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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, and then—

"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 entirely—whether 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 the music."

A final quotation—one of a very great number received—reflects 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 them."

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 sons."

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 night—these 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 drum."

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,

I heard the pibroch sounding, sounding,
O'er the wide meadows and lands from afar.

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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