War history: The last post - the simple bugle call that means so much to so many
18:00 15 March 2014
Mike Peters, Galloway’s resident military historian and chairman of the International Guild of Battlefield Guides, explains the origins of possibly the most recognisable bugle call in history
A few weeks ago I wrote about visiting the Belgian town of Ypres and the emotive experience of attending the Last Post ceremony beneath the Menin Gate.
The gate itself never fails to project its own powerful influence on those who travel with Galloway and attend the daily act of remembrance. In its shadow, the design of the memorial and the seemingly endless lists of names inscribed upon it create a distinct and almost tangible sense of place, coupled with an atmosphere that evokes an appreciation of huge loss, and a desire to honour the names of the missing.
That said, it is the sound of the bugles played by men of the Ypres town fire brigade that often makes the hairs on the back of the neck of even the most disinterested stand on end. What is it about a simple bugle call that makes people feel this way?
To understand the effect of the Last Post, it helps to understand where it came from and the role that bugle and trumpet calls have played in the everyday lives of soldiers for centuries.
Since warfare began, armies have used bugles, drums and a variety of other musical instruments to pass information and direct troops in the midst of the chaos of the battle. Even before the large-scale use of gunpowder, most modern armies had settled on a mix of drum and bugle calls to signal new orders, changes of formation or even to rally shattered troops.
The use of these calls had a routine purpose when troops were away from the battlefield. The more mundane daily life in barracks or encampments was punctuated by distinctive calls of the bugle or drum beat. It is among this regulation and musical punctuation of soldiers’ lives that we find the origins of the final call of the working day that we know so well: the Last Post.
There are many accepted myths as to its origin. As a soldier and historian, I believe the following makes sense and has the most credibility due to its practical application.
Before settling down for the night in barracks or on a march, a regiment would post sentries around its position, for protection. A drummer, who also carried a bugle, would accompany the officer posting these sentries.
The guard, commanded by the officer, would march around the encampment, accompanied by the drummer beating his drum. On arrival at each sentry post, the officer would read the sentry his orders and post him in his position. Finally, having completed the cordon of sentry posts and posted the last guard, the drummer would be ordered to play the Last Post on his bugle. At this point everybody within the cordon would know that the transition from day to night routine was complete and it was now safe to bed down for the night.
The military no longer use bugle calls on the battlefield but they still figure prominently in ceremonial events. Most readers will have heard the Last Post on Remembrance Sunday; a few may have attended a military funeral and heard it there. Given that, historically, the Last Post marked the end of the soldier’s working day, at a military funeral or during an act of remembrance this has powerful symbolism.
At a funeral it has come to signify the passing from this world to the next. The bugle call still serves a practical purpose – it signals the correct time to salute the soldier and indicates the formal moment to pay respects.
Another bugle call, the Reveille, is equally symbolic in that it was used to wake soldiers from their sleep in the morning. Symbolically, the Reveille call marks the arrival of the deceased soldier in the after-life.
All this can be easily transposed to the daily act of remembrance that takes place at the Menin Gate ceremony; the playing of the Last Post evokes the memory of the missing and marks their passing in battle.
The Menin Gate is a truly remarkable memorial that has an emotional impact on everybody. However, in my opinion the moment that brings everything together, and focuses the minds of everybody in collective remembrance, is the breaking of the silence under the gate by the mournful tone of the fire brigade bugles.
As the notes of the Last Post echo against the walls that bear the endless lists of names of the missing, it embodies the shared grief and thoughts of the hundreds and often thousands who assemble every day in Ypres. With no words spoken, people from every corner of the world are united in thought by a simple bugle call. I am looking forward to taking the first of Galloway’s battlefield day excursions to Ypres on March 31. (Pick-up points across the region.) Why not join me and experience the haunting call of the Last Post?
Mike Peters will lead a guided tour, culminating in a visit to the Menin Gate for the Last Post Ceremony. The cost is £75 per person and details can be found at www.travel-galloway.com/ww1centenary or visit your local Galloway Travel Centre.