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The 17th Royal Scots Crossing the Somme
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The 17th Royal Scots Crossing the Somme

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The next tune in the continuing series of Tunes of the First World War is also part of the mini-series on the Battle of the Somme. The tune “The 17th Royal Scots Crossing the Somme” brings out a strange bit of British military history that seems foreign today, the bantam regiment.

At the start of the First World War, the British military had a height requirement for all their soldiers. In order to serve, a man must be at least 5ft 3in (160 cm) tall. This was not an unusual requirement at the time. In 1914, the average height of a European man was 5ft 6in (170 cm). By creating a minimum hight requirement the military was able to keep a smaller range of uniform sizes.

The hight requirement worked out well at first. So many men tried to enlist at the start of the war that they had to raise the height requirement to 5ft 6in. As the war continued the height requirement was reduced to 5ft 4in then, finally, back to 5ft 3in. While this worked out well, it did leave a large group of men unable to serve.

In parts of Great Britain short men were a asset. In the north small men dominated the coal mines and in the south short men were ideal for use in shipbuilding. These men were small but physically powerful due to the nature of their work.

The situation arose where a large group of able bodied men were unable to serve due to the height requirement. As the need for men continued, and a large group of men wanted to serve but could not, a solution was needed.

An MP from Birkenhead, Alfred Bigland, had been approached by a group of his constituents, coal miners, who wanted to serve but were too short. Bigland contacted the Secretary of War, Lord Kitchener about the issue. He received permission to create a unit for small, able-bodied men who wanted to enlist. To serve in this unit a man had to be between 5ft and 5ft 3in and have an expanded chest of at least a 34 inches.

The unit proved to be a success as 3,000 men quickly joined and formed two Birkenhead Battalions. The battalions came to be called Bantam Battalions. The name Bantam comes from a small, tough, native breed of chicken found in the town of Bantam, Indonesia. These birds were prized by sailors who would restock their ships at the Bantam seaport.

Over the course of the war 29 bantam battalions were created, with each one containing about 1,000 men.

In February of 1915, Lord Rosebery raised a Royal Scots bantam battalion made up of men from Edinburgh. The battalion was named the 17th Battalion (Rosebery) Royal Scots. The battalion completed its initial training by September 1915 and were to be sent to Egypt. At the last minute, before departing for Egypt, the Battalion was ordered to France. They arrived in February of 1916. Their first action was in the Battle of the Somme.

The Battle of the Somme lasted from 1 July 1916 to 18 November 1916. It was the bloodiest battle of the First World War, and probably the bloodiest battle ever. Over the course of 141 days over 1 million men from both sides were killed or wounded. On the first day, 1 July, over 19,000 British soldiers died.

The Battle of the Somme is made up of a series of smaller engagements across a large, 25 mile long, front. When the 17th Battalion Royal Scots arrived the served behind the lines in a support capacity. Their first action was at the Battle of Bazentin Ridge, on 14 July, 1916.

The Battle of the Somme can be considered as 3 separate phases. Phase 1, the initial assault started on 1 July and ended around 17 July 1916. Phase 2 started around 14 July and ended around 15 September 1916. Phase 3 started around 9 September and ended on 18 November 1916. The first phase was somewhat successful, in that the Allies gained territory, it failed to capture the British objectives. The second phase was an effort to expand the advances and to try and seize some of the original objectives.

The Battle of Bazentin Ridge started at 3:25 am on July 15, 1916. This battle lasted 3 days and is considered a British victory, although all the gains came on the morning of the 15th.

The 17th Battalion then took part in unsuccessful actions to capture the village of Guillemont on 19 July. They again took part in actions around Guillemont and in Faffemont to increase British success in the area. Again they faced heavy German resistance and were unable to hold the town.

The tune name, "The 17th Royal Scots Crossing the Somme" can be taken two different ways. The obvious one is the physical crossing of the Somme river. A different view can be taken. Almost every action at the  Battle of the Somme would start with the men rising from their trenches and crossing the battlefield.

Before each assault British artillery would target the Germans, to break open the trenches and cut the barb wire. Unfortunately, the British generally failed to do this during Somme. This was mainly due to the lack of high explosive shells, used to cut the wire, and the deep trenches the Germans constructed.

When the British men came over the trenches they would be met with heavy German fire, including machine guns. As they crossed the battlefield they would encounter uncut barbwire fences which would slow or stop their advance. Very few units were able to reach their objective, or as the soldiers put it, "cross the Somme."

The tune could be named after the physical act of crossing the Somme river. It is more likely that it is to commemorate the 17th Royal Scots making it across the battlefield to their objective, where so many other units failed.

“The 17th Royal Scots Crossing the Somme” was composed by Pipe Major Donald McLean of the 17th Battalion Royal Scots. It was first published in the book “Pipes of War” in 1920. P.M. McLean survived the Battle of the Somme and was later transferred to the 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders as a Lieutenant. He was killed in action in July of 1918.

17th Royal Scots Crossing the Somme

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David Lairson David has been playing the bagpipes for over 20 years. He is an instructor and soloist with the Palm Beach Pipes & Drums and a member of the U.S. Coast Guard Pipe Band. David is active in the Florida competition circuit, and when he is not practicing or playing he works as a computer technician. He currently lives in sunny South Florida.

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