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The Piper In Peace And War
Part 1 - Chapter V

The Influence of the Pipes

Before the Great War the skirl of the pipes was heard in every corner of the world, as well as on the hills and lochs of Scotland. The power of the piper to stir the emotions was recognised by tourists in the Highlands who might chance to hear the strains of the instrument borne across the water from a piper pacing the slope of a distant hill. Even the listener who failed to distinguish the melody as one known to him would often fall into Wordsworth’s mood as expressed in “The Reaper,” and experience the sensation of hearing a tale of “old, unhappy, far-off things, and battles long ago.” To the soldier fighting his country’s battles on foreign soil the appeal is vivid and direct. The breath of the piper can call forth tears or laughter, it can inspire contempt of danger, arouse the pride of race, and evoke readiness for self-sacrifice. Who that has heard it can ever forget the sound of the pipes at a soldier’s funeral?

The French people acknowledged the charm of the music dispensed by the military pipers for the delectation in the first place of the Scottish soldiers. Villagers and poilus showed everywhere the liveliest interest in the music of the pipes, and the keenest appreciation of the entertainment provided wherever “Retreat” was played. An example of this occurred at Soissons where the extreme right of the British line touched the French left. There the piper played “Retreat” when in “Rest,” and each evening he was immediately surrounded by the entire French battalion nearest to the British line, so that he had to stand instead of marching as he played. Over and over again he had to respond to the demands of his audience to have the music repeated. The piper was as amazed as he was gratified to receive encores from his foreign audience.

The French understand pipe music. They had a small form of the instrument themselves at one time, called the “Musette,” and they must have gone to battle sometimes to the strains of such an instrument, for a French piper was taken prisoner at Salamanca! But it is not for marching troops.

When the pipers of the Scots Guards were travelling through France they were astonished to find that a Maitre d’Hotel, who had asked them to repeat a certain tune, had taken the whole piece down correctly after the second rendering. Their astonishment was increased at Paris when a French gentleman handed the pipe-major a hastily-written score of a long and intricate march and strathspey immediately after hearing it once, with the request that he might be so good as look over it and say whether it had been taken down correctly; and it was. The pipers still marvel at this phenomenon.

2k curious example of the effect of pipe music on the French occurred at the siege of Pondicherry in 1793. The 72nd (now the 1st Battn. Seaforth Highlanders) “were on duty in the trenches, exposed to a burning sun and a severe cannonade from the fortress. Colonel Campbell, field officer of the trenches, sent his orderly to Lieut. Campbell of the Grenadiers, requesting that the piper of the Grenadiers might play some pibrochs. This was considered a strange request to be made at so unsuitable a time; it was, however, immediately complied with; but we were a good deal surprised to perceive that the moment the piper began, the fire from the enemy slackened, and soon after entirely ceased. The French all got upon the works and seemed more astonished at hearing the bagpipe than we with Colonel Campbell’s request” (Lieut. Campbell’s Journal, quoted in Cannon’s Historical Records of the 12nd Regiment, 1848, p. 32, footnote).

The Italians, excellent in music above all other nations, delighted in the music of the pipes, and the King and Queen of Italy on several occasions had the pipers of the 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers, the 2nd Gordon Highlanders, and the 6th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders to play to them by special request. At Bucharest the Royal Family of Roumania listened with evident delight to the pipe music of Piper Thomson of the 11th Battn. Scottish Rifles, whom they afterwards entertained to dinner.

But the pipes are not carried to entertain the foreigner. It is for their influence on our own men of the British armies that they are prized. In the confusion and depression of the retreat from Mons, when our regiments had become hopelessly mixed at one place, and were marching wearily, the units of one regiment mingled with those of another, a field officer, observing the pipe-major of the 2nd K.O.S.B. tramping along with his pipes mute under his arm, called to a battalion officer to get the piper to play. “Play up, pipe-major,” said the officer. “Sorry, sir, I can’t; my bag is too dry.” When this explanation was reported the field officer inquired: “Is it the piper or the pipe that’s too dry?”-a sarcasm which put the Borderer pipe-major on his mettle. With some difficulty he managed to get a very small supply of water from almost empty water-bottles, “soused” the bag and struck up. Only two drones responded, but the effect was magical. New life seemed to enter the exhausted and despondent ranks. They got into step and made much better progress.

British soldiers looked for pipers when going up the line or coming from the trenches. On one occasion an English battalion, worn out by a long spell in the trenches, felt unable to get back to billets; an officer then obtained the services of some pipers, and no sooner had these begun to play than the English soldiers stepped out like men inspired.

In the Scotsman of 30th July 1917, the Rev. George Dodds described a situation similar to the lady’s in Tennyson’s lyric, “Home they brought her warrior dead.” The wife of a soldier who had been severely wounded found her husband dead when she got to France. She sat stricken and tearless till the funeral party started to take the soldier to his last resting-place. In the same condition she followed him to the grave; but on the way a party of pipers, returning from the cemetery, met the procession, and, turning to pay their tribute of respect to an unknown comrade, led the way, playing “Lochaber No More.” The plaintive music stirred the dormant, stunned emotions of the young widow as nothing else could; her apathy departed, and, sobbing quietly, she took her place beside the grave.

The “brave music” of the 110 pipes and 70 drums on the Square in Arras on 25th May 1917 will never be forgotten by anyone who was there. But it does not need many pipers to produce an effect on the most unlikely of audiences. Mr Robert Blatchford when on a visit to the Front with other pressmen, felt depressed by the sadness of the scenes through which he was passing, “when we caught a whiff of sound that made us all start. 'The pipes! the pipes!’ It was a company of Highlanders on the march, the pipers at their head. I—well, I took my hat off. It was the only thing to do, and my companions did the same, and in silence and with beating hearts we moved slowly past the line. Oh the good Scots faces, grim or gay, the wild elation of the pipers!

“I could have shouted, or danced, or cried, or —anything. But being British I did nothing. But it was some thrill.”

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