THE history of the bagpipes as a
military institution is a long and honourable one, inseparable from that
of Scottish troops, Highland and Lowland, wherever they have fought, for
centuries past. The strains of piob mhor have been heard all over those
bloody European battlefields on which Scottish soldiers of fortune
died—too often for lost causes—from the time when Buchan's force joined
the Lilies of France in 1422, throughout the Hundred Years' War, in the
Low Countries, in Germany, in Austria; and they have handed on a
tradition which has been lived up to in the later days of the regular
Scottish units of the British Army.
But memories are short; and, in the army as
elsewhere, the passion for reform before the greatest war of all was
threatening many old-established institutions whose utility was not
so it came about that to many observers, indeed to a considerable
section of military opinion, it appeared likely that along with the
kilt, the use of tartan, bonnet, doublet and other special features of
the dress of Scottish regiments, the bagpipe must be regarded as a
picturesque anachronism destined to disappear as the conditions of war
changed and as the yearning of high military authorities for a deadly
khaki uniformity of clothing and equipment became more insistent.
"Why," it has often been said, "should Scottish
units find it necessary, either in peace or on active service to retain
an obsolete musical instrument of their own ? In days past, before the
rifle had revolutionised tactics, when shooting was erratic at 100
yards' range, there might have been something to say for an instrument
which experience showed to be capable of stimulating men at the
psychological moment when effort was failing; but is it reasonable to
expect that the educated twentieth century soldier will prove to be
responsive to any such stimulus—even if it were possible, under modern
conditions of rifle and shell fire, to provide it.
The reply to such a line of argument is clear
enough and its truth has been demonstrated in every action in which
Scottish troops have taken part during the war.
The strength of an army depends, to an
incalculable degree, on the strength not only of individual regimental
esprit de corps, but of the national sentiment of its units. The
retention of time-honoured territorial titles in the New Armies, instead
of a soulless numbering of units, was itself due to a recognition by the
authorities of the principle that the individual soldier is a better
fighting man when lie feels that he has to live up to an ancient and
brilliant regimental record. The Rifleman, even in peace, would never
voluntarily be transferred to a "red" regiment, nor does a 10th Hussar
yearn for the cuirass of the Life Guardsman. When a man joins a
regiment, voluntarily or compulsorily, he adopts for the whole period of
his military service the customs, the prejudices, and the traditions of
his unit, and is himself moulded by them in a manner which is as
inexplicable as it is marked.
And if regimental esprit de corps and tradition
are strong, national and territorial sentiment are stronger. In the old
army, as a result of the system of recruitment, this factor was of less
importance than in the, comparatively speaking, unmixed units of the new
army of to-day. All our military history shows that the appeal to such
national sentiment is as certain in its effects as the appeal to
regimental tradition; and this war has enormously accentuated its
agree—and military despatches confirm the view—that the rivalry of
national sentiment has proved invaluable units, whether battalions or
divisions, have literally competed for distinction for their own
nationality, and have succeeded in associating particular exploits with
themselves for ever. It may truly be said that behind the achievements
Of the 9th, 15th, 51st and 52nd and Canadian Divisions the motive
impulse was national rather than merely, regimental.
In the keeping alive of this
national sentiment in Scottish units, their distinctive dress and, still
more, the retention of the national instrument, have played an important
part ; and this applies with equal force to units composed of Scotsmen
who have left their native land permanently or temporarily.
Throughout the war these units have more than
maintained the great traditions of their past history, carrying on the
records of Scottish gallantry which have been excelled by no troops in
the world and equalled by few.
And so with the pipers.
How important a contributory cause they have been
to the success of their battalions is recognised by all alike, men and
officers—and not least by the Field Marshal Commanding in Chief. In
spite of modern conditions they have, in cases too numerous to record,
played the part which was normally theirs in the olden days of set
To many of the
men in the ranks the music of the pipes in peace time may have had no
special association other than with dances and gatherings; but whenever
the piper assumed his historic rle—so long dormant—of fighting man, the
inherited peculiarities of the Scottish soldier were aroused and the
music made an overpowering appeal to his national sentiment.
Inherited sympathy of this kind is no doubt
inexplicable—but it exists. It certainly cannot be ascribed to the
Celtic strain in invididuals, for we know that the bagpipe was in
general use for centuries all over the Lowlands —perhaps even before it
displaced the bard and the harper and became the war instrument of the
Highlands. We cannot analyse what Neil Munro describes as the tune with
the river in it, the fast river and the courageous, that kens not stop
nor tarry, that runs round rock and over fall with a good humour, yet no
mood for anything but the way before it ; we only know that it works on
some individuals and some races as no other instrument does, and we need
not try to satisfy ourselves whether this is due to the flat seventh in
the scale, or the ever-sounding drones, or the inherited memory it
The idea that the
piper would be too conspicuous an object to be employed in his proper
capacity has proved to be partly true, as indicated by the casualties
among them when playing but the same argument might be applied to any
other soldier in the ranks. Shells show no discrimination in their
To a certain
extent this objection is a sound one but it is all a matter of relative
values. Many commanding officers have expressed the opinion that at
times when on account of the all-pervading noise of the battlefield, not
a note of his music could be heard by the men nearest to him, it was the
actual presence of the piper that supplied the stimulus to the men; in
fact, it was the piper, not his instrument, that was followed.
For obvious reasons pipers are harder to replace
than the ordinary soldier, and, in trench warfare especially, most
regiments have tried to keep them in relative security but in the
records of units which follow it will be seen that, when the trouble
comes, the piper has always been to the fore, and "the tune with the
tartan of the clan in it " has been heard again as it has for centuries
From the military
point of view the bagpipe has the merit of accentuating national
sentiment at just those moments when the stimulus is most necessary, of
rousing the " our cat/u," the frenzy of battle, and of rallying men when
the ideal is liable to be lost sight of in the presence of the nerve
shattering realities of action.
In all these ways the company pipers have
justified their existence. In the discharge of a duty which may be
regarded as sentimental in the highest sense of the term, they have,
literally by hundreds, made the supreme sacrifice wherever Scottish
units have fought these men have exposed themselves, unhesitatingly,
recklessly, playing their companies to the attack in conditions which,
as regards intensity of personal risk, have never previously been
experienced. Many battalions have lost all their pipers more than once,
but, as long as reinforcements were available, there has never been any
difficulty in getting fresh men out of the ranks or from home to take
their place ; and the new men have followed the old, just as heedless,
as they played their comrades forward, knowing quite well that for many
of them the urlar of "Baile Inneraora" or "The March of the Cameron men
" might suddenly change to the taorluath of " Ch till mi mule."
The Germans at least, though they may not
recognise the tune when they hear it in the streets of Cologne,
appreciated the grim significance of piob mhor when "I hear the pibroch
sounding, sounding " followed the lifting of the barrage.
The war also has afforded many instances of
another function of the pipes in action. Charging the enemy at a foot
pace through deep mud is after all but a "crowded hour of glorious
life," which may or may not be completely or even partially successful,
and men may have to be rallied when their nerves have given out under
intolerable strain. Of this there have been several instances.
It must not, of course, be imagined that
regimental pipers, during this or any other war, have been normally
employed in playing their units to the attack; the whole condition of
modern fighting makes this impossible in the same way and for the same
reason that it has made impossible spectacular charges by battalions in
It would be a more
accurate presentment of the case to say that the military piper, qua
piper, normally exercises his functions behind the front line, in
billets and on the line of march ; and in this respect he resembles
other army musicians whose duty—according to old Army Regulations Of 300
years ago—is "to excite cheerfulness and alacrity in the souldier."
But, recognising all this, the peculiarity of the
piper is that, in open fighting, when his unit has been committed to the
attack, he often assumes the role which distinguishes him from all other
musicians, and takes his place at the head of his company.
Instances of this during the war are innumerable,
and those which are detailed below are but typical of what has occurred
in every field of operations, and in most units which possessed pipers.
And if it is impossible to say too much of the
regimental pipers of the British Army, it is equally so in the case of
those of Overseas units, notably of the Canadians. From the point of
view of the historian who wishes to demonstrate what pipers have done
during this war, no more remarkable case could be selected than that of
the 16th Canadian Scottish. The pipers of this distinguished battalion
won one V.C., one D.C.M., one Military Medal and Bar, and eight plain
Military Medals—a record which is unique. No man was put up for a
decoration unless he had played his company over the top at least twice,
and no piper was ever ordered to play in action—it was left to
volunteers, who, it was found, had to resort to the drawing of lots to
obtain the coveted privilege of playing.
The colonel of the regiment—himself a
V.C.—commenting on the casualties says: "I believe the purpose of war is
to win victories, and if one can do this better by encouraging certain
sentiments and traditions why shouldn't it be done? The heroic and
dramatic effect of a piper stoically playing his way across the ghastly
modern battlefield, altogether oblivious to danger, has an extraordinary
effect on the spirit and enterprise of his comrades. His example
inspires all those about him."
And so it comes to this : the method of employment
of the regimental piper during this war has depended largely on
opportunity—and still more on the individuality of commanding officers.
Men vary within very wide limits in the price they are prepared to pay
for attaining their object and where one man will deliberately sacrifice
a certain number of men to get a position, another will as deliberately
avoid the sacrifice, even if it costs him his objective.
As far as pipers are concerned, the decision
arrived at by commanding officers of the two schools is equally
indicative of the esteem in which they hold them.