Of Lions and Pipers: The Indispensability of Symbols

Of Lions and Pipers: The Indispensability of Symbols

At times, men can be symbols. And symbols matter. Today, two men – two symbols – come to mind. Let us begin with the first. It was May, 1940. A vicious Nazi war-machine had conquered Poland, Norway, Denmark, and began an unprecedented Blitzkrieg attack on Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, and France. The Nazi victories were the fruits of a crafty megalomaniac, a German population hungry for revenge, and a passive international community who grievously underestimated Adolf Hitler. The British Empire, increasingly isolated and war-weary from World War I, shrank from confronting the German upstart as, between 1936 and 1938, Hitler bloodlessly conquered the Rhineland, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. By May of 1940, nine months into World War II, the once-proud British Empire teetered under the anemic leadership of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. A campaign in Norway, which was the primary British engagement thus far in the War, ended in humiliating defeat. The principled and heroic stance of the British in World War I was nowhere to be found. And the people wanted a change.

In 1940, Winston S. Churchill was sixty-five years old. In political office for nearly forty years, he had switched parties twice, made innumerable political enemies, and found himself in the political wilderness in the decade prior to the War. As World War II broke out, however, Churchill’s oft-ignored warnings about Germany’s rise earned him a spot back in the Cabinet as the head of the Navy, also known as First Lord of the Admiralty. Nine months into the War, Churchill would find himself in a very different position. In the wake of the Norwegian debacle, Neville Chamberlain would lose the support of his Conservative constituency in the House of Commons. Subsequently on May 10, 1940, through a fascinating turn of events, Winston Churchill would be named Prime Minister .

It was at this time, that Winston Churchill changed the face of history. An appeasing, retiring, hand-wringing British Empire was about to be set aright. On the very day that Winston Churchill would ascend to the Prime Minister’s role, Adolf Hitler’s military would launch a ruthless attack on Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, and France. The British were militarily unprepared, financially precarious, and spiritually uncertain. A nation and the world awaited a new Prime Minister’s stance…. On May 13th, Winston Churchill would articulate it,

I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this government: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, “come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.”

It was a new message and the first in a series of dramatic, spell-binding speeches. While there was a guarded, if not muted, response to Churchill’s maiden speech as Prime Minister, a leader had been found. Perhaps better stated, the British Empire had found a lion – a symbol around which the people would rally.

The second man – and unlikely symbol – was William “Bill” Millin. On June 5, 1944, Bill Millin was a twenty-one year old Scottish private in Britain’s First Special Service Brigade. He found himself in an unlikely position of honor. The aristocratic Brigade Commander Lord Lovat asked Private Millin to stand in the bowsprit of the landing craft as it and hundreds of other craft were beginning to cross the English Channel. It was to be the greatest cross-Channel invasion in the history of the world, remembered more famously as “D-Day”.  As Bill’s craft passed through the Solent (the strait between the Isle of Wight and mainland England that empties into the Channel), other craft and transports filled with fellow soldiers acknowledge him with roars and throw their hats into the air. Bill stood erect, proud, and steadfast – playing the bagpipes.

And while the rallying cry of the bagpipes playing “The Road to the Isles” would provide the embarking soldiers with a stiffened spirit for what lay ahead, Bill Millin’s most notable act was yet to come. After a violently jarring ride across the channel, Bill and his fellow soldiers felt the landing ahead would be more merciful than the tumultuous sea below. But as the disembarking began at Sword Beach, the soldier in front of him was shot in the face. Immediately, Bill leapt into the ice-cold water. With floating kilt and a simple ceremonial dagger as his only weapon, he waded ashore, pipes hoisted high, and played “Hieland Laddie”. In front of him, his commander Lord Lovat looked back at him with an approving grin. Then, in the words of Bill Millin,

(Millin leaving the landing craft with bagpipes in foreground closest to viewer)

When I finished, Lovat asked for another tune. Well, when I looked round – the noise and people lying about shouting and the smoke, the crump of mortars, I said to myself “Well, you must be joking surely.” He said “What was that?” and he said “Would you mind giving us a tune?” “Well, what tune would you like, Sir?” “How about The Road to the Isles?” “Now, would you want me to walk up and down, Sir?” “Yes. That would be nice. Yes, walk up and down.”

Well, there was the water’s edge. Just about a few feet up on the beach I walked along that part. I could see people lying face down in the water going back and forwards with the surf. Others to my left were trying to dig in just off the beach. A low wall, and they were trying to dig in there. It was very difficult for them trying to dig in the sand. Yet when they heard the Pipes, some of them stopped what they were doing and waved their arms, cheering. But one came along, he wasn’t very pleased, and he called me “The mad bastard”. Well, we usually referred to Lovat as a “mad bastard”. This was the first time I had heard it referred to me.

To and fro, unarmed and upright, Bill piped on that “Day of Days”. To many, the risks taken by Bill and Lord Lovat were wasteful at the least and perhaps recklessly insane. But very many remember and honor Bill Millin purely for what he did. He had been a Piper – a symbol around which the people would rally.

The symbols of principle, courage, and defiance embodied in Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Private Bill Millin would not shine forth only in their highest profile moments. Rather, there were interludes of great poignancy that perhaps captured the sweet, sad circumstance of bold men who also suffered with their people. Churchill was famous for visiting bombed-out sections of England after the vicious Luftwaffe attacks early in the War (unlike Hitler who never did so in Germany). As Simon Schama describes in the New York Review of Books,

“When the prime minister toured the scorched and shattered remains of Bristol after a particularly hellish air raid in April 1941, a woman who had lost everything and was awash with raging tears, on seeing the jowly face and cigar, stopped crying and waved her hanky, shouting her-self hoarse, ‘Hooray, hooray!’. Along with the millions of his compatriots, [George] Orwell believed that, more than any political, or military, gifts, it had been Winston’s exuberant humanity—egotistical, erratic, histrionic—as well as his long career as a word-warrior, that had taken a people, shaking with trepidation, and made of them comrades in arms.”

Following the many speeches Churchill gave and the zealous defense he offered, the people loved and believed in their lion – their symbol – even if only glancing upon him in the midst of their devastation.

Bill Millin’s courage would find him piping over unsecured bridges and through sniper-laden passes. At times, he would be the only one standing as the remainder of his brigade squatted under fire from hidden assassins. But it was perhaps, the kind gesture – the brief gift – that Bill offered to a young French girl that continues to be moving. As Bill would recall,

We crossed the road in single file and then we turned down a narrow leafy lane, and walking along there then came to an opening and there were a cluster of French farm type houses with a gathering of French folks. They were poorly dressed French folks and I was walking along here and a little girl with red hair came out in bare feet. Very unkempt looking, and she kept shouting, “Music, music, music”. And I said, “Well, she wants a tune.” So I turned to Lovat and I said, “What do you think?” he said, “Okay then, give her a tune.” So I started to play a tune called The Nut Brown Maiden. It’s a famous Scottish tune, and went for a few yards like that then I had to stop because the mortaring had started and the French people scarpered. They all scarpered to every nook and the mortars began to blast.

Even though the music was brief and violently interrupted by mortar fire, Bill had chosen to play ‘The Nut Brown Maiden’, a song with the bittersweet lyrics that demonstrate empathy, not just sympathy, with the suffering French people. Bill, too, had suffered along the way for what he lost and what he left behind:

Her eye so mildly beaming,

Her look so frank and free;

In waking and in dreaming,

Is evermore with me.

Oh Mary, mild-eyed Mary,

By land or on the sea;

Though time and tide may vary,

My heart beats true to thee.

And since from thee I parted,

A long and weary while;

I wander heavy hearted

While longing for thy smile.

Mine eyes that never vary

From pointing to the glen

Where blooms my Highland Mary

Like wild rose ‘neath the ben.

And when with blossoms laden,

Bright summer comes again;

I’ll fetch my nut brown maiden,

Down from the bonny glen.

Briefly, so very briefly, Bill Millin’s pipes were a symbol for a sweeter, innocent time before the blackness of National Socialism. And yet it was a sweeter, innocent time that Bill and his fellow soldiers were seeking to restore for the French and themselves. The people loved and believed in the Piper – a symbol – even if only hearing him momentarily in the midst of their devastation.
The symbolism of the Lion in Churchill, or the Piper in Millin is not to shortchange the incredible work done and sacrifice made by either of these compelling figures. Nor is it meant to cheapen these men as silly, sentimental posterboys bearing little relevance to the daily trials and disasters of their time. Rather, it is to impress the notion that symbols matter because they stand for something. They represent an ideal, a standard, a tradition that is enduring, deeply meaningful, and perhaps even worth dying for.
The faithful hope inspired by a symbol is far from naive and sentimental. Instead, it is the flint-minded, firm-jawed admission that there is something besides oneself to live, fight, and perhaps die for. Without our symbols there is no religion, there is no culture, there is no hope. And few would argue that the likes of Churchill and Millin represented anything but hope against the fiendish likes of Hitler and his henchmen.
Winston Churchill and Bill Millin both recognized the role they played. Modestly, they would admit the value of symbolism. But they demurred, when their own importance was emphasized. Churchill, would correct,

“I have never accepted what many people have kindly said, namely that I inspired the Nation. It was the nation and the race dwelling around the globe that had the lion heart. I had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.”

Likewise, Bill Millin, finally relenting to requests for a statue erected in his honor near Sword Beach, would hold out hope,

“If they remember the bagpiper, they will not forget those who fought and fell.”

At times, men can be symbols. And symbols matter. In fact, they are indispensable.

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