By Willie Bryson
Pipers around the world played at the annual Remembrance Day parades last weekend to honour the war dead. Here, one veteran piper of the Highland Light Infantry (HLI) looks back on his days before, during and after World War 2 . . .
I was born into the world of farming, and after moving house, I arrived at Kilsyth, where my mother and father asked me if I wished to join the Kilsyth Pipe Band. I was aged 11. Pipe Major R. Anderson charged six pence per week for lessons. He was succeeded by Pipe Major R. Hair. Our family moved to various local areas around Glasgow such as Stepps, Bishopbriggs and Uddingston but such was my commitment and enthusiasm to be a successful piper that I travelled from the above areas twice a week with my pipes strapped to a new bicycle I bought for £4 19/6 [$8].
After leaving school I was employed in various activities: a coal merchant’s, garages and whinstone quarrying, none of which promoted the best piping skills. When Pipe Major Anderson of Kilsyth retired, my mother paid £8 [$13] for his pipes, chanter and case, which I am still using and playing to this day.
At 18 years of age I met a girl, Retta Steele, and we were married on July 15, 1938. We were very happy and my eldest daughter, Anna was born on July 24, 1939. Dates were now very important in my life.
On September 3, 1939, Anna was christened and war was declared on the same day. I was called up for active service aged 21 and enlisted at Maryhill Barracks on January 15, 1940 into the Highland Light Infantry. My wife received £1.26p a week and I received 14 shillings a week less four shillings barracks damages, deducted even if you didn’t cause any damage. My total pay was 10 shillings per week — and I had to salute for it!
On completing basic training, at the end of April 1940, I approached Pipe Major Bert Lewis about joining the pipes and drums and he transferred me to HQ Coy as a piper. I was in the company of regular pipers, Duke and John McPhail, Sandy McFarlane, Harry Forbes, J. Killow, W. McQuarrie and Boy Rankin. I was at Maryhill Barracks for three years and became very proficient in piping trainees on route marches to Loch Lomond and the Campsie Hills for target practice and return to barracks.
After these long marches troops had to have foot inspections but pipers didn’t as we felt that we were of superior stature and returned to our quarters without taking our socks off. We were definitely a breed of our own. As pipers, we were expected to lead from the front and be able to complete any task given to us.
On my last leave home, I told my wife that I would not be back for some time as the invasion of Europe would be soon. I was then posted to Bridge of Don barracks Aberdeen under Pipe Major Cruickshanks, and after route marching all round Aberdeen was posted to the 1st Battalion HLI at Sittingbourne, Kent, under Pipe Major McDonald and placed as piper to ‘D’ Coy under Major W. Bowie. I had attended the swimming baths in Aberdeen and now at Sittingbourne to learn to swim but couldn’t. I was petrified that I would drown in the Channel during our crossing. I still cannot swim to this day. Whilst in Kent pipers were again very busy route marching all over the South Downs. We, as usual, were up to all sorts of tricks. When orderly piper, we would open the doors of nissan huts to play reveille. You can imagine the reception we got from the members of the companies. They threw anything to hand to show annoyance at being woken up. Great fun, really.
As we approached D-Day, June 6, 1944, we were transferred to Newhaven, where we boarded ship and set off into the Channel. We then transferred to landing craft and landed on Arromancies Beach in the second wave of troops just after D-Day.
Major Bowie turned to me and said, “Play up, Bryson” and as the landing craft touched the sand I played Scotland the Brave and led my company up the beach. This was my proudest moment and luckily the beach-head had been secured and we did not come wider tire. Later, the Company runner got shot in the foot and I was asked to take over his duties on ‘Hill’ 112 a notable battle point constantly under fire. Whilst up there I came across a grave that had a Lee-Enfield rifle and bandoliers of bullets on it. I looked at my issue of a piper’s revolver, and thought ‘no contest’. I took possession of the rifle so that I could defend myself better if required. On another occasion on ‘Hill’ 112 I was confronted by a German soldier who appeared out of thin air. He had his hands up and was shouting ‘kammerade’. I took him prisoner and escorted him to my Company HQ.
Later, Pipe Major McDonald called on the pipers of A, B, C and D Coys., and any personnel who could play drums, to assemble for a march through local towns. We played through Caen and Falaise. This was greatly appreciated by the local population. Shortly afterwards the Falaise Gap was opened up and we boarded trucks and by-passed Paris arriving at the Belgian frontier. After some action we approached the Dutch frontier. D Company had many battles with the Germans, but finally we overran the opposition and cleared the areas of Ostelbeers, Westerbeers, and Middlebeers. The casualties were very high with approximately 50 dead. On September 30, 1944, whilst we were standing-to at dusk, the Germans opened up a mortar attack. One exploded a couple of yards from me. I didn’t feel anything at the time but was severely wounded with abdominal injuries. Stretcher bearers were called and I spent 11 days in a field hospital, in Eindhoven. After two major operations I was flown back to the UK and arrived at Landough Hospital near Cardiff.
Six weeks later I managed to get on a train to Glasgow and was admitted to Gartloch Hospital. Life was one big trial, but when I look back, still enjoyable. On Christmas Eve 1944, my wife gave birth to my second daughter Jean. It meant the three of us were in hospital over Christmas and New Year. What a way to start 1945! After another two major operations I made some progress in getting better. I was finally discharged from hospital in May 1945 and discharged from the HLI as being not fit for active service. Despite training in the Springburn railway workshops I had difficulty in obtaining good employment. I was so weak that I could not complete a day’s work. I’d lost all my strength. I finally got a job with an artificial limb maker, a good job for someone like me with a disability. My third child, William was born on April 18, 1956.
I retired in 1983 aged 65. After the Army, I did not resume playing my pipes until the late 60s when I was asked to play at some meetings. I found that I had forgotten many tunes but after that I played at all my family weddings and birthdays. My dear wife, Retta passed away on July 24, 1991, and later that year I was asked to attend the Veteran Pipers Association on a Friday afternoon at the College of Piping. This changed my life completely and the encouragement and kindness shown inspired me to play every day and build up a repertoire of tunes. I now play at many weddings, Burns Suppers, installation ceremonies, and at all reunions of the HLI. I would appeal to all veteran pipers aged 60 upwards in the Glasgow area to come and join the Veterans. In spite of everything that has happened to me it has given me inspiration to again lead from the front and be proud to keep up the tradition of piping.
• The Veteran Pipers’ Association meets each Friday afternoon at The National Piping Centre Otago Street, Glasgow. Telephone 0141 342 5252.