After our story yesterday about next month’s piping tribute to the soldiers captured at St Valèry-en-Caux in June 1940, several readers have reminded us about an article that appeared in the June 2002 edition of the Piping Times. The article included a photograph of the pipers of the 2nd Battalion Seaforths from September 1939. Alas, the original photograph went missing from our archives around 2014. It’s a fascinating photograph – as is the letter. We reproduce them here:
From time to time the Piping Times office receives copies of photographs which form part of our piping heritage. Such is the one [above] supplied by young piper, William Evans of Larne, Northern Ireland.
In his accompanying letter, William relates how he obtained the picture from his teacher a veteran of events which happened in northern France 62 years ago this month [June 2002] …
This photo was taken at Aldershot in Sept 1939 and is of the 2nd Battalion Seaforths. I started playing the pipes at the age of eight under Alec Craig who is in the picture – back row, second from the right. I still go to Alec for tuition and am playing with the Field Marshall Montgomery Pipe Band.
I am now 19 but Alec’s fingers are still going strong at 82. This is a short history of the photo and Alec. He comes from Stranraer but is now living in Larne, He started playing the pipes in Stranraer Pipe Band. He joined the Seaforths at 18 and was taken prisoner at St Valery on 12th June, 1940.
The famous Donald MacLeod [front row third from the left] escaped but the rest of the pipers in the photo spent the rest of the war as prisoners, all except Lance Corporal Peter McCrae [front row far left], who had been killed the day before on the 11th June.
Alec was good pals with Pipe Major Donald MacLean [unmistakable and to the right of Donald MacLeod] who became his main teacher and mentor. Alec tells me that Donald lost his practice chanter during their escapades. Luckily, Alec still had his tucked in his socks in his small backpack. Alec gave it to Donald so that he could practice and over the next few weeks Donald composed the 2/4 march Major Manson’s Farewell to Clachantrushal on Alec’s chanter.
Alec took great pride when he was introduced to John MacDonald, Inverness, by Donald Macleod after the war. Alec had his share of misfortune. He later survived the Princess Victoria disaster in the early 50s when the ship went down in the Irish Sea. Alec was on board as a member of the crew. He later lost part of a leg in an accident here in Larne so he’s had his share of misfortune but his personality has kept him shining through it all. He has helped many bands and individuals over the years and still does. I would like to thank him for all the time he’s spent at the practice table. I am sure there are many people here in Northern Ireland and elsewhere who would like to join me in a big thank you to him. Regarding the photograph, Alec tells me that all the pipers are playing Robertson drones and Robertson chanters except Pipe Major MacLean who is playing Robertson drones and a MacRae chanter.
Larne, Northern Ireland
The 51st Highland Division included the 1st and 4th Black Watch, 2nd and 4th Seaforth Highlanders, 1st and 5th Gordon Highlanders, 4th Cameron Highlanders and 7th and 8th Argyll and — Sutherland Highlanders. When the Germans. advanced in May 1940, bypassing the Maginot Line, the 51st Highland Division withdrew from the Saar to a new line on the Somme at Abbeville. The 4th Camerons moved by train to Rouen, and then by bus to their new positions.
On 4th June, the last day of the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force, further north at Dunkirk, the 4th Camerons together with the 4th Seaforth attacked the German bridgehead over the Somme.
The strength of the German advance forced the 51st Highland Division to fall back to the fishing port of St Valery-en-Caux, from where they hoped to evacuate. Cut off from the French army, and with no ships available, the 51st Highland Division was surrounded by the German advance. Several well-known pipers were taken prisoner, including most of those pictured [in the photograph, above].
John Wilson, Edinburgh and Haag but then of the Cameron Highlanders, afterwards described the month-long march to, the prison camp. He said they had no food except that given to them by local people, no clothing apart from what they wore and no bedding or equipment and had to sleep in the field like animals. Donald MacLeod of the Seaforth Highlanders was captured but escaped on the march by slipping into a roadside ditch. One story goes that he evaded capture by always speaking in Gaelic and hence gave the impression he was from a non-conflict country and thus made it back to Fort George. He refused ever to talk about his experiences but his family is in no doubt that this lived with him all his life. Double Gold Medallist William M. MacDonald, Inverness, then of the Cameron Highlanders, was also taken prisoner and spent the following five years in prison camps.