Copy of blog post at 26Treasures written to accompany a visual poem to appear at the National Museum of Scotland, alongside Piper Laidlaw’s medal display.
I was a typical prepubescent boy: Commando comics, stenn gun sticks, fir cone grenades. Incongruously violent games for kids; Bang! Bang! Neeeooow! Kabooosh! There was no honour or glory in our play, no honorable mentions in dispatches, no medal ceremonies, no weeping widows. Just brutal annihilation.
Lie down! You’re dead! I got you. No you didn’t!
At secondary school, this interest manifested itself as a not well-received piece about the Crimean War, particularly the Charge of the Light Brigade. The teacher had expected a work of fiction but, being enamored by the romance and daring-do of it all, I had written a precise factual account, despite clear instruction to the contrary.
Despite an interest in the Crimea, and a concurrent knowledge of the Victoria Cross, it wasn’t until adulthood that a link was forged, finding out that these medals were first manufactured from the Russian artillery captured at Sevastopol and other Crimean battles, (and then from captured Chinese guns subsequent to the end of the First World War).
The next parallel with the honour came with a fascination of the Zulu War and Rorke’s Drift in particular. It’s a remote location a day’s drive from the place I was working in the southern Drakensberg mountains of South Africa in the mid-90s, but it was worth every bone-crunching pothole and sun-baked mile travelled to see what still holds the record for the place where the most Victoria Crosses have ever been won in a single action by one regiment.
From my enduring fascination in this highest military honour, the mature picture I was building about warfare was a very different one to my juvenile play: selfless courage in the face of adversity while surrounded by horror as your comrades are dismembered, and coming to terms with the likelihood of your own death. Violent emotions represented in this one medal. More than most: for the first time, all men were treated equal; valour holds no rank. Their value is thus priceless, despite which you can’t help think of all those ex-servicemen who have had to sell their decorations in order to supplement their pension, to be warm, to eat. The honour of a nation pawned because that nation fails to support its elders and heroes.
And most heroic must be those soldiers who don’t fight, but provide support in combat: medical corp, chaplains, buglers, pipers. Usually unarmed and risking being under fire only to help others, these men are valiant beyond comprehension. Indeed, although bagpipes have likely always accompanied the Scots into battle, the archetypal symbolism of post-Union Scottish military history, from the Jacobite uprising to Waterloo and onwards, every major Campaign involving Scottish battalions, and Hollywood depiction of Scottish soldiery, has included the obligatory piper, often accompanied by some ill-fated drummer boy destined to fall in the line of duty. The only thing possible is to recognise their valour and honour their names, regardless of rank. And that is where the Victoria Cross plays its part.
Piper George Findlater, “The Piper of Dargai”, of the 2nd Battalion Gordon Highlanders won his Victoria Cross at Dargai Heights in October 1897 for continuing to play “The Haughs o’ Cromdale’” under heavy fire even though he had been shot through both feet. Enlisting in the 9th Battalion of The Gordon Highlanders at the commencement of the First World War, he was invalided home from Loos in September 1915.
Another was William Millin, “Piper Bill”, personal piper to Simon Fraser, 15th Lord Lovat, commander of 1st Special Service Brigade, who played “Hielan’ Laddie” and “The Road to the Isles” as his comrades fell around him on Sword Beach on D-Day in June 1944. German snipers later reported that they did not shoot him because they thought he was crazy.
However, probably the most famous piper to receive the Victoria Cross is Daniel Laidlaw, “The Piper of Loos”. The first day of engagement, the 25th September 1915, was a disorganised mess: the wrong gas cylinder keys had been sent, and what gas could be released before the British infantry attacked blew into their own faces on the changeable light south-westerly wind, exacerbated by the downdraft produced by heavy german shelling. Poorly designed gas masks were discarded as a hindrance and men were overcome by the Red Star chlorine smog gathering in the trench bottoms, exactly where the men were cowering for cover. Seeing the distress and destroyed morale, the CO implored, “For God’s sake, Laidlaw, pipe them together!” Laidlaw recounted:
“On Saturday morning we got orders to raid the German trenches. At 6.30 the bugles sounded the advance and I got over the parapet with Lieutenant Young. I at once got the pipes going and the laddies gave a cheer as they started off for the enemy’s lines. As soon as they showed themselves over the trench top they began to fall fast, but they never wavered, but dashed straight on as I played the old air they all knew ‘Blue Bonnets over the Border’. I ran forward with them piping for all I knew, and just as we were getting near the German lines I was wounded by shrapnel in the left ankle and leg. I was too excited to feel the pain just then, but scrambled along as best I could. I changed my tune to ‘The Standard on the Braes o’Mar’, a grand tune for charging on. I kept on piping and piping and hobbling after the laddies until I could go no farther, and then seeing that the boys had won the position I began to get back as best I could to our own trenches.”
The shell that wounded Laidlaw had exploded only a few yards distance from him, sending up a section of barbed-wire entanglements previously cleared by his charging comrades. The wire cut off the heel of his boot and a strand lodged in his foot. The same shell blast killed Lieutenant Young.
Laidlaw was now hindered from following his troops, but continued until forced, from loss of blood, to kneel and then become prostrate, never ceasing his piping all the while.
“You see,” he said later, “I was only doing my duty.”
“Duty” seems to say it all; it is the calling that supercedes common sense, the motivation for heroism. Duty! Such a modest word. For King and Country! Sentiment almost inconsequential in our modern society obsessed with individual success and the epistemics of constant self-evaluation. To whom do we pay our duty today? Whereas, even the the last British soldier who died in action during WWI is an honorable death because his sacrifice was dutiful, “Ellison, G.E., Private, 5th (Royal Irish) Lancers … was unhappily killed only an hour and a half hour before the Armistice came into force … The path of duty was the way to glory”.
If Nelson’s flags at Trafalgar ordered that, “England expects that every man will do his duty”, then the skirl of Laidlaw’s pipes strengthened similar resolve from his Scottish ranks, and the lyrics to “The Standard On The Braes Of Mar” that Laidlaw chose are most apt,
Our prince has made a noble vow, To free his country fairly, Then wha would be a traitor now, To ane we lo’e sae dearly, We’ll go, we’ll go and seek the foe, By land or sea, wheree’er they be, Then man to man, and in the van, We’ll win or die for Charlie.
It was a very different world a 100 years ago. All that was needed by Daniel Laidlaw and his brothers in arms to imperil their lives was the unquestioned duty to the liege, and divine guidance, epitomised by the battalion’s mottos: In Veritate Religionis Confido (“I put my trust in the truth of religion”) and Nisi Dominus Frustra (“Without the Lord, everything is in vain”). Loyalty was unquestionable, but also crucial was having God on your side.
And an unwavering belief in those central tenets was gloriously rewarded with decoration. But ulterior motives existed; heroes were needed back home as much as on the Front, as propaganda to reassure the public that the nations’ sacrifices were worthwhile. It is perhaps then no coincidence that Laidlaw was among 17 recipients of the Victoria Cross at Loos. This was one of the first engagements to receive large losses of volunteering soldiers, set up as Kitchener’s Army, to supplement the fast dwindling regular troops. Suddenly, the war would have felt very real back home.
Laidlaw had re-enlisted at the start of the War, having seen action on the Indian Frontier some 17 years earlier. This made him one the most experienced, and at 40 years of age, one the oldest in his ranks. This contrasts starkly with the tragedy that often evokes most sentiment about the massive loss of life in those trenches: the stark youth of the soldiers that did die. Of the 210 fatalities to the battalion on that one day, the casualty records (kindly provided to me by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) hold the ages for only 91, ages ranging from 17 to 53, with an average age of 26 (a loathsome coincidence for this project).
When considering this task for 26 Treasures, it became increasingly obvious that a modern perspective would not be able to do justice to these men, their sense of place, their shared camaraderie. This is what the Piper of Loos represents: a lone piper gathering the genuine might of a whole battalion, and hurling it at the enemy. Advance! Side-by-side. Hold the line! But no words, especially so few as 62, could capture that obligation to duty; I am no Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon to draw from first hand witness, nor do I have the word-count and turn of phrase available to Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and so do not have a line like, “Into the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred”. Anything similar, attempted from a modern perspective, could form only a trite narrative.
Hence my solution, the symbolic use of the surnames of the men who fell on that day, when Daniel Laidlaw earned his Victoria Cross, as many as I could use within the rules and word limit, to form a different, altogether too familiar cross. I only feel guilty that I had to omit so many.
There is further poignancy here: the last veteran of the great war, Florence Beatrice Green (née Patterson, born 19 February 1901), who served in the Women’s Royal Air Force, died in February 2012, at the magnificent age of 110 years and 350 days. The significance? Simply that, with the passing of a final witness, a society without living history has an even greater responsibility to keep, protect, curate and learn from its past. Without reliance on firsthand accounts, reliability of record and memories in museums are all we have.