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The Pipes of War
The Pipes in the War, 1914-1918 - Pipers in the Ranks


The piper is, first and last, a fighting man; and when a regiment is mobilised it at once loses most of its pipers. Whatever the strength of the band may have been in peace time, only the "sergeant piper"—a hideous official term for the pipe major—and five "full" pipers are normally retained as such. The remainder, while acting as pipers when opportunity offers— and designated accordingly—serve in the ranks.

During this war, and notably during the early years of it, it was often found necessary to make use of full and acting pipers in some purely military capacity, i.e. either in the ranks, or as Lewis gunners, bombers, orderlies, runners or stretcher bearers. This fact accounts for many of the honours awarded to pipers, and, at the same time, for the heavy casualties among them.

It is quite impossible to do justice to individuals or units in regard to the part they played in performing such duties for those who obtained official recognition, in some form or other, hundreds have merely had the satisfaction of playing the game, in accordance with the rules laid down by all ranks of the British army. The few examples given in this place are typical of the whole.

At Festubert in June, 1915, the pipers of the 6th Seaforths worked continuously day and night, and brought 170 casualties from the front line to the dressing station; at Loos the 9th Black Watch lost nearly all their pipers when similarly engaged, and at the two actions of Loos and Neuve Chapelle the 6th Gordons had two killed and ten wounded.

Again, the 2nd Royal Scots pipers lost heavily on the Somme, and were on one occasion highly commended for bringing water up to some newly captured trenches under heavy fire.

The comments of General Sir William Birdwood in a despatch to to the Australian Government, though intended to apply to Australian stretcher bearers, are very applicable to pipers acting in this capacity, whether individually or collectively:

"Where all have done so well it is very hard to differentiate, but as a class the stretcher bearers have been beyond praise. Never for a second have they flinched from going forward time after time, absolutely regardless of the fire brought against them; and I so deeply regret that they should have suffered in consequence."

Another and most hazardous class of duty, which was largely performed by pipers in some battalions, was that of "runners" or despatch carriers; this often involved crossing heavily shelled country, and has resulted in many casualties. Notable cases have occurred of men carrying despatches through intense barrages, and some have received rewards; the majority of such cases, however, have necessarily been unnoticed.

Some men appear to have specialised in this duty, e.g. Pipe Major Matheson, 1st Seaforths, who got the D.C.M. "for gallant conduct on many occasions in conveying messages under heavy fire," and Lance-Corpr Piper Dyce, 13th Royal Highlanders of Canada, who on one occasion carried a most urgent despatch through artillery barrage when badly wounded.

In other cases pipers, individually and collectively, have done admirable service in bringing up ammunition.

Many instances of acts of heroism by individual men are detailed below.


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