“The Scottish Soldiers’ Letters Home”

I wrote “The Scottish Soldiers’ Letters Home” in June 2016, as a testimony to the soldiers who, through letters, journals, and memoirs written long before I was born, shared their experiences of the Great War with me. In particular the song is dedicated to Pipe Major William Lawrie (1881-1916), whose “The Battle of the Somme” provides the tune; to Captain Francis J. MacCunn (1888-1915); and also in memory of Adam Anderson, my grandmother’s favourite cousin, on whom I have no further information other than that he died at the end of the War, possibly shortly after the Armistice. The full story, or should I say stories, of the song is below.

In 2014, I spent several months looking into various aspects of Scottish music in the Great War. Some of the results of that were written up as the essay “Bagpipes at the Front: Pipers and Piping During Combat in the Great War”, others in the essay “Annie Laurie: A Scots Song in the Trenches” (preprint versions of both are available on my page at  academia.eu). As part of this research, I consulted letters, memoirs and interviews from veterans of the war, in particular using the wonderful collections of the Imperial War Museum as well as some material held in the Special Collections of Glasgow University Library.

    I’ve spent many years researching musical aspects of war, genocide and torture. I’m often asked if this isn’t a very depressing topic, and of course it is. Few things however have affected me as deeply as the work I did on the Great War. It may be that this was due to the way in which, from an early age, people in Britain learn to view the Great War specifically as a massive tragedy, a pointless waste of too many lives. Or it may be that what I was experiencing was just an accumulation of sadness from too many years working with this kind of material. But I think it probably had to do with the material itself, as well. When you read people’s letters, you enter into a very intimate relationship with them. Though letters from soldiers were heavily censored, there is no getting round the fact firstly, that they were intended for close family members, not researchers, and secondly, that the very material provides a direct connection to the people concerned: this is the paper the touched, this their handwriting.

    I remember one case specifically. I was in the Special Collections at GUL, and had ordered materials relating to soldiers of the 6th Battalion Cameron Highlanders. This was effectively my alma mater’s battalion, made up primarily of students and staff of the University. I knew they had fought at the Battle of Loos in late September 2015, which I was focussing on in my attempts to investigate why, how and with what effects pipers were used in combat. In particular, I looked through an enormous box of material relating to a soldier called Francis John MacCunn, who I now know was a lecturer in Classics and History. I didn’t have much time; I had a train to London to catch, so could only scan the material; what I was really interested in, of course, was if he wrote anything about pipers at Loos. But as the date of that Battle loomed closer, the pile of letters was becoming smaller and smaller. And almost at the bottom, the letter he wrote to his parents on the very eve of the Battle was followed by a letter from his regiment to them, regarding the return of his personal effects.

    I had several similar experiences later that week in the Imperial War Museum’s research rooms, several moments when I realised with a sick feeling in my stomach that this young man, too, wasn’t going to make it. But the case of Francis J. MacCunn stayed with me, because of what he wrote in that final letter. It began as optimistically as you could expect of a son trying to reassure his parents that this letter was just in case, he had “high hopes” that everything would be fine. And then he wrote this: “In the other event I think I am as nearly convinced as I can be, that there is no annihilation, and that our parting is not forever”. When I first read those lines properly I remember thinking he knew.

    That was also the week that, on one of my coffee breaks, I checked the news headlines, realised they were almost all about war, and came close to deciding the whole exercise was pointless.

    Not long after, maybe a week or so, I was writing all this material up into two lectures I’d been invited to give, and came across William Lawrie’s tune “The Battle of the Somme” (various renditions of this can be found online, including this version recorded by Hamish Henderson and this pipe band version from the online archive Tobar an Dualchais/Kist o’ Riches). I realised I knew the tune, which is often used for Scottish dancing, but I hadn’t known the name. It seemed, indeed, a bit of a quantum leap, from the Battle that more than any other sums up the futility of war in the collective memory, to a tune popular at ceilidhs; a cheerful tune, no less, generally played at quite a pace. It’s not entirely clear whether Lawrie, an extremely talented piper and composer who died of an infection in November 2016, gave it the title it is known by today, or whether others decided to do so in commemoration of when and how he died. In any case, I had the song on in the background as I carried on writing my notes and creating my slides. Gradually, I noticed that my mood was improving. And finally, I realised that was, of course, the point.

    “The Battle of the Somme” is a retreat march. Retreat marches don’t just signal a retreat from the battlefield: their real function is to mark the return to the safety of camp or barracks at the end of the day. During my research, I had found out that by late 1915, many officers in Scottish regiments had begun to hold what pipers they had left back from the front; it seemed strategically more important to ensure that they were available to play in the pipe bands that escorted soldiers back from the front lines, back from the valley of death. Such rituals are important in helping soldiers process what they have experienced in combat, and in communicating to them that in these very particular circumstances, there can indeed be life after death.

Fast-forward two years. A few weeks ago I was sitting in the library in Berlin, reading a book about war (again), and I had arrived at a chapter on the Great War, and a page on the Battle of the Somme. As is the way of these things, the tune appeared, unbidden, in my head. In the meantime, I’d been taking some singing lessons and perhaps for that reason I started singing it in my head, and realising that I would like to sing it, and that I would need words to do that -- words that duly started to appear. (I was emboldened by the fact that writing words to existing tunes is a very important and living part of the Scottish tradition.)

    The song that resulted is very much the fruit of all the experiences I have described above; it’s my attempt to transform my academic extrapolations on this topic into the much more emotive and transferable and communicative medium of song; it’s also my own form of post-combat therapy, much needed even if I never experienced the battles first-hand. The lyrics mix up events and practices and people in a way that would make a historian blush. The song begins with the sources themselves, described in the title as “letters”, but also covering the other “wee bits of paper” through which those who fought and died continue to communicate with us, paper containing memoirs and diaries and tunes. The second verse is inspired by Francis MacCunn’s last letter home before he died at Loos, not the Somme. The third verse introduces the issue of military ritual and strategy, pointing to how this is often designed to help soldiers come to terms with doing things that are otherwise far, far beyond the normal moral codes. In a nod to Lawrie’s regiment, the Seaforth Highlanders, the verse also references that regiment’s motto, Cuididh n’ Righ (“Aid the King”). The last verse, too, is an inaccurate reference to Lawrie: he died not of a wound directly but of illness brought on by poor conditions in the trench. The words “nearly a man”, on the other hand, are intended not for him but for the many teenagers who fell, including the Scots-Canadian piper Jimmy Richardson, who before emigrating lived in the town in Scotland where I was born. Richardson was posthumously awarded the V.C., having not only piped in combat but shown great bravery in that other task traditionally given to military musicians of bringing in the injured.

    The repeated reference in the song to another piping tune, Cogadh na Sith, requires a little explanation as well. The phrase means “War or Peace” in Gaelic, and if you believe everything you read it was at one point a battle cry as well. This recording from Tobar an Dualchais has George Moss playing it on the practice chanter, and discussing the tune with researcher Peter Cooke; a full and “proper” version of this piobaireachd played by Jack Lee is one of several available on Youtube. I have no evidence that it did, in fact, sound at the Somme, though pipes definitely did (as I discussed in the essay mentioned above, this is actually quite interesting, since by then there was a definite trend away from playing the pipes; I sometimes wonder if Haig, in his folly, issued a command to that effect, or if some of his officers realised they were going to need all the help they could get). Cogadh na Sith stands not only for whatever tunes did sound over the Somme but also for the question posted at the song’s end, and what is, in a way, the rallying call throughout the song. I am becoming increasingly convinced that we need to rethink the whole thing: not just war, but also peace. Peace may be the opposite to war, but therefore implies war’s continuation or return even in its absence. If we want to stop war, we need to begin challenging some of the very foundations of how we think, act, and organise our societies. There is, I fear, no other way.

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Troops of the 15th (Scottish) Infantry Division marching back to rest along the Albert-Amiens road, 15 September 1916. From the collections of the Imperial War Museum,

© IWM Q 4424