James Cleland Richardson

For some ten minutes, fully exposed, he “strode up and down outside the wire, playing his pipes with the greatest coolness.”

James Cleland Richardson, bagpiper and soldier; b. 25 Nov. 1895 in Bellshill, Scotland, son of David Richardson and Mary Prosser; d. unmarried 8 or 9 Oct. 1916 near Courcelette, France.

Educated at Bellshill Academy, the Auchinwraith Public School in Blantyre, and the John Street School in Glasgow, James Richardson came to Canada with his parents around 1911–12. He was a driller by trade and served for six months in the cadet corps of the 72nd Regiment (Seaforth Highlanders), a Vancouver unit with a prominent pipe band. Following the outbreak of World War I, he volunteered for service in the Canadian Expeditionary Force and was taken on strength on 23 Sept. 1914 at Valcartier, Que., as a private and piper with the 16th Infantry Battalion (the Canadian Scottish), for which the Seaforths provided contingents. At the time he joined up, Richardson listed his father as chief of police in Chilliwack, B.C.

The 16th, which arrived in France in February 1915, engaged in numerous battles during the Somme offensive of 1916. One of the most difficult was Ancre Heights on 8 October, especially the attempt to seize the heavily defended Regina Trench north of Courcelette. Facing enemy rifles, machineguns, mortars, and artillery, the attackers were particularly vulnerable when they advanced over no man’s land.

Frequently a piper would go in with a company assaulting enemy trenches. 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. Initially listed as missing in action, he was never seen again and was officially presumed to have died on 9 October.

Jimmy Richardson was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross on 22 Oct. 1918 for his action at Regina Trench. He was one of four members of the 16th Battalion to win this decoration, the highest award for military bravery the monarch could bestow. Other decorated pipers with the 16th included Pipe Major James Groat (Distinguished Conduct Medal and Military Medal) and Piper George Firth Paul (Military Medal). Richardson was only the third piper within the imperial forces to receive the Victoria Cross since it was instituted in 1856. David and Mary Richardson were still living in Chilliwack when they received news of the award; no parents could have been more proud of their son.

—Text by Reginald H. Roy, “RICHARDSON, JAMES CLELAND,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 19, 2015. For this article's bibliography and other related information, visit Dictionary of Canadian Biography online.