appointed to command a
force of 32,882 officers and soldiers. The intention was to advance into the
Chagru valley on 20 October but the Alikhel tribesmen had seen the
preparation of a mountain road by the army working parties.
They anticipated the route to be taken by the army and occupied the village
of Dargai and the Narik spur. This formed the western boundary of the valley
and completely dominated the road along which the Expeditionary Force was to
descend. It was therefore necessary to dislodge the tribesmen from their
position. The water supply of Dargai was some distance away from the village
and General Palmer saw that adjacent heights would have to be taken if it
were to be reached. The tribesmen were not expected back and the order to
retire was given. Two companies of the Gordon Highlanders were left to hold
the tribesmen in check till the other regiments had taken up a new position.
First one company was ordered to retire and then the other. Only half of the
last company remained when the enemy appeared behind them from over a hill
only thirty yards away. The Gordon Highlanders promptly formed up as the
enemy fired and rushed them thinking them defeated. The men stood their
ground and killed six of the tribesmen only yards from them. The other
tribesmen turned and ran.
General Kempster’s brigade was ordered to storm the Heights and the 1st
Division was strengthened by the 2nd Derbyshires and the 3rd Sikhs. They
were to be supported by three batteries with another on Samana Sukh if
required. The Gurkhas, Dorsets and Derbys all suffered terrible casualties
and were met by such intense fire, from only 200 yards away, that those who
were not cut down in the charge could do no more than hold onto the position
they had reached. Over 100 men lay dead and wounded. The tribesmen rejoiced,
waving their standards and beating their drums as victory seemed assured.
General Kempster ordered the Gordon Highlanders to the front. The Gordon
Highlanders advanced. The dead and wounded of the other regiments were
brought back. On getting to the spot reached by the Derbys and Dorsets, the
Gordons lay under cover for three minutes as the guns again concentrated
their fire on the summit.
The moment came to advance. The Pipe-Major of the Gordon Highlanders was
superintending the bringing up of the reserve ammunition when the order to
advance came through and he was still doing so when the order to charge was
given. Lance-Corporal Piper Milne was the next most senior piper and he led
Pipers Findlater, Fraser, Wills, and Kidd into action. In his despatch to
the Adjutant-General in India on 9 December 1897, Sir William Lockhart
recalled that, "The Gordon Highlanders went straight up the hill without
check or hesitation. Headed by their pipers, and led by Lieut-Colonel
Mathias, CB, with Major Macbean on his right and Lieutenant A F Gordon on
his left, this splendid battalion marched across the open. It dashed through
a murderous fire…" As the Gordon Highlanders burst into the field of fire
Major Macbean fell almost immediately, shot through the thigh. He dragged
himself to the shelter of a boulder and cheered on his men as they passed. A
bullet hit Piper Milne in the chest and he fell, unable to continue.
Three-quarters of the way across the exposed strip of land Piper Findlater
was shot in the ankles. He fell and, leaning against a rock, continued to
play his pipes as blood ran from his wounds, dying his kilt red. Of the five
pipers who led the charge only Piper Kidd made it to the Heights.
The first division reached the sheltering rocks and paused for breath. As
their numbers increased to 400 they started again up the precipitous path to
the crest of the hill. Reaching the top they rushed along the succession of
ridges as the tribesmen took flight. The position was won at 3.15pm. The
Gordon Highlanders gave three cheers for Colonel Mathias. As he came over
the last ascent the Colonel had rather breathlessly commented to a
colour-sergeant, "Stiff climb, eh, Mackie? Not quite - so young - as I was -
you know." With a friendly slap on his commanding officer’s back the
sergeant replied, "Never mind, sir! Ye’re ga’un vara strong for an auld
man!" Major-General Yeatman-Biggs reported favourably on several Gordon
Highlanders. "Major F Macbean, who was the first to spring out of cover and
lead his company to the attack... Piper Findlater, who after being shot
through both feet and unable to stand, sat up under heavy fire playing the
regimental march to encourage the charge... Private Lawson, who carried
Lieutenant Dingwall, when wounded and unable to move, out of a heavy fire,
and subsequently returned and brought in Private Macmillan, being himself
wounded in two places in so doing... I recommend Piper Findlater and Private
Lawson for the Victoria Cross."
Later, Findlater wrote, "I remember the Colonel addressing the regiment,
telling them what they were expected to do. I remember again the order for
the regiment to attack, and the order "Pipers to the front". I am told that
the ‘Cock of the North’ was the tune ordered to be played, but I didn’t hear
the order, and using my own judgement I thought that the charge would be
better led by a quick strathspey, so I struck up ‘The Haughs o’ Cromdale’.
The ‘Cock o’ the North’ is more of a march tune and the effort we had to
make was a rush and a charge. The battle fever had taken hold of us and we
thought not of what the other was feeling. Our whole interest being centred
in self. Social positions were not thought of, and officers and men went
forward with eagerness shoulder to shoulder. When I got wounded the feeling
was as if I had been struck heavily with a stick. I remember falling and
playing on for a short time; but I was bleeding profusely and in a few
minutes sickened. I am told that the time I continued playing after falling
was about five minutes. After the position was won, and the wounded taken to
the rear, my first thoughts on recovery were how lucky I had been in getting
off so easily. It never occurred to me that I had done anything to merit
reward. What I did I could not help doing. It was a very great surprise when
I was told that my action had been brave, and a recommendation had been made
to award me the soldier’s prize - the VC."
George Findlater was invalided home and offered a position, probably at
Balmoral. He declined this because of the poor pay. He then took up a
concert career for some time, much to the distress of the War Office.
Returning from his travels Piper Findlater settled at Mountblairy in the
parish of Alvah, Banffshire. Both of his parents were dead but he was not
far from many of his family who lived in the surrounding countryside. On
Wednesday, 2 August 1899 George Findlater married his cousin, Nellie
Findlater. Nellie’s late father, John, was the brother of George’s father.
She was 23 years of age and lived at South Brownside, Forglen. The wedding
took place at St Congan’s Episcopal Church near Mill of Turriff where Piper
Findlater had been born. The Revd George Lawson, minister at Forglen,
performed the ceremony. Nellie Findlater’s sister Jessie was bridesmaid and
Piper Findlater’s brother James, from Birmingham, was best man. When the
Findlaters returned from their honeymoon they settled in a newly-built
cottage near the banks of the Deveron at Mountblairy. Piper Findlater’s
ambition had always been to find a small farm and by June 1900 he had
secured the tenancy of a holding at Bridgend, Forglen on the estate of Mr
Harvey of Carnousie. George and Nellie Findlater had four children at
Bridgend. John Alexander was born in 1900; Frances Harvey in October 1900;
Mary Ann in November 1901, and Frederick George in April 1904. The
Findlaters moved to a 30-acre farm in Forglen, Cairnhill, and in September
1909 Helen Kennedy was born there. George and Nellie were to live at
Cairnhill for the rest of their lives.
When war broke out in 1914 George Findlater was a 42 year old farmer. The
9th Battalion of The Gordon Highlanders was formed at Aberdeen in September
1914. Findlater volunteered for service. In January 1915 the battalion was
made a Pioneer battalion providing labouring jobs for low-grade medical men.
He travelled to France with the battalion in July 1915 as a Sergeant Piper
and was wounded at Loos. Invalided out of the army he returned to
Aberdeenshire to his farm. He received the 1914-15 Star medal and the
British War and Victory medals. For the next 27 years George Findlater
farmed Cairnhill and was active in the Turriff pipe band as Pipe-Major.
On 4 March 1942 George Frederick Findlater, VC, the Piper of Dargai, died of
a heart attack aged 70 years. His widow, Nellie Findlater, died on 15
December 1949, at Cairnhill, aged 74 years. George and Nellie Findlater are
buried in Forglen cemetery a short distance from Turriff. The cemetery is
hidden away at the bottom of a steep track on the left-hand side of the road
to Forglen, just past the second farm on the left after passing over the
bridge at Turriff. A tiny sign points down the track to "Kirkside". The
Findlater gravestone is about three-quarters of the way along the east wall
of the cemetery.