Alwyn W Turner: How the Last Post delivers plaintive message of loss

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IT is, perhaps, the most powerful piece of music in British culture. At countless services of remembrance, at the funerals of literally millions of soldiers and ex-soldiers, the simple, plaintive sound of a solo bugler playing the Last Post has evoked a sense of loss in a way that is unparalleled. Tomorrow – on Armistice Day in this centenary year of the First World War – it will again be sounded the length and breadth of the country, its emotional charge undimmed by the passage of time.

It was not always this way. When it was originally introduced into the British Army, in the 1790s, the Last Post was just one of over two dozen bugle calls that were played daily in camp. At a time when no ordinary soldier was expected to carry a watch, these calls regulated daily life, providing a framework for the routine of the military machine.

Around 10pm, the First Post was played to signify that the duty officer was starting his inspection of the perimeter of the camp. Thirty minutes later, the inspection party would reach the final sentry-point, and the bugler would then sound the Last Post, to say that the camp was now secured for the night.

For half-a-century or more, that was the only function of the call. Every day of a soldier’s life would end with the sounding of the Last Post.

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.

The symbolism was simple and highly effective. The Last Post now signalled the end not merely of the day but of this earthly life. And, as the practice developed, it was then followed – after a few moments of silent prayer – by the sounding of Reveille, the first call of the day, to signify rebirth into eternal life.

A further dimension was added in the early years of the twentieth century. The end of the Boer War saw the rise of war memorials across the country, some six hundred of them. 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”. There was a new mood of democracy abroad and the war memorials reflected this.

And almost every time a memorial was unveiled, it was to the sound of the Last Post being played, now the symbol not only of death but of remembrance.

So by the time that the First World War broke out in 1914, the Last Post was part of the national culture. Mostly it was still associated with soldiers, but increasingly it was also being played at the funerals of civilians such as Wallace Hartley, the bandmaster of the Titanic.

During the war, it was sounded countless times at funerals at the front. With mass enlistment and then conscription, the walls that had long existed in Britain 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.

In the early years of peace, there was an irresistible demand for public expressions of the huge loss that had been suffered. The Cenotaph was constructed, the Two Minutes’ Silence instituted, the Unknown Warrior laid to rest in Westminster Abbey, and the poppy adopted. Amongst this wealth of symbols of remembrance, only the Last Post had roots and history.

Perhaps it was this fact that made the authorities so nervous of the call. In remembering the war, the government decided, the emphasis should be on celebration of the great victory, not on the losses. Even the new institutions were suspected in some quarters. Cabinet Minister Sir Alfred Mond felt that the Cenotaph was not “sufficiently important and may be of too mournful a character as a permanent expression of the triumphant victory of our arms”, while Lord Curzon, the Foreign Secretary, argued that “Armistice Day is not a day of national grief”.

The Last Post spoke directly of grief. Possibly for that reason it took some years before it became fully accepted at the Armistice Day commemorations at the Cenotaph. It was not until 1924 that it was incorporated into the ceremony, which now followed the pattern of the soldier’s funeral: the Last Post, a hymn and then Reveille. And still the official distaste survived. “The war has been over for eight years,” a senior civil servant was reported to have said in 1926. “It is time that sentiment gave way to common sense.”

Despite the hostility, the Last Post has, of course, survived, although it doesn’t sound the same now as it did when it was first performed. It’s the same musical material, but notes are held for longer, the pauses extended, the expression more mournful. It has been overlaid with generations of mourning. This anonymous melody has become the most powerful piece of folk music that Britain has ever produced.

• Alwyn W Turner is the author of The Last Post: Music, Remembrance and the Great War, published by Aurum Press