The sound of a lone bugler playing the Last Post has become one of the most distinctive sounds in the world. Eerie and evocative, it exists beyond all the usual barriers of nation, religion, race and class, charged with the memory of generations of the fallen.
But it wasn’t always like this.
The Last Post was first published in the 1790s, just one of the two dozen or so bugle calls sounded daily in British Army camps.
“At that time soldiers didn’t have wristwatches, so they had to be regulated in camp,” says Colin Dean, archivist at the Museum of Army Music in Kneller Hall. “They had to have a trumpet call or a bugle call to tell them when to get up, when to have their meals, when to fetch the post, when to get on parade, when to go to bed and all other things throughout the day.”
The soldier’s day started with the call of Reveille, and came to a close with the First Post. This indicated that the duty officer was commencing his inspection of the sentry-posts on the perimeter of the camp. The inspection would take about 30 minutes, and at the end there would be sounded the Last Post, the name referring simply to the fact that the final sentry-post had been inspected. For decades this was the sole use of the call, a signal that the camp was now secure for the night, closed till morning.
It was not until the 1850s that another role began to emerge. It was an era when many military bandsmen, and most bandmasters, were civilians and were under no obligation to accompany their regiments on overseas postings. So when a soldier died in a foreign land, there was often no music available to accompany him on his final journey. And, necessity being the mother of invention, a new custom arose of charging the regimental bugler to sound the Last Post over the grave.
A further dimension was added in the first years of the 20th Century. The end of the Boer War saw the rise of war memorials across the country, some 600 of them. This was a break with the past. The traditional British way of commemorating a victory was to erect a statue to the general or the commander. But these monuments listed the names of the dead, both officers and other ranks, the men the Duke of Wellington was said to have called “the scum of the earth”.
By the time that World War One broke out in 1914, the Last Post was already part of the national culture. During the war, it was played countless times at funerals in northern Europe and other theatres, and it was played at funerals, memorials and services back home. It was already becoming a familiar sound, but with mass enlistment and then conscription, the walls that had long existed between the civilian and the soldier broke down completely, and a piece of music that had once belonged exclusively to military culture was adopted by a wider society.
HG Wells said this was “a people’s war”, and the Last Post became the people’s anthem.
So it remains. In the decades that followed WW1, it became almost a sacred anthem in an increasingly secular society. Once the music of empire, it has been played at independence ceremonies for former colonies and at the funerals of those who fought colonialism, from Mohandas Gandhi to Nelson Mandela. It has sounded for both friends and foes, a symbol of the democracy of death. During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, it was played not only for British soldiers, but also for paramilitaries.
Over the years, the piece has changed – not in the music but in the performance. Notes are held for longer, the pauses extended, the expression more mournful, so that it now lasts around 75 seconds, rather than the 45 seconds it used to take to mark the end of the day. And it has been infused by a mass of memories and memorials, so that what was once jaunty is now simply sorrowful.