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 wellwhen 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.
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 is battle music, Madame," explained the
CO. "Music of a war song of the highlandsof the £cossais. 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
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,
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
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.
* * * * *
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 nightor 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
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
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
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 himshort of using
force to herstand 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 thenthis was just before the Colonel arrivedshe 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......
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 spokelike 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
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
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
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
All along the line men were scrambling
to their feet and into the open. Gregorlach!
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......
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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