Blow Bugle, Blow!


Is it the call I'm seeking!

"Blow, bugle, blow; set the wild echoes flying,"  Thus wrote Alfred, Lord Tennyson. "Blow it, don't suck the bleeding thing!" the Sar'nt Major politely suggested to the scruffy duty bugler. Merely two different approaches to the same problem, of sending a message by precise musical code. And of course Tennyson had a point, for nothing can be more poetic and evocative than the "sweet sounds of the bugle".

Its wistful tones echoing across some foreign field, or sounding a threnody for a departed hero, can tear at the heart strings of even the toughest old sodger. Blasted out at dawn on a freezing day it is, or was, the intolerable sadistic servant of Sar'nt majors down the ages.

I say "or was" because much less is heard of the bugle's sweet sounds these days. Just dial a few numbers and you can, in a trice, summon the pioneer sergeant or rustle up a few fatigue men without aid of music; turn a few knobs or press a few buttons and you can send a complete armoured division to Kingdom come. Along with the cavalry trumpet the bugle is becoming inefficient, it is almost inaudible against - the roar of traffic, jet aeroplanes and, in battle, the cacophony of modern fire-power.

'Twas not always so. Trumpeters, fifers, drummers, and later buglers were vital in conveying orders to the troops, but not until the l8th century did those precise codes develop. In the l6th and l7th centuries drummers, fifers and trumpeters used signals comprising pre-arranged tunes, only later to evolve into formal calls recognizable by all and sundry , whether of Colonel Skinner's Light Horse or the North Surrey Fusiliers.

And very important persons these musicians were, living a life a cut above that of the ordinary soldier. But you see the problem posed by those precise musical codes, I'm sure. If Trooper George cannot distinguish between Rule Britannia and I've Got a Luverly Bunch of Coconuts (or as we say in the trade, has an ear like a boot) then he's in trouble.

Worse still if Sgt Wellington can't tell "Orderly Sergeants" from "Water Your Horses". And so on up the rank structure until the mind boggles at what Maj Gen Hushpuppy would make of Halt, Lie Down. Another Balaclava at least .

It is so much simpler to recognise a call if given the words associated with it, or the words if given the music. At first each soldier fitted his own personal doggerel words or rhyme to help him identify a call. Later, as with the tunes, the words gradually came to general use throughout the Army. By about the early 18th century all except soldiers with a musical ear recognised a call only after the rhythm of the tune suggested the correct pre-selected words. "Di-dah di-dah" equals "Get-out-of- bed". "Dah-di-dah-di da-di daah" sung quickly is "Sergeant Major's got the Horn" (The Alarm).

But you see a further problem, I'm sure. If Guardsman Birdbrain is not only tone-deaf but word-deaf into the bargain, then he's got a problem.

Military history is full of heroic one-man attacks on heavily defended positions, of gallant advances in the face of massive artillery fire, last-ditch stands against all the odds, not to mention abortive cavalry charges. One wonders, just wonders, how many of these brave deeds were accountable to tone or word deafness, mistaking a "di" for a "dah", and therefore the Charge for Officers' Dinner. Some calls are so alike that in the heat of battle many a boob must have been made.

Even peacetime has it's hazards. Buglers in particular have always been the battalion characters, and artful dodgers were common even in the so-called harsh discipline days of the 1920's and 1930's.

Buglers of poor technique, to avoid the punishment of an extra guard duty, would stand at-the-ready on the barrack square, puffing and blowing in tortured mime while a friend blew sweet sounds of Defaulters from a nearby vehicle or handy doorway. Ventriloquists could expect worse than extra duty if caught.

In the old Victoria Barracks, Belfast, the Chapel porch gave onto the barrack square. In the pouring rain it was known for buglers to sound after-dark calls from this porch, and usually get away with it. Bugler Biggs didn't. The Padre, who must have been at his devotions, emerged suddenly to investigate the trespass, ramming the mouth- piece and half the bugle well past the culprit's tonsils. Never did the Last Post, with its final sighing cadence, die on such a wail and a whimper.

The oh-so-superior trumpeters of the regimental band would often, when conditions were safe, wait for the duty trumpeter to inhale his initial deep breath prior to sounding a call then, from a window, chip in with the appropriate tune decorated with cracked notes, belches and blasts. The Trumpeter meanwhile, committed by his exposed position to endure the treachery to the bitter end , wilted visibly in anticipation of the wrath to come .

Then there was Bugler Forster of the 6Oth Rifles, a regiment renowned for its high standard of bugling. Forster could make his bugle talk. It was an extension of his own inner feelings and passion, an elongation of his lungs, throat, tongue and lips. Part of him.

His Reveille was a soothing and abject apology for any inconvenience he was causing; Defaulters were flayed alive with bitter blast; Orderly Sergeants wooed with fawning obsequiousness; Band Call reeked of snide derision, and Mess Call was delivered with the pitying sadism of one who had eaten the stuff . But it was in the great classic calls of the British Army -Retreat, First Post, and Last Post - that Forster gave his all. Each was a Wagnerian music-drama with grand prelude leading to spectacular scenes and interludes of almighty power, mystery and heroism; from here to Valhalla and back, with no sobs spared until the last sighing whisper of a note faded into the twilight of the gods.

There was snag, Forster's stammer of speech carried over into his bugling. Before he could ever begin a call he had to rely on a friend or casual passer-by to give him a one-two-three countdown. Buglers were not noted for their innate musicality so it was years before we twigged that if the words of a call began with a difficult letter like B, P or S, he would likewise stutter on his opening note. Rouse caused him agonies of impotence with its: "GGGGGGet out of bbed, get out of bbed, you lazy bbbbastards, ggget out of bbbed."

Casual passers-by were thin on the ground at that time of day, poor lad. There were no passers-by, nor bugler present to do for him as he had done so beautifully for others, when we buried him near the outer perimeter of the Calais defences in May 1940. Surprisingly the words of calls which have come down to us are almost childishly innocuous, with little or no foul language used. Fowl yes, for "You've got a face like a chicken's arse" is perfect verbal representation of Quarter Call. Others to survive the centuries, differing sometimes to allow for regimental traditions, are;

CookhouseCome to the cookhouse door boys, come to the cook-house door.

Mess Call Oh pick 'em up pick 'em up hot potatoes, hot potatoes, pick 'em up pick 'em up hot potatoes oh.

PiquetCome and do a piquet boys, come and do a guard, be on time or else boys, it's seven days hard.

Fatigues - I called him, I called him, he wouldn't come I called him, the dirty sod's in bed with China Nell.

Sick Call Sixty-four Ninety-four he won't never go sick no more, the poor blighter's dead.

Officers Officers come to HQ, Officers come to HQ, do, do, do.

Officers' Dinner - The officers' wives get pudden an' pie, the soldiers' wives get skilly.

Fifty years on and we love them all. It will be a sad day if the calls of trumpet and bugle have no place in our Army's future. The telephone and radio have so far failed wholly to dislodge them from favour, but what when every soldier is in touch with every other soldier by a television set strapped to his wrist? Will it then be a case of:

Trumpeter, what are you sounding now?

(Is it the call I'm seeking?)

Lucky for you if you hear it at all

For my trumpet's but faintly speaking.

A cavalry officer, one J Francis Barron, wrote the words of that famous ballad in the days when soldiers lived, and died, to the sound of trumpet and bugle, the old calls having come down to them "by word of ear; they were not committed to paper until well into the 19th century.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, his instinctive dread and mistrust of the bugle call. the old sodger never forgets, and recalls them, near his end, with a surprised and somewhat shamefaced nostalgia.

Accursed Reveille, bloody Defaulters, Cookhouse (more swill) , Orderly Room (Oh God), Orderly Sergeants (What does Sar'nt Major want now?) , Mess Call (yet more swill) , Post Call (letters from Lousy Lou boys, letters from Lousy Lou) ,Retreat (Stand still you oafs), Last Post (Go and whitewash it boy), Lights Out (just as you reach the all-is-revealed page of an Agatha Christie).

Little episodes in a soldier's life. Memories of long ago when the trumpet and bugle plagued us from dawn until dusk and later; when the regimental call and whatever followed it presaged no good at all for most of us.

Get up, fall in, fallout, jankers, fall in, fallout, advance, retire, stand up, lie down, prepare for bed, go to bed, and turn those bleeding lights out. . .

Dear dead days beyond recall. But perhaps things have changed a little, eased off , and refuge is now possible from the scourge and tyranny of the omnipotent bugle. I believe so, yet die in the saddle and there is still no option even for the dear departed.

Cpl Bootear will rest in peace by order of the Ministry. Bang, Bang, Bang, and a brazen lament to see you on your way. No escape unless you specify in your last will and testament "no bugling by request" .

As an oh-so-superior bandsman myself I must remember to drop a line to my solicitors. The feu-de-douleurwill not apply to this old sodger but, please sirs, no bugling at my crossing of the bar,

And yet. And yet. Ah well, damn it, why not? It will be the one clear call in half a century of service the one sounding of which will require me to do absolutely nothing.

So sound off old pal, sound off,

Blow bugle, blow; set the wild echoes flying,

Bugle blow,

Answer echoes, answer: Dying. . . dying.

Acknowledgement goes to Colonel Rodney Bashford (ex-60th bandsman)


© RGJ BAND 2021