Pow­er­ful, ubiq­ui­tous song

Orig­i­nally a call sim­ply to an­nounce the end of the day, the Last Post’s mean­ing has evolved

Standard-Freeholder (Cornwall) - - NEWS - BRUCE DEACHMAN bdeach­man@post­media.com

The tune has only five notes through­out, yet most peo­ple will rec­og­nize it by the time they hear the sec­ond one — a G half-note that fol­lows the open­ing C quar­ter-note — an open fifth.

As writ­ten, the mu­sic is in quick time, but it’s usu­ally played much more slowly and solemnly. And that sec­ond note, the G, tied to an­other, shorter G that fol­lows it, should last three times as long as the open­ing C. Ex­cept it doesn’t. Most mu­si­cians hold it even longer, to al­low the mourn­ful­ness and re­mem­brance to fill and colour the note. When RCMP pipe band bu­gler Charles Arm­strong per­forms it, the G is 10 times as long as the C.

It makes this prom­ise: We will not for­get.

“It’s a very pow­er­ful tune,” says Arm­strong, a re­tired ac­coun­tant who has been a mem­ber of the RCMP band for eight years, as both piper and bu­gler, and has per­formed the Last Post scores of times at cer­e­monies in Canada, Hol­land, Hong Kong and the U.S. Ad­di­tion­ally, in the mid to late 1960s, he was the Fort Henry Guard, in Kingston, where he played the Last Post hun­dreds of times.

The song, he says, takes lis­ten­ers back in time, “to peo­ple who have gone be­fore you, to Re­mem­brance Days you’ve taken part in. You can feel the cold Novem­ber breezes blow­ing. It all hits you when you hear the first two notes. That’s all most peo­ple need to hear, and then you start that jour­ney through your mind.”

The Last Post started its life not in the ceme­ter­ies and ceno­taphs of the war dead, but in British mil­i­tary camps and bat­tle­grounds where, be­gin­ning in the 1790s when it was first pub­lished and played, the tune was just one of many calls that guided sol­diers, who had no means of telling time, through their days. Typ­i­cally played on a B-flat bu­gle (although some­times on an E-flat cavalry trum­pet), the camp calls in­di­cated when to wake up, when to eat, when to as­sem­ble in for­ma­tion, when church ser­vices be­gan, when mail or pay was be­ing dis­trib­uted, and nu­mer­ous other ac­tiv­i­ties. On the field of bat­tle, they in­structed sol­diers when to go for­ward, left, right or re­treat, when to com­mence fire and when to cease, when to trot, gal­lop and when to lie down. [re­lat­ed_links /] His­tor­i­cally played at 10 p.m. from May to the end of Septem­ber, and at 9 p.m. dur­ing the rest of the year, the Last Post told sol­diers that the day was done and the camp was se­cure for the night. For sol­diers out­side camp, es­pe­cially those on the field of bat­tle, it sig­nalled the end of fight­ing, and those who were wounded or sep­a­rated from their units were to fol­low its notes to re­turn to safety. It was typ­i­cally the sec­ond-last call of the day: Lights Out, a call com­prised of the Last Post’s two open­ing notes, played twice, was the day’s fi­nal call.

To­day, the Last Post is as­so­ci­ated al­most ex­clu­sively with mil­i­tary fu­ner­als and Re­mem­brance Day cer­e­monies. Where once it called sol­diers home, to rest, on a daily ba­sis, it now calls them home to their fi­nal rest­ing place, a dra­matic and sym­bolic use of the tune. It’s an emo­tional oc­ca­sion for both lis­ten­ers and bu­glers.

“The feel­ing when you’re stand­ing there,” says Arm­strong, “is much big­ger than the event you’re play­ing for at that time. In my mind, I’m call­ing them. I’m speak­ing to them, to all of them, the liv­ing and the dead, and telling them we still care, that we haven’t for­got­ten them.

“If I think about it too much,” he adds, “I can’t play.” In 2015, he says, when he per­formed the Last Post in a mil­i­tary ceme­tery in Hol­land, he spent some time walk­ing among the head­stones be­fore­hand. “And at one point I said ‘I can’t do this. I can’t read any more names. They ’re all 18 or 19 years old.’”

That shift from a daily call to a for­lorn cry for the dead started in the mid 1800s when British mil­i­tary band mem­bers, at the time civil­ians, did not ac­com­pany their reg­i­ments over­seas. As a re­sult, when a sol­dier died, the task of play­ing mu­sic at his fu­neral was as­signed to the reg­i­men­tal bu­gler. Of the bu­gle’s nu­mer­ous mil­i­tary calls, the Last Post was the ob­vi­ous choice to ac­com­pany the fallen home.

The first known oc­ca­sion of it be­ing played at a sol­dier’s fu­neral was in 1853, in Que­bec, at the burial of a mem­ber of the 71st Reg­i­ment (High­land) Light In­fantry. Rev­erend W.B. Clark wrote in a let­ter home to Scot­land: “When the cof­fin was de­posited in the grave, the Last Post was played be­tween ev­ery vol­ley that was fired over it. There is some­thing touch­ing and ap­pro­pri­ate in this. The Last Post is the call that is played at night af­ter all the sol­diers are sup­posed to be in their rooms. And when the sol­dier is placed in his long home, what mu­sic so ap­pro­pri­ate as the Last Post. But there is a day com­ing when tones of a trum­pet more solemn will be heard, and a reveille will be sounded which will not fail to rouse ev­ery sleeper.”

It was 18 years be­fore the first known ac­count of the Last Post be­ing played at a fu­neral in Bri­tain was pub­lished, but by the 1880s the prac­tice was be­com­ing in­creas­ingly com­mon — the Last Post, fol­lowed by a mo­ment of prayer, and then Reveille — the morn­ing ’s first call — or, more re­cently, Rouse, to sym­bol­ize the soul’s re­birth into eter­nity.

It wasn’t un­til the First World War, how­ever, dur­ing which more than 1.1 mil­lion British Im­pe­rial Forces per­son­nel were killed — in­clud­ing al­most 65,000 Cana­di­ans — that the Last Post seeped into pop­u­lar civil­ian cul­ture by virtue of its sheer ubiq­uity.

When Arm­strong plays at a cer­e­mony, he makes a point of not look­ing at those in at­ten­dance, lest their re­ac­tions af­fect his per­for­mance. “The older peo­ple, ones who have been through the wars, can come close to chok­ing up, and if you’re play­ing for a fam­ily where some­one has just died, the ten­sion is raw.”

For the past 90 years, mean­while, ex­cept for four years of Ger­man oc­cu­pa­tion dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, traf­fic is briefly halted at 8 p.m. at the Menin Gate, in Ypres, Bel­gium, and the Last Post is played to com­mem­o­rate the British Em­pire’s war dead in the Bat­tle of Ypres.

“The Last Post is a tie to the past,” says Arm­strong, who prac­tises the piece at least twice a day at home. “It’s a tie to our his­tory. It’s a tie to all those who have gone be­fore. And bit by bit, the things that tie us to our past, the things that tie us to our his­tory, are start­ing to van­ish.

“So I treat each time that I get the chance to play the Last Post as a very spe­cial oc­ca­sion, and I’m just so proud to have the chance to play it, be­cause it’s part of where we came from.”


Charles Arm­strong is a bu­gler with the RCMP pipe band in Ot­tawa.


Charles Arm­strong is a bu­gler with the RCMP pipe band in Ot­tawa.

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