Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Pipe Major William Lawrie and the unarmed Pipers of the Trenches



This year marks, and as we all know from the press, the television and even every given opportunity taken by politicians today to enhance their own position by association with the 100 year anniversary of the First World War, a war that was fought by the armies of the British and French Empires against the German Empire.

By all accounts there has been much on the television already, mostly in documentary form and interestingly screened by the BBC a propagator outlet for the government and establishment, this of course is a view that I hold and may not be shared by others that I do understand, however, for me the only thing that is worth remembering and the lesson learnt is that all wars are futile and humanities worse side is the indiscriminate slaughter of others that still continues around the world today.

I don’t possess a receptacle, have or care to make a space for a television set in my modest East London flat, from past experience I found it to be a weapon of mass distraction, but I must confess that on occasions I do watch Eastends or anything that takes my interest and by way of the iPlyer, and so it was this last week just gone, when my cousin on facebook alerted me and others to a documentary program to be shown on BBC 2 (‘Pipers of the Trenches’) in regard to the Great War and the prominent part that was played by the Scottish Piper in that horrendous conflict. The war that 'would be over by Christmas', indeed, as we now know it became  an extremely bloody war that engulfed Europe from 1914 to 1918, with huge losses of life and little ground lost or won. Fought mostly by soldiers in trenches, the war that saw an estimated 10 million military deaths and another 20 million wounded.

We should remember that the commonwealth contribution came from: One and a half million volunteers from India came forward, men from the West Indies won 81 medals for bravery, whilst 49 were mentioned in despatches, 55,000 men from Africa fought for the British during the war and hundreds of thousands of others carried out the vital roles of carriers or auxiliaries. They came from Nigeria, the Gambia, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), South Africa, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Nyasaland (now Malawi), Kenya and the Gold Coast (now Ghana). It is estimated that 10,000 Africans were killed. African troops were awarded 166 decorations for bravery.

There were close to 80 British Dominions that fought in the First World War. Many soldiers were from undivided India (which today comprises of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka), Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Nepal and various different parts of Africa with a sizeable army from the Caribbean recruited into the British West Indies Regiment taking part on the Western Front and in the Middle East. Over 1,000,000 men from ethnic minorities served in the First World War.

Now with that said, it is my own opinion, that there was none the braver than the Scottish soldier, always ready to face and endure danger or pain; showing real courage, and: "a brave soldier" is indeed the history of the highland warrior, forgive me if you would, but I have to be biased considering my upbringing with an old Scottish family and with (I have very mixed feelings about this) a long history of soldering and involvement in most if not all the wars whilst part of the union with England (and I’m a supporter of Scottish independence). My late grandfather found himself on the beaches of Dunkirk. The Battle of Dunkirk was an important battle in the Second World War between the Allies and Germany. I am extremely proud that my grandfather was part of the British Expeditionary Force who were bottled up in a corridor to the sea, then The War Office made the decision to evacuate British forces and amazingly they did it in nine days, 338,226 men escaped, including 139,997 French, Polish, and Belgian troops, together with a small number of Dutch soldiers, aboard 861 vessels (of which 243 were sunk during the operation). British Fighter Command lost 106 aircraft dogfighting over Dunkirk, and the Luftwaffe lost about 135 – some of which were shot down by the French Navy and the Royal Navy. The rest as they say is history, but I’m glad that my grandfather was able to make it back or I and many of this grandchildren would never have been able to have had the real pleasure of knowing him, and of course his 11 children would have suffered the most if anything had happened to him, so thank the Lord above he made it home in 1940.

My grandfather was a renowned and well respected piper of Scottish music played on the historic and very ancient instrument known the world over as the bagpipes, in fact my family has been involved with the playing and promotion of the instrument for hundreds of years stretching back in time and history, a real part of Scottish history that continues today being passed down from one generation to the next.

So I hope that the reader of this post now gets a little of the background of what I’m about to express next in words and about a real hero, and I am so proud to say a member of my own family, who was possibly one of the greatest pipers of all time, who not only fought and lost (sadly) his life in the Battle of the Somme, dying from an infection that he caught in the disease infested trenches, he died by the way in a military hospital back in England in 1916,  this great man wrote and composed the famous pipe tune and I must say, one of the most celebrated and loved pieces of Scottish (world famous) music, ‘The Battle of the Somme.’

There were well over one million casualties on both sides at the Somme, and yet out of this unimaginable terror, a young Scottish bagpiper called William Lawrie composed and in the trenches of all places this magnificent masterpiece of fine Scottish music which every piper in the world knows, and every generation, will know for evermore, for the rest of time, until the end of time.

The Somme was fought by the armies of the British and French against the German army. It took place between 1 July and 18 November 1916 on both sides of the River Somme in France. The battle was one of the largest of World War I, in which more than 1,000,000 men were wounded or killed, making it one of humanity's bloodiest battles.

William a native of Ballachulish, Argyll, (The name Ballachulish (from Scottish Gaelic, Baile a' Chaolais means "the Village by the Narrows") he was first taught by his father, but later by John MacColl, In 1910 he became only the second piper ever to win the Gold Medals at both Oban and Inverness games in the same year, and he added Clasp to his Inverness Gold Medal the following year. He won the marches and the strathspeys and reels at Inverness on the same day. But his prime legacy is as a composer. His small 20 tunes – but powerful. His distinctive gift for melody and structure gave the best tunes in the art form: the marches John MacDonald of Glencoe, The Pap of Glencoe, The Braes of Brecklet and Mrs. H. L. MacDonald of Dunach, the strathspey Inveraray Castle, the 4/4 march The 8th Argylls and the 9/8 retreat march and of course The Battle of the Somme, to name a few. These tunes are stunning achievements for a man who, it could be argued, was still short of his prime.

Now I know that some of the above technical stuff will be beyond the reader as it is indeed me, as I never got the hang of the pipes like my brother did, oh well, my talents must have laid always somewhere else, in the class war says he laughingly.

William was one of the first amongst his peers to hear and answer the call of King and country, and I can just imagine young men joining up in what would have been from a very small village and community, many would otherwise have been destine to live out their lives in the village and surrounding area, and then came along the war with the opportunity to venture a far, after all they were told it would be over by Christmas so why not, so William In 1914 became the Pipe Major of the 8th Argyllshire Battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders – the 8th Argylls – and accompanied them to France in 1915. But as I have already said in 1916 he became ill while in the trenches, was invalided home, and died in a military hospital on November 28 of that year.

Until the the showing of this excellent documentary I knew very little about William, he may have been spoken about but I never really took any notice or was just too young to understand who and what he did for both his music and his country, and now it becomes clear, he was a real hero, and so were all the pipers on the front line, they were expected to play the pipes when the call was made to rise out of the trenches and attack the enemy lines, unarmed only with a set of bagpipes leading from the front their comrades the men into battle, and out of 2,500 pipers half were killed, how about that then?

This year, I have already done (wrote) quite a lot of posts already on the great war and of course from an anti-war position, I have always been and remain totally opposed to war in all its many forms and will continue to do so for the rest of my life, this has at times found some indifference and disagreement (but I view it as friendly) with members of my own family which is sad. The truth is I respect what others have done, the decisions they have made in their own lives when it comes to taking up arms and going off to war. I understand what Williams generation did and why they did it, they may have been misinformed by the press, the government and the terrible British ruling class propaganda of them times, the white feathers and all of that horrid stuff, but still I can feel pride in the sacrifice they made, for really they were doing it and did it for all the things they loved the most and left behind at home, and for the great many never to return, in fact lets get this into perspective “ the missing” dead from the First World War are still being found almost 100 years since the guns fell silent in 1918.. But you know, I think and believe that the late Harry Patch who was known as Britain's last fighting Tommy, got it right when he said the following:

“I felt then, as I feel now, that the politicians who took us to war should have been given the ‘guns’ and told to settle their differences themselves, instead of organizing nothing better than legalised murder.”   

Now in bringing this post to an end, there is just one or two things that I would like to say, on 4 August the date which marks 100 years since Britain entered the First World War a Candlelit vigil (in an echo of the remark by Foreign Secretary Viscount Edward Grey, who said on the outbreak of war: 'The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our time') will be held around the country in an act of remembrance for the fallen and I would like to urge everyone whatever views are held, to put them to one side and at 10pm to turn all the lights off at home and to light a Candle and allow it to burn for one hour until 11pm as a solemn act of understanding and remembrance passed between us and them who gave up so much.

And finally I would like to dedicate this post to all my family, who I love with all my heart despite all our differences over the years and to my very good friend and comrade Mark Wright who has impressed me so much over the last few years, stay strong Mark and play your part and make the world a better place for all.

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