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Updated 08/24/2018


Sunset on the Somme

The Battle of the Somme, fought in the summer and autumn of 1916, was one of the largest battles of the First World War. With more than one million casualties, it was also one of the bloodiest battles in human history. The Allied forces attempted to break through the German lines along a 25-mile (40 km) front north and south of the River Somme in northern France. One purpose of the battle was to draw German forces away from the Battle of Verdun; however, by its end the losses on the Somme had exceeded those at Verdun.

While Verdun would bite deep in the national consciousness of France for generations, the Somme would have the same effect on generations of Britons. The battle is best remembered for its first day, 1 July 1916, on which the British suffered 57,470 casualties, including 19,240 dead — to this day the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. As terrible as the battle was for the British Empire troops who suffered there, it naturally affected the other nationalities as well. One German officer famously described it as "the muddy grave of the German field army." By the end of the battle, the British had learnt many lessons in modern warfare, while the Germans had suffered irreplaceable losses. British historian Sir James Edmonds stated, "It is not too much to claim that the foundations of the final victory on the Western Front were laid by the Somme offensive of 1916.

Sunset on the Somme was composed by Piper Major George S. McLennan.

Pipe Major George Stewart McLennan (9 February 1883 - 31 May 1929) was a Scottish bagpipe player. He was a successful solo piper, as well as a pipe major and composer.

He was born on 9 February 1883 at 105 St. Leonard Street, Edinburgh, to John and Elizabeth (née Stewart) McLennan, the eighth of their nine children (one of whom died in infancy). Many of his ancestors on both sides of the family were prominent pipers. George's father John was the first to use the spelling McLennan; his predecessors had used the spelling MacLennan.

George's mother Elizabeth died when he was young, and his father remarried a widow with two children and subsequently had three more children with her. Among his half-siblings was Gold Medal winner Donald Ross McLennan. George suffered from polio as a child, and could not walk until the age of four and a half.

McLennan began receiving piping tuition from his father at the age of four, and later received tuition from his uncle Pipe Major John Stewart, and in Highland dancing from his cousin William McLennan. He made rapid progression, winning the Amateur National Championship at the age of nine, and was invited by Queen Victoria to play for her at Balmoral Castle.

His father enlisted him in the Gordon Highlanders in October 1899 in order to prevent him from joining the Merchant Navy, and he became Pipe major of the 1st Battalion in 1905, one of the youngest ever in the British Army.

McLennan was successful in solo competitions, and won the Gold Medal at the Argyllshire Gathering in Oban in 1904 and at the Northern Meeting in Inverness in 1905, and the Clasp at Inverness for former winners of the Gold Medal in 1909, 1920 and 1921. McLennan had a close friendship and competitive rivalry with Willie Ross, and he travelled to competitions and shared prize money with William Lawrie.

He married Nona Lucking on 3 April 1912, and together they had two sons, George (1914–1996) and John (1916–1940), who both became pipers with the Gordon Highlanders.

McLennan was posted at the depot in Aberdeen until 1918, when he was sent to the Western Front to succeed Pipe Major Tom Henderson who had been killed. In May 1918 he collapsed and required fluid to be drained from his lungs in a field hospital. When the war ended he was posted back to Aberdeen, and after he was discharged in 1922 he started working in Aberdeen as a bagpipe maker, at a shop at 2 Bath Street. At the time there were several other prominent musicians in the city, including fiddler James Scott Skinner.

He died on 31 May 1929 of lung cancer after a long period of ill health connected to the makeshift operation. 20,000 people lined the route of the procession to Aberdeen station at his funeral on the 4th of June, before he was interred at Newington Cemetery in Edinburgh.

George McLennan used to speak of the sunsets he occasionally saw while in the trenches with the first Battalion. He expressed this in the tune, Sunset on the Somme – the sun slowly dying to cover the horrors of the day.