Gallant Broch Piper
Graeme T Smith
This story is about a very proud Gordon Highlander-a brave man who thoroughly deserves to be called a hero. His name was Charlie Taylor, and he piped his regiment to fame in many famous battles of the First World War. From Mons to the Aisne and Petit Morin, First and Second Ypres, and finally the Somme, this keen Gordon Highlander was acclaimed a hero by his contemporaries. He would always shrug off such remarks and claim he was no different from anyone else.
My grandfather had a genuine claim to distinction and recognition, yet he sought none, and so little has been told of his gallantry until now. Despite suffering with war wounds that gave him a lifetime of pain and a tragic disability, he never complained; his strength of character and determination to succeed helped him cope with it all. Charlie, after all, raised ten of family-five girls and five boys and was able to hold down a job with the Post Office until he retired in 1949.
As a young boy growing up I often heard the stories from my mother, her sisters and brothers about Charlie and this is probably where my interest came from. With a combination of family stories and research I have written this personal history about my Grandfather so that others can read about this remarkably brave soldier and his comrades, who fought in battles of attrition with industrial killing machines that brought mass scale slaughter. The debt of gratitude owed to them can never be given back; they gave the ultimate sacrifice in life and limb, with so little given in return that at the very least, their story should be told, so that we never forget.
The Gordon Highlanders Museum, Aberdeen
Fraserburgh Herald and staff
Aberdeen Centurial Library and staff
Janet Adams, Aberdeen Grammar School
Betta Adams for the kind help with the grammar
Mandy Maria for the art illustrations
Mark Reid’ Foster for the graphics
Finally, especial thanks must go to my late Uncle Charlie for the kind help and invaluable time he gave me in my research.
Dedicated to my mother, her sisters and brothers in loving memory of their stories about a father they all loved and so admired.
Charles Smith Taylor was born on the 18thJune 1889 and was brought up in a family of ten at 44 Hanover Street Fraserburgh (or the ‘Broch’ to give Fraserburgh its local name). His father was a Broch postman who suffered a serious injury as a young man in an accident with a horse-drawn cart; his left arm was amputated due to the injuries he sustained from the accident.
When Charlie’s schooling was over, he served his apprenticeship with Charlie Addison & Sons, Denmark Street, as a cooper making herring barrels for the fishing industry. During the summer months they were hired out to the fish curing yards as general hands. One such summer they were working at the Anglo Russian Herring Company at St Ann Street or Road. Billy Smart’s Circus was in town so they were bribed; if the yard were cleared by 5.00 pm there would be free tickets to go and see the Circus that evening.
Life at home in a family of ten was very hard, so in 1904 a 15-year-old Charlie walked the 40 miles to Aberdeen and joined the First Gordons as a regular. At the Castle Hill Barracks in Aberdeen he trained in the regimental band, where he became a renowned piper. At some time during his seven years as a regular with the First Gordons, he was posted to Aldershot, then Waterford in the South of Ireland. There is a family story that, while he was in Waterford Charlie had a disagreement with an Irish Policeman; grabbing the unfortunate man, Charlie lifted him off his feet, tossing him off the top of a bridge into a river. The policeman was all right because the very next day he turned up at the barracks with a squad of officers, but despite demands he was turned away.
Charlie served with the Gordon Highlanders till his discharge in 1911 but had to serve five more years as a reservist. Back home in Fraserburgh, he returned to his trade as a cooper, and was also a keen amateur wrestler during this period of his life. There was time for courtship, and in 1912 when he was 24 years old, Charlie married his sweetheart Elsie Campbell.
When Britain declared war on Germany, on August 4th1914, Charlie had just turned 26 years old and it was not long before the War Office called him up as a reservist. Charlie was one of the bands of pipers who played at the head of all the reserve units from the Buchan Area, as they marched proudly to the Broch railway station en route to Aberdeen. From Aberdeen 532 reservists left to join First Gordons in Plymouth, where they came under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel F.H.Neish.
Charlie was once again in the First Gordons, Regimental No.10423. They were hastily mobilised and set sail from Plymouth for France on August 13th. They landed in Boulogne on the 14thAugust and were quickly moved to awaiting trains, then transported to within marching distance of the front lines. The First Battalion Gordon Highlanders formed part of the eighth Brigade, 3rdDivision, under General Dovan. As part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) they were deployed in support of the French Fifth Army, on the northern end of the French line where the situation was changing day by day.
After a long forced march from French soil across the Belgian border, they were rested at Hyon, just a little to the South of Mons, on August 22nd. Many of the reservists that made up half of the battalion, found marching on the cobbled roads of Belgium very exhausting-even although the forced marches were intended to help keep the men fit. Scottish troops would follow the pipes and drums as they marched towards the front lines, and Charlie would have played with the skirl of his pipes helping those brave men march with pride in their hearts. Most of the men were glad of the rest at Hyon.
The German operational plan, drawn up in 1905 and modified a number of times, was to knock out France quickly and decisively. When the attack began, the French underestimated the German strength and on the 22ndAugust the French Fifth Army was defeated on the Sambre, with the loss of 4,000 casualties. This forced the French to withdraw; leaving the BEF isolated in its defensive position on the Mons-Conde canal and stretched out along a 20-mile front from East to West.
The British commander-in-chief, Field Marshal Sir John French, agreed to hold the position for 24 hours and gave the order to dig in for the expected battle. On the 23rdAugust the First Battalion Gordon Highlanders with two machine gun crews and approximately 900 riflemen were deployed to halt the First Army of General Alexander Von Kluck, who had six divisions of German troops advancing from the North.
The Gordons were to hold the road from Mons to Beaumont. The German assault, outnumbering the BEF 2-1 began that morning, 23rdAugust. Despite their superior numbers and a renowned military reputation, the German infantrymen were in for a sobering experience. Trained to fire 15 rifle rounds a minute, the British regiments poured their fire into the advancing German lines, inflicting heavy casualties; the Germans believed they were facing machine-gun fire. By the end of the day exhausted and frightened Germans soldiers had to regroup as their attack faltered.
Despite halting the assault, the Gordons and the BEF were obliged to retire and had to fight a rearguard action withdrawal towards the River Marne in the coming days. By August 26ththe British Army turned to face the advancing Germans at Le Cateau, some 30 miles from Mons. Despite being outnumbered, British superior firepower held the line and only a German failure to press home their advantage allowed the British to resume their retreat. In the confusion of the withdrawal some battalions became isolated and were unaware of the orders to retreat. The First Gordons with elements of 2ndRoyal Scots and 1stRoyal Irish found themselves isolated at Caudry, as they covered the 3rdDivision’s retreat from Le Cateau.
After furious fighting on the outskirts of the village of Bertry, the Gordons were surrounded, and in the confusion of night most of the men were either killed or taken prisoner. Unfortunately, because there was confusion over the actual surrender, some of the officers and men wanted to continue fighting and more heavy losses were inflicted, until Colonel Neish gave the order to surrender to avoid unnecessary casualties.
The Official Military History merely remarked that ‘the fortune of war was hard upon the 1st/ Gordons’, adding the solace that their ‘gallant resistance’ had saved others during the retreat. Few escaped capture when the enemy closed around them, and 500 survivors were forced to surrender. Piper Taylor was one of the prisoners taken by the Germans that night and early morning. The exhausted Gordons were held at various locations and Charlie found himself being held in a factory building with about 100 other Gordon prisoners, many of whom were badly wounded. In desperation, he planned an escape one night and some how he painfully squeezed through a chimney or flue pipe exhaust, got onto the roof, and then was able to remove himself from the roof before the guards could see him. After a number of days he crept back across enemy lines to rejoin his own unit, now reduced to a company.
The Germans, holding the initiative and the advantage of superior numbers, were driving on with their advance. The French and the BEF made an attempt to stand on the Somme at Guise on August 29thcame to nothing, and the Anglo-French retreat continued. By now the German front line was becoming more difficult to supply, because of factors such as the distance in miles to transport supplies to the front, and the lack of adequate transport for this process. Despite this, they pushed on with their offensive towards Paris.
After 10 days of continuous marching in retreat, the British and French forces launched a counterattack at the Battle of the Marne just east of Paris. Between the 5th and 12th of September fierce fighting took place in many parts of the region and this is where we find Charlie with his unit once more fighting alongside the French 5thArmy at the bitter struggle of Petit Morin. The Allies succeeded in dividing the German armies and were able to push them into retreat back to Aisne; by September 12ththe German armies crossed the Aisne hotly pursued by the British and French armies.
British and French forces, arriving on the Aisne one day behind the German First Army, immediately attacked across the river, but the enemy had established a rudimentary trench system and held major advantages by choice of ground. The main Allied efforts were made on September 13-14, but too little purpose; late on the 14ththe French and British began to entrench. The First Gordon Highlanders were in the thick of battle on the 13-14 September and Charlie was at the front of the Gordons playing his pipes with a ‘Celtic throb’. In 1914 many Scottish regiments fought in their kilts and Glengarry caps. The Germans were astonished at the sight of the Highland regiments, but soon came to fear the sight and sounds of the Scots in the proceeding years of WW1.
The Battle of the Aisne, during which each side would try to out manoeuvre the other with attack and counter attack, continued until September 27th. Meanwhile both the French and the Germans made unsuccessful attempts to outflank each other, to try and break through to gain tactical advantage. This sequence of manoeuvres was called the “Race to the Sea”; however, neither side was actually trying to reach the sea before the other, it was just that each failed attempt to sidestep the enemy’s forces would extend the front line further to the north and both sides began to entrench across France and a small corner of Belgium. The formation of the Western Front would run from the Channel in northern Belgium through France to the Swiss Alps – some 400 miles of trenches that would bring an end to mobile war.
At the end of September 1914, First Gordons returned to 8 Brigade and within the next fortnight it was joined in France by the arrival of 2ndGordons, which, together with 1stGrenadier Guards, 2ndScots Guards and 2ndBorder Regiment, formed 20 Brigade in 7thDivision. Soon Charlie was advancing with his company, and they, along with the French 5thArmy, pressed on to Aubers, reaching Ypres salient on 5thOctober.
By the 11thOctober Piper Taylor was in action with his platoon at Shrewsbury Forest near Hooge. In a fiercely fought battle they turned the tide at Ypres and secured the safety of the channel ports. Both 1stand 2ndGordons were in action during the First Battle of Ypres, which opened on 18thOctober with an advance towards the German lines at Menin. The fighting continued until 22ndNovember and the actual battle consisted of various actions at Langemar, Gheluvelt, La Bassee and Nonne Boschen, all of which are recognised on the Gordons regiment list of battle honours. Some of the fiercest fighting on the Ypres salient took place at Gheluvelt. On the 31stOctober the village of Gheluvelt on the main Road was defended by the remnants of five British battalions, reduced to about 1,000 men, the strength of a single battalion. This tiny force managed to hold off an attack by 13 German battalions for over an hour, Gheluvelt eventually fell. The salient around Ypres would see many more battles, but would never fall to the Germans.
At the end of October and early November 1914 the last of the open battles of mobile warfare came to a close, and the war became the trench warfare that is recognised as the WW1 struggle. Trench digging and building would be a major part of a soldier’s life during the remaining years of the Great War. The weather in late autumn and winter 1914-15 was foul, and with heavy rain, trenches would flood or collapse around the men.
On the 14thDecember at Wytschaete Ridge, in a steep uphill charge through a sea of thick mud, Piper Taylor and the First Gordons attempted to gain the ridge in the salient against terrible odds. Sadly many of the kilted warriors ended this daring assault pinned to barbed wire riddled with machine gun bullets. Although wounded in both legs and one hip, Charlie was one of the lucky ones and was carried off the field by stretcher-bearers to a front line trench where he was given field dressings. From there he was carried to a regimental first aid clearing station and had his wounds checked on arrival; all around enemy artillery shells were exploding, and he had to wait a long time before his transfer to a casualty clearing station out of the range of enemy artillery.
His ordeal was not over yet; critically injured, Charlie had to endure a slow and bumpy ride in a horse-drawn ambulance to the safety of a casualty clearing station, then by rail to the stationary base hospital. British troops with seriously disabling “blighty wounds” were evacuated to the UK. After a spell of treatment and prolonged convalescence back home in the Broch, Charlie, his wife Elsie, and their very young son, Charles spent part of his recovery in a small cottage at Lonmay, near Fraserburgh. They enjoyed the tranquillity of the countryside and this aided Charlie in his recovery, but very soon they had to return to their home in the Broch.
During his recovery, the First Gordons in the New Year of 1915 were in billets at Westoutre and Locres, then back in the trenches at Vierstraat with shelling and some casualties. This pattern continued through February, March and April 1915 with half the Battalion in billets and the others in trenches. Apart from the intermittent shelling, this period was a relatively quiet spell in the trenches, with mild casualties and a small number of losses due to the shelling and snipers. Drafts of NCOs and men from the recruitment drive back home were arriving to bring the battalion up to strength.
The strategic situation at the start of the second year of the war was dominated by the stalemate on the Western Front, where the soldiers had to come to terms with the reality
Of warfare in the trenches. The conditions were very basic, often unsanitary and frequently verminous, but the trench system offered safety to its inhabitants.
By May 1915 Charlie was back with his Battalion again in the front lines, where on the 11thMay the First Gordons, as part of 8 Brigade, were ordered to relive 13thBrigade in front of Hill 60. The Gordons relieved the South Lancs; finding many rifles and equipment, left due to gassing. Charlie had the task with his fellow Gordons of cleaning up the trenches and the gruesome job of removing many corpses for burial. Away from the front line, they were given a proper funeral with reversed arms and piper Taylor playing ‘Flowers of the Forest’. This was not the first or last time he would have such duties to perform.
During the rest of May the First Gordons were constantly patrolling at Hill 60. German bombing continued through this time with the parapets of the trenches being blown in repeatedly, requiring repair work, such as replacing sand bags and installing new wooden props for the walls of the trenches. Preparations leading up to Second Ypres began, with Charlie and the Gordons engaged in more trench work at Hooge, where at night conditions were quiet, but in the mornings there was a lot of shelling from the Germans.
June began with very heavy shelling during which the Gordons suffered 22 men killed and 46 wounded. This time the burying of the dead was more personal for the Gordons, with some of the men picking up their brothers or cousins, and they were of course very upset. In a Highland Regiment, there were many men from the same family, village or town; ‘Flowers of the Forest’ was played by piper Taylor at their funerals but with rather more of a Celtic lament in tone. The heavy shelling by the Germans was relentless and on the 2ndJune 1915 the historic city of Ypres was heavily damaged.
By 8thJune the Gordons were relieved by 2ndSuffolks, went on to bivouac at Poperinghe / Vlanmertinghe and rested for 6 days until 15thJune. On their return to the front, the First Gordons were involved in an attack after sustained British bombardment on German lines at 3am. By 5am German trenches were captured, as the Gordon Highlanders over ran the German troops and successfully secured the area. The next day saw heavy shelling with more gas shells used by the Germans; Charlie and the Gordons used their respirators, which proved quite effective against the gas. In the proceeding days leading up to the 20thof June, the bombardments continued, causing many wounded Gordons in the trenches and giving rise to a total of 126 losses. After 20thJune, Charlie returned to bivouac at Branhook and spent the remainder of the month there, playing games of football, doing route marches to keep up fitness and on the 26thof June they were treated to a concert.
Back in the trenches at Hooge in the Ypres salient on the 12thJuly, German mortar fire was raining down with some casualties suffered by the Gordons. Over the next 6 days sniper forts were set-up, with good results on enemy snipers’ loopholes. On the 18thJuly they were relieved, but were soon ordered back to Ypres ramparts to help deliver bombs to front trenches at Hooge. Eventually relieved of this laborious work on 22ndJuly, they were bivouac, and returned to trenches after 2 days, spending the rest of July at Verbrandenholen with relative quiet until 4thAugust when relieved by 4thGordons. They returned to relieve 4thBattalion Gordons on the 10thAugust and continued occupation of trenches through to the 23rdwhen relieved. The Battalion took delivery of Khaki Balmoral Bonnets, to which were added rosettes of Gordon tartan and regimental cap badges. Heavy rain made for a very difficult move in very poor conditions. After bivouac in dreadful accommodation they returned to trenches at Hooge, relieving 3rdWorcesters on 12thSeptember, with substantial work being carried out on trenches.
After a short break they returned to Hooge trenches, where a big attack was planned for the 25thSeptember involving the 3rdand 14thDivisions, with the Royal Scots Fusiliers, 1stand 4thGordons, 2ndRoyal Scots, 2ndSouth Lancashire Regt and Royal Irish Rifles. With the exception of the two Territorial battalions in the Highland Division, all the Gordons battalions took part in the Battle of Loos, which started on 25thSeptember. The attacking divisions gained a salient two miles deep, and the battle would be kept going by the British High Command until October 16th. The 1stand 4thGordons suffered very heavily at the battle of Loos, with total British casualties at Loos numbering 61,713 officers and men. It has been estimated that of the 20,598 names on the memorial to the missing at Loos, one in three is Scots. At the end of September, around the 29th, the First battalion Gordons were involved in more attacks on enemy occupied trenches.
Sometime during the previous 6 months, my Grandfather had had two profoundly regrettable emotional experiences that would stay with him for the rest of his life. The first situation came when; on one of the many attacks on enemy occupied trenches the Gordons had over run the enemy killing most of them. Some had fled, but there was a very young German soldier whom Charlie could not bring himself to bayonet and he took him prisoner instead; (most Scottish regiments were notorious for not taking prisoners in WW1, probably due to the fact that all the Highland regiments suffered very high casualties, losing brothers, cousins and friends and the Scots had a bitter hostility towards the Germans). The German artillery began a bombardment of the Gordons so they had to make a hasty retreat back to their own lines. The young German soldier was running behind Charlie holding onto the tail of his kilt. There was a shell burst behind, knocking them off their feet and when Charlie got back on his feet, the German boy was lying face down. As he turned the young, lifeless body over he could see his cold, still eyes and knew the boy was dead.
Not long after the regrettable experience with the young German soldier the second situation involving Charlie happened. A very young Gordon Highlander had lied about his age. He was only 15 years old and the older men soon realised this, and gave him as much protection as they could. When Charlie was chosen by Lieutenant Lord Saltoun, along with the young lad and two other Gordons, to go over the top on a scouting mission, they ran into difficulty, coming under enemy fire, and during the engagement the young lad ran off back to the Gordon trenches. Lord Saltoun was for having the boy shot for cowardice, but Charlie had other ideas; he confronted his Lieutenant about sparing the young lad’s life and was able to persuade him to do so. The only way they could save the lad was to hold him down and shoot him through the back of his knee, thus disabling him for good; “Ach the loon will gang hame tae his mither alive and she will be gey glad tae hae him back!” were Charlie’s exact words. After this incident, the relationship between Lord Saltoun and Charlie became awkward, and was never resolved.
After the 16thof October, the remainder of the month proved to be very quiet in the trenches, with only some minor shelling from the Germans. A period of training for new visiting battalions along with new reinforcements was carried out, on trench warfare and other trench duties, all demonstrated by the Gordons in the Front Line, during this quiet spell. Around the 22ndOctober Charlie and the Gordons were moved to a new billeting area at Eeke, where they would be involved in a period of training, classes of instruction, route marches, playing in a football tournament, a cinema visit and a short holiday. In November they moved back to trenches at or near Reninghelet, where they were used to clean up trench systems, repair drainage, replace and repair wire, then back to Eeke for rest and billets. The month of November was very wet with heavy rain in France 1915, and was probably responsible for a very quiet spell on the Western Front at this time. The main enemy for the soldiers during this period was the heavy mud.
The month of December 1915 was relatively quiet on the Western front, apart from 18th-19thDecember, which saw a heavy intensive bombardment with tear gas shells used by the Germans and very heavy rifle fire on both sides. This resulted in a number of losses for First Gordons, and thereafter a stalemate developed. The atrocious weather played its part and the thick mud was a big problem for both sides. By 23rdDecember the First Gordons were relieved and went straight to baths and washing; on the 24thDecember they had a kit inspection by brigade commanders; on the 25ththey were given a day’s holiday but had to attend a Christmas church service at 11am. Next day there was a full parade, with Charlie playing his pipes in the full regimental pipes and drums as the Gordons were drilled. They were also put through bayonet practice and fighting before returning to the trenches for the last days of 1915.
January and February 1916 were relatively quiet and the previous patterning of billets, training and drills, then back to the trenches continued. In February there was some aerial activity, when several Zeppelins were seen, and the enemy fired aerial torpedoes into British trenches. There were also more serious problems from German snipers as well as heavy shelling.
Early March opened with final preparations for a planned attack. First Gordons reached assembly point, where they relieved 9thNorthumberland Fusiliers, and the assault began at 4.30 am on 2ndMarch with some initial success on the night. Very heavy casualties were suffered, totalling 245 Gordons killed and wounded. All German counter attacks were successfully repulsed by the Gordons, resulting in very heavy shelling of the Gordons’ front lines and the reserve and support lines. After a short break between 5thand 11thMarch, they were back at the trenches in working parties used for clearing work, burying the dead and also general repair and drainage work. Stormy weather, heavy snow, and serious difficulties with flooded trenches made life very miserable for all the men of First Gordons.
Piper Taylor was with the Gordons in Flanders throughout the terrible winter of 1915-16, when, due to driving rain the trenches collapsed around them. The conditions were so appalling that for the second winter “trench foot” became a problem. Charlie being badly inflicted with this complaint was taken to hospital in late March and he spent three months there. Luckily, he was treated by Canadian doctors who had considerable experience with this ailment and saved his feet. Previous to their arrival large-scale amputations had been carried out on bad cases of “trench foot”. After his spell in hospital, Charlie was permitted home to recuperate for a few weeks before his recall to France.
For some unknown and unfortunate reason when Piper Taylor returned to France, he was somehow drafted into the Second Battalion Gordon Highlanders, where we find him on the opening day of the Somme. As they marched up towards the front, with Charlie playing his pipes along side fellow pipers and drummers, wild rousing cheers had greeted the Second Battalion Gordons as they passed the ranks of reserve infantry and Royal Artillery to prepare for another frightening battle. The Second Gordons had the melancholy distinction of taking part in the 7thDivision’s assault against Mametz, described as ‘a miniature fortress’on the right of the British line. Early in the morning of July 1st, 1916, a massive artillery bombardment began on the German lines around the heavily fortified Mametz village with its well-prepared dugouts securely holding their deadly machine guns. During the barrage before zero hour, Charlie recalled the feeling of fear and apprehension on the faces of many young Gordons; he would say for his own feelings: “yes he was always apprehensive before battle but he was more feart of tripping on the uneven ground, which could interrupt playing his pipes”.
All the sounds and smells of war, as never before experienced till this war, hung over the Somme that morning; the sounds of screaming artillery shells exploding, throwing-up hot fiery shrapnel all around, the continual eerie pumping noise of machine guns and the whistle of rifle bullets whizzing by too close for comfort. When the charge was sounded at 7.30am, Piper Taylor leapt over the parapet and, under a hail of machine gun bullets, marched across no-man’s land, playing “The Cock ‘O’ the North”. One report from the front stated Piper Taylor “piped like one possessed”. Hearing the pipes gave the Gordons courage, and the fighting spirit of the Second Battalion gathered strength from his courageous leap into the face of death-and the warlike skirl of his pipes did the rest. The kilted Highlanders from hell charged past him with bayonets fixed and rifles at high port; they had 200 yards of ground to cover before reaching the enemy’s line. As they drew ever nearer the German lines, the “bannered bagpipes maddening sound” gave way to several bursts of machine gun fire which, in a blinding fury of rage and vengeance ripped apart his bagpipes, silencing them forever. His bullet riddled left arm was torn asunder in that few moments of hellfire and he fell, along with many of the kilted Highlanders, in the killing carnage of the Somme.
Many men were mown down by German machine guns, which had not been destroyed during the British artillery barrage. From the eleven divisions which began the assault,
57,470 men became casualties-21, 392 killed or missing, 35,593 wounded and 585 taken prisoner. The Gordon’s losses were high-16 officers and 445 soldiers out of 24 officers and 783 soldiers, who had gone into the attack, were dead or wounded. The Second Battalion Gordon Highlanders achieved their objective by storming Mametz and pressing on to the north through the village. This was considered a successful attack.
While lying on the battlefield Charlie had the presence of mind to get hold of his rifle “ pull-through”, which was a piece of copper wire, and twisted it around his left arm to stop the flow of blood; had this not been done he would have died. He might have died in any case, because it was not till late evening that his old friend George Wiseman from Gardenstoun-better known as “Shoras”-searched the area of no-man’s land for him and carried him back to safety. At the dressing station, because of the huge numbers of casualties that day they had run out of morphine, and Charlie was so critical they had to give him whisky to help him cope with the pain. They found that his left arm and part of his shoulder were so badly wounded that amputation was necessary there and then, without morphine or anaesthetic. He was then rushed to Rouen Hospital for further treatment to remove the bullets in his shoulder and improve the amputation.
The gallant piper was far from the field of battle forever and this was the last time he would face the enemy. On the 11thJuly, only days after Mametz, the press carried a full report under the title of “Heroic Broch Piper”, and many of his comrades would often compare him with Piper Findlater who earned the V.C. at Dargai in 1897.
Eventually he was brought back to Britain, where he was placed in the care of Wally Hospital, Blackburn in Lancaster. There he became very weak and fell dangerously ill when gangrene set into his shoulder wound. It was feared death was near, and his wife Elsie was sent for late in November 1916. However, his fighting spirit and the marvellous doctors who trimmed off more of his shoulder won a miraculous recovery over this dreadful injury. This heroic piper had suffered seven bullet wounds, the loss of his left arm and “trench foot”, he would have a lifetime of pain, his feet had swollen from size nine to size eleven during the war because of “trench foot”- later they were to swell to size twelve and he had to learn to cope with his tragic disability. Throughout his life he never complained. His strength of character and determination to succeed helped him over come the pain as well as the disability; he would often amaze his friends with his ability to cope with just the one arm. Early in 1917 piper Taylor returned home to a hero’s welcome in Fraserburgh and his story does not end there.
Charlie was now faced with the same difficult problems as his father; they both had a left empty sleeve. His father, George Taylor, had ten of a family but Charlie too was to raise ten of a family-five girls and five boys. This gallant twenty-eight year old soldier searched on a continual quest for work. He found this in the Post Office, where his father had been employed for fifty years. “Postie” Taylor was seven years at Lonmay when Mrs Forest was Postmistress and then spent a further twenty-five years in Fraserburgh till he retired in 1949. Over that period he had walked many long miles delivering mail on his swollen feet.
He had a great love of the bagpipes and his music and one thing he found very distasteful was badly played pipes. On one occasion when a travelling piper passed his house, emitting painful, wailing noises, he ran out and told him to remove himself from the street and not disgrace the grand Scottish bagpipes; needless to say the travelling musician hastily made his retreat.
His days as a piper were over but his days of piping were not. Two of his sons, Hector and Sandy, had a test for the bagpipe music and although he taught neither of them, he did take them in hand. This was not going to be easy for them, as he proved a harsh disciplinarian if his course of instruction was not followed precisely. If they dared sound one wrong note, he quickly struck them across the knuckles with a wooden ruler. Their interest kindled a new flame for him as he enjoyed their support in playing. Charlie’s right hand developed the technique of playing in conjunction with their left hand and this coordination established again his love of piping; the old soldier’s needs were satisfied for many years. My mother told me she would often see the ‘fingers’ of his right hand tap in rhythm when he was in the presence of a piper or pipe band.
When the second war broke out, Charlie joined the Home Guard holding the rank of Sergeant. Instructing the Post Office and Railway employees, in Fraserburgh, on rifle and machine gun combat was part of his task of duty.
Then in 1943, when his son Hector returned from the army, Charlie helped him to get the first Boys’ Brigade pipe band started again. Piper Massy was on active service and there had been nobody to keep it going while he was away. They were taken on route marches up the old hospital road and even before their training was completed, any Scottish regiment would have been proud of them.
Charlie Taylor had overcome his disability with a supreme effort of determination and self pride that all soldiers have. He would often smile when noticing questioning glances of those who saw him drink his pint and smoke his “fag” at the same time with one hand. When he struck a light, he held the matchbox either between his knees or between the buttons of his waistcoat. His right arm had to do the work of two and it developed the strength of two; he never let his disability get in the way and was not frightened to try and do almost anything. This determination helped one night when, returning home from the pub, he came across a gang of notorious brothers setting about his old friend “Shoras”, who had fallen into a bad way. This infuriated Charlie and, despite only having one arm, he set about the brothers using his leather belt-swinging it around his head, striking a number of blows as he did so. They soon took off and could never live down the humiliation. He never failed to amaze friends when developing skills in gardening; he could use a spade or a garden-rake as well as any one with both hands, but then his willpower to conquer was ever present, and the old piper was a very keen gardener. Good results had to be achieved and they were.
After retiring from the Postal Service he received gifts from various traders, a group of householders and the Post Office. Then Charlie spent several years as a general handyman and pump attendant in the employment of Major James Sinclair, also of the Gordon Highlanders, in the County Garage on Barrasgate Road. There he washed and polished cars, as well as sweeping the floor with a large byre brush which he wielded with army discipline. He amused his workmates there by holding the shovel handle between his knees securely, as in a strong clenched fist. Then, while brushing the rubbish with tremendous ease onto it, he could talk quite freely with no sign of difficulty.
The old piper rarely talked of his wartime experiences, considering them best forgotten; when he had a little too much to drink he would sometimes tell a story or two about the war. When a new doctor arrived at the local practice he remarked, “What a lovely job has been done on your arm. How did this happen?” He never put the doctor through it and replied “Oh `at was lang before ye’ wis born!” A close family friend asked him how he lost his arm in the war, and he retorted “Ach that’s a’ better forgotten!’ At’s fit happened then, an’ there’s a gye lot mair like me!”
This man had mastered his life completely: brought up ten children and thankfully, was fully employed all his life with hardly a day’s illness. His only handicap was an occasional difficulty in tying his bootlaces.
Three times Piper Taylor had been carried from the battlefield, but the last time he was to be carried was in November 1956. That day Pipe Major Leslie Pirie, of the Fraserburgh British Legion Band, stood on Gallowhill Road and played “Death of the Chief” as the gallant old piper was taken from his house. When he was led to his resting place, the strains of “Flowers O’ The Forest” filled that November day with true grief, not only for his heroic deed on the Somme, but his bitter struggle for survival with a dreadful disability throughout his life.
Perhaps the “Flowers O’ The Forest” should also have sounded over Mametz to lament his passing, for there lie the remains of his shattered bagpipes, which have long since been trampled to dust with other relics of war; it was their high pitched voice that called the Gordons into battle as they led the ‘push’ on the Somme that day.
Now, as the years pass by, memories are fading fast and this brave Gordon piper who lost his arm while leading a victorious charge has almost been forgotten. The old piper would have wished so anyway, but there were many more like him in both wars so perhaps this should be a tribute to them also.
The following tribute appeared in the Press: “I have heard before of a piper who played his comrades into battle, but I had never met such a man. I feel proud to have known Piper Taylor of the Gordon Highlanders; it is to men of his calibre that the people of this country are indebted.”
So ended a chapter in the lives of those who knew and respected him, but perhaps Piper Taylor’s deeds should never be forgotten, and should linger on as a reminder of what did happen to the men on both sides of the conflict.
During the First World War the Scottish Regiments were often in the toughest battles, their regimental pipers were the brave inspiring men who lead from the front into combat. Harry Lunan a piper from the Battle of the Somme said of pipe music, “Hearing the pipes gave the troops courage and incentive.” Another veteran said, “When they played the bagpipes I felt I could go through anything.” The most often heard song at the funerals of fallen comrades was “Flowers O’ the Forest”. Over 1,000 pipers were killed in action and as many were badly wounded during WW1.
The war to end all wars was a war without parallel: over 70 million military personnel were involved and over 17 million people died. All the Scottish Regiments suffered extremely heavy losses in personnel during the war; the total number of Scots who lost their lives in the Great War was 147,609. The British Empire mobilized 8,780,000-of those 900,000 military died and 2,090,000 were wounded. When you analyse the above figure, that is over one-sixth of the total British casualties list, or 24.6% of all British casualties, were Scots. That was a grossly high number of male deaths for Scotland as a country to sustain; they are certainly the lost generation that a country can ill afford to lose.
A Poem for Piper Taylor
I heard of a Gordon piper who played his comrades into battle.
“Play your pipes loud and proud piper Taylor!”
For he knew how to give Highland hearts a beat with Celtic throb and vigour.
Go now and play “The Cock of the North” and we the kilted warriors will follow you to fame and glory in all battles to come for ever more.
Now the tunes of the piper have faded and the calls of “Scotland forever!” lie silent.
As the pipers’ lament has sounded, rest now my brave solder forever more now the battle is over.
Lie you now with all the “Flowers O’ the Forest”in yonder fields of Flanders where the brave never grow old. We shall not forget your brave endeavour and ultimate sacrifice you and all others gave in the name of freedom, democracy and liberty.
At the setting of the sun we will remember them.