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The Pipes of War
The Pipes in the War, 1914-1918 - The Western Front


DURING the autumn [Probably the first pipers to play on French soil were those of the 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders on their landing at Boulogne.] and winter of 1914-15 pipers, for obvious reasons, had few opportunities of attracting much attention, still less of performing their highest duty, viz, playing their companies into action. They were necessarily, on account of the extreme shortage of men, for the most part employed in the ranks; and in many of the old Regular battalions pipe bands disappeared altogether.

For a time it seemed that the critics were right, and that in warfare in the twentieth century there was no longer a place for a class of man which was destined to disappear, as the bard and the harper had done in days lang syne.

This view was widely held, and in some regiments was never modified.

But gradually, as attacks became more frequent and movements set in, and as the British Army grew stronger in numbers, the position changed, and the piper became more than an invaluable marching instrumentalist or performer at ceilidhs in billets.

The first occasion on which pipers played, or tried to play, their companies into action was at Cuinchy on 25th January 1915, when the 1st Black Watch suffered such heavy casualties in advancing through deep mud up to their knees.

It was at Neuve Chapelle in March 1915 that the company piper really had his first chance of showing what he could do, as a piper, in action. On this occasion the 20th Brigade had to carry the stronghold of Moulin du Piétre, and lost very heavily; the 2nd Gordons were in the main attack and the 6th Gordons, a Territorial unit, in reserve. The 6th Gordons were called upon to support their comrades of the old Regular Army, and advanced, headed by their pipes and drums, with a rush which carried many of them beyond their objective.

From that time onwards, right up to the end of the war, pipers have repeatedly played their units into action, in spite of the unfavourably conditions resulting from modern rifle and artillery fire and gas, and have established the standard of gallantry in this respect which has been at once the admiration of all observers and an incentive to their successors to emulate them.

During the first weeks' heavy fighting, in April-May 1915, on the left of the attenuated British line of the Ypres salient, the pipers of Canadian battalions took a prominent part. In their advance on the St. Julien wood the 16th Canadians were led by their company pipers, two of whom were killed and two wounded while playing; their places were at once taken by others, who played the battalion through the German trenches at the heels of the retiring enemy to the tune "We'll tak' the guid auld way." In many subsequent actions these men distinguished themselves in the same way.

After the failure of the first attack on the German line at Rue des Bois on 9th May 1915, in the action of Richebourg-Festubert, the 1st Black Watch were played to a fresh attack by their company pipers. " With their characteristic fury they had vanished into the smoke, and the only evidence that remained was the sound of the pipes." When they reached the German trenches a piper, Andrew Wishart, stood on the parados playing until he was wounded. Another piper, W. Stewart, was awarded the D.C.M. on this occasion.

The same thing happened in the case of the 2nd Black Watch at Festubert, the companies being led by their pipers. Of these men two, Pipers Gordon and Crichton, were specially mentioned for their gallantry. The Seaforth pipers, too, suffered heavily in this as in many later actions—"Caber Feidh" has often been heard along that line which looked so weak, but was too strong for the Germans.

In the action at Festubert on the 17th May the 4th Camerons got further than any other battalion, and were played in by their pipe major, J. Ross, and four pipers. These men got through untouched, though their pipes were all injured.

Later again, on 16th June 1915, when the Hooge salient was straightened by the 3rd Division, the attack was led by the 8th Brigade, and the enemy front and support lines were taken. On this occasion Pipe Major Daniel Campbell, although wounded, played his battalion, the 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers, over the top.

Dawn was just breaking when the Pipe Major scrambled out on the parapet and started playing. The men raced forward after him until stopped by uncut wire. In the hand-to-hand fighting which ensued the Pipe Major threw aside his pipes and, catching up a bayonet, joined in the attack.

It was during the Ypres fighting, where gas was first used against us, that an incident occurred of which the facts are as stated, but unfortunately it has been found impossible to get the names of the men concerned.

The men, looking into the storm of shells that swept their course and at the awful cloud of death now almost on them, wavered, hung back —only for a moment. And who will dare to blame them?

Two of the battalion pipers who were acting as stretcher bearers saw the situation in a moment. Dropping their stretcher they made for their dug-out and emerged a second later with their pipes. They sprang on the parapet, tore off their respirators and charged forward. Fierce and terrible the wild notes cleft the air ... after fifteen yards the pibroch ceased; the two pipers, choked and suffocated with the gas fumes, staggered and fell."

Although in these earlier actions pipers had done much to maintain the traditions of the past they had never had the opportunities of distinguishing themselves that came to them during the great operations about Loos in September 1915. The attack of two army corps, in which were thirty Scottish battalions, along a seven-mile front, was a chance for these men, and one of which they were not slow to avail themselves. Three pipers at least earned the title of The piper of Loos," and one of these, Daniel Laidlaw, of the 7th King's Own Scottish Borderers, was awarded the Victoria Cross ; but, in the general orgie of gallantry which characterised those operations, individual pipers in very many cases won the highest praise in their own units but escaped the official recognition they had earned.

The attack by the 28th Brigade on the Hohenzollern Redoubt was accompanied by fearful casualties; with uncut wire in front, in an atmosphere heavily laden with gas, exposed to machine-gun fire in front and flank, the 6th K.O.S.B., 10th and 11th H.L.I. and 9th Seaforths were decimated. The K.O.S.B. were played over the top by their veteran Pipe Major, Robert Mackenzie, an old soldier of forty-two years' service. He was severely wounded and died the following day.

On the right of this Brigade the 26th had better luck, as the wire was found to be more thoroughly cut. The 5th Carnerons and 7th Seaforths led the way followed by the 8th Gordons and 8th Black Watch, and reached Fosse 8, where they hung on, though reduced to the strength of a single battalion.

"The heroism of the pipers was splendid. In spite of murderous fire they continued playing. At one moment, when the fire of the machine guns was so terrific that it looked as if the attack must break down, a Seaforth piper dashed forward in front of the line and started Caber Feidh. The effect was instantaneous—the sorely pressed men braced themselves together and charged forward. The Germans soon got to realise the value of the pipes and tried to pick off the pipers."

In this one attack the 5th Camerons had three pipers killed and eight wounded. Further south the pipers of the 2nd and 6th Gordons led their companies in the costly attack on Hulluch and the Quarries. An officer of the Devons, on their flank, writes:

"I shall never forget those pipes. . . . During the charge a Gordon piper continued playing after he was down."

On the other side of the Hulluch road the 15th Division received its baptism of fire, and lost 6000 men in the two days' fighting. One of the battalions of the 46th Brigade, the 7th King's Own Scottish Borderers, afforded an admirable example of the value of the pipes in rallying men when the position is critical. The piper concerned, Daniel Laidlaw, was awarded the Victoria Cross and the Croix de Guerre. The London Gazette Notification, which does not err on the side of uncontrolled emotionalism, describes the award as follows:

"For most conspicuous bravery. . . . During the worst of the bombardment, when the attack was about to commence, Piper Laidlaw, seeing that his company was somewhat shaken from the effects of gas, with absolute coolness and disregard of danger, mounted the parapet, marched up and down and played his company out of the trench. The effect of his splendid example was immediate, and the company dashed out to the assault. Piper Laidlaw continued playing his pipes until he was wounded."

The evidence of eye-witnesses shows that, at the time, a cloud of gas was settling down on the trench and there was heavy machine-gun fire. Laidlaw played "Blue Bonnets over the Border," and the effect on the men was indescribable as they followed him over the top he changed to "The Standard on the Braes of Mar." The old tune was surely never played to better purpose; and if Laidlaw's action stood alone, if he were the only piper during the war who stimulated a company at the moment when things were at their worst, surely that achievement amply supports the view that, even in the warfare of to-day, piob mhor is an instrument of war which can justify all claims made for it. As it is, Piper Laidlaw, "the Piper of Loos," stands as type of a class of men who, throughout the war, have lived up to the traditions of a great past.

Another piper of the same battalion, Douglas Taylor, being wounded and unable to play, spent thirty-six hours bringing in gassed men without relief, until he himself was dangerously wounded. Further on, the 44th Brigade—the 8th Seaforths, 7th Camerons, 9th Black Watch and 10th Gordons—made the historic charge which captured Loos and then went on, until, for want of support, they could get no further and were compelled to retire. They rallied on Hill 70 round a tattered flag made out of a Cameron kilt. The battalions of this brigade were played into and beyond Loos; and, when they were widely scattered and mixed up, pipers played to rally the men of their own battalions. Among many others, Piper Charles Cameron of the 11th Argylls stood out in the open playing unconcernedly, and was thereafter known in his battalion as "the Piper of Loos."

The shattered remnants of the 15th Division were withdrawn in the evening from the blood-stained slopes of hill 70, but the battalions were played in by their own pipers. The 9th Black Watch numbered only 100 of all ranks and one piper; the 7th Cameron pipers were practically annihilated, the 8th Seaforths lost ten, and others suffered in similar degree.

It is a far cry from Hill 70 to Scaur Donald, and they were only regimental pipers, but to these brave men the words of the old song are surely applicable.

"There let him rest in the lap of Scaur Donald,
The wind for his watcher, the mist for his shroud,
Where the green and the grey moss shall weave their wild tartan,
A covering meet for a chieftain so proud."

In the fighting subsidiary to the main action of Loos, at Mauquissart and in the neighbourhood of Neuve Chapelle, the 2nd Black Watch pipers distinguished themselves greatly. They played their companies into and beyond the first line of German trenches. One of them, A. Macdonald, stood playing on the German parapet while the position was being cleared, and then on, through a hurricane of fire, over three lines of trenches, until dangerously wounded. For this he was given the D.C.M.

Three others, J. Galloway, H. Johnstone and David Arnsit, did precisely the same; and yet another, David Simpson, behaved with such gallantry that he also came to be known as "the Piper of Loos," the third of the brave trio to earn that honourable title. He had already played over three lines of German trenches, and was leading towards the fourth when he was killed. Johnstone, on this occasion, played till he fell gassed.

Throughout the long succession of actions which punctuated the Somme operations in 1916, the pipes continued to be much in evidence, and references to them and to their effect upon the men during that bloody fighting are frequent in the contemporary reports of observers, and in private letters subsequently published. French reports also have placed on record their admiration for the company pipers of Scottish regiments. "Some of the finest work," writes one well-known French military writer, "was accomplished at the very outset by the Highlanders, who carried the trenches in lightning fashion, urged on by the inspiriting music of their pipes."

The fighting at Loos had shown, on a comparatively small scale, that the pipes, when freed from the restrictions placed upon their employment by the exigencies of trench warfare, were still capable of fulfilling their historic role in open fighting The gallantry of the pipers at Hulluch and Hill 70 was worthy of the units they led, and established a record which was hard to beat ; but for months on end their great achievements were emulated by those of their successors in the new armies which had poured into the field.

The opening attack on the ist July affords numerous examples of pipers playing their companies into action, and a few may be taken as representative of the whole.

In the attack by the 32nd Division the 17th H. L. I. succeeded, with a loss of over 500 men, in capturing and holding part of the Leipzig redoubt, though unsupported for a considerable time. The Commanding Officer writes:

"I told the Pipe Major to play; he at once responded, getting into a small hollow, and playing and greatly heartening the men as they lay there hanging on to the captured position. Pipe Major Gilbert showed a total disregard of danger and played as if he were on a route march. For this action he obtained the Military Medal."

In the advance on Mamnetz on the same day the 2nd Gordons were led by their company pipers. An officer of an English battalion in the 20th Brigade describes how "we heard their pipes play these fellows over. It sounded grand against the noise of shells, machine guns and rifle fire. I shall never forget them."

The same thing occurred later when the battalion attacked the orchards of Ginchy. On both occasions the casualties were very heavy.

At Fricourt Pipe Major David Anderson of the 15th Royal Scots stood out in front of the battalion until he was wounded, and played across shell-beaten ground under heavy fire. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre.

The two battalions of Tyneside Scottish were similarly played to their attack on La Boisclle and the ridge in front of it on the opening day of the battle of the Somme. A correspondent who was present says:

"The Tynesiders were on our right, and, as they got the signal to advance, I saw a piper--I think he was the Pipe Major—jump out of the trench and march straight towards the German lines. The tremendous rattle of machine-gun and rifle fire completely drowned the sound of his pipes, but he was obviously playing as though he would burst the bag, and, faintly through the roar of battle, we heard the mighty cheer his comrades gave as they swarmed after him. How he escaped I can't understand, for the ground was literally ploughed up by the hail of bullets; but he bore a charmed life, and the last glimpse I had of him as we, too, dashed out showed him still marching erect, playing on regardless of the flying bullets and of the men dropping all round him."

Of the two battalions 10 pipers were killed and 5 wounded, and Pipe Major Wilson and Piper G. Taylor both got the Military Medal. Many of these pipers, having played their companies up to the German trenches, took an active part in the fighting as bombers.

Again, at Longueval on 14th July, regimental pipers were conspicuous. As the 26th Brigade—8th Black Watch, 10th Argylls, 9th Seaforths, and 5th Camerons—commenced their advance, they were exposed to frontal and enfilading machine-gun fire, and shrapnel mowed them down; but their pipers led the way, and the men followed cheering and shouting.

"Where we were the brunt of the action fell on two New Army battalions of historic Highland regiments. Their advance was one of the most magnificent sights I have ever seen. They left their trenches at dawn, and a torrent of bullets met them. They answered immediately—with the shrill music of the pipes, and, indifferent apparently to the chaos around them, pushed steadily on towards their objective."

Describing the attack by the ioth Argylls, another observer writes:

"We came under a blistering hot fire, but the men never hesitated. in the middle of it all the pipes struck up "The Campbells are coming," and that made victory a certainty for us. We felt that whatever obstacles there barred our path they had to be overcome.... The last fight was the worst of all. It was at the extreme end of the village, where the enemy had possession of some ruined houses. They had a clear line of fire in all directions, and we were met with a murderous hail of fire. For a moment the men wavered. I doubted if they were equal to it. Then a piper sprang forward, and the strains broke out once more. The attacking line steadied and dashed at the last stronghold of the Huns. Their line snapped under our onslaught."

On this occasion the Pipe Major, Aitken, a man of sixty, was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. One of the pipers referred to in the above incident was James Dall, and his Commanding Officer considers his action in playing the regimental march at this juncture was the means of his company gaining their objective; the other was D. Wilson, who was also mentioned in despatches with Dali.

Of the attack by the 9th Seaforths a wounded officer writes:

"We swept on until we finally carried the German trench with a rousing cheer to the strain of the pipes. The heroism of the pipers was splendid. In spite of murderous fire they kept playing on. At one moment, when the fire was so terrific it looked as if the attack must break down, one of the pipers dashed forward and started playing. The change could be felt at once, the sorely pressed men gave a mighty cheer and dashed forward with new zeal."

North of Longueval the 1st Gordons made a furious attack, on the 18th July, and on this occasion they were led by their pipers.

"They were out of sight over the parapet, but we could hear at intervals their shouts of 'Scotland for ever!'' and the faint strains of the pipes. Then we saw them reappear, and then came prisoners."

Similar accounts were given of the 6th and 7th Gordons. In the 6th Gordons Piper Charles Thomson had his arm blown off while playing. "The gallantry of these men who wear the tartans of the old Scottish clans would seem wonderful if it were not habitual with them. Their first dash for Longueval was one of the finest exploits of the war. They were led forward by the pipers, who went with them, not only towards the German lines, but across them and into the thick of the battle. . . . In that September fighting the pipe major of a Gordon battalion played his men forward and then was struck below the knee; but he would not be touched by a doctor until the others had been tended. He was a giant of a man and so heavy that no stretcher could hold him, so they put him in a tarpaulin and carried him back. Then he had his leg amputated and died." [Philip Gibbs]

On the 3rd September the 4th Black Watch were played into action and had to capture a village. According to an eye-witness:

"It was magnificent to see these men charge up the narrow street leading to the second barricade. Amid the ruined houses on each side the enemy were posted. At the moment when it was hottest the strains of the pipes were heard. The men answered with a cheer and swept steadily on over the barricade and through the ruins; and the village was ours."

Of a Seaforth battalion a similar story is told:

"The men simply raced into the storm of bullets. . . at last it became too terrible for any human being to stand against it. The attacking lines melted away, the men seeking what cover could be found. . . . It was here that the pipers of the Seaforths had their chance. They took it. As the men advanced again to the attack they were cheered on by the strains of the pipes, which could just be heard. The men dashed through, clearing out the enemy as they went."

During the attack on Beaumont Hamel in October, as in the earlier fighting at Thiepval, the pipers of the 15th H.L.I. lost very heavily when leading their companies.

Such instances of the bravery of pipers and of the stimulus afforded by the pipes to men in action became matters of almost every-day occurrence, and, though everyone recognised the tremendous losses that were the result of their exposure, there were occasions when those losses were more than compensated for at the time by the results obtained. Everywhere, at Contaimaison, Martinpuich, Pzoires, Delville Wood, wherever Scottish troops were employed, their pipers played their historic role, and, to quote Philip Gibbs, "over the open battlefields came the music of the Scottish pipes, shrill above the noise of gunfire."

Nor were the pipers of purely Scottish regiments left to establish these records of bravery unchallenged. They had keen rivals in battalions of overseas Scots, notably the South African Scottish and the Canadians.

During the fighting for Delville Wood in July the South Africans were torn to pieces by shell fire. The remains of the battalion hung on for days, losing all their officers but the colonel. When relief came their pipers headed the blackened and weary warriors out of the wood of death.

Similarly, the 16th Canadian Scottish pipers maintained the fine reputation they had earned on the Ypres salient. When the battalion moved up to the attack on the Regina trench on 8th October, there was keen competition among the pipers as to who should be allowed to play them over.

Four pipers, Richardson, Park, M'Kellar and Paul marched ahead of the battalion with the Commanding Officer for a distance of half a mile under intense machine-gun fire and escaped scatheless. They could be heard clearly as they played 'We'll take the good old way,' and, as they passed, wounded men lying in shell holes raised themselves on their elbows and cheered them. When they got near the German line the battalion encountered uncut wire which, being unusually heavy, took some time to cut. While this was going on Piper Richardson played up and down outside the wire for twenty minutes in the face of almost certain death. . . . Shortly afterwards a company sergeant major was wounded, and Richardson volunteered to take him out. After he had gone he remembered he had left his pipes behind. He left the sergeant major in safety in a shell hole and returned. He was never heard of again."

This brave man was awarded a posthumous V.C., the second piper to obtain this coveted distinction. Piper Paul was subsequently given the Military Medal.

At the capture of the Vimy Ridge on 9th April, 1917, by the Canadians, the pipers of some of their battalions took a prominent part. On this occasion the 16th Canadian Scottish repeated what they had done in previous engagements, their companies being led by pipers. The pipers concerned were Pipe Major Groat and Pipers M'Gillivray, M'Nab, M'Ahhister, M'Kellar and Paul, and they advanced a distance of over a mile under heavy fire without any casualties. The Pipe Major was awarded the Military Medal.

Similarly the 25th Canadians had their pipers out in this action, and Piper Walter Telfer, who went on playing after being severely wounded, was given the Military Medal Piper Brand got the same decoration.

Later on, in the fighting round Arras, a battalion of the Camerons was played to the attack.

"When the order came our men went over with right good will. It was a thrilling moment, especially when the pipes struck up the Camerons' march. I believe it was that music, at that particular moment, which made it possible for us to go through the ordeal that followed."

Once again "The March of the Cameron Men" was the undoing of an enemy which had to stand up against the Camerons; and in one part of the line, when the attack was most furiously resisted, the company piper changed his tune to the old' Piobaireachd Dhomnuil Duibh "-

"Fast they came, fast they come,
See how they gather!

Wide waves the eagle's plume
Blended with heather."

An account of the few minutes before "zero" by a piper of this battalion appeared in the Scottish Field ("Pipes of the Misty Noorland," John M'Gibbon), and affords a good example of the steadying effect of the pipes in a period of great strain on morale:

"I looked down at the company and I could see they were shaken . . . I slung my rifle over my back and took up the pipes; that cheered them. I played through two or three tunes and then birled up 'Tullochgorum.' They fairly hooched it and stamped time with their feet. It was close on 'zero' . . . when I changed to 'The March of The Cameron Men.' Our guns burst out with drum fire behind us. . . and the men jumped the parapet like deer and raced over the broken ground at the double. I kept up 'The Cameron Men.' . . I reached the parapet of the first enemy trench, when I 'stopped one' with my leg, and down I went in a heap."

The pipes were again to the front in the fighting for Hill 70 on the Lens- Loos line in August, 1917. It was surely appropriate enough that, in the advance over the very country in which so many Scottish regiments had fought, with only temporary success, two years before, the pipes should again be at the head of the units which recaptured those blood-soaked positions.

An officer, describing the advance of the 13th Royal Highlanders of Canada, says:

"Our advance was resumed and we swarmed over the top at three different points. Away to the left, which was the objective of our advance, the strains of the pipes could be heard, and across the hills, where so many Scottish lads had fallen two years ago, there burst a loud triumphant cheer as the Canadian Highlanders pressed on to complete their work."

And so it happened that the gallant lads of the 15th Division were avenged.

Opportunities for pipers continued during the later fighting in 1917-18. Records of individual companies and platoons show that on several occasions the pipes encouraged the men to further effort. In one case near Albert, a company of the Black Watch was temporarily cut off from its supports after getting into a German trench and suffered heavily the men were crushed by superior numbers, and the prospect was black until the piper, who was present as a stretcher bearer, started playing. This had a great effect on the company, which held on to the position until reinforcements arrived.

In the fighting about Albert in August, 1918, several instances occurred of pipers playing their companies to the attack.

On the whole, however, at this stage in the war, it was being found increasingly difficult to renew the depleted ranks of the pipe bands, and most regiments were simply driven to keeping their pipers out of action as far as possible, except on special occasions. But there were still enough left of them to lead their units ever further eastward as the tide of war rolled back. Incidents frequently occurred showing that their experience of four years' fighting had not damped the ardour of pipers in action.

On one occasion a 16th Canadian piper went into action playing on top of a tank, and was killed. At Amiens, the pipers of the 16th and 48th Highlanders of Canada played the battalions to the attack in August, 1918.

As the German defeat became increasingly apparent and the British forces drove the enemy before them, pipers again got an opportunity of leading their companies to the attack. During the fighting about Albert- Arras in August, 1918, Scottish troops were heavily engaged. Lieut. Edouard Ross, of the French interpreter staff, describes an attack by a battalion of the Black Watch in which a detachment with a piper got into the German trenches; they were all wounded, and their position was dangerous, but the piper started playing, and the sound rapidly brought reinforcements, who captured the position.


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