The Pipes of War The Pipes in the War, 1914-1918 - Pipers
on the March
Playing the pipes in action,
though essentially the most important, is, for obvious reasons, only one
of the duties of the soldier piper. Every unit of an army is not always
in close touch with the enemy, and every battalion puts in a good many
miles of marching in a year in conditions which are rarely ideal and
very often acutely miserable. It is here that the pipes have rendered
such conspicuous service as the marching instrument par excellence; and
the cult of the bagpipe has spread to units and nationalities which,
before the war, would never have thought it possible that the company
piper would become one of their most cherished institutions.
That Irish regiments should again adopt the
national instrument that had played their ancestors on to the
battlefields of France in 1286 is so natural as to need no comment ; but
when we find English and Australian units, battalions of the United
States army, and ships of His Majesty's Navy, to say nothing of field
ambulances and transport units, adopting the bagpipe, no further
evidence is required to substantiate its claim to be a highly important
feature of modern military organisation.
It is indeed to a recognition, in the very early
days of the war, of the great value of the pipes in "exciting alacrity
and cheerfulness in the soldier" that is due the fact that so many units
have deliberately tried to keep their pipers out of harm's way, and have
only allowed them, under protest, to accompany their companies into
action, and then only in limited numbers. Commanding officers have
appreciated that, as a stimulus to tired men, to men marching weary
miles to take up a position, to men returning worn out from a spell of
duty, the music of the pipes has proved invaluable.
Instances of this stimulating effect are too
numerous to mention, but a few, taken from contemporary accounts of the
war, may be regarded as typical.
The following incident in the retirement from Mons
has frequently occurred elsewhere. "I shall never forget how one General
saw a batch of Gordons and K.O.S.B. stragglers trudging listlessly along
the road. He halted them. Some more came up, until there was about a
company in all, with one piper. He made them form fours, put the piper
at the head of them, 'Now lads, follow the piper and remember Scotland,'
and they all started off as pleased as Punch, with the tired piper
playing like a hero."
The Rev. Dr. Maclean, C.M.G.,
describes a case of the effect of the pipes on tired men:
"It was a sweltering hot day, and the road was
deep with dust. The long snaky khaki column came marching steadily down
the hill, silent under the weight of their accoutrements with the
grinding heat of an April sun. . . . As the Scots came by he gave the
sign to the piper. He stepped forward and struck up one of the great
battle marches of our race. The scene that followed baffled description.
A roar of cheering burst from the ranks."
Another instance, by one who was himself in the
ranks, may be regarded as typical. The regiment concerned was the
Glasgow Highlanders, but the description is applicable to every Scottish
regiment in the Army List:
Kilometre after kilometre we marched, through the
hottest hours of the middle day, and our feet and backs ached under the
weight of all we carried, our faces were dabbled and streaked with dust
and perspiration, and in our mouths was only dust to chew.....
"Walking had become a purely mechanical exercise,
our limbs controlled, as it seemed, by some power outwith us; our brains
were numb and dazed with fatigue and the maddening persisting pain that
was our every step. Blindly, dumbly, helplessly we staggered on ... in
infinite weariness we dragged ourselves to the beginning of the street,
"Then the pipes
suddenly set the heavens and the earth dancing to the strains of
'Highland Laddie,' the regimental march of the Glasgows. And at the
skirl of the pipes, and before the eyes of those critical spectators,
every man braced himself, his step assumed as much of jauntiness as he
could put into it, and he had a laugh and a jesting answer ready on his
lips for every outsider who spoke to him. . . . It was something more
potent than wine that put the boldness into their step, it was the sense
of the tradition and honour of their regiment: the feeling that on no
account must they present other than a brave front to the world, that
the one unpardonable offence would be to let the battalion down."
Examples could be multiplied indefinitely, but the
best tribute to the value of the pipes as a marching instrument and in
keeping the men cheery is, after all, the fact that regiment after
regiment felt constrained to keep them out of action entirelywhether as
pipers pure and simple or in other military capacities.
Statements to this effect have been received from
nearly all the regiments whose views have been asked, commanding
officers being almost unanimous in their opinion that, only where it is
imperatively necessary, should a pipe band be exposed to the chances of
annihilation inseparable from modern shell fire.
And in just the same manner as the pipes have
helped battalions along the "via dolorosa" into action so they have,
time and again, played them back to rest and comparative security. In
some cases they had shared in the action itself, in others they waited
until their services were required. Many commanding officers and
observers have referred to this as one of the most important of their
duties. In describing the return of a battalion, or what remained of it,
from Longueval, Philip Gibbs writes:
"There was a thick summer haze about, and on the
ridges the black vapours of shell bursts. . . It was out of this that
the Highlanders came marching. They brought the music with them and the
pipes of war playing a Scottish love song, 'I lo'e na a laddie but ane.'
Their kilts were caked with mud, they were very tired, but they held
their heads up, and the pipers who had been with them played bravely ...
and the Scottish love song rang out across the fields."
An officer of an Argyll battalion, writing of the
days of trench fighting, says: "They have done much to hearten us on
long marches. They came out of Bethune after Loos and played what was
left of us back to billets." Another, in the Royal Scots, referring to
the return of the battalion from Kemmel, says: "I shall never forget the
effect on the men; as they struck up they fairly shouted themselves
hoarse with delight."
"Wonderful pipes! The men
get tired and would fall out, but the pipes make a unity of them.
Invisible tendons and muscles seem to connect the legs of all files, and
all move as one, mechanically, rhythmically, certainly. The strong are
reduced to the step, the weak are braced up to it. All bear the strain
and share the strain. So we go on, and the miracle is in the power of
A final quotationone
of a very great number receivedreflects the opinion of all ranks:
"I have often seen a company just Out of the
trenches straggling along the road too weary to think of keeping in
formation, let alone in step. On the first sound of the pipes these same
men would double up to their place and march along with the best of
The ubiquity of the
pipes on the Western front has been remarked by all observers. "Tile
music of the pipes is now as much a part of the great orchestra of this
war as the incessant rumbling of distant guns, as the swirl of traffic
along the transport lines, as the singing of birds above No Man's Land.
. . . And where there are pipes there are Scotsmen Scots everywhere
from the sea to St. Quentin, in old French market towns, and in Flemish
villages . . and in camps behind the fighting line not beyond the reach
of long range shells, and up in the trenches where death is very near to
them. . . . As long as history lasts the spirit of France will salute
the memory of these kilted boys and of all the Lowland Scots who have
gone into the furnace fires of this war to the music of the pipes, and
have fallen in heaps upon her fields. A thousand years hence, when the
wind blows softly across the ground where they fought, old Scottish
tunes will sound faintly in the ears of men who remember the past, and
all this country will be haunted with the ghosts of Scotland's gallant
Nor has it been on the Western
front alone that the value of the pipes has made itself appreciated. In
every other theatre of war as well has "the tune with the tartan of the
clan in it " been heard at the head of columns toiling through the dust
and heat, or through pitiless rain. In Egypt and Gallipoli and the Holy
Land, in Mesopotamia and the Balkans, the pipes have been the prelude to
great happenings. "Bundle and Go in the early dawn of an Eastern day, "
Soldier lie down " at nightthese have been the preliminaries which led
up naturally to " Cabar Feidh "in a hail of machine gun fire, or "Horo
mo nighean donn bhoidheach" in the streets of captured Bagdad.
"Many a soldier sadly misses his pipe, which of
course may not be lit on a night march ; but to me a greater loss is the
silence of those other pipes, for the sound of the bagpipes will stir up
a thousand memories in a Highland regiment, and nothing helps a column
of weary foot soldiers so well as pipe music, backed by the beat of a
When the British army advanced
into German territory the pipers had an opportunity to play with an
abandon that had never been felt before.
Next day, with the sides still streaming, we made
the longest continuous march, some 36 kilometres, and by that effort got
well into Germany. The roads improved as we got farther on, but the
tramp through the forest of Zitter was long, marshy, and melancholy. Our
company was first after the pipers, and had the full benefit of the
music all the way. And we wandered inward; inward, with our seeking and
haunting Gaelic melodies, into the depths of the hanging, silent wood.
It was strange how aloof nature seemed to these melodies. In Scotland,
or even in France, all the hills and the woods would have helped the
music. But in this German land all were cold toward us, and those
endless pine trees seemed to be holding hands with fingers spread before
the eyes to show their shame and humiliation. There was a curious sense
that the road on which we trod was not our road, and that earth and her
fruits on either hand were hostile.
"And how tired the men became, with half of them
through the soles of their boots and with racking damp in their
shoulders and backs from their rain-sodden packs. But we listened still
whilst voluminous waves of melody wandered homeless over German wastes
and returned to us,
heard the pibroch sounding, sounding, O'er the wide meadows and lands
or to the
stirring strains of the 'March of the Battle of Harlaw,' or to the
crooning, hoping, sobbing of 'Lord Lovat's Lament,' and so went on from
hour to hour through the emptiness of Southern Germany. When we thought
we had just about reached our camping ground for the night, we came to a
guide post which showed it still to be seven kilometres on. But that was
at the top of a long hill, and the road ran gently down through woods
the whole way. The colonel sent a message to play 'Men of Portree.' The
rain had stopped, and an evening sky unveiled a more cheerful light. So,
with an easy inconsequent air, we cast off care and tripped away down to
the substantial and prosperous bit of Rhineland called Hellenthal, well
on our way to Cologne."
The interminable marches are over and their goal has been attained; and
the instrument which has a tune for every human emotion can now play
"The Desperate Battle " in German towns with a safety which has been
long unknown. To many a man, however, as he fingers his chanter, the
feeling will come, as he thinks of the good men and true who never
reached the iith November, 1918, that the tune that is most appropriate
is "Lochaber no more."
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