In recent times, as the members of the Corps of Drums are primarily fully trained Infantry soldiers, The Regiments ceremonial role has decreased due to the obvious battlefield roles taking priority. Adding to this, the amalgamations and disbandment’s of whole regiments has impacted the quantity of Bands and Corps of Drums.
The British Army maintains a corps of drums in each infantry battalion except for Scottish, Irish, and Rifle Regiments (The Rifles and the Royal Gurkha Rifles) which have pipes and drums and Bugles respectively. Each battalion of a regiment will maintain a corps of drums which may be ‘massed’ together on certain occasions. All corps-of-drums soldiers are called drummers (shortened to ‘Dmr’) regardless of the instrument they play, similarly to use of the term “sapper” for soldiers of the Royal Engineers.
Unlike army musicians who form bands and will usually be limited to auxiliary duties in wartime, drummers in a Corps of Drums are principally fully trained infantry soldiers, with recruitment coming after standard infantry training. A Corps of Drums will deploy with the rest of the battalion, and will often form specialist platoons such as assault pioneers, supporting fire or force protection.
Historically, the drum was used to convey orders during a battle, so the Corps of Drums has always a fully integrated feature of an infantry battalion. Later on, when the bugle was adopted to convey orders, drummers were given bugles in addition, but maintained their drums and flutes, except in rifles regiments where the lighter instrument was more conducive to the skirmishing form of warfare.
The main instrument is the Side drum. These were originally of a rope-tension design with wide wooden hoops, a wooden shell and an animal-skin head. In the British Army, this model has been continuously upgraded, with the inclusion of snares, more modern metal rod-tension and plastic heads. The current British Army 97s-pattern side drum also has nylon hoops.
The side drum was increasingly decorated throughout the 19th century, until it bore the fully embellished regimental colours of the battalion, including its battle honours. As such a regiment’s drums are often afforded respect.
The second instrument was originally the fife, replaced in the modern British Army by the five key flute. A wide variety of flutes and pitches is used. The fife and later the flute have been favoured as a warlike instrument due to shrill pitch and thus the ability to be heard above the noise of battle. Many tunes such as The British Grenadiers are traditionally played by military flutes.
The bugle replaced the drum mid-way through the 19th century as the most common means of communication on the battlefield. These duties were carried out by the battalion’s corps of drums, whose drummers now each carry a bugle.
As the musical role of a corps of drums became more ceremonial in the 19th and 20th centuries, more instruments were added to make their output more musically complete. A modern corps of drums may thus have a range of percussion instruments such as a bass drum, single tenor drums and cymbals in addition to the snare drum, flute and bugle.
Drummers originally wore distinct uniforms so as to stand out on the battlefield. During the 18th century most British Army drummers were distinguished by wearing their regimental uniforms in “reversed colours” – thus an infantry regiment wearing red coats with yellow facings would clothe its drummers in yellow coats with red facings. This practice tended to make drummers targets in battle and after 1812 was replaced by less conspicuous distinctions. These usually consisted of lace, used liberally all over the standard uniform, in varying patterns. Many early patterns consisted of a “Christmas-tree” pattern in which the chest was covered in horizontal lace decreasing in width downwards, and chevrons of lace down each sleeve. The modern infantry pattern in the British Army is of “crown-and-inch” lace sewn over the seams down the sleeves, around the collar, and over the seams on the back of the tunic. The crown-and-inch lace itself is about half-an-inch thick with a repeating crown pattern. The Guards Divisions drummers have the old-style “Christmas-tree” pattern, with fleur-de-lis instead of crowns.
Whilst corps of drums in the British Army often parade in combat uniforms and other forms of dress, they will usually parade in the full dress uniform as above, being one of a few formations which regularly wear full dress.
In some regiments, it has become custom for the percussion rank to wear leopard skins over their uniform. This has the dual purpose of protecting the uniform (cymbals have to be muffled against the chest, and therefore would leave vertical marks on a bare tunic) and protecting the instruments themselves (the bass drum can be scratched by uniform buttons). Modern “leopard skins” are made from synthetic fur. Other regiments opt for a simple leather or cloth apron.