Friday, October 08, 2010

"The Effect was Instantaneous..."

Ninety four years ago today, on a bleak battlefield known as the Somme, along a forsaken line known as the Regina Trench, a young boy of only 20 years old would spend ten precious minutes of his life displaying such courage that - unbeknown to him - it would reach years into the future to make such an impression on me that my heart would burst when I first learned of it.

I was a young Canadian Scottish Regimental cadet (2422 RCACC) learning regimental history when I first heard the name Piper James Richardson. In my tender youth, for me, his Victoria Cross was a matter of legend and pride and I wanted to be as brave as I imagined him to be. It wasn't until my basic training that I would learn the harrowing details of the amazing story that earned him that honour and it wasn't until I was much older that I came to realize just how spectacularly terrifying that whole time must have been for him.

The setting of the story of those ten minutes is the battle for the Ancre Heights. Piper Richardson (who had joined the 16th Infantry Battalion Canadian Scottish as a private and piper) was part of an advancing company that had been pinned down in a storm of enemy fire - machine guns, rifle fire and artillery. Heavy casualties, the death of the company commander and the mounting gravity of the situation had taken the momentum out of the attack. Just when it all hope seemed lost Piper Richardson asked his sergeant-major if he could pipe them over the top. Yes, he volunteered.

For what must have been the most amazing ten minutes in Somme, Piper Richardson, fully exposed, marched back and forth just outside the enemy wire playing his bagpipes for his troops. Not a single enemy bullet struck him. The citation to his VC decoration would later read "The effect was instantaneous. Inspired by his splendid example, the company rushed the wire with such fury and determination that the obstacle was overcome and the position captured.”

Instantaneous indeed - and all these years later my heart still fills with wonder, inspiration, pride, amazement, thankfulness and a tiny bit of sheer terror when I think of Piper Richardson's courage in those ten minutes.

John Wayne once said "Courage is being scared to death... and saddling up anyway." I don't know of a finer example of "saddling up anyway."

NOTE: In honour of this anniversary the new Pipes of War website launches today.

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