Played by the lone bugler, the poignant sound of the Last Post will be heard across the nation on 11th November, as we pay tribute to people of all nationalities who lost their lives during World War I and other conflicts.
It’s not only services in the UK that play the Last Post; it is also played in Australia and New Zealand on 25th April, Anzac Day – the anniversary of the first time that troops from both nations saw major military action during World War I.
It is a familiar sound at military memorial sites across the United States and at the funerals and memorial services across the world of those who lost their lives serving their country. Yet despite being used today to mark the solemn and sad occasion of military deaths, it wasn’t originally written for this purpose.
Origins of the Last Post
The Last Post dates back to the 1790s when it was just one of more than 20 bugle calls used daily in British Army camps. The bugle was used to regulate behaviour in the camps, in the days before people had wristwatches to keep them on schedule.
There were different bugle calls, or trumpet calls, to signal when it was time for the troops to get up, dine, go on parade, go to bed and many other aspects of their daily life. The day began with the Reveille and this was followed by the First Post, which meant it was time for the duty officer to inspect the sentry posts around the camp.
At the end of the day, the Last Post sounded, signalling that the final sentry post had been inspected and that the camp was now secured for the night.
In the 1850s, the role of the Last Post began to change, largely due to the fact that at the time, most military bands were made up of civilian musicians, who were under no obligation to go to war zones, or overseas, with the regiment.
As a result, if a soldier died on foreign shores, there was often no musical accompaniment available for his funeral. Out of a necessity to pay a fitting tribute to those who had lost their lives, the new custom of the regimental bugler sounding the Last Post at the graveside arose.
By the mid-19th century, this practice became commonplace, so the Last Post signalled the end of a life, as well as the end of the day.
At the end of the Boer War, fought from 11th October 1899 to 31st May 1902, around 600 memorials were built in Britain and overseas in memory of the war dead. The British Empire had fought two Boer states, the Orange Free State and the South African Republic, Transvaal.
The British claimed victory, but the war took its toll on the Armed Forces, with more than 55,000 British soldiers being killed, captured or severely wounded during the conflict. Prior to the Boer War, the traditional way of marking a victory was by erecting a statue of the commanding officer.
This was the first time memorials had been erected listing the names of everyone who had died, no matter what their rank. Every time a memorial was built, the Last Post was played when it was unveiled.
Initially, lyrics were spoken to accompany the last post at the ceremonies, although sadly, it wasn’t recorded who wrote them and subsequently, they were lost in the mists of time. The words included the lines, “Come home, come home! The last post is sounding for you to hear. All good soldiers know very well there is nothing to fear.”
The lyrics urged every soldier to be a “good pal to his comrades” and to be brave, just and honest. By the early 20th century, the Last Post had become an instrumental piece of music only.
World War I
By the time World War I began in 1914, the Last Post was an integral part of Britain’s national culture. The writer HG Wells called World War I a “people’s war” and said the last post had become an anthem of the people.
The significance of the lone bugler playing The Last Post is understood across the world today and in the decades following the Great War, it has become a sacred anthem.
During World War II, the Last Post would sound at the crematorium when the funerals of servicemen took place. One former bugler in the British Army during the second world war, Arthur Lane, who played the Last Post at the crematorium, said in an interview with the BBC that he could never bear to hear it again, because of the association with the horrors of war and the number of fatalities.
Once known as the music of the British Empire, the Last Post has been played all over the world, at many ceremonies, including the independence ceremonies of former colonies and the funerals of great leaders, such as Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. It has sounded for the dead of those nations who were once foes and has become a symbol of being united in death.
The Last Post will be sounding out across the UK on 11th November, followed by a two-minute silence at 11am to mark the official ending of the Great War in 1918.
Sound Planning will be joining the nation to remember those brave men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice, so that we might live in freedom. Lest we forget.