A tale of two war pipers
23 Aug 2014 | The Vancouver Sun | GERRY BELLETT VANCOUVER SUN Both were from Vancouver. Both died in battle. Just one was honoured with a medal.
Angus Morrison died, perhaps piping his company into action, during an attack in May 1915. An almost forgotten Seaforth piper.
The pipes under the arm of the soldier in the centre of the photograph and those held by his comrade at the far right have somehow survived the 100 years since this picture of pipers and drummers of the famed Canadian Scottish battalion was taken during the First World War.
Two sets of pipes, two pipers, two stories, two tunes of glory.
Both pipers were members of Vancouver’s Seaforth Highlanders and would die on the battlefield — one to be immortalized with a Victoria Cross, the other almost forgotten.
Folksinger Stan Rogers recognized the arbitrariness of such cases in his ballad Macdonnell
On The Heights in which General Brock gets the glory for Queenston Heights while Macdonnell — his aide de camp who averted a disaster after Brock was killed — gets none.
“So you know what it is to scale the Heights and fall just short of fame
And have not one in ten thousand know your name ...” says Rogers of Macdonnell who was also killed that day fighting the Americans.
The lament could be applied to piper Angus Morrison, standing to attention on the far right of the photograph cradling his set of Glasgow- made Lawrie bagpipes while in the centre of the group stands James Clelend Richardson VC, one of the most famous pipers in Canadian and British military history.
The pipes of the soldiers, who were friends and fought with the Victoria- based Canadian Scottish, are on display — Richardson’s in the B. C. legislature, while Morrison’s shattered set are in the less regal surrounding of the Seaforth’s museum in Vancouver.
A full- sized bronze statue of Piper Richardson is on display in Chilliwack. The only known image of Piper Morrison is this faded photograph.
The deaths of both Scottishborn pipers were noted in The Pipes of War, a book published in 1920.
Morrison is said to have died piping his company into action during the attack on Festubert in May 1915.
According to Seaforth Highlanders Regiment historian Robert MacDonald, Morrison’s pipes were collected on the battlefield by the pipe major, packed into a box and given to his family who donated them to the Seaforths sometime in the 1920s. They lay forgotten for years until they were found among the regiment’s artifacts.
They are a gruesome reminder of what war is about.
The bag with its Seaforth’s tartan appears stained by blood and mud and riddled with holes. The ivory and African Blackwood chanter and drones have been shattered and it’s obvious that anyone holding those pipes must have been instantly killed. “From the pattern of the shrapnel we think he was killed by splinters from a high explosive shell that landed close to him,” said MacDonald in an interview.
However, U. S. filmmaker Ian Williams, who is making three feature- length films of pipers in Canadian and British regiments awarded the VC and who has researched the life of Richardson and Morrison, casts doubt on that version of events.
Williams, a vice- president of Paradigm Motion Picture Company based in Salt Lake City, Utah, believes Morrison died fighting with a rifle and bayonet, not playing the pipes during the attack.
“I have a copy of The Pipes of War that was owned by Major William Rae, who was a company commander of the Canadian Scottish, and he has written in the margin ‘ not true’ where it says Morrison was killed playing the pipes. Rae says Morrison was with the rifles as no pipes were carried at Festubert.”
He also points to a letter from Richardson sent months after Morrison was killed in which he says he has not yet heard of a piper playing the charge in any attack.
As for how Morrison’s pipes came to be damaged, Williams argues they could have been held in storage and hit by a shell.
But MacDonald disagrees and says it’s highly unlikely anyone would have gathered up the remnants and taken the trouble to box them and send them to Morrison’s family if they had been blown up while in the stores.
“Soldiers are great at throwing things away, especially anything damaged. Collecting those pipes is something one soldier would have done for another after a battle,” said MacDonald.
There is not much known about Morrison.
Williams believes he was born in Inverness- Shire on Nov. 1, 1882. At some point he comes to Canada, works as a logger, and enlists in the Seaforths as a volunteer. He spoke Gaelic and English.
MacDonald said there were three Angus Morrisons of the Seaforths killed attacking Festubert and it is difficult to know which was which.
However, he believes Morrison was a Metis, Scottish with Canadian aboriginal ancestry.
“From his photograph you can see he is darkcomplexioned and his features suggest an aboriginal ancestry. Scots who worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company would take wives here and most of them returned to Scotland with their families and it’s not unknown for Cree to be spoken in parts of the Highlands,” said MacDonald.
“It’s fascinating to think that someone with this background comes to Canada and joins the regiment.”
Much more is known about Richardson.
He was born Nov. 25, 1895 in Bellshill, Scotland, and came with his family to Canada in 1911 or 1912 arriving in Vancouver. He and his sister would stay in Vancouver while his father took the rest of the family to Chilliwack where by 1914 he had been appointed chief of police.
Richardson joined the Seaforths as a cadet. He and Morrison were competitors in the Highland Games held either in Vancouver or Victoria before the war.
“One year Richardson won the piping competition, the next it was Morrison. Both were wonderful pipers,” said Williams.
Morrison, older, was 31 when war was declared while Richardson was just 18.
Both were sent to Valcartier, Que., where the 16th Battalion ( Canadian Scottish) was formed with recruits from four regiments including the Seaforths. It was sent to England, joining the fighting in France in early 1915.
Morrison would last a couple of months before he was killed.
“He was perfectly ordinary and like so many others was killed in the line of duty,” said MacDonald. “The word hero is vastly overused these days. Anyone who gets out of a hole and runs or walks towards an enemy that’s firing at him is a hero and you don’t need much more of a definition than that.
“Two men doing the same job, one gets a VC and the other doesn’t? — that’s just the way it is.”
Among a cache of letters from Richardson to his family that filmmaker Williams has unearthed is one dated Aug. 20, 1915, which gives a brutal appraisal of the chances for survival of any piper playing the charge in this war.
“My dear Mother ... I haven’t heard of a piper playing in a charge yet and, if the truth be known, I don’t think there ever will be such an occurrence. Just picture a man standing full height playing the pipes, facing machine guns, rifles, bombs, shrapnel etc. How long would he last?
“The tighter you hug the ground in a charge the better for yourself and the worst for the enemy. This is not a war at all, it is ‘ scientific slaughter.’ ”
There’s no hiding his lament for an end to the way of Highland fighting,
All the more remarkable then is what happened a year later during the Battle of the Somme when Richardson pleads with his commanding officer — to the point of tears — for permission to play his pipes when the battalion attacked the heavily defended Regina Trench on Ancre Heights the following day.
This attack on Oct. 8, 1916, was met with a storm of fire and the advance faltered at the German wire which had not been cut by the artillery.
This is how the Dictionary of Canadian Biography describes what happened next:
“At this critical point with the company commander killed, casualties mounting and morale and momentum almost gone, Richardson volunteered to pipe again.
“‘ Wull I gie them wund ( wind)?’ he asked the company sergeant- major, who consented.
“For some 10 minutes, fully exposed he strode up and down outside the wire playing his pipes with the greatest coolness. The effect was instantaneous. Inspired by his splendid example, the obstacle was overcome and the position captured.” It wasn’t quite that tidy. Richardson’s incredible bravery galvanized the Canadian Scottish into ripping down the wire with bare hands and then came retribution as the Canadians — Richardson included — got into the trenches.
The battalion’s second- incommand that morning, Maj. Cyrus Peck, who would also win a VC, saw Richardson in front of the wire and described it as “one of the great deeds of the war.”
“The conditions were those of indescribable peril and terror. The lad’s whole soul was bound up in the glory of piping.”
Later, Richardson was detailed to escort a wounded soldier and some prisoners to the rear. He returned to retrieve his pipes, which he had left behind near the German trenches, despite being warned it was dangerous to do so. He was never seen again. His mud- and blood- stained pipes were found in 1917 by a British chaplain and were brought to Scotland and kept in a school as a reminder of an unknown piper. They remained unidentified for decades until they were eventually traced to Richardson and brought back to Victoria.
The piper’s remains were found in 1920 and he lies in the Adanac military cemetery on the Somme battlefield.
His friend Morrison’s remains never were found.