On the footsteps of Scottish Pipers in Veneto, Northern Italy

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By MOSÈ GIARETTA

In life, it’s not the steps you take, or the shoes you wear, but the footprints you leave behind.

Such is the sentiment of a famous aphorism that aptly describes the photo of a Scottish piper traversing the streets of Veneto during the First World War. It’s no random photo, at least not for us Venetians with a passion for the Scottish Bagpipes!

But let’s start by telling the story from the beginning. It’s Sunday, November 12, 2023, and as every year, the Veneto Piping School participates in the commemoration ceremonies of Remembrance Sunday at the British cemeteries of Giavera del Montello and Tezze di Vazzola, and at the war memorial in Maserada sul Piave in the province of Treviso.

It’s precisely at this last location that an informative totem catches our attention. Besides providing historical information, the recently installed totem also features a photo of a Pipe Band from the First World War. It’s obligatory to have our band’s photo (above) with this historic backdrop!

But then a question arises among us: “Is it really a photo of a Scottish pipe band from the First World War taken in Veneto? Or is it a photo taken elsewhere on the European front and symbolically placed on the totem?”

In the following days, curiosity grows, and some of us, passionate about history as well as music, start researching online and sending emails to the municipalities involved in the commemorations, to the province of Treviso, to the historical museum Museo Storico della Grande Guerra in Maserada sul Piave, and to the Museo della Battaglia di Vittorio Veneto.

The response from the museum in Maserada doesn’t take long to arrive, and it’s affirmative! Besides Scottish soldiers’ battalions in Veneto during the Great War, there were also bagpipe and drum bands! The discovery fills us with enthusiasm; the photo in question was indeed taken in the area of Vittorio Veneto (Treviso) in December 1917 when British allies came to aid the Italian army engaged at the front from the Asiago plateau to the Piave River after the defeat of Caporetto. In particular, it’s a photo of a bagpipe and drum band of the Gordon Highlanders, the famous infantry regiment of the then 7th Division of the British Army, active from 1881 to 1994.

The web research continues, and we manage to discover other photos: a stereoscopic photo of the same regiment and the same band with a detailed caption reading “Italo-Austrian War, Allied troops on our front – Castelfranco Veneto – December 1917 – A company of Scotsmen in their characteristic costume” (Fig.2).

•Stereoscopic photo of the Gordon Highlanders with bagpipe and drum band, the caption reads: “Italo-Austrian War, Allied troops on our front – Castelfranco Veneto – December 1917 – A company of Scotsmen in their characteristic costume”. (Source: Museo della Battaglia di Vittorio Veneto – Italy).
Another photo of this band called “Scottish Pipers” taken by Luigi Marzocchi (1888-1970) with the shooting date handwritten by the author “December 1917” and kept at the museum of the Battle of Vittorio Veneto.
•A group of British officers, including two in kilts, taken in front of the entrance of Montegalda Castle (Vicenza), not far from the location of our school in Santa Maria di Veggiano (Padova) (Fig.4).
•A football match played by British troops in Montegalda (Vicenza) (Fig.5)
•A piper from the King’s Own Scottish Borderers playing for a group of children in front of the church of San Giorgio in Bosco (Padova) (Fig.6).

Finally, a video of British soldiers detrain from a train at Fontaniva station (Padova) followed by a clip focusing on pipers marching and playing. https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1060008198

These three small photos above and the video are preserved by the Imperial War Museum in London and available as viewable material in the museum’s online archive.

Thanks to these research efforts and to the discovery of historical photographic and video material, we find out that there were three Scottish battalions in Italy during the First World War: the 6th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, the 2nd Gordon Highlanders, and the 2nd King’s Own Scottish Borderers. As of December 31, 1917, two divisions were on the front line on the Piave, while the others were in reserve behind them, namely the area between Vicenza and Legnago, which constituted the concentration zone of the British contingent (Fig.7).

•(Fig.7): Map showing the dislocation of the British contingent in Veneto as of December 31, 1917 (Source: https://www.freeforumzone.com/d/11812700/scozzesi-in-Veneto/discussione.aspx?p=1)

Between the end of December 1917 and January 1918, they began to move towards the plateau and the Piave to enter into action at the front. Between March and April 1918, two divisions (the 5th with the Argyll & Sutherland and the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, and the 41st) returned to fight in France, while the other three (the 23rd, the 7th with the Gordon, and the 48th) remained to fight in Italy, alternating on the plateau first and then on the Piave.

It was truly incredible to find all this historical material and discover tangible evidence that the places surrounding us were so closely involved in the dramatic events of the past wars; our thoughts naturally go to those who lost their lives. Perhaps among the rediscovered photos are also those of the two MacLeod soldiers whom the Veneto Piping School commemorates every year with a dedicated ceremony at the British cemeteries of Barenthal (Asiago) and Montecchio Precalcino (Vicenza), who knows…

In the photos and the video, the faces of many young people have remained imprinted, each with their own story, emotions, experiences, and names, things that, unfortunately, we cannot know… But one thing we do know: in the worrying and sad reality of war, besides risking their own lives, a piper found the strength to give a moment of lightheartedness to children and bring a smile by doing the only thing he could do for them at that moment: playing the bagpipe!

We don’t know the name of that piper, but his act of kindness surely left a lasting impression, first on the children who listened to him then and also on us, more than a hundred years later from that December 1917, we can still admire his gesture captured in the photo.

“I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay… small acts of kindness and love.”

(Gandalf the Grey, in The Hobbit) by J.R.R.Tolkien, first published September 21, 1937.

And it’s precisely this example and spirit that the Veneto Piping School wants to bring and tries to convey to the audience during its performances.

Whoever he was, a heartfelt thank you to the Piper in the photo for still being an inspiration today!

MEDIA REFERENCES

Video:

Link to the video “British troops in Italy” (Source: Imperial War Museum – United Kingdom):

https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1060008198

Min.00.00: arrival of the train at Fontaniva station (Padova)

Min.04.00: Pipers marching and playing

Min.05.22: British troops passing in front of the church of San Giorgio in Bosco (Padova)

Bibliography:

Gen. Sir James Edmonds – Military Operations in Italy 1915-1919

Wilks&Wilks- The British Army in Italy 1917-1918 (English edition)

Images:

Fig.1: Veneto Piping School own property

Fig.2: https://catalogo.beniculturali.it/detail/PhotographicHeritage/0500695468

Fig.3: https://catalogo.beniculturali.it/detail/PhotographicHeritage/0500691326

Fig.4: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205268078

Fig.5: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205268079

Fig.6: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205268011

Fig.7: https://www.freeforumzone.com/d/11812700/scozzesi-in-Veneto/discussione.aspx?p=1