Piping in World War Two

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Pipers leading the 2nd Argylls in Malaya, 1941.
Pipers leading the 2nd Argylls in Malaya, 1941.

By Brett Tidswell

A number of articles have been published recently that have cited the number of pipers involved in the Second World War. In one article  it was suggested some 10,000 pipers had perished during the war. A second article was published subsequently after many must have questioned that figure and an amended estimate of 2,171 was suggested. To our knowledge no numbers have ever been published, but it would seem unlikely that the numbers of pipers killed in the Second World War should exceed those of the First War. 

Sir Bruce Seaton and John Grant had compiled a list of all pipers officially killed in the First War. That list totals some 300 names, listed in Battalions, both British and Commonwealth. We are, however, told that 2,500 or so pipers participated in the war with 1,100 casualties killed or wounded. These figures we would be willing to accept for a number of reasons.

 

  • Many regiments employed more pipers than they were officially allocated.  
  • Some records exist of serving soldiers picking up pipes and continuing to play forward after the piper had fallen.  
  • Some Commonwealth regiments had no allocation for pipers and yet we know from first hand accounts that they used them in the front line and behind the lines also.  
  • Many died of illness and we don’t know if they were included as pipers by all Battalions in their official numbers.

We then strike the problem of who for the record is a piper? An official piper employed to undertake the duties of piping or a soldier employed in other duties who also plays pipes over and above the official allocation. As pipers in general were rarely used as pipers in the front lines in WW2, this creates a significant issue with records. A piper acting in a combat role would not necessarily be listed as a piper in regimental records when killed in action. We have never previously seen any suggested numbers for pipers serving or killed in action during WW2.

The 5th 7th Gordons (PM-J. MacGregor) having a chanter practice somewhere in France in 1944.
The 5th 7th Gordons (PM-J. MacGregor) having a chanter practice somewhere in France in 1944.

 If we assume the estimate of 3,620 pipers serving in WW2 as being accurate and divided that by the official British death toll of 12.5% (bearing in mind not all pipers would be front line troops in regiments with extremely high death rates) that would give us a figure of 452 casualties. Adding those serving in other branches of the services may raise this slightly. We would think that to be far more in balance with the WW1 figures.

By WW2 many pipers were employed in support roles and many would not have been in harms way to the extent they were in WW1. A near 50% casualty rate such as they experienced in WW1 would be totally unrealistic we would suggest. Even to use the official mortality rate of 12.5% might be a stretch, but I think, as pipers would have been employed in various roles it may not be unrealistic.  

Bill Robertson
PM Bill Robertson.

We asked Pipe Major Bill Robertson, ex-The Royal Scots, who served in the 1950s to comment. He suggested our lower estimations were quite realistic. In my time of the 1950s the Pipes and Drums in Schemes/military exercises/and latter part of the Korean War, formed part of the defence platoon around the Battalion Command Post and was somewhere between the two forward companies and the two in reserve.” In this capacity and other similar roles, Pipes and Drums would have experienced a much lower casualty rate than the other companies.

• Brett Tidswell is National Principal (Piping) for Pipe Bands Australia and runs The School of Piping.