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
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
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
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."
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
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."
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.
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
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
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."
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
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."
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
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
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
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
Later on, in
the fighting round Arras, a battalion of the Camerons was played to the
"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
See how they gather!
Wide waves the eagle's plume
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
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."
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
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.
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,
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.