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, writes Bill McStay.
When London’s famous clock Big Ben boomed out the hour at 11am on 11 November, 1918, signalling that the Great War had officially ended, the world breathed a sigh of relief. For ‘this war to end wars’ had caused massive loss of life and devastation across Europe during its four years.
So, when Britain’s King George the Fifth later suggested that a public act of remembrance, including two minutes silence, for all who had died in the conflict, be held annually at the same hour and date, commencing in November 1919, there was a swift positive response.
Long before eleven on the day, huge crowds began to assemble at the Cenotaph memorial in London, and at memorials across the country. The brief silence in London was brought to an end with the sounding of a military bugle call – the Last Post – the tune formerly composed by a bugler called Arthur Lane.
The simple ceremony, made poignant for many by the haunting strains of the bugle, would develop over time in many countries as a formal salute to those who had died for their country. Its popularity was helped by its association in people’s minds with St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, and its lines “For the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised incorruptible.”
The Last Post, which was actually a British Army signal in military camps marking the end of the day’s activity, was followed each morning by the bugle call Reveille (informally known as ‘the wake up call’).
Gradually throughout the 19th century, the Last Post became common at military funerals, following prayers. There was a similar development in other countries, where the salute had different names. Thus in Germany it was known as ‘Ich hatte einen Kameraden’, whilst in America, where the salute is called TAPS, it was first played by both armies in the 1860-5 Civil War.
A United States law of 1891 requires the sounding of Taps at the funeral of every military services veteran. To this day also, it is sounded daily at sundown in Arlington National Military Cemetery in Washington.