Bagpipes in the WWI Trenches

WWI bagpipes, Harry Luden, pipers, trenches, Cock o' the North, Edinburgh Tattoo, British Expeditionary Forces, Battle of Somme, BEF


Did you know the bagpipes played an important role for the British army during World War I?

2500 bagpipe players were in the trenches with their men.

The pipers played the clarion call to arms to the men of the British Expeditionary Forces and thus were usually the first ones “over the top.”

They stood  in full view of the German lines, playing their instrument, marching through “no-man’s land” without any sort of ammunition but their sound.

The bagpipe players carried no cutting devices when they encountered barbed wire. Enemy fire mowed them down just as effectively as they killed advancing troops.

600 pipers were wounded, 500 bagpipe players died while rallying the troops into battle.

They received an extra penny a day to play their pipes.

For the most part, the bagpipes skirled out the regimental tunes to get the men moving, tunes such as Highland Laddie, Bluebonnets Over the Border,  and the Minstrel Boy. You can hear twenty tunes here.

Some of the more famous bagpipe rallying tunes, The Battle of the Somme and The Bloody Fields of Flanders were written in the trenches on site.


Last Surviving Bagpiper

The last bagpipe player survivor from World War I was Harry Lunan of the 5th Gordon Highlanders. He took part in the assault on High Wood in July 1916.

WWI bagpipes, Harry Luden, pipers, trenches, Cock o' the North, Edinburgh Tattoo, British Expeditionary Forces, Battle of Somme, BEF, bagpipes

Look closely–he’s facing the battle and smoke comes from shells. (Wikipedia)

He described the experience as an honor:

“You were scared, but you just had to do it, they were depending on you.

In the first assault he played the tune Cock o’ the North.

‘I played my company over the bloody top, right into the German trenches.  It was stupid as hell…Men falling all around me, falling dead…it was bloody horrible.”

And after that?

“I just played whatever came into my head, but I was worried about tripping on the uneven ground, which interrupted my playing. The enemy fire was murderous, the men were falling all around me. I was lucky to survive. Hearing the pipes gave the troops courage.”

Lunan’ playing caused a variety of reactions from the non-British troops:

“The French enjoyed the pipes, they couldn’t get enough.  They would sing French tunes and I would play them.  The Germans were scared of the bloody pipes.”

Lunan died in Canada in 1994, age 98 years-old.

The British Army School of Bagpipe Music and Highland Drumming is located near Edinburgh, Scotland.

For more information, view this excellent one hour film, Pipers of the Trenches, and contemplate the courage of one brand of musician.



Who knew about WWI bagpipers leading men over the top? Click to Tweet

Extraordinary courage: bagpipe players in WWI. Click to Tweet

Bagpipes in WWI trenches. Click to Tweet

Leave a comment


  1. David Cross

     /  April 25, 2017

    England had a piper school south of Edinburgh? Do you mean Scotland, who along with England and Wales make up Great Britain? Pretty disappointing that someone writing an article on pipers doesn’t even know they are mostly from Scotland and that it was a British force in both world wars and not only England.

    • Michelle Ule

       /  April 25, 2017

      Thank you for pointing out that error to me, David. I will correct it.

  2. Mary

     /  May 22, 2017

    My Grandfather was a Piper during WWI from Isle of Skye. My mother was an immigrant from Scotland. to the US. My Salisbury surname traces from Herefordshire
    to Denbighshire. 1289 AD

    • Michelle Ule

       /  May 22, 2017

      How wonderful to have such a heritage! Were they all pipers? 🙂

  3. Pipers were still used it seems even up to Desert Storm. My father who was a US Army Infantry Officer told me that a nearby Scottish Unit was being played over the burm by the units piper

    • Michelle Ule

       /  November 16, 2017

      Yes. It was surprising to visit the Tattoo at Edinburgh Castle seven years ago and learn how many armies around the world have lots of bagpipes in the bands. A different war, now, though in which to play the pipes than leading men over the top and out of the trenches 100 years ago. Their casualty rate was high.


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