The Gordon Highlanders recruited mainly from the Aberdeenshire area. The regiment was created in 1881 when the 75th Stirlingshire Regiment and the 92nd Gordon Highlanders amalgamated. George Findlater trained at Castlehill Barracks and was later drafted to Curragh Camp, where he remained for some time. After completing his training he was drafted to Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where he remained for a year or two. The battalion moved on to India at the end of 1891. On the outbreak of hostilities in the North-west frontier he was ordered to the front with the regiment.
At the famous charge by the Gordon Highlanders up the heights at Malakand, on 3 April 1895, he had a narrow escape when a bullet carried away the heel of one of his boots. In the subsequent encounters he is said to have acquitted himself nobly, and fortunately received no serious wound.
From childhood George Findlater had shown a taste for music and, shortly after enlistment, he began the study of the bagpipes. At the beginning of 1896 he was promoted to the rank of piper in the band of the regiment.
In the summer of 1897 tribesmen of the North-western frontier of India (now a part of Pakistan) began attacking and intimidating British forces in the area. The Indian Government decided that the unprovoked attacks by the Afridis and the Orakzais tribesmen could not go unpunished and decided that a show of force in Tirah, the tribe’s summer home, was appropriate. Accordingly, Sir William Lockhart was ordered out from Britain and appointed to command a force of 32,882 officers and soldiers. In addition, the Tirah Expeditionary Force consisted of 8000 horses, 1440 hospital riding ponies, 18,384 mules and many camels, carts and baggage ponies.
The 1st Battalion Gordon Highlanders formed part of the 1st Brigade, 2nd Division. The 2nd Division was commanded by Major-General Yeatman-Biggs CB and the 1st Brigade commanded by Brigadier-General Ian Hamilton DSO. As well as the Gordon Highlanders, the 1st Brigade, 2nd Division was made up of the 1st Dorsetshires, 1st Battalion 2nd Gurkhas, and the 15th Sikhs. The Gordon Highlanders went from Rawal Pindi to Peshawar marching with the Tirah expedition. They set off for Shinwari on 7 October , via the Kohat Pass, and arrived there on 15 October.
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.
Sir William Lockhart ordered the 2nd Division to clear the tribesmen from the ridge. General Westmacott’s 2nd Brigade were to take the position from the front while the 1st Brigade would make a wide detour to the west, get round the enemy’s right flank and threaten his rear.
The Gordon Highlanders set off from Shinwari, with the 1st Brigade, at 4am. Led by General Kempster and accompanied by Sir Power Palmer, they went by a circuitous route to the enemy’s right flank. Along part of the way they followed a dried water-course which got rougher as they advanced. After five miles the track got so steep that the Gurkhas in front "crawled like flies up a wall".
General Westmacott’s brigade moved off at 5am and four hours later reached Chagru Kotal. At 9.20am his batteries came into action against the ridge at Dargai. The range was about 2500 yards. Though well within the power of the 2 inch guns, the enemy were under cover of the rocks behind strong sangars built by them. They remained unharmed by the bombardment. Meanwhile, regiments of the 2nd Brigade battled up the steep ascent. The 1st Battalion 3rd Gurkha Rifles led with the King’s Own Scottish Borderers and the Northamptonshire’s close behind.
The mountainside was very steep and precipitous. Progress was painfully slow and at times the soldiers had to move in single file along the narrow way. From Samana Sukh Sir William Lockhart and the headquarters staff watched the progress of the assault. General Kempster’s brigade made contact with General Westmacott at 11am by heliograph. At 12 o’clock a final push saw the Gurkhas stream across the remaining open space. The Scottish Borderers followed and, as Kempster’s brigade began to make the pressure of its advance felt, the crest of the hill was taken with loud cheers. The enemy fled down the opposite slopes escaping the advance of Kempster’s regiments. There were nineteen men dead or wounded, thirteen Gurkhas and six Scottish Borderers.
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. The towers and defences at Dargai were destroyed, and the village burned. At 2pm General Westmacott’s brigade began the return to camp at Shinwari, a march of eight miles along bad roads. Kempster’s brigade began the retreat between 4pm and 5pm, as the sun set in the west, but a force of 4000 tribesmen was seen advancing from the Khanki Valley drawn by the sound of battle.
Two companies of the Scottish Borderers were kept back from Westmacott’s troops and the tribesmen were kept at bay as Kempster made his retreat. The retirement was covered by the 15th Sikhs who were in turn covered by the Gordon Highlanders and the Scottish Borderers. When the Sikhs and Gurkhas had passed through, three of the Gordon Highlanders companies and the Scottish Borderers were withdrawn. 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.
By Chagru Kotal the attack had ceased and the brigade made its way to the camp six miles away. The wounded had to be carried down two miles of steep and jagged paths to where the road began, with the officers and men carrying the stretchers in the absence of native bearers. The Gordon Highlanders had seventeen dead or wounded, and the 15th Sikhs, fourteen.
The rearguard reached camp at 11pm having been under arms since 4am. They had marched between 20 and 25 miles, climbed some 3000 to 4000 feet and fought a severe action. The Scottish Borderers carried water a mile out of the camp to meet the returning brigade.
It had been hoped that the action on the 18th would drive the tribesmen from the Narik Sukh spur but reinforcements were rushed up to Dargai from Khangarbur and Ramadan and by the 19th the Dargai Heights were more strongly held than ever.
The 2nd Division was expected to advance into the Khanki Valley on the 21st and General Yeatman-Biggs decided make a frontal attack on the position. 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 advance guard of the 2nd Division left Shinwari at 4.30am and reached the Chagru Kotal at 8am. The standards of nineteen tribes were counted on the Heights representing all of the principal clans of the Afridi and Orakzai.
At 10am the batteries began the bombardment of the tribesmen. Again it was in vain as the rocks and sangars provided protection for them. The 1st Battalion 2nd Gurkhas led the attack and by 2pm the most hazardous zone was reached. Some managed across the open area but many were killed or mortally wounded. 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. Colonel Mathias addressed his men, "The General says this hill must be taken at all costs - the Gordon Highlanders will take it." After a moments silence the Gordon Highlanders cheered. The bugle sounded the "Advance" and the pipers began to play. The officers shouted, "Come!"
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!"
General Yeatman-Biggs determined to hold the Heights and the Dorsets, with the 1st and 2nd Gurkhas camped on the summit. The Gordon Highlanders volunteered to carry down the wounded of the Dorsets and the Gurkhas. On their way back to Chagru Kotal the men of the other regiments broke into cheers as they passed.
The Commander-in Chief of India, Sir G S White, later wrote of the Gordon Highlanders that "Their conduct at Dargai helped Yeatman-Biggs out of a great difficulty, and one that was, as hour by hour passed without driving the Pathans off, rapidly passing into an actual danger."
The total casualties of the troops engaged in the action were three officers and thirty-three non-commissioned officers and men killed, twelve officers and one hundred and forty-seven non-commissioned officers and men wounded. The Gordon Highlanders lost Lieutenant Lamont, Corporal Bell, and Private Quinn, killed in action. Six officers, thirty-five non-commissioned officers and men were wounded. Colour-Sergeant Pickersgill and Privates Civil, Davie, and McKinnon subsequently died of their wounds.
Sir William Lockhart commended Lieut-Colonel Mathias for leading his battalion in the assault and recommended him for a VC. Unfortunately, the War Office had previously decided that neither General Officers nor officers commanding battalions were eligible for the VC.
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."
Lance-Corporal Piper Milne, was one of twelve officers and non-commissioned officers brought to notice, by the General Officer in charge of the 2nd Division, as being deserving of recognition. Each was later awarded the medal for distinguished service in the field.
On the 21st October the 2nd Division commenced
the advance to the Khanki Valley on schedule. Sir William Lockhart had
the Gordon Highlanders paraded the following day and addressed them regarding
their conduct on the 20th,
"Your records testify to many
a gallant action performed by you, and you have now added to them another
which may worthily rank beside those that have gone before."