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The Pipes of War
The Music of Battle. By Philip Gibbs


THROUGH all the days and the years in which I served as a war-correspondent on the Western Front, it was seldom that I did not hear, from near by or from afar, the music of the pipes. It was a sound which belonged to the great orchestra of life in the war zone, rising above the deep rumble of distant guns, travelling ahead of marching columns up the long roads to Arras or I3apaume, wailing across the shell craters of that desert which stretched for miles over the battlefields of Flanders, and coming to one's cars like elfin music through the dead woods above the Somme. Before every big battle the skirl of the pipes went with the traffic of war and guns surging forward to the fighting-lines. For in every big battle there were Scottish troops and their pipers played them on to the fields of honour, and played them out again when their ranks had been thinned by heroic sacrifice. This music had an inspiring influence not only on the Scottish troops themselves, whose spirits rose to the sound of it when, after long marching, their feet were leaden on the hard roads and their shoulders ached to the burden of their packs, but also on English troops who were in their neighbourhood, and on their way to the same battlegrounds. For though an Englishman cannot, as a rule, distinguish one tune from another— does not indeed believe that the pipes play any tune—there is something in the rhythm, in the long drawn notes, in the soul singing out of those "windbags," so lie calls them, which in some queer magic way, stirs the blood of a man, whoever he may be, and stiffens the slackening fibre of his heart, and takes Win out of the rut of his earth to some higher plane of thought, and gives him courage. It is an Englishman who writes this, but I am sure of it, for many times in dark days of war I have been taken up by the sadness and the gladness of the pipes, borne by the breeze across the fields of war.

The 15th (Scottish) Division were special friends of mine, and I remember, years ago now, how I saw them marching through Bethune on their way to the battle of Loos, where they fought their first big fight in September Of '15. Through the Grand-Place of Bethune, not yet wrecked by shellfire, they came marching with their guns. Snow was falling on the steel helmets of the men and clinging to the long hair of their goat-skin coats. It was a grim scene, and away beyond the city of Bethune there was the ceaseless thunder of bombardment over the enemy lines. But above this noise, like a heavy sea breaking against rocks, rose the music of the Scottish pipers playing their men forward. One pipe band stood in the Square, and its waves of stirring sound clashed against the gabled houses, and I remember how all our English gunners, riding with their heads bent against the storm, turned in their saddles to look at the pipers as they passed and seemed warmed a little by the spirit of that Scottish march.

The 15th Division went into battle with their pipers, while the Londoners Of the 47th had to be content with mouth-organs and sing "Who's your lady friend ? " on the way to Loos through storms of shell-fire. The ioth Gordons were the first into the village of Loos, and sonic of them went away to the Cite St. Auguste—and never came back. It was an unlucky battle and cost us dearly, but it proved the immense valour of our men, who were wonderful. The pipers played under fire and some of them were badly wounded, but there were enough left to play again when the Scots were relieved and came out, all muddy and bloody, with bandaged heads and arms, to small villages like Mazingarbe and Heuchin, where I saw Sir John French, then Commander-in-Chief, riding about on a white horse, and bending over his saddle to speak to small groups of Jocks, thanking them for their gallant deeds.

In the early battles of the Somme there were many Scottish battalions of the 3rd and 9th and 15th Divisions, fighting up by Longueval and Bazentin and Delville Wood, where they suffered heavy losses under the frightful fire of German guns. The South African Scottish were but a thin heroic remnant when they staggered out of the infernal fire of " Devil's \Vood," and the men of the 15th Division who captured Longueval left many of their comrades behind. That was one of the finest exploits of the war, and they were led forward by their pipers, who went with them into the thick of the battle. It was to the tune of "The Campbells are Coming" that the Argyll and Sutherlands went forward, and that music which I had once heard up the slopes of Stirling Castle when the King was there, was heard now with terror by the German soldiers. The pipers screamed out the Charge, the most awful music to be heard by men who have the Highlanders against them, and with fixed bayonets and hand grenades they stormed the German trenches, where there were many machine-gun emplacements, and dug-outs so strong that no shell could smash them. There was long and bloody fighting, and in Longueval village, across which the Highlanders dug a trench, the enemy put down a barrage, yard by yard, so that it was churned up by heavy shells. On that (lay of July 20, 1916, I met the Scots marching out of that place. They came across broken fields where old wire lay tangled and old trenches cut up the ground, and there was the roar of gun-fire about us. Some of our batteries were firing with terrific shocks of sound which made mule teams plunge and tremble, and struck sharply across the thunder of masses of guns firing along the whole line of battle. At the time there was a thick summer haze about, and on the ridges were the black vapours of shell bursts, and all the air was heavy with smoke. It was out of this that the Highlanders came marching. They brought their music with them, and the pipes of war were playing a Scottish love-song:

I lo' nae laddie but ane,
An' he lo'es nae lassie but me.

Their kilts were caked with mud, and stained with mud and filth, but the men were splendid, marching briskly with a fine pride in their eyes. Officers and men of other regiments watched them pass, as men who had fought grandly, so that the dirtiest of them there and the humblest of these Jocks was a fine gentlemen and worthy of Knighthood.

Many of them wore German helmets and grinned beneath them. One brawny young Scot had the cap of a German staff officer cocked over his ear. One machine-gun section brought down two German machine-guns besides their own. They were dog-tired, but they held their heads up, and the pipers who had been with them blew out their bags bravely, though hard- up for wind, and the Scottish love-song rang out across the fields—whatever its words, it was, I think, a love-song for the dear dead they had left behind them.

During the battle of Arras in April of 1917 there was always a wonderful pageant of men in that old city which had been tinder fire since October in the first year of war and was badly wounded, with many of its ancient houses utterly destroyed, but still a city with streets through which men could march, and buildings in which they could find comfortable, but unsafe billets. It was the headquarters of the battle which lasted in the fields outside by Monchy Full and by Fampoux and Roeux, Wancourt and Havinel until the end of May. Arras is a city built above deep tunnels and vaults made in the Middle Ages when the stone was quarried out of them to build the houses, and lengthened and strengthened by our own engineers and tunnellers, so that our men could live in them under the heaviest shell-lire, and march through them to the German lines. Above, in the old squares and streets, in houses still standing between gulfs of ruin, several of our Divisional generals and some of our battalion commanders established their headquarters, and when the first fierce shelling eased off—though it never ceased until the last German retreat in the autumn of 1918—the streets were always filled with a surging traffic of men and mules and guns and motor lorries. Many Scottish battalions of the 15th and 51st Divisions among others were quartered here, and on one historic day there were assembled no less than five pipe bands in full strength, who played up and down one of the Squares amidst crowds of fighting men of English and Scottish regiments. I remember one such day when the pipers of the 8/10th Gordons, commanded then by Colonel Thom, were playing in the square. The Colonel had a proud light in his eyes as the tune, "Highland Laddie," swelled up to the gables and filled the open frontages of the gutted houses. Snowflakes fell lightly on the steel hats of the Scots standing in a hollow square, and mud was splashed to the khaki aprons over their kilts as they smiled at the fine swagger of the pipe-major and the thump of the drumsticks; an old woman danced a jig to the pipes, holding her skirt above her skinny legs. She tripped up to a group of Scottish officers and spoke quick shrill words to them. "What does the old witch say?" asked a laughing Gordon. She had something particular to say. In 1870 she had heard the pipes in Arras. They were played by prisoners from South Germany, and as a young girl she had danced to them. It seemed to me a link between two strange chapters of history in the city of Arras which had been crowded with the ghosts of history since those days when Julius Caesar had his camp outside its walls on the very ground—at Etrun—where our Scottish troops had their huts.

The pipes of Scotland sounded in many villages of France and Flanders, where for all time the wail of them will come down the wind to the ears of men who hear with the spirit. They were played not only in the roads and fields, but often at night in farmhouses where highland officers had their messes, or in cottages where some battalion headquarters were established or in old houses within city walls where there was a feast or a guest night. It was my privilege to spend some of those evenings, when down the long table in a narrow room the pipers marched, solemnly standing behind the guest's chair and playing old dances and marches of Bonnie Scotland. Then the colonel would offer the pipe-major a glass of whisky, which he would raise high, toasting the health of the officers in Gaelic. After that, on many a good evening in a bad war, the tables would be cleared, and the young officers would dance an eightsome reel, with laughter and simulated passion, and shrill cries of challenge an(I triumph which stirred a stranger's soul. Or the pipers themselves would be asked to give a dance, and in stocking feet on bare boards, dance as lightly as gossamer and as nimbly as Nifinsky the Russian, though big, brawny men. In small rooms the music of the pipes was loud—too loud for any but Scottish ears—and it was hard on a French "padre" who was trying to sleep upstairs in one small cottage, with thin walls and cracks between old timbers of time ceiling, while downstairs late into the night the pipers played merrily for those who would fight in the next battle, near at hand. The effect of such pipe-music within four walls was prodigious on a French officer whom 1 took one night to the mess of the 8/10th Gordons. The full pipe-band marched in as usual, and saw my friend open his eyes wide and stare with amazement at this apparition. When they stood behind his chair playing lustily, so that the very glasses quaked on the table, he became very pale, and after the second "strathspey" I saw him collapse in his chair in a dead swoon. The Gordons thought this a fine tribute to their pipers. They enjoyed the incident justly though full of consideration for the French officer. He explained to me after the symptoms that overcame him. "I felt," he said, "enormous waves rolling up to me and passing over me; my heart beat wildly, and vivid colours rushed past my eyes. Then I knew no more Nothing would induce him to suffer such musical agony again.

I shall always remember one piper I saw in the ruins of the Château of Caulaincourt. How he came there, or why he stayed there, I do not know, because few of our troops were in the neighbourhood, and the place was a desert. The château had been a vast place, with high walls and terraces and out-houses, but the whole place had been hurled into ruin by the Germans on their first retreat in the spring of 1917. They had opened the family vaults and pillaged the coffins, and I remember being struck by the pathos of a little marble tablet I saw on a refuse heap, to which it had been flung. On it were the words in French, "The heart of Madame La Marquise de Caulaincourt." Poor dead heart of Madame ha Marquise ! In life it would have broken at the sight of all this ruin. But there, quite alone, on the central avalanche of stones, stood a Scottish piper playing a lament.

I heard from other officers that he was seen there later, still alone, and still playing his pipes, but why we could not tell.

The last time I heard the pipes was at the end of the war. They were playing Scottish troops over a bridge across the Rhine, at Cologne, and at the journeys' end of all that long and tragic way through which our men had fought with heroism, through frightful fire, with dreadful losses, until victory was theirs, final and complete. Along those roads the pipes of war went playing, month after month, year after year, from one battle to another, and in their music for ever, as long as remembrance of this war lasts, there will be the tears and the tragedy and the triumph, reminding the world of all that gallant youth of Scotland which fought in France.


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