Commemorations of the Centenary of the First World War will accompany us over the next few years, and there will be many events to remember the millions of people who died during the War, as well as the many soldiers who served. The commemorations will also give us an opportunity, however, to learn about some of the ordinary people – soldiers and civilians – who were affected by the War or, in their own small or more profound way, shaped what was happening. The story of James Cleland Richardson serves as a wonderful first story in what, on this Blog, will become a series of posts over the next few years to remember these ordinary people, connecting readers today with their personal stories.
Born in late November 1895 in Bellshill (Lanarkshire), James was first educated at Bellshill Academy, then the Auchinwraith Public School in Blantyre, and the John Street School in Glasgow. It was not in Scotland, however, where James’s connection with Word War I began, but in Canada. James had migrated there, together with his parents, in c1911. A driller by trade, James soon served in the cadet corps of the Seaforth Highlanders in Vancouver, a unit well known too for its pipe band (see image below). After the start of the War, James volunteered for service in the Canadian Expeditionary Force – like so many other recent arrivals from Britain. He was accepted as private and piper with the 16th Infantry Battalion, the Canadian Scottish, for which the Seaforth Highlanders regularly provided soldiers.
The 16th made its way to France and arrived there in February 1915; it was engaged in many battles, including during the offensive at the Somme in 1916. As was reported, a piper would often go in with a company during the assault on enemy trenches. As James’s biographer notes, while
Not originally detailed for the attack on Regina Trench, the 20-year-old Richardson pleaded successfully with his commanding officer to accompany the troops, whom he piped over the top. The advancing company encountered a storm of fire and enemy wire which had not been cut by the artillery. At this critical point, with the company commander killed, casualties mounting, and morale and momentum almost gone, Richardson volunteered to pipe again. “Wull I gie them wund [wind]?” he asked the company sergeant-major, who consented. For some ten minutes, fully exposed, he “strode up and down outside the wire, playing his pipes with the greatest coolness,” the citation to his decoration 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.” Later, after participating in bombing operations, Richardson was ordered to take back a wounded comrade and some prisoners. He started but returned for his pipes, which he had left behind. In doing so he was evidently hit by enemy fire.
What a wonderful and inspiring story this is. And one that was recognised, albeit only posthumously, when James was awarded the Victoria Cross in later October 1918.