Home Media News & Blog The Cellars of Authuille
The Cellars of Authuille

The Cellars of Authuille


Next in the series of tunes of the First World War we have the great tune, “The Cellars of Authuille,” written by the great Pipe Major William Lawrie of the 1/8th Battalion (The Argyllshire) Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. It is a bit difficult to find the inspiration for this tune, so an educated guess has to be made. When first published, the tune was titled “The Cellars of Authuille, 1915,” which gives us a hint. In 1915 the 8th battalion, part of the 51st Highland Division, was stationed on the Western Front.

It should be said at the start that due to the lack of records on many of the tunes of the First World War, the background behind these tunes is, at best, an educated guess. The history provided is essentially the proof of the guess.

The 51st Highland Division was created in 1908 as part of the new Territorial Forces. When the Territorials were mobilized in 1914 the Division was composed of the 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th Batallion Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th Battalion Gordon Highlanders, and the 4th, 5th, 6th, Battalion Seaforth, and 4th Battalion Camerons of the Seaforth and Cameron Highlanders.

The idea of the Territorial Forces was to create complete army groups that could replace line groups instead of the piecemeal rotation of battalions into existing groups. Unfortunately, the demands of the war meant that between the time the Division was activated and it was deployed several Battalions were sent to the front.

By February 1915, when the Division was moved to Southhampton for deployment several of the Battalions had been replaced. The 4th Seaforths, 6th Gordons, and 7th Argyll and Sutherand Highlanders had been replaced by the 2/4th Seaforths, 2/4th Gordons, and the 2/7th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. The 4th Camerons, 4th Gordons, and 9th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, were replaced with the 2/4th Camerons, 2/4th Gordons, and the 2/9th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.

When they arrived in France, the Battalion was divided into three infantry brigades, the 152nd, 153rd, and 154th Infantry Brigades. May, 1915 saw the Highland Division relieving the 2nd Division in Flanders. This was their first taste of the front lines, and their first experience digging trenches in the thick, waterlogged mud.

The 51st Highland Division, along with many of the Territorial Forces, had mixed success during their first time on the front. After a series of unsuccessful attacks they experienced weeks of trench warfare.

In July, 1915 the Division was sent to relieve French army groups. On July 30th and 31st they took up position on the lines from near Becourt to the river Ancre near Darnel. The French troops formed a quick bond with the Highland Troops. Pipe Major Lawrie composed two tunes during this relief for the French, “The Pipers of Bouzincourt,” and “The 8th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Farewell to the 116th De Ligne.”

As the French marched off, several members of the pipe bands from the division marched along and played for them for several miles.

From August 1915, to February 1916, the Division worked to improve the trenches and create new defensive positions. The 8th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were stationed near the town of Authuille This time also saw a great deal action in a forgotten part of the First World War, tunnel and mine warfare.

Mining during the war was used as a way to try and undermine the enemy trench systems. It was also used as a way to covertly place anti-tank and anti-personnel mines. Part of mine warfare was counter mining.

Not only were the British and French trying to undermine the German trenches, the Germans were doing the same the Allied lines. This led to, at times, the mines running into each other. Vicious hand to hand battles, usually in the dark, were fought when this happened. It was brutal warfare where the tools of tunneling were used, pick, shovel, hammer, and axes. These mining and tunneling operations were kept secret from the public until the 1950s.

The 51st Highland Division spent quite a bit of time supporting the mining operations. They, however, spent the majority of their time digging trenches. The French had built a extensive trench network with many underground rooms for storage, sleeping, and protection from artillery.

Unlike Flanders, with its high water table causing thick, heavy, mud in the trenches, this region had dry, dense, clay to deal with. While this made digging and trench maintenance easier, it made protection from shelling more difficult.

The French had built a large number of underground bunkers along the frontline trenches, they could not withstand the German shelling. New, fortified bunkers needed to be dug. Units from Engineer and Pioneer Battalions were available to help in the building but the manual labor was carried out by the men of the Highland Division.

Pipe Major William Lawrie took an active role in his battalion. He spent time in the trenches and more than likely helped in the digging and maintenance of them. He more than likely helped support the mining operations, even if it was just to help remove the spoil, which had to be done covertly.

Unfortunately, this time in the trenches took its toll on Lawrie. In 1916, he was sent back to England due to chronic illness. He most likely caught pneumonia or pleurisy in the trenches, a common condition. While in the hospital in Oxford he contracted meningitis. Pipe Major William Lawrie died on November 28, 1916.

When looking at the inspiration for this tune a couple of factors can be considered. A great deal of his time in France was spent working in the trenches near Authuille. He was also known to quickly compose a tune, sometimes essentially on the spot, with the two tunes written from the French as an example.

The “Cellars of Authuille” was most likely written during his time supporting the mining or construction of the trenches. One can easily imagine the mines or bunkers being referred to as cellars. Given that the mining was a state secret until well after his death the latter is more likely.

One other possibility can be considered. The Germans would often fortify the cellars of buildings and use them as shelters and machine gun emplacements. By the end of 1916, when the Germans controlled Authuille they did exactly this. During the following battles hard fighting took place to clear out these cellars. The 51st Highland Division rotated out the front near Authuille in early 1916. This makes to possibility of the clearing of the cellars as the inspiration remote.

“The Cellars of Authuille” is a difficult 6/8 march. It has only two parts, although the second part has two almost completely different sections. The tune has a great up and down lilt that can easily give the impression of digging. When played at a quicker tempo it seems a bit too happy to be about the clearing machine gun nests from cellars.

Honestly though, the tune could have just as well have been written about a great party or gathering held in a cellar of Authuille that Lawrie attended. While this could be the case, it is nice to romanticize the creation of the tune.

The Cellars of Authuille


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.