The tunes of the First World War recalled

A piper plays after the Battle of Bazentin Ridge on July 14, 1916.
A piper plays after the Battle of Bazentin Ridge on July 14, 1916.

A Deeside and Donside journalist will fall heir to a rare musical instrument which survived four years on the Western Front during World War One.

Mike Rankin, editor of the Deeside Piper and Donside Piper, will succeed his father to the stewardship of family bagpipes which accompanied their original owner on active service in ‘’the war to end all wars,’’ of which the world commemorates the centenary this year.

Two WW1 medals.

Two WW1 medals.

The pipes were purchased secondhand in 1911 by Mike’s great-grandfather, John Rankin, who subsequently served as a piper with The Royal Scots from 1915 to 1918.

A self-taught piper, John was a shepherd, married and with several children at the outbreak of the Great War in 1914.

Mike said: ‘’The family lived at Ardenconnell Lodge in Rhu, near Cardross, Dumbartonshire.

‘‘He was born in 1872, so he was in his early forties when he went off to war along with the rest of the Rhu Pipe Band who all volunteered at the same time.

‘‘It seems he also lied about his age to be able to join up as it’s given in his Soldier’s Book as 36 years and 11 months by January 1915.

‘’Of course, values were different in those days and people were not aware of the horrors of war to come. They assumed it would be over quite quickly!

‘’He wanted to do his duty, and as far as we know he had my great-granny’s blessing to join the colours while she looked after the family.’’

The book also gives John’s height as a diminuitive five feet four inches, describes his complexion as ‘‘sallow’’ and his occupation as a gardener although he was a shepherd on the Ardenconnell Estate at that time. Surprisingly, only the names of his sons, John and Duncan, are listed although there were also at least two daughters by that time. He and his wife, Matilda, went on to have 12 children in total, of whom seven were sons.

Mike added: ‘’He never really spoke of his war service to my father or grandfather - his campaign medals stayed in a box in the sideboard - but what we do know is that he served as a piper in most, if not all, of the major battles on the Western Front.

‘’He had his pipes tucked under his arm when he witnessed the first-ever use of tanks at the little known Battle of Flers-Courcellette from September 15 - 22, 1916, and then at the Battle of the Somme which ran until November of that year.

‘’He also saw one of the last great cavalry charges, which was made against the Germans at Moreuil Wood on March 30, 1918.

‘’Needless to say, his was a highly dangerous occupation. Pipers were expected to stand up on the parapet and play the troops out of the trenches and into no-man’s land during an assault, before reverting to stretcher-bearers’ duties once battle had been joined.

‘’We understand that he escaped death at least once. My grandfather told me the story of how his father had been piping on top of the parapet during a battle when he was shot in the chest and tumbled into the trench. He was found lying face down on top of his pipes, and it was only when he started swearing that his comrades realised he was still alive.

‘’It turns out that a German rifle bullet had struck a metal box in which he carried a bible inside the breast pocket of his tunic. Although he had suffered a couple of broken ribs and other injuries, the box had prevented the bullet from penetrating his chest.

‘’He was a tough old guy, and apparently he was more worried about the damage which had been caused to his precious pipes. His friends had to restrain him from grabbing a rifle and going looking for the culprit!’’

Recently, during a conversation with Finzean School of Piping’s Alistair Rose, Mike discovered that John was mentioned in a book written in the 1920s, now long out of print, called ‘The Pipes of War.’

‘‘Mr Rose told me that my great-grandad was wounded at Loos in 1915 while serving with the 13th Battalion of the Royal Scots, and was sent back to a base hospital for treatment and recuperation before returning to the trenches where he spent the remainder of the war.’’

In 1948, he and Matilda - retired to 
Paisley - celebrated their golden wedding anniversary with their extended family.

Mike said: ‘’He died in 1959 aged 87, several months after joining in a four-generations photograph with my grandfather, my father and me as a baby.

‘’My great-grandad continued playing his pipes into old age when he gifted them to my dad - my grandad didn’t play - and my father has used and cherished them since his teenage years. He took them along when he joined the RAF at the age of 18 in 1953, and as a master piper and former pipe major has improved and modified them since then although much of the original set is still there.

‘’My dad will be 80 next year, and it’s just as well that he taught me to play the pipes as I’ll be the next custodian when he retires from playing.

‘’I’ll be proud to look after them, not least in memory of Piper John Rankin, a veteran of World War One.’’