Montreal

'Ladies from Hell': The Black Watch returns to Belgium to recreate last scene of WW I

The Royal Highlanders of Canada, the storied Montreal regiment better known as the Black Watch, return to Mons to recreate a historic march through the city where the last Canadian battle of World War I was fought.

Royal Highlanders of Canada headed to scene of last Canadian battle to mark 100th anniversary of Armistice

At 11:00 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918, the skirl of the Black Watch bagpipes accompanied a parade of Royal Highlanders down the cobblestone streets of Mons, Belgium to celebrate the Armistice. (Canadian War Museum)

It was around 7:45 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918, when the phone rang at City Hall in Mons, Belgium, where Canadian soldiers had just set up their headquarters.

Earlier that morning, the Royal Highlanders of Canada — also known as Montreal's Black Watch — had recaptured the Belgian city after four years of German occupation.

The townspeople had already welcomed the Canadians at a 7 a.m. parade. But the message jotted down by a signaling officer, Lt. Louis H. Biggar, called for a celebration of a different order:

"Hostilities will cease at 1100 Nov. 11th – Troops will stand fast on line reached at that hour which will be reported to Bde [Brigade] HQ – Defensive precautions will be maintained – There will be no intercourse of any description with the enemy – Further instructions follow."

The Black Watch has preserved the message Lt. Louis H. Biggar received by phone on Nov. 11, 1918 informing the troops of the Armistice. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

At 11:00 a.m., the skirl of the Black Watch bagpipes accompanied the second parade of the day down the cobblestone streets of Mons.

And with that, the First World War came to an end.

One hundred years later, the storied Montreal regiment will return to Mons to recreate that historic march through the city where the last Canadian battle of the war was fought.

Around 100 people with ties to the Black Watch — including former members, descendants of First World War soldiers and active service members — will take part in a series of ceremonies both in France and Belgium, culminating with the parade in Mons on Nov. 11.

If these pipes could talk

Coming with the regiment are the bagpipes that belonged to David Manson, the Black Watch's pipe major during the First World War. Manson reportedly played them as Canadian troops disembarked for the first time in France.

The scene is captured in Edgar Bundy's painting, Landing of the First Canadian Division at Saint-Nazaire, 1915, which hangs in the Senate chamber in Ottawa.

Made of African black wood in 1893, Manson's pipes are stored in the Pipes and Drums room of the Black Watch's regimental headquarters on Bleury Street.

The honour of playing them in Mons this Sunday falls to the regiment's current pipe major, Daniel Smith, a 32-year veteran of the Canadian Forces.

"If these [pipes] could talk, it would be amazing," Smith said, as he cradled the bagpipes in his arms. "I'm almost afraid to touch them."

Turn on your volume and listen to Daniel Smith play the pipes in this video:

Playing the Manson pipes 0:40

Black-and-white photographs of pipers past decorate the Pipes and Drums room in the Black Watch armoury.

As a highland unit, the bagpipes — and the kilts — have been integral to the identity of the Black Watch since it was formed by Montreal's Scottish chieftains in 1862.

Pipers were often the ones who led Black Watch troops into battle. That was a particularly harrowing prospect in the First World War, as it meant being the first ones to leave the relative safety of the trenches.

"They basically went over the top before the troops did and played. The Germans thought they were all crazy. That's why they called us the 'Ladies from Hell,'" Smith said.

In The Battle of Loos, France, 1915 — a 1917 painting by Lady Butler — the Black Watch pipers, dubbed the 'Ladies from Hell' by the German enemy, are depicted in action. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

"They couldn't believe these guys in skirts, and that there was one with the pipes. A lot of times they wouldn't shoot at him because they thought he was absolutely out of his mind."

Manson survived the war, but pipers as a whole suffered heavy casualties. One estimate suggests 500 Commonwealth pipers were killed between 1914 and 1918.

Flora Stewart, the inimitable goat

Hauling Manson's bagpipes out of storage is not the only nostalgic flourish of the Black Watch's commemoration tour.

In the annals of the regiment's history, a fair bit of space is devoted to Flora Stewart, a goat.

Black Watch soldiers adopted the goat as they marched out of Ypres, having just endured some of the deadliest fighting in the war.

Flora's ability to keep time with the pipes and drums and to turn on command enamoured her to the troops.

Flora's ability to keep time with pipes and drums and to turn on command enamoured her to the Black Watch troops. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

A regimental history published in 1925 noted Flora was the "envy and admiration of all units whose mascots could not be trained to do likewise."

Flora died in the last days of the war (likely from having grazed on toxic grass), around the time Black Watch soldiers were liberating the French town of Wallers.

Her horns made their way back to Montreal, where they are proudly displayed in the Bleury Street armoury.

The horns of Flora the goat hang in the Black Watch armoury in Montreal. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

The cherishing of Flora the goat, and maintaining the bagpipe tradition amidst the carnage of war, weren't mere acts of irreverence. 

They were vital to the psychological well-being of the troops, said David O'Keefe, a former Black Watch regimental historian. 

"It's trying to maintain normalcy in this incredibly chaotic environment," said O'Keefe, himself a one-time infantry officer in the Black Watch.

"These are the things people like to cling to, to remind them that there is life after this."  

On Saturday, Black Watch members will return to Wallers for a ceremony marking the town's liberation.

For the occasion, they have secured a French goat to play Flora's part.

The organizers have even made sure that Flora II is exposed to bagpipe music beforehand, so that she, too, comes to enjoy the skirl.

About the Author

Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal. He covers politics and social affairs.

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