? In days past, before the rifle had revolutionised tactics, when shooting was erratic at 100 yards' range, there might have been something to say for an instrument which experience showed to be capable of stimulating men at the psychological moment when effort was failing; but is it reasonable to expect that the educated twentieth century soldier will prove to be responsive to any such stimulus—even if it were possible, under modern conditions of rifle and shell fire, to provide it.

The reply to such a line of argument is clear enough and its truth has been demonstrated in every action in which Scottish troops have taken part during the war.

The strength of an army depends, to an incalculable degree, on the strength not only of individual regimental esprit de corps, but of the national sentiment of its units. The retention of time-honoured territorial titles in the New Armies, instead of a soulless numbering of units, was itself due to a recognition by the authorities of the principle that the individual soldier is a better fighting man when lie feels that he has to live up to an ancient and brilliant regimental record. The Rifleman, even in peace, would never voluntarily be transferred to a "red" regiment, nor does a 10th Hussar yearn for the cuirass of the Life Guardsman. When a man joins a regiment, voluntarily or compulsorily, he adopts for the whole period of his military service the customs, the prejudices, and the traditions of his unit, and is himself moulded by them in a manner which is as inexplicable as it is marked.

And if regimental esprit de corps and tradition are strong, national and territorial sentiment are stronger. In the old army, as a result of the system of recruitment, this factor was of less importance than in the, comparatively speaking, unmixed units of the new army of to-day. All our military history shows that the appeal to such national sentiment is as certain in its effects as the appeal to regimental tradition; and this war has enormously accentuated its importance.

All observers agree—and military despatches confirm the view—that the rivalry of national sentiment has proved invaluable units, whether battalions or divisions, have literally competed for distinction for their own nationality, and have succeeded in associating particular exploits with themselves for ever. It may truly be said that behind the achievements Of the 9th, 15th, 51st and 52nd and Canadian Divisions the motive impulse was national rather than merely, regimental.

In the keeping alive of this national sentiment in Scottish units, their distinctive dress and, still more, the retention of the national instrument, have played an important part ; and this applies with equal force to units composed of Scotsmen who have left their native land permanently or temporarily.

Throughout the war these units have more than maintained the great traditions of their past history, carrying on the records of Scottish gallantry which have been excelled by no troops in the world and equalled by few.

And so with the pipers.

How important a contributory cause they have been to the success of their battalions is recognised by all alike, men and officers—and not least by the Field Marshal Commanding in Chief. In spite of modern conditions they have, in cases too numerous to record, played the part which was normally theirs in the olden days of set battles.

To many of the men in the ranks the music of the pipes in peace time may have had no special association other than with dances and gatherings; but whenever the piper assumed his historic rle—so long dormant—of fighting man, the inherited peculiarities of the Scottish soldier were aroused and the music made an overpowering appeal to his national sentiment.

Inherited sympathy of this kind is no doubt inexplicable—but it exists. It certainly cannot be ascribed to the Celtic strain in invididuals, for we know that the bagpipe was in general use for centuries all over the Lowlands —perhaps even before it displaced the bard and the harper and became the war instrument of the Highlands. We cannot analyse what Neil Munro describes as the tune with the river in it, the fast river and the courageous, that kens not stop nor tarry, that runs round rock and over fall with a good humour, yet no mood for anything but the way before it ; we only know that it works on some individuals and some races as no other instrument does, and we need not try to satisfy ourselves whether this is due to the flat seventh in the scale, or the ever-sounding drones, or the inherited memory it arouses.

The idea that the piper would be too conspicuous an object to be employed in his proper capacity has proved to be partly true, as indicated by the casualties among them when playing but the same argument might be applied to any other soldier in the ranks. Shells show no discrimination in their objective.

To a certain extent this objection is a sound one but it is all a matter of relative values. Many commanding officers have expressed the opinion that at times when on account of the all-pervading noise of the battlefield, not a note of his music could be heard by the men nearest to him, it was the actual presence of the piper that supplied the stimulus to the men; in fact, it was the piper, not his instrument, that was followed.

For obvious reasons pipers are harder to replace than the ordinary soldier, and, in trench warfare especially, most regiments have tried to keep them in relative security but in the records of units which follow it will be seen that, when the trouble comes, the piper has always been to the fore, and "the tune with the tartan of the clan in it " has been heard again as it has for centuries past.

From the military point of view the bagpipe has the merit of accentuating national sentiment at just those moments when the stimulus is most necessary, of rousing the " our cat/u," the frenzy of battle, and of rallying men when the ideal is liable to be lost sight of in the presence of the nerve shattering realities of action.

In all these ways the company pipers have justified their existence. In the discharge of a duty which may be regarded as sentimental in the highest sense of the term, they have, literally by hundreds, made the supreme sacrifice wherever Scottish units have fought these men have exposed themselves, unhesitatingly, recklessly, playing their companies to the attack in conditions which, as regards intensity of personal risk, have never previously been experienced. Many battalions have lost all their pipers more than once, but, as long as reinforcements were available, there has never been any difficulty in getting fresh men out of the ranks or from home to take their place ; and the new men have followed the old, just as heedless, as they played their comrades forward, knowing quite well that for many of them the urlar of "Baile Inneraora" or "The March of the Cameron men " might suddenly change to the taorluath of " Ch till mi mule."

The Germans at least, though they may not recognise the tune when they hear it in the streets of Cologne, appreciated the grim significance of piob mhor when "I hear the pibroch sounding, sounding " followed the lifting of the barrage.

The war also has afforded many instances of another function of the pipes in action. Charging the enemy at a foot pace through deep mud is after all but a "crowded hour of glorious life," which may or may not be completely or even partially successful, and men may have to be rallied when their nerves have given out under intolerable strain. Of this there have been several instances.

It must not, of course, be imagined that regimental pipers, during this or any other war, have been normally employed in playing their units to the attack; the whole condition of modern fighting makes this impossible in the same way and for the same reason that it has made impossible spectacular charges by battalions in line.

It would be a more accurate presentment of the case to say that the military piper, qua piper, normally exercises his functions behind the front line, in billets and on the line of march ; and in this respect he resembles other army musicians whose duty—according to old Army Regulations Of 300 years ago—is "to excite cheerfulness and alacrity in the souldier."

But, recognising all this, the peculiarity of the piper is that, in open fighting, when his unit has been committed to the attack, he often assumes the role which distinguishes him from all other musicians, and takes his place at the head of his company.

Instances of this during the war are innumerable, and those which are detailed below are but typical of what has occurred in every field of operations, and in most units which possessed pipers.

And if it is impossible to say too much of the regimental pipers of the British Army, it is equally so in the case of those of Overseas units, notably of the Canadians. From the point of view of the historian who wishes to demonstrate what pipers have done during this war, no more remarkable case could be selected than that of the 16th Canadian Scottish. The pipers of this distinguished battalion won one V.C., one D.C.M., one Military Medal and Bar, and eight plain Military Medals—a record which is unique. No man was put up for a decoration unless he had played his company over the top at least twice, and no piper was ever ordered to play in action—it was left to volunteers, who, it was found, had to resort to the drawing of lots to obtain the coveted privilege of playing.

The colonel of the regiment—himself a V.C.—commenting on the casualties says: "I believe the purpose of war is to win victories, and if one can do this better by encouraging certain sentiments and traditions why shouldn't it be done? The heroic and dramatic effect of a piper stoically playing his way across the ghastly modern battlefield, altogether oblivious to danger, has an extraordinary effect on the spirit and enterprise of his comrades. His example inspires all those about him."

And so it comes to this : the method of employment of the regimental piper during this war has depended largely on opportunity—and still more on the individuality of commanding officers. Men vary within very wide limits in the price they are prepared to pay for attaining their object and where one man will deliberately sacrifice a certain number of men to get a position, another will as deliberately avoid the sacrifice, even if it costs him his objective.

As far as pipers are concerned, the decision arrived at by commanding officers of the two schools is equally indicative of the esteem in which they hold them.


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