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The Iron Division

The Iron Division


The next tune in our continuing series on the Pipe Tunes of the First World War is “The Iron Division” by the great Pipe Major G.S. McLennan. This tune is also a little different from the other tunes that we have focused on. This tune does not commemorate an individual person, event, or battle. Instead, this tune is about a whole infantry division.

A division is comprised of multiple battalions, each battalion made up of various regiments. A group of divisions form an army corp. Divisions simplified the organization of an army. It also makes an army more maneuverable and flexible. During peacetime a division normally contains between 10,000 and 20,000 men. During the First World War some division contained over 30,000 men.

The 3rd Division was established in 1809 by the 1st Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley. The division was formed as part of the Anglo-Potuguese Army during the Peninsular War. They have taken part in almost every major war until today.

During the First World War, the 3rd Division was comprised of the 7th Brigade, 8th Brigade, and 9th Brigade. In October of 1915 the 7th Brigade was transferred to the 25th Division and replaced by the 76th Brigade.

At the start of the War the 3rd Division was part of the British Expeditionary Force which arrived in France around August 1914. By the 22nd of August the BEF had reached Mons. They took up a position on the left side of the French army which was heavily engaged with the Germany army near the French-Belgian border.

The 3rd Division set up defensive positions on a canal that ran through Mons. The Mons-Conde canal had an oxbow just outside on Mons that was included in the British defenses. This created a salient position that was less than ideal for defense.

On the morning of August 23, 1914, the German forces attacked the British lines. The British were able to repel the initial attack but soon the Germans regrouped and launched a second wave. The British forces were outnumbered around 3 to 1 and were forced to retreat. As the British forces pulled back the salient became more exposed. The 3rd Division was ordered to retreat at 3:00 pm.

When the British Forces were ordered to fall back, the 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders, who were in the salient, did not receive the order. Together with members of the Royal Scots and Royal Irish, they started to withdraw on their own. Having no support the 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders were surrounded. The Germans took over 700 prisoners, essentially destroying the 1st Battalion.

This started a series of battles that is now called the Great Retreat.

On 26 August, 1914, the British were again attacked by the Germans. The Battle of Le Cateau, as it is know, was the first battle of the Great Retreat. The British had fallen back to prepared defensive lines and dug in. The 3rd Battalion held the center of the line with the 5th Battalion on their right and the 4th Division on their left.

After an intense artillery battle the British Commander issued a “hold-at-all-costs” order to the men. Unfortunately the German infantry reached the British lines before the order did. Under the heavy pressure applied by the Germans the 4th and 5th Divisions began to fall back. The 3rd Division held the line, taking high casualties. The British ordered an general retreat.

By the morning of 27 August, 1914, the British forces and retreated far enough from the Germans to try and regroup. The British II Corp, which contained the 3rd Division had taken the brunt of the combat during Mons and Le Cateau, were withdrawn from combat to try and recover.

The 3rd Division took part in the First Battle of Ypres, a series of battles that took place in October and November 1914. During this battle, the 3rd Division, and all the British divisions in the battle, suffered massive losses.

After this long series of battles, where the 3rd Division repeated held the lines against strong German attacks, they earned the nickname “The Iron Division”. The 3rd Division fought on the western front and took part in most of the major battles during the course of the war.

The 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders were part of the Iron Division for the entire war. Although the Battalion was essentially destroyed during the Battle of Mons it did not disappear. The remaining members of the battalion, most from A Company, were able to rejoin the main British force during the Great Retreat.

After the Battle of Le Cateau, when the whole 3rd Division was taken off the line, the 1st Battalion was relegated to rear-echelon service. They rejoined the 3rd Division by the end of 1914 after taking in a new wave of recruits. They stayed on the Western Front for the entirety of the war.

The tune, “The Iron Division” was composed by Pipe Major George S. McLennan of the 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders. He joined in 1899, and did well, being made a Lance Corporal in 1902, Corporal in 1904, and Sergeant in 1905. He served in the Gordon Highlanders throughout his service.

The 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders were sent to France in August 1914. McLennan, however, was sent to the supply depot in Aberdeen. He was finally sent to France to join his Battalion in 1918 when Pipe Major Tom Henderson was killed. It was in 1918, when playing the men over the top, that he collapsed and had to have fluid drained from his lungs. He died on 31 May, 1929 from cancer, most likely caused by his operation to remove the fluid in his lungs.

George McLennan was a prolific composer throughout his life and is considered by many as one of Highland bagpiping's greatest. It was said that he had a small notebook that he used to write bits of tunes that came to him. in 1929, a book of his music, “Highland Bagpipe Music” was published by his son George and R.G. Hardie. The tune the “Iron Division” was included in this book.

The Iron Division

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Pipe Major George Stewart McLennan

The G.S. McLennan Experience - Part 1 (with Robert Mathieson)


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.