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Playing a Piece of Wartime History
How many musicians can say their instrument was played in the trenches during World War I? Pipe major Garth Newlands can. The Surrey resident plays a set of bagpipes that once belonged to his grandfather, Alexander Newlands, a piper in the 48th Highlanders of Canada. In the BBC documentary Pipers of the Trenches, Garth got the opportunity to stand where his grandfather would have stood in the trenches at Vimy Ridge.Read More
Playing a Piece of Wartime History
How many musicians can say their instrument was played in the trenches during World War I?
Pipe major Garth Newlands can. The Surrey resident plays a set of bagpipes that once belonged to his grandfather, Alexander Newlands, a piper in the 48th Highlanders of Canada.
In the BBC documentary Pipers of the Trenches, Garth got the opportunity to stand where his grandfather would have stood in the trenches at Vimy Ridge. Historian Patrick Watt painted a picture for Garth of the battle his grandfather would have played through on Easter Monday, 1917.
“The ground in front of him was a nightmare; it was mud. It was snowing. There was a horrible wind swirling around. And he would have been in front of his company of troops, piping them on… he would have felt responsible for moving these guys forward and taking the fight to the enemy.”
“For some of these men, it was the last sound that they heard,” added Michael Stedman, a military historian."
According to the documentary, 2500 pipers served in WWI and almost half of them were either wounded (600) or killed (500). In the film, we see Garth climb the steps of the Canadian National Vimy Memorial; he plays a lament on his grandfather’s pipes for the more than 60,000 Canadian soldiers who died in WWI.Garth Newlands plays a lament for fallen soldiers at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France.
Photo by Johnny Crockett.
I met up with Garth to ask what that experience was like for him – and to pick his brain a little about bagpipes.
Here’s an edited version of our conversation:
How did you come to feature in Pipers of the Trenches?
It was just an out-of-the-blue email [from] BBC – hey, we’re doing this show… about pipers in the First World War; do you want to be involved with it? A day or two later Andrew Twaddle, the producer of the show, called me up and we spent a half hour talking. About two and a half weeks later they were over here in Vancouver, filming my family and me. About two weeks after that, they flew me over to France.
How exciting was that for you?
It was a very fast and short trip, but it was very interesting… to hear the historian talking about everything that was going on at the… Somme… and Vimy. The war cemeteries over there are immaculately kept. We walked through many. You’re reading some of these gravestones looking at the difference in age – every now and then you’d find someone who was 13 or 14 years old.
Did you learn anything specific about your grandfather’s service while you were there?
We saw some of the battle records saying this is where his platoon would have been. He was definitely here on this date – that kind of thing.Alexander Newlands (against wall on right side) stands with members of the 48th Highlanders of Canada pipe band.
Piper James Richardson was a notable piper from the First World War. He was the fellow that won the Victoria Cross [posthumously]. A girl that I met by accident one time – he was her great uncle. [At the Somme offensive on October 8, 1916] fighting had been very hectic. [Richardson] went up there and piped until everyone came up over the trench and realized if this guy’s got the courage to stand up there and play then we’re going over.
When I started to look into my grandfather’s records and [Richardson’s] service records, they would have been two trenches apart… on the day that [Richardson] died. My grandfather and his two brothers survived the First World War, but this good fellow ended up dying that day. Both pipers… they would have known each other because they were both at the same place at the same time. It’s interesting that it tied together with someone that I met here [i.e. Richardson’s great niece); we know each other and they knew each other.
I understand you had a chance to stand in the trenches at Vimy Ridge where your grandfather would have played. They gave you headphones so you could hear what his pipes might have sounded like…
Yeah, they recreated the soundtrack of what the battlefield may have sounded like when one of the larger battles would have been going on. It was quite a neat experience. You couldn’t really hear the piper playing over what was going on. They may have had audio levels done wrong or something like that.
What sounds could you hear?
Lots of bomb blasts, mortars and gunfire and people screaming every now and then. There might have been a bit of rain as well. Every now and then you’d hear birds chirping.
When your grandfather died, you would have been like 13…
I was in Grade 7.
Is there anything you never asked your grandfather that you wish you could ask him today?
If we were talking about piping, there would be lots of questions… how much music did he write? What were his favourite songs to play?
What would you want to tell him?
It’s been so long, I don’t know… just that we’re keeping up the tradition and we’re keeping the history of the pipes alive. He started playing as a boy piper, so he would have been about eight or nine years old when he learned to play.Alexander Newlands (left) settled down in Berwyn, Alberta after the war. He’s pictured here with friends in 1925. Photographer unknown.
Can you describe your grandfather’s pipes for me?
My grandfather’s pipes are a set of 1914 Peter Henderson’s. Peter Henderson was one of the premier bagpipe makers. They came about in around 1850. Henderson pipes are still being made, just not with the same makers.
My pipes are made from African Blackwood, sterling silver and ivory. Back then they would typically let the wood age after it had been cut for between 35 and 50 years, in order for it to dry properly… so the wood itself is about 150 years old. I haven’t actually had mine tested, but they’ve had some [pipes] of the same quality go through testing and they compare them to Stradivarius – for tonal quality.
Can you describe what it feels like to hold a set of pipes?
If you’re doing it properly, it doesn’t feel like you’re [holding] anything at all because it just fits you and becomes a part of you.
If it’s uncomfortable to hold them and play, you’re doing something wrong.
How much do they weigh?
Probably about seven pounds.
Did you ever see your grandfather play them?
I was born in ’69 and he stopped playing in ’72, so I don’t ever remember him playing. But there are a few recordings around of him playing.
He played them for… 70-odd years. He passed away in 1982 at the age of 92. My [younger] brother started playing right around that time. He played them for 13 years until he had a massive brain aneurism and passed away. Then my mom was like, “Oh, maybe you better take up the bagpipes.” I’ve been playing now for 19 years.Garth Newlands visits the Canadian National Vimy Memorial in France.
Photo by Johnny Crockett.
When I was playing on the memorial at Vimy Ridge, where I was standing I could see over the entire valley. That was pretty neat.
A lot of the tunes that are played nowadays… were written in commemoration of battles… by military soldiers and military pipers. They put a lot of emotion and feeling into what they experienced at certain battles or campaigns. The lament Flowers of the Forest, which is one of the ones I play on the show, stirs a lot of emotions… because it’s only played on solemn occasions typically… military funerals or on Remembrance Day.
The average person probably doesn’t know much about bagpipes. Can you tell me a couple things people might be surprised to learn about them?
It’s not as hard as people think it is to play them. There are four reeds in the bagpipes and a little air reservoir, which is the bag itself. There’s a little bit of technique involved in getting the four reeds playing at the same time, but once you get that bit down, it’s very simple.
Learning to play the bagpipes takes between six months and 18 months to get to a level where you’re proficient enough and know a couple of tunes.
My son’s been playing for almost two years now and he’s starting to get really eager in it. He’ll start to advance through the Robert Malcolm Memorial Pipe Band, which is part of the Simon Fraser University Pipe Band organization. Simon Fraser is a six-time world champion… It’s something for him to strive for.
Do you guys have father-son pipe jam sessions?
No, but I know some families that do that. His first instructor was Jack Lee, one of the world’s best. In a few years, he’ll start to realize hey, that was a really big thing.
Sure, to be able to study under one of the world champions in anything when you’re just starting is pretty amazing.
Jack’s like that. He likes working with the kids, developing their skills. He runs another program called Piping Hot Summer Drummer. It’s a two-week clinic up in Vernon – eight hours a day of piping and drumming and Highland Dancing, getting lots of good instruction from several of the world’s best instructors.
And is it mostly boys and men playing the pipes?
Oh, no. There are lots of girls playing the pipes as well. The piping community continues to grow, to evolve and bring more and more people into it. It used to be that if people didn’t start playing by the time they were 13 or 15 years old, they never really took it up. I didn’t start playing until I was 27.
How good are you now?
I have no problem getting up and playing in front of five people or… 30,000 people. I’m part of the BC Lions halftime show, their salute to veterans, which is on November 7 this year. I look after organizing all the pipe bands for that. We have about 100-odd pipers and 50 drummers coming out.
What does it feel like to be standing in the middle of a stadium playing with that many pipers?
It’s a really great experience. There are a lot of first-time players who go out and they’re really nervous. I’ve done it enough times now that it’s old hat.
Now you’re teaching people to play the bagpipes. How long have you been teaching for?
I started out teaching private lessons about five years ago. We started group lessons about two years ago. We bring in adults who want to learn how to play the bagpipes or the drums. It’s never too late; it just becomes a little more difficult. You have to have the dexterity in your fingers to be able to play. And you have to have the lung capacity. If you have those two things then it’s pretty easy.
Fingers and lungs.
If you had to convince someone to pick up the pipes as opposed to the violin or a clarinet or something, how would you? Why the pipes?
Notoriety. Everyone loves to hear a piper. Even the people that hate pipers; they’ll say… they’re a horrible thing and they sound like cats being killed and all that stuff, but everyone enjoys the pipes.
Learn more about the pipers like Garth’s grandfather who served in World War I.
Watch Pipers of the Trenches on November 11 at 8pm.