World War I
At the outbreak of the First World War, Sergeant Dunbar was one of the first to enlist — on 24 September 1914, as a staff sergeant. He traveled to Valcartier, Quebec, and, on his arrival there, wired his wife to let her know what had transpired and have her send on his belongings.
He went to France with Colonel William Hendrie who was in command of the Canadian remount depot. From France, Charles Dunbar he did a tour of duty in England, during which — on 15 September 1919 — he secured a transfer to the 19 Battalion (91st unit) C.E.F., commanded by Colonel John I. McLaren, as pipe-major and immediately took command of the pipe band.
Again, he volunteered to pipe the troops into battle. The advent of trench warfare and the machine gun made charges led by pipers nothing less than suicidal. In Belgium and France, he and his corps piped their battalion along the weary roads than ran to Ypres and to the battlefront of the Somme. During the Battle of the Somme, fighting at Courcelette on 14 September 1916, Pipe Major Dunbar was seriously wounded in the stomach and left leg by shrapnel.
After many months of recuperation in England, he returned to Hamilton on 4 July 1917, and immediately rejoined the 91st Canadian Highlanders.
While he had been stationed in at Salisbury Plains in England, on 6 January 1915, Charles Dunbar had been recommended for an officer’s commission. On 7 November 1917, he was commissioned as a lieutenant. His commission was unique; he was the first pipe-major in the history of British and Canadian forces to hold a commission while retaining command of a pipe band. He held his position as pipe-officer of the regimental pipe band until his retirement in 1937.
Under his leadership, the band gained an international reputation and won many awards. Charles Dunbar oversaw the recruitment, training and outfitting of his pipers. He was known for his devotion to duty and his influence in shaping young soldiers in the traditions of duty and service.
He also won numerous prizes and medals for his piping and his dancing during the 1920s — in Canada, Britain and the United States. At Pictou, Nova Scotia, in 1923, he won three championship prizes at events commemorating the 150th anniversary of the landing of the first Highlanders. He won premier honours at Buffalo, New York and Toronto; and, at the first Highland games held at Banff, Alberta, he carried off the gold medal for piobaireachd and the Ian Beattie Silver Cup, along with $100 in prize money. His most outstanding successes included winning the strathspey and reel competitions at Oban and Inverness in Scotland. At Banff, Alberta, in Canada, he won a gold medal for piobaireachd. Back home in Hamilton, he commanded the band that played for the Duke of Windsor, the future King Edward the VIII, when he visited the city as Prince of Wales in 1919.
He also was one of the pipers selected to play for the Governor General of Canada, Viscount Byng of Vimy, at a special dinner on 15 April 1925. His last parade was in 1936. His list of medals included the Distinguished Conduct Medal, the Volunteer Decoration, the Victory Medal, the South Africa 1899-1901 Medal, the Mons Star 1914-1915, Service Medal 1914-1918, Allies Medal, King George V Jubilee Medal, Efficiency Decoration, Imperial Long Service Decoration and the Canadian Long Service Decoration.
Upon his retirement as pipe-officer in 1937, Charles Dunbar was honoured by the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (P.L.) with a banquet at which he was presented with a silver tea set as a token of appreciation for his years of service. At his retirement, he referred to Colonel John I. McLaren, the late Lieutenant-Colonel W. W. Stewart and to Colonel James Chisholm as having persuaded him to move to Canada and join the regiment.
Speeches were made by Lieutenant-Colonel McLaren, his Officer Commanding in France; Colonel James Chisholm, who termed him “the successor to the MacCrimmons of Skye”; Colonel C. W. Gibson and many other officers who commended his example, in obedience to the call of duty, as a characteristic that had been the making of the British Empire. He was described as a “a soldier and a Highland gentleman in the highest terms.”
Captain William Hendrie, who was at the retirement function, recounted how, when Charles Dunbar was wounded at the Somme, a silver plate from the bass drone of his pipes was lost.
Years later, when Charles Dunbar went to the French river, to visit the summer home of the Hendries, the local station master asked if Lieutenant Dunbar was with them, and handed him the silver plate, picked up by his son on the battlefield.
William Hendrie also said Charles Dunbar had been a piper for the Duke of Connaught when he was Governor-General of Canada, and played for him on many occasions in Hamilton and Toronto. “His Royal Highness liked to hear some of the old marches which he had heard in the Army, such as Benachie, Dumbarton’s Drums, The 74th’s Farewell to Edinburgh and The Barren Rocks of Aden.
Charles Dunbar had been in poor health for some time but his death on 25 January 1939, just two years after retiring from the regiment, was unexpected. At the time of his death he was known to be the only commissioned pipe major in the British Empire.
In his lifetime his regiment, the Argylls, recognized his importance. One of his commanding officers called him “as fine a type of officer as can be found in the Canadian Militia today”; another referred to him as “one of the most important officers that this unit possesses.” Major Archie Cairns recalled that the “only time I ever saw my father weep, was when he first learned that his friend and mentor Charlie Dunbar was dead.”
His funeral service at St Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Hamilton was fitting for a pipe major. The church was filled to capacity, and a large crowd lined the streets to watch the cortege pass. Pipe Major Syd H. Featherstone played The Death of the Chief as the casket was borne from the church. The unusually large pipe band which followed the escort and the firing party consisted of the pipers of the 48th Highlanders of Toronto, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the Toronto Scottish Regiment, the St. Catharine’s band, and the veterans of the 19th Battalion from Hamilton, Toronto and Brantford.
Charles Dunbar was buried with full military honors at the family plot in Woodland Cemetery, Hamilton, Ontario, overlooking Lake Ontario. His casket was adorned with his officer’s bonnet and broadsword.
At the cemetery, the firing party fired three volleys over the grave, the pipers of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders playing the Church Call between each volley. The lament he had so often played in honour of departed comrades now sounded for him.
An Ontario Heritage Plaque dedicated in his honour was unveiled on 18 September 1983 at a ceremony at Dundurn Castle in Hamilton and later affixed to the wall of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders of Canada Armoury at 200 James Street North.
Read more about this topic: Charles Davidson Dunbar
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