Fullbore Friday

piper down...but not out

Does this guy look badass enough for you?

You have no idea
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In the summer of 1897 tribesmen of the North-western frontier of India (now a part of Pakistan) began attacking and intimidating British forces in the area. The Indian Government decided that the unprovoked attacks by the Afridis and the Orakzais tribesmen could not go unpunished and decided that a show of force in Tirah, the tribe’s summer home, was appropriate. Accordingly, Sir William Lockhart was ordered out from Britain and appointed to command a force of 32,882 officers and soldiers. The intention was to advance into the Chagru valley on 20 October but the Alikhel tribesmen had seen the preparation of a mountain road by the army working parties.

They anticipated the route to be taken by the army and occupied the village of Dargai and the Narik spur. This formed the western boundary of the valley and completely dominated the road along which the Expeditionary Force was to descend. It was therefore necessary to dislodge the tribesmen from their position. The water supply of Dargai was some distance away from the village and General Palmer saw that adjacent heights would have to be taken if it were to be reached. The tribesmen were not expected back and the order to retire was given. Two companies of the Gordon Highlanders were left to hold the tribesmen in check till the other regiments had taken up a new position. First one company was ordered to retire and then the other. Only half of the last company remained when the enemy appeared behind them from over a hill only thirty yards away. The Gordon Highlanders promptly formed up as the enemy fired and rushed them thinking them defeated. The men stood their ground and killed six of the tribesmen only yards from them. The other tribesmen turned and ran.

General Kempster’s brigade was ordered to storm the Heights and the 1st Division was strengthened by the 2nd Derbyshires and the 3rd Sikhs. They were to be supported by three batteries with another on Samana Sukh if required. The Gurkhas, Dorsets and Derbys all suffered terrible casualties and were met by such intense fire, from only 200 yards away, that those who were not cut down in the charge could do no more than hold onto the position they had reached. Over 100 men lay dead and wounded. The tribesmen rejoiced, waving their standards and beating their drums as victory seemed assured. General Kempster ordered the Gordon Highlanders to the front. The Gordon Highlanders advanced. The dead and wounded of the other regiments were brought back. On getting to the spot reached by the Derbys and Dorsets, the Gordons lay under cover for three minutes as the guns again concentrated their fire on the summit.

The moment came to advance. The Pipe-Major of the Gordon Highlanders was superintending the bringing up of the reserve ammunition when the order to advance came through and he was still doing so when the order to charge was given. Lance-Corporal Piper Milne was the next most senior piper and he led Pipers Findlater, Fraser, Wills, and Kidd into action. In his despatch to the Adjutant-General in India on 9 December 1897, Sir William Lockhart recalled that, "The Gordon Highlanders went straight up the hill without check or hesitation. Headed by their pipers, and led by Lieut-Colonel Mathias, CB, with Major Macbean on his right and Lieutenant A F Gordon on his left, this splendid battalion marched across the open. It dashed through a murderous fire…" As the Gordon Highlanders burst into the field of fire Major Macbean fell almost immediately, shot through the thigh. He dragged himself to the shelter of a boulder and cheered on his men as they passed. A bullet hit Piper Milne in the chest and he fell, unable to continue. Three-quarters of the way across the exposed strip of land Piper Findlater was shot in the ankles. He fell and, leaning against a rock, continued to play his pipes as blood ran from his wounds, dying his kilt red. Of the five pipers who led the charge only Piper Kidd made it to the Heights.

The first division reached the sheltering rocks and paused for breath. As their numbers increased to 400 they started again up the precipitous path to the crest of the hill. Reaching the top they rushed along the succession of ridges as the tribesmen took flight. The position was won at 3.15pm. The Gordon Highlanders gave three cheers for Colonel Mathias. As he came over the last ascent the Colonel had rather breathlessly commented to a colour-sergeant, "Stiff climb, eh, Mackie? Not quite - so young - as I was - you know." With a friendly slap on his commanding officer’s back the sergeant replied, "Never mind, sir! Ye’re ga’un vara strong for an auld man!" Major-General Yeatman-Biggs reported favourably on several Gordon Highlanders. "Major F Macbean, who was the first to spring out of cover and lead his company to the attack... Piper Findlater, who after being shot through both feet and unable to stand, sat up under heavy fire playing the regimental march to encourage the charge... Private Lawson, who carried Lieutenant Dingwall, when wounded and unable to move, out of a heavy fire, and subsequently returned and brought in Private Macmillan, being himself wounded in two places in so doing... I recommend Piper Findlater and Private Lawson for the Victoria Cross."

Later, Findlater wrote, "I remember the Colonel addressing the regiment, telling them what they were expected to do. I remember again the order for the regiment to attack, and the order "Pipers to the front". I am told that the ‘Cock of the North’ was the tune ordered to be played, but I didn’t hear the order, and using my own judgement I thought that the charge would be better led by a quick strathspey, so I struck up ‘The Haughs o’ Cromdale’. The ‘Cock o’ the North’ is more of a march tune and the effort we had to make was a rush and a charge. The battle fever had taken hold of us and we thought not of what the other was feeling. Our whole interest being centred in self. Social positions were not thought of, and officers and men went forward with eagerness shoulder to shoulder. When I got wounded the feeling was as if I had been struck heavily with a stick. I remember falling and playing on for a short time; but I was bleeding profusely and in a few minutes sickened. I am told that the time I continued playing after falling was about five minutes. After the position was won, and the wounded taken to the rear, my first thoughts on recovery were how lucky I had been in getting off so easily. It never occurred to me that I had done anything to merit reward. What I did I could not help doing. It was a very great surprise when I was told that my action had been brave, and a recommendation had been made to award me the soldier’s prize - the VC."

I don't think the FbF is fully complete unless you know what these men followed up that hill. Here's "The Haughs o' Cromdale."