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The Pipes of War
The Pipes in the War, 1914-1918 - Pipe Tunes


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.

1 About 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 been selected.

At Beaumont 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 landing place."

The poor 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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