This Week in History


The Music of Courage

For the week of Monday, November 21, 2016

On November 25, 1895, James Cleland Richardson was born in Bellshill, Scotland. The Richardson family moved to British Columbia when James was in his teens, and he joined Vancouver’s 72nd Battalion Seaforth Highlander Cadet Corps pipe band.

James Richardson was the youngest Canadian and the only Canadian piper to earn the Victoria Cross
© Library and Archives Canada / C-033428

James was 18 when the "Seaforths" were absorbed into the 16th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. After a brief training period at Valcartier, Quebec, he was sent overseas in October 1914 as a piper with the 16th Infantry Battalion, also known as the Canadian Scottish.

Like the bugler leading a cavalry charge, pipers were common on Scottish regiments. They trained and participated as soldiers in military operations, but also carried the additional responsibility of ‘playing over the top’ on the bagpipes as battalions stormed from the trenches. The distinctive music was thought to ignite soldiers’ courage and loyalty when they needed it most.

For the 16th Battalion, the time for courage came on October 8, 1916, during the Battle of the Somme. Morale was low as casualties mounted in the waist-deep mud and debris. Piper Richardson marched up and down the wire beside the trenches playing his pipes. The effect on the battalion was long remembered, and it gave them the determination to take their objective.

Later that day, Richardson was assisting wounded soldiers and escorting prisoners when he realized he had left his bagpipes close to enemy lines. He returned to retrieve the pipes and was never seen again.

A statue commemorating Piper James Richardson is unveiled at a 2003 ceremony in Chilliwack, British Columbia
© Chilliwack Museum and Archives / Wikimedia Commons

Like thousands of Canadian soldiers, it was assumed that the story of James Richardson and his pipes ended at the Somme. Eighty-six years later, however, something unusual was noted about a set of bagpipes on display at Ardvreck School in Scotland. These had been found at the Somme in 1917 by a former teacher. The pipes bore the Lennox tartan carried not by Scottish regiments, but by the Canadian 16th Battalion's first pipers.

Richardson was awarded the Victoria Cross after his death and his pipes were repatriated to Canada on October 9, 2006. They are on public display at the British Columbia Legislature as a reminder of the bravery and sacrifice of those who served in the First World War. Countless individual acts of courage contributed to the significance of such national historic events as the battles of Beaumont-Hamel, Passchendaele, and the Second Battle of Ypres.

It is the centennial anniversary of the First World War. To learn about other recipients of the Victoria Cross, read Protector of the Air and Billy Bishop: An Ace up Canada’s Sleeve in the This Week in History archives.

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