The Pipes of War The Pipes in the War, 1914-1918 - Pipe
Pipe tunes—as every piper
knows—have local associations, associations with particular incidents,
particular emotions; and in military piping this is never overlooked. In
war everything has changed—everything but the elemental courage and
passions of the men who are engaged in it and, as Piob mlior is
essentially the instrument on which those elemental passions can be best
expressed, it is not uninteresting to observe how individual pipers have
resorted to particular tunes, to suit particular occasions. In many,
perhaps in most, cases there were traditional or regimental reasons for
playing one tune rather than another, and such tunes were often in the
highest degree appropriate; but in other cases the individuality of the
performer determined the choice.
Of a selection based on tradition the best
authenticated instance is that of the Gordon piper who played Cogadh na
Sith, "War or peace," during the Somme fighting. The tune itself, a
piobaireachd composed by the great M'Crimmon some 400 years ago, was
played by the Gordons at Waterloo and by a Cameron piper, Kenneth M'Kay,
at Quatre Bras.
the middle of June a draft of about a hundred and twenty men arrived in
camp for the Gordons—the finest draft the commanding officer declared he
had ever seen. On the isth, they were ordered to the front. I found they
had a piper with them, and immediately laid hold on him to play the men
down to the station. I brought him up to my tent and provided him with a
set of pipes which I had reserved for my own particular work. . . . I
found something more interesting than that. His great- grandfather had
been a piper in the regiment in the days of the Napoleonic war, and at
the Battle of Waterloo he stood within the square and played the ancient
Highland challenge-march 'Cogadh na Sith,' as the French cuirassiers
hurried themselves upon the immovable ranks in vain.
'John,' I said, 'this is the anniversary of
Waterloo, and you will lead the men out to that very tune which your
great-grandfather played on that great day.' I told the colonel, and his
eyes gleamed as he said to me, 'Ah padre, we'll do better than that. You
will tell the men about it, and I will call them to attention, and your
piper will play his tune in memory of the men of Waterloo.'
"And so it was done, and a thrilling incident it was as the men stood
rigid and silent in full marching order, and the piper strode proudly
along the ranks, sounding the wild, defiant challenge that stirred the
regiment a hundred years before."
Regimental tunes appeal enormously to the men who
hear and know them ; it was probably as much the sound of "Blue Bonnets
over the Border" as the sight of Piper Laidlaw piping along the parapet
that made the men, shaken with shell fire and gas, go straight forward;
and red hackles have followed "Highland Laddie "in circumstances when
another tune might have failed to exert the same extraordinary
influence. But, having played his regulation onset, the piper has an
opportunity of suiting his own taste and selecting a tune appropriate
musically and emotionally, as well as in name, to the occasion.
On many occasions when the
choice of a tune has not been restricted by regimental custom or
tradition, individual performers have made selections which indicated
the remarkable mentality of the British soldier.
At Loos, where Pipers Simpson and M'Donald of the
2nd Black Watch played their company over the top and through the
attack, the tune they commenced with was" Happy we've been a' thegither,
"----only later changing into the ceremonial onset "Highland Laddie." To
men in a trench who have suffered untold nerve strain waiting for Zero
and who happen—as do most men in Highland regiments—to know one tune
from another, no more appropriate combination of " onsets" could have
Hamel, when the 17th H. L. l. took the German trenches and had an
opportunity of bombing out the occupants, Pipe Major Gilbert played
another popular and very suitable tune, "The muckin' o' Geordie's Byre,"
and greatly encouraged the men in their task. This same tune has done
duty on many similar occasions.
It was to "We'll tak the guid auld way" that the
16th Canadians attacked at Vimy, and many Cameron pipers have played the
"Piobaireachd Dhomhnuill Duibh" in similar circumstances.
Another very favourite tune was "The Macgregor's
Gathering " which was played with great effect in the capture of many
villages during the Somme fighting.
A curious coincidence was the selection by the
pipers of the 1st H. L. I. of "I'll gang nae mair tae yon toun" as they
marched out of Marseilles on 1st November, 1914, on their way to the
front. During the first six months they lost seven pipers killed, eight
wounded and two taken prisoner, and the band ceased to exist.
"Baile Inneraora,"—otherwise "The Campbells are
Coming"—was the tune to which the first Highland regiment of the
Expeditionary Force, the 2nd Argyhls, landed in France; from that time
onward it has iinmortalised on every front, if that were necessary, the
town of which Burns wrote:
"There's naething here but Highland pride And
Highland scab and hunger. If Providence has sent me here, 'Twas surely in his anger."
The Argylls long ago took Burns'
song and treated it with the contempt it deserves when they adopted "Baile
Inneraora " as their onset." It was played at the taking of Longueval,
in the attack at Loos, and at the subsequent rally after that glorious
disaster, and in many other actions.
During the fighting on the Somme for the heaps of
ruins which had once been a French village, an incident occurred which
takes us back to the legend connected with the pibroch " A Cholla, mo
run." Long ages ago, when the Campbells heard they were going to be
attacked by Coil Kiteach at Dunivaig, they set an ambush and captured
the advance guard. All were hanged except the piper, who was given
permission to play a lament over his comrades. The piper at once started
the warning, which was heard and understood by his comrades,
"Coll of my love avoid the strait, avoid the
strait, avoid the strait, Coll of my love, go by the Mull, gain the
piper was instantly stabbed by the infuriated Campbells.
It is a far cry from those days, when men could
converse to each other in pibroch, to 1916 but another tune—not "A
Cholla, mo run"—was played by another piper in a French village when his
party was cut off. Two officers, a sergeant, and a piper of an Argyll
battalion, got separated from time main body, and found themselves
unable to get away when the village was again attacked by our men. The
small party at once started bombing the enemy from the rear, but the
piper, appreciating the unpleasant possibility of their own presence not
being recognised, struck up the regimental onset. This alarmed the
Germans, who thought they were being attacked from a fresh quarter, and
materially contributed to the success of the operation.
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