This year, as we mark the anniversary of World War One, you’ll hear many stories passed down to us by veterans of this conflict. One of my favourite war stories was told to me by World War Two veteran Gordon Hansford of Kentville, who in turn heard the story from his father, a World War One veteran. The story involves a musical instrument I favour more than any other, the bagpipe.
But first, so you will see how and why the pipes were involved in World War One, here’s a bit of history. The bagpipe was always an instrument of war. Well, not quite “always” but for a long time anyway. According to medieval records, as early as the 13th century the Scots and the Irish were being led by the pipes into battles against the British. The pipes were so successful in rousing and encouraging Irish soldiers that the British banned them in Ireland by the Statue of Kilkenny in 1366.
Despite the ban, despite the fact pipes were discouraged in Scotland (but not officially banned, as you often read) the British were always ready to recruit pipers for military units serving outside Ireland and Scotland. Pipers had become entrenched in Irish and Scottish regiments by the time World War One began and the tradition of pipers leading troops into battle was firmly established.
This piping of troops into battle not only was foolhardy but disastrous as well. Charging out of the trenches into nests of German machine guns quickly decimated the ranks of pipers. Gordon Hansford tells me that during World War One some 500 pipers of the British Empire were killed, a statistic rarely if ever quoted in war losses.
Scottish pipers from a British Regiment were with Canadian troops at Vimy Ridge; and when the battle for Vimy began two of them piped our boys over the top. Their story is an interesting aspect of World War One you never read about in history books. I’ll let Gordon Hansford tell you about them.
“My father, Cecil, served with the 25th Nova Scotia Infantry Battalion inWW1 and was wounded twice. He told me that at Vimy Ridge two pipers came up top the front line and led the Canadians into the attack. They were father and son and both were wounded, one losing a leg. They both received the military medal for bravery. The tune they played was ‘Bonnie Dundee.’
“It wasn’t until a couple of years ago, when I received the history of the 25th Battalion, that I was able to find their names. They were Walter James Telfer and his son. He was born in Scotland and immigrated to Boston, later coming to Nova Scotia to join the 25th band.”
So many pipers were killed during the war that word came down from headquarters to keep them off the front line. The pipers were then employed for the most part as stretcher bearers but even this was hazardous, as Gordon Hansford points out: “Another famous Nova Scotia unit was the 85th Nova Scotia Highlanders, who also fought at Vimy. Later, at Caix, their entire pipe band was killed or wounded while acting as stretcher bearers.”