After a period of home service with the 2nd Battalion in 1897, Private Vickery was a part of an annual draft sent to India to bring the 1st Battalion of the Dorset Regiment up to operational strength. Forming a part of the Tirah Field Force, heading to the North West Frontier to take part in the Tirah Campaign 1897-1898, Private Vickery, in a matter of months, found himself fighting hostile Afridi tribesmen.
During an attack on the Dargai Heights on 20 October 1897, his Victoria Cross citation describes how Private Vickery heroically ran down a rocky mountain slope and brought a wounded soldier back to cover under extremely heavy small arms fire. Later while operating in the in the Waran Valley, he also killed three ruthless enemy tribesmen who attacked him while he was separated from his company.
During course of the campaign, Private Vickery chipped a bone in his foot and was repatriated to the United Kingdom, wher his VC was published in the London Gazette on 20 May 1898. While still being treated at the Royal Military Hospital at Netley, near Southampton, Queen Victoria, who had specially travelled to the south coast, presented him with his Victoria Cross.
It was only a few years before he was in action again, this time in South Africa, this time with a mounted infantry section in the Boer War 1899-1902. Detached from the Regiment to 2nd Mounted Infantry Battalion, Vickery was captured by the Boers but, now ranking as Corporal, he made a daring escape after four days in captivity and rejoined his unit. He was subsequently wounded in December 1900 at Nooitgedacht during the guerrilla war that followed the defeat of the Boers in conventional battle.
Having completed his service, Sergeant Vickery retired but at the outbreak of the First World War, as a Regular Reservist, he was again back in uniform. Serving with the 1st Battalion, as a Sergeant, he was in the thick of the fighting in the Ypres Salient, however, he survived the war and died peacefully in Cardiff in June 1952.
In December 1896 he was appointed as a piper in the battalion's band. The Gordons, in common with other Highland regiments of the time, maintained a pipe band in each battalion for both ceremonial and military purposes; the pipers were trained infantrymen, and accompanied the main force on operations. The following year, the 1st Battalion was assigned as part of the force for the Tirah campaign, an expedition into the mountains to secure the Khyber pass and the northern approaches to India.
On 20 October 1897, an attempt by a British force to take the strongly held Dargai Heights was beaten back, leaving three battalions pinned down under heavy fire from above and unable to withdraw. They were reinforced by the 1st Gordons, who were ordered to advance through the open ground and storm the heights, led by their five pipers. Findlater was wounded before reaching the hillside, with a superficial wound to his left foot and a broken right ankle. Unable to walk, he pulled himself to a boulder, propped himself up, and continued to play to encourage the advance. The infantry following behind successfully reached the hillside, climbed the heights, and dispersed the defenders.
All observers agreed on the basics of the story, but the exact details of what happened were somewhat confused. The initial press reports describing the "wounded piper" took him to be Patrick Milne, the senior piper, and playing Cock o' the North, the regimental march. It was quickly discovered that Milne had been unable to play – he had been wounded in the chest – and that Findlater had been the man involved, playing The Haughs O' Cromdale. This was perhaps a more appropriate tune; not only was it a quicker and livelier strathspey, but the content fitted the situation. The Battle of Cromdale had famously – perhaps apocryphally – seen a wounded Jacobite piper perch on a rock and play his comrades into battle, and the traditional ballad itself described how "the Gordons boldly did advance ... upon the Haughs o' Cromdale".
Findlater was evacuated to Rawalpindi where he was treated, and unable to continue in the Army as a result of his injuries, he was sent to Netley Hospital to convalesce. It was announced in May 1898 that he would receive the Victoria Cross, one of four men to be so honoured for actions at Dargai, and was personally decorated by Queen Victoria at Netley on 14 May, a few days before he was formally discharged from the Army.
'During the attack on the Dargai Heights on 20 October 1897, Piper Findlater, after being shot through both feet and unable to stand, sat up, under a heavy fire, playing the Regimental March to encourage the charge of the Gordon Highlanders.'
The Gordons' charge at Dargai had caught the imagination of the British public, and the romantic description of the wounded piper encouraging his comrades on was perhaps the most famous element of it. Whilst recovering, Findlater received a large number of public donations, including sets of bagpipes, and by at least one account, a proposal of marriage. The public interest increased sharply after he was awarded the Victoria Cross, and to supplement his Army pension Findlater arranged to appear at the Military Tournament, where he drew large crowds; for just thirty performances, he was paid two-thirds as much as his annual Army pension of £46. He then began to perform at music halls, first at the London Alhambra and then nationally, with his earnings climbing as high as £100 a w
Whilst popular with the crowds, Findlater was seen by many of the military establishment as deliberately profiting from the Victoria Cross. The War Office approached the management of the Alhambra to try and stop his performance, without success, sparking counter-criticism as to whether the Army had any standing to control the private engagements of a man who had already left the Army. Within the year, however, his fame began to turn sour; he was implicated in a contentious breach of promise lawsuit in late 1898, which led to heckling at his Scottish performances, and to avoid further scandal left the country to tour the United States and Canada.
Following his return from North America, Findlater married his cousin Helen at Turriff in August 1899. A year later, he took up the tenancy of a farm at Forglen, where he and Helen settled to begin a family; they would have five children, two sons and three daughters.
At the start of the First World War, Findlater re-enlisted in the Army, returning to his old regiment. He was posted to the 9th Battalion of the Gordons, a New Army battalion in 15th (Scottish) Division, where he was appointed as the sergeant piper (or pipe major), the battalion's senior piper. He served with the regiment through its first year in France, including the Battle of Loos, before being invalided home in December 1915. He continued to farm at Forglen, and was a member of the local pipe band at Turiff; from 1927 to 1940 he served as its pipe major. He died in early 1942, shortly after his seventieth birthday, of a heart attack.
Whilst his moment of personal celebrity was fleeting, Findlater remained a popular figure in the public memory, continuing to be a subject of artwork and stories for some years. He was the focal point of Edward Hale's painting Piper Findlater winning the VC (1897), Stanley Berkeley's Charge of the Gordon Highlanders (1897), Vereker Hamilton's Piper Findlater at Dargai (1898), Richard Caton Woodville's The Storming of Dargai Heights (1898) and Robert Gibb's Dargai (1909). Findlater's playing at Dargai, along with the charge itself, became one of the more well-remembered moments of the Gordons' regimental history; they later applied for the Dargai Heights to be recognised as a battle honour, the only one of the nine participating regiments to do so, but were declined.
One of the "Dand MacNeil" stories in George MacDonald Fraser's The General Danced at Dawn features an animated discussion in the Sergeants Mess concerning exactly what tune Piper Findlater did play at the Dargai Heights, as even Findlater himself wasn't positive what it had been.