‘And the lilt of his distant piping,
Was born upon the wind,
Beckoning-beckoning- beckoning us,
To follow on behind.’
Bagpipes have shrilled over Scottish battlefields for centuries. Either to signal tactical movements to the troops or to inspire them to great achievements. After the Jacobite Rebellions, however, playing of the pipes was banned by the British government. During the late 18th century a number of regiments were raised from the remnants of the clans in the Scottish Highlands. By the early 19th century they managed to revive the tradition and, once again, pipers played their comrades into battle.
The skirl of the pipes boosted morale amongst the troops and scared the bejeezus out of the enemy. But pipers were unarmed and became easy targets for the enemy. During World War One when they led the men 'over the top' of the trenches the death rate amongst pipers was extremely high. It is estimated that around 1000 pipers died during this period.
During World War II, pipers were used at the start of the Second Battle of El Alamein. As they attacked, each company was led by a piper playing tunes that would identify their regiment in the darkness. The attack was successful, but losses among the pipers were high and the use of bagpipes was banned from the frontline.
Simon Fraser, 15th Lord Lovat, was commander of 1st Special Service Brigade for the Normandy landings on D-Day. He brought with him his 21-year-old personal piper, Bill Millin. As the troops landed on Sword Beach Lovat ignored the orders restricting the playing of bagpipes in action, and ordered Millin to play. When Private Millin quoted the regulations, Lord Lovat is said to have replied: “Ah, but that’s the English War Office. You and I are both Scottish, and that doesn’t apply.”
Millin was the only man during the landings who wore a kilt and he was armed only with his pipes and the traditional sgian-dubh, or "black knife". He played the tunes "Hielan' Laddie" and "The Road to the Isles" as men all around him fell under fire. According to Millin, he later talked to captured German snipers who claimed they did not shoot him because they thought he was mad!