by Charles Armstrong
The role of the military drummer is a fascinating chapter from the hidden history of drums.
Hidden, because most people are unaware of the vital role played by the military drummer in communicating strategy and keeping the machinery of battle oiled.
In the 17th century, in preparation for battle, before the head on clash between rival armies, considerable time was spent manoeuvering men into position.
The drums were used to convey orders - each 'beat' having a specific meaning instantly recognisable to the soldiers.
When the drummer's 'Call' was heard, the men dropped what they were doing and immediately regrouped by their lieutenant or platoon commander to await further signals.
The Captain's order to beat the 'Troop' was a signal to shoulder muskets, advance pikes and close rank and file.
The 'March' was a signal to advance, faster or slower according to the beat of the drum, to the point of rendezvous.
The 'Preparative' signaled the men to advance in rank and file to within skirmishing distance and be ready to engage battle.
At this point the company drummers would run to where the Colonel stood (or sat on horseback) beside his own side-drummer and the standard bearer.
Engaging The Enemy
On the Colonel's order the drummers would beat the 'Battaile' or 'Charge'.
This was described by Colonel William Barriffe to mean 'pressing forward in order of battle without lagging behind, rather boldly stepping forward in place of him that falls dead or wounded before thee...'
In the thick of battle, with the sound of cannon and musket, the neighing of horses, the screams of the dying and wounded, the Colonel's voice would not be heard and the beat of the drum continued to play a vital role in communicating orders to the troops.
From his vantage point the Colonel would command his drum-major to instigate various manoeuvers. If it was required to withdraw in an orderly fashion - for relief, or to gain a vantage point, or to lure the enemy into an ambush - the 'Retreat' would sound. The soldier, fighting for his life, was well prepared - the meaning of the different beats had been literally 'drummed' into him time and time again in training.
At the onset of battle, the roar of the assembled drummers would surely instil courage in the hearts of the men (and fear in the hearts of the enemy). Possibly, in the heat of battle, the beat of the drum, detached and ethereal, took on a spiritual quality, helping the combatants to distance themselves from the horror and suffering all around.
The drummer clearly carried a huge responsibility in the orderly conduct of war. In recognition of this it was considered highly dishonourable to knowingly strike or wound a drummer in battle.
Hugh Barty-King 'The Drum - A Royal Tournament Tribute to the Military Drum' 1988 ISBN 0 9513588 0 4
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