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The Pipes of War
Flesh to the Eagles. By Boyd Cable


IT was during the retreat of 1914 that a Highland regiment was quartered for a night in one of the French villages, and billetted in houses, barns, anywhere the hospitable villagers could give them room. The officers established their Mess and quarters in The Chateau," a big house on the outskirts of the village. Many of the villagers had already cleared out, but in the Chateau the officers found the mistress of the house, her daughter, and her servants, standing staunchly to their place the master of the house being, as they were told, in the French Army.

Madame spoke English fairly well, the daughter very well—when she did speak, which was seldom. She was a young and pretty girl of perhaps fifteen to sixteen years of age, fresh come from a convent school, reserved, timid and shy, in the presence of the officers almost to a point of shrinking when they spoke to her. Yet, although they could see her shiver and blanch at the sound of of the distant grumble of the guns, she supported her mother bravely and asserted stoutly that she was not afraid to stay, when the CO. and some of the other officers questioned the wisdom of the household waiting for the Germans to advance.

"Perhaps, monsieur," said Madame, "your soldiers will possible arrest the advance before the Allemands arrive at us here. And if it is not so, it is, after all, soldiers of the Allemands that will come, and they will not harm women and old men and boys who make no provocation or resistance."

Unfortunately the practices of German soldiers were not then sufficiently known to the officers to make them press their argument beyond reasonable limits, and they gave in reluctantly to Madame's reasoning. "We cannot the children and the very old to march away," she said, "and one could not go and leave them here. Me, I stay to speak with the enemy officers and see my people do nothing foolish. I cannot run away and leave them."

So they left it at that.

Madame gave them dinner that night in the dining-room, and it was after dinner that one of the regimental pipers was heard parading round and playing tune after tune. Madame and Mademoiselle were greatly interested and asked many questions.

"But there," cried Madame at one tune, "there is the music most fierce. It sound—-

"It is battle music, Madame," explained the CO. "Music of a war song of the highlands—of the úcossais. Ask Monsieur l'Adjutant for the words of the song."

So the Adjutant recited "The Macgregors' Gathering," with all the fire and ardour of a fiery Scot, and a Macgregor at that. Madame sat with brows knit, plainly struggling to follow the English words her daughter, as plainly understanding them clearly, held her breath and listened spellbound and wondering to the words. Her head lifted and her eye lit to some of the lines.

While there's leaves in the forest and Joan: oil river, Macgregor, despite them, shall flourish for ever.

But at others, delivered with fierce emphasis and dramatic fervour, she shrank back with quivering lip and pain on her face If they rob us of name and pursue us with beagles, Give their roofs to the flames, their flesh to the eagles.

When the Adjutant had finished and had sat down, looking a little shame-faced at having allowed his feelings to so carry him away, Madame and the girl spoke rapidly in French for a minute.

Then Madame shook her head. "But no," she said, "I do not like it, this song. It is cruel, cruel. How says it—'The roof to the burning, and the bodies, the dead, the flesh, to the birds of prey. But no, that is the war of savage."

The C.O tried to explain to her, while the Adjutant did so even more eagerly to the girl, that it was war of the most savage and relentless kind that ran in those far back days in the Highlands of Scotland but again Madame protested. 'It is too cru-el. I do not like it that you make such song and such music now. War, it is no more so. What is it your song says of the burning of la snaison ? " She made the Adjutant repeat the lines and repeated after him, "Ah, msieu, Give their roof to the flames, their flesh to the eagles.' That is, burn the shelter of the women and children, and leave the dead unbury. You would not do that even the Boche that we despise would not do this thing. It is cruel, cruel."

Mademoiselle said nothing, but they could all see the shrinking in her eyes as she looked at them, the wonder if, even now, the cossais could be so savage as to make such war. The Adjutant set himself to remove such an idea of their barbarity from her mind, and with some success apparently, since there was little shrinking and no more than a faint blush of timid friendship when they said good-night and retired.

Next morning the orders came, sharp, urgent and imperative, to move at once, and there was little time for farewells. But Madame and the girl were both out to see them off and watch the battalion tramp by. The pipes at their head were screaming their vengeful music, " Give their roof to the flames, their flesh to the eagles," until the Adjutant, seeing the protesting motion of Madame's hands to her ears, hurried to the pipers and asked them to change the tune.

* * * * *

After the ebb of our retreat and the period of the Marne, came the full flood-tide of our advance, and the sweeping forward of the French and British over the ground the Germans had taken and held a space. As the luck had it the same Highland battalion came back through the same village where they had billetted that night—or rather to the shell, the wreckage, the remains of the same village. The men by now were coming to know what sort of treatment had been served out to the conquered country by the Germans, and were angry enough at some of the sights they had seen, the tales they had heard. But the anger had been cold and impersonal until now, when they came swinging in to this friendly spot, through the shattered houses and streets littered with broken bottles and household goods, saw the gaping windows to the houses, the smoke-blackened shells here and there, the signs of pillage and wanton destruction everywhere. The cavalry and an advance guard regiment had been through before them, but it was plain that no fighting had taken place here, that no shell-fire had wrought this damage, that cold-blooded "frightfulness " alone had to answer for it. They were roused to fresh wrath by what they saw, but to a still greater pitch of fury by the tales they heard from the quaking villagers who were left, or who came creeping in from the fields and ditches to which they had fled on word of approaching soldiers. The sights were no more than the men had been seeing in any of a dozen villages passed, the tales no more than they had heard a score of times in the past few days ; but in this village they had been made welcome, had been treated to the best, had made quick but happy friendships; and they felt a personal injury and pity for the brutally treated villagers.

The battalion halted there for an hour or so and ate their midday meal— or rather gave it to the hungry women and children and watched them eat —and heard fresh and more horrible tales and half-tales that were too bestial to be told in full.

The moment the battalion had fallen out and he was free, the Adjutant had asked the Colonel if he might go to the Chateau and make enquiries.

But when he and another officer came there they found none to make enquiries of. The house still stood, intact so far as the building itself went, but otherwise no more than a litter of rubbish and wreckage. Every stick of furniture that would break was broken, every crock and dish and bottle was scattered in splinters over the floors, every curtain, blanket and sheet, every item of bed and table linen, every piece of clothing was torn, dirtied, and defiled as completely as men and beasts could do it; every shelf and door and balustrade and fitting was hacked and broken and wrenched out of place; every room on the ground floor had been used as horses' stables and left as foul as a stable could be; every upper room was so befouled that, by comparison, the places of the animals below was the cleaner.The two officers hunted through the house, outside and round the outbuildings, and found no one; and, nauseated by what they had seen and heart-sick at thought of the women who had been there, returned to the village. As they entered it again they heard pipe music softly played, and seeing down a bye-street a cluster of their men, and hearing the sound of a woman's voice raised loud above the pipe music, they turned off and pushed in to see what was afoot.

They found a woman in the centre of a close-pressing ring of their men, a woman wild-eyed, with grey hair in disorder, with black and blue bruises on her face, with her clothing torn and grimed with dirt.

"Good God! "exclaimed the Adjutant. "Madame!"

He thrust a way through the men to her, but when he spoke to her and asked her to come with him, she clutched and held his wrist, and stood there and made him—short of using force to her—stand and listen with the men. A dozen tunes he tried to interrupt, but she would not be interrupted, so at last he left her to go on with her tale and asked the other officer to go and bring the CO.

But before the C.O. came, he, like the men, was under the spell of the woman and of her tale, was listening, like them, with his heart turning cold and a deadly bitter anger rising in his heart. She spoke to them in English, breaking off at times into voluble torrents of French, checking herself and going back and repeating as best she could in English again. But although French words and phrases and sentences were mixed through her English, the tale was horribly plain and clear, the stories detailed and circumstantial enough to make it evident they were desperately true.

She told of women, girls, girl-children, outraged, and afterwards, in some cases, mutilated and bayoneted; she told of old men and boys haled out and stood against a wall and shot while their women were made to stand and look on; of one woman who refused to make coffee for the Germans until they dipped the head of her infant in a pan of boiling water ; of another woman who was crucified, pinned to the door with bayonets while the arm of her child was broken and its body was flung down on the ground before her and left there writhing . . all this and more she told, and helped her story out with rapid gesticulations and imitative motions and sounds of the child squirming and whining and the helpless mother wrenching at the pinning bayonets, while the men pressed in, glowering and cursing under breath, and behind them the pipe music skirled and wailed roofs to the flames, and their flesh to the eagles."

And then, lastly, she told them of herself and her daughter, the girl of fifteen, fresh from a convent school, timid as a child and shrinking from the look, much less the touch of a man . . and of what they had done to her, while they held her daughter and made her watch; and then had done to the daughter, while she in turn was held to see and not allowed to look away or even close her ears to the cries. She told it all, sparing herself and her child no word and no item of their shame ; and then—this was just before the Colonel arrived—she paused and looked round at the ring of savage faces about her, and lifted her two hands and shook them above her head.

"I am French, and you are Anglais," she cried, "but I am woman and you are men. I have told you, so that you may know the animals you fight. I have asked your music-man will he play this song you have, that with the music I say it to you Give their roofs to the flames, their flesh to the eagles.' And if ever you have Germans soldat at your mercy, and they cry for pity, remember this village, and its women and my daughter, and me. Give us revanche . . . their flesh to the eagles......

The Colonel broke in here, and, finding she was not to be stopped, turned and ordered the men away, and when they had gone, handed Madame over to some of the village women who watched timidly from their doors. Madame had told nothing but truth they assured him. Mademoiselle? Ah, rna'm'zelle could not be seen ; she hid in a cellar and screamed like one mad if any entered or spoke—like mad did one say, but truly she was mad; and Madame scarcely less mad.'

They had one more glimpse of Madame as they marched out, a glimpse of her standing in a door and waving and calling something to the pipers as they came past. They knew or guessed what she wanted and the tune they were playing swung abruptly into " The Gathering," and the battalion tramped past the woman to the vengeful skid of . . flesh to the eagles."

Affairs had not gone well with the battalion, or what was left of it, through the battle. They had been ordered to advance and take a certain position in what was supposed to be the flank, had forced their way forward over the open under a scourging shell-fire, had suffered heavy losses, and at last gained the point from which they were to make the final attacking rush. But now that they were here it seemed impossible for men to go further and live. A stretch of open still lay before them, and this was swept with a tornado of rifle and machine-gun fire. What was supposed to be a flank of the enemy had become a frontal position, strongly held and evidently meant to be bitterly defended. it was vital to the success of the day that it should be taken, for various tactical reasons we need not touch here. The Colonel had passed the word through his officers and N.C.O. 's of what they were needed to do, and, briefly, why and how much depended on them.

The moment came.

A battalion on their left surged out and went plunging across the open, the high-explosive shells bursting and flinging fountains of spouting black earth and smoke amongst them, the ground puffing and dust-spurting under the hailing bullets. The Highlanders were supposed to wait until this other battalion had gained a certain line before they, the Highlanders, attacked so they lay in their ditch, watching the line struggle forward and the men falling in swathes under the pouring fire, watched it stop at last and drop flat and then begin to break back to cover, it was no time to wait longer, and the Colonel, making up his mind swiftly, launched his attack. It was met by a devastating storm of fire, even heavier and more deadly than the one they had watched. The battalion, barely clear of their cover, wilted under the storm, hesitated, stopped, and began to fire back at the enemy they could not see. Those of the men who stood firing were cut down quickly, the others dropped prone or jumped into shell-holes or such cover as they could find. The officers did their best, jumping up and running forward and calling on their men to follow. But few of them ran more than a score of paces before bullet or shell fragment found them, and they fell ; such men as rose and tried to follow only followed them into the next world. The air was alive and trembling to the whistle and whine and hiss of bullets, their snap and smack and crack, and to the quick following crash on crash of the earth shaking shell-bursts.

Again some of the officers tried to rally and start the line forward but, by now, so great was the noise, so dense the air with smoke and dust, so chaotic and confused the whole business, that the officers' attempts resulted in no more than spasmodic and isolated movements of little groups, movements that were worse than useless, because each could be dealt with in detail, and, one after another, the sweeping machine-guns sluicing bullets on each and cutting them to pieces in turn. Those that made these separate attempts were mostly cut down those that watched their failure were more convinced than ever that the whole was useless.

The Colonel, too, saw that it was useless and vain slaughter unless by some desperate chance the line should move together . . and even now it was perhaps too late, because the battalion on the left, lying in the open and scourged with fire, was giving way solidly and struggling back to cover.

It was a crisis in the battle, and where in the crisis many brave men had failed, one brave man tried and won. From somewhere down the line high over the roar of the battle there rose a wailing skirl of the pipes. There was no note of the music that was not familiar to every man there, that they did not know each word to fit to it. The pipes might have been crying the very words aloud to them instead of the music

"Thro' the depths of Loch Katrine the steed shall career,
O'er the peaks o' Ben Loiuond the galley shall steer,
And the rocks of Craig Royston like icicles melt
Ere our wrongs be forgot, crc our vengeance unfelt."

It was the voice of their own Highlands, their own clansmen, their own regiment, that was calling to those crouching men in the ditch. They stirred, lifting their heads and looking for the piper. They could not see him, but the pipes shrilled on

"Then gather, gather, gather....."

The men knew what was coming. " Gather " sang the pipes, and, when they were ready gathered, the word or the sign would surely come. The music was rousing them to other memories beyond their Scotland and their name and fame in the highlands. " Landless, landless, landless," cried the pipes, and the men remembered those women back in the village, house less and homeless, tortured and shamed past telling, remembered too a woman's final word, " But we are women and you are men."

Along the line the wild and useless lire was steadying and dying away they could see now that this was no time for shooting, but for the cold steel. The Colonel saw and felt that the moment had come, rose crouching to his knees, made ready to leap out and forward. lie, too, had been looking for the piper without seeing sign of him. But now, just as lie rose,—' Hulloo, Halloo . . Gregoilach!" skirled the pipes, and down the line a figure leaped from cover into full view, halted, marked time for a few steps to the beat of the music, moved steadily forward, the kilt swaying, shoulders and pipe drones swinging, streamers fluttering, and the pipes screaming their hardest.

All along the line men were scrambling to their feet and into the open. Gregorlach!

The Colonel was out and running forward, time line was up and away-

"Hulloo, Gregorlach! " and the pipe streamers still fluttering and dancing ahead of the solid rushing wave of kilt and khaki and glinting steel. "Give their roofs to time flames......

In that rush many fell and died; but at the end of it so did many Germans. For this time no bullet storm could stay the charge, the position was reached and taken, and the cold steel came to its own again--came to its own and drove home the meaning of the music that alone had brought it there—"Their flesh . . . to the eagles."


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