Bagpipes have been an essential part of the Scottish military since at least the 1700s.
In the early years, the role of bagpiper was not an official post. For the most part he was paid for, and part of, the personal staff of the commanding officer. As the years went by, the role of bagpiper became more established, and official. By the time of World War I, almost every Highland and Lowland Battalion, as well as several overseas Commonwealth Battalions had bands and bagpipers in the ranks.
World War I was the last conflict where pipers played, officially, on the front lines. This was the first war with “modern” weapons and tactics and it took a massive toll on the pipers and all the men who fought. The nature of trench warfare, where men had to climb the walls and charge across a no-man’s land through a wall a bullets and bombs, showcased the extreme heroism of many of the pipers.
Bagpipers were seen as a valuable, and limited, resource by the commanding officers. Throughout the war, they were placed in roles that would normally keep them from the front lines. Bagpipers learned the importance of their role in leading men on the attack and considered it an honor. There are stories from the trenches of pipers drawing straws to choose who would lead the men over the top because all the pipers wanted to do it.
There were over 2,500 bagpipers serving in the war. More than 500 of them were killed and 600 wounded during the course of the war. Each UK battalion, and regiment, had a set number of pipers on the roles, although there were almost always many more unofficial pipers. Each regiment was authorized to have one Sergeant Piper (Pipe Major) and five Pipers. All the pipers were volunteers and received an extra penny a day in their pay.
Bagpipers served in the ranks and performed in the band when they could. They acted as part of machine gun units, and as bombers, runners, stretcher bearers, and in many other roles. As stretcher bearers and runners, many pipers were killed or wounded doing these non-combat rolls. As an example, the 9th Battalion Black Watch lost almost all their pipers at Loos. They were killed while carrying the wounded from the front lines.
The bagpipes were first played during the war, probably, in France in August of 1914. They are said to have played for the 2nd Battalion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders as they landed and came ashore at Boulonge-sur-Mer.
The first bagpipers to play a unit into battle were the Pipes and Drums of the 1st Battalion Black Watch. On January 25th, 1915 the Black Watch attacked German lines during a month-long battle over railroad depots in France. The Pipers played for members of the 1st Bn as they unsuccessfully advanced through deep mud and suffered heavy casualties.
The first successful use of bagpipes during the war was in March of 1915. The 6th Battalion Gordon Highlanders were called up to support a faltering allied advance on the stronghold of Moulin du Pietre. The 6th Bn advanced on the stronghold, with the Pipes and Drums in the lead. The pipes were credited with inspiring the men to capture Moulin du Pietre and advance well beyond the objective.
Over the course of the war, other bagpipers performed many acts of heroism. In Ypres, when poison gas was first used against the allies, two pipers inspired the men to hold the line. These two pipers were acting as stretcher bearers. During the attack they took off their gas masks, picked up their bagpipes and started to play. They advanced into the cloud of gas and played until the gas took its toll.
A 42-year-old bagpiper from 6th Battalion Kings Own Scottish Borderers came out of the trenches to inspire an advance that was stalled by uncut barbed wire. He played while exposed to machine gun fire and in heavy gas. He died the following day.
Another Piper from the Kings Own Scottish Borderers who was wounded and unable to play carried men from the front lines during the battle of Loos. He spent 36 hours bringing gassed men in until he was further wounded.
Bagpipers received some of the highest awards that could given to soldiers during the war. A bagpiper was not eligible for an award unless they had volunteered to lead a company over the top at least twice. Piper Danial Laidlaw, Sergeant George Fredrick, and Piper James Richardson all won the Victoria Cross, the highest battle honor in the Commonwealth Armies for acts of extreme heroism during the war.
The value of bagpipers during the war can be summed up best in one quote. Lieutenant-Colonel Cyrus Wesley Peck, who also won the Victoria Cross during the war, said
"I believe the purpose of war is to win victories... 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."