Tag Archives: bagpipes

The sound of pipes on the Western Front

In this guest blog, Professor Trevor Herbert (Open University) considers the role of military music both at home and on the front. Trevor Herbert will be sharing more of this research at Cheltenham Music Festival on the 6th July 2014.

By 1914 British military music had been in existence for a century and a half. The military was the largest employer of musicians in Britain and their role was unambiguous: they were the private, mess-room bands of the officer class, and they engaged with the populace and other ranks in ways that were deliberately strategic.  Public concerts and the integrated deployment of bands in military display and ceremony were so conspicuous as to have become essential. Lessons had been learned from the shambles that ensued from bad planning of state ceremony in the mid-Victorian period, and resources and training were put in place (not least the establishment in 1857 of a Royal Military School of Music) to ensure that the sight and sound of marching musicians was so impressive that they would be immediately understood as symbols, not just of the army, but the British state itself.  Put somewhat differently, the well-choreographed image of soldiers marching to step to inspiring music conveyed a potent sense of invincibility to everyone who witnessed it.

In 1914 it was necessary to deploy every propaganda device the state could muster to promote patriotism and to legitimize a conflict that few ordinary people properly understood and of which yet fewer could have predicted the grim consequences.  The heady atmosphere of the almost continuous parades that marked the departure of troops to the continent always had military bands as their soundscape, creating as they did a mist of optimistic pride, romance even, that made it all seem worthwhile.

For those left behind, military music was routinely deployed to sustain half- understood notions of a ‘virtuous war’ and engender hope through the apparently abstract but nevertheless potent meanings that music can convey. Georgina Lee, a mother with a nine-month-old child, wrote in her diary of the ‘five or six thousand’ outside Buckingham Palace on 9 August 1914, who watched as ‘these splendid fellows filed past to the strains of The British Grenadiers’.

WW1 piperIn the trenches of course, it was different. Military musicians famously act as medical auxiliaries in fields of conflict; also, and to great effect, they actually perform – not military marches, but popular and often romantic tunes, to attentive audiences whose sense of mortality could hardly have been more heightened. In 1914 it took little time for them to be rendered silent; many were killed, and there was an unrelenting need for bandsmen to carry comrades to the field hospitals. However, one sector of the military’s music was indomitable.

One soldier, resting with his battalion near Arras, wrote in his diary of Scottish troops, who were sent into battle as the advanced force, and who had retained their pipers even when other regimental bands were lost or had given away to medical duties – ‘The 51st Division had just come out and I used to hear their bagpipes in the morning.’ There are many accounts of these pipers, and several were cited for astonishing acts of bravery.  Behind the front line, on route marches and in rest camps, their piping maintained morale and raised spirits – ‘The bagpipes have a wonderful effect if you feel tired’ wrote one young lieutenant.  One wonders what the effect of this music was on those who lay on the other side of the line, equally exhausted and contemplative of loved ones far away – did it intensify their fear, or did they perhaps share something of the sustenance offered by the pipers who walked behind the British lines?

Professor Trevor Herbert

Trevor Herbert is Emeritus Professor of Music at the Open University and was the principal investigator of the AHRC-funded project ‘Military sponsorship of music in Britain in the nineteenth century and its relationship with the musical mainstream’. One of the outputs of the project, the book Music and the British military in the long nineteenth century (co-authored with Helen Barlow) is published by Oxford University Press.