Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809 - 1892)
The Princess (iv. Song)
Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!
Rupert Brooke (1887 - 1917)
The Last Post is a very, perhaps the most, famous bugle call used by the armed forces of Britain and the Commonwealth. Today it is incorporated into the funeral services of servicemen and -women and into memorial services, such as Remembrance Day, as a final farewell. As a bugle call, it is slightly unusual, because it includes the bottom note (a G, I believe) of the five main bugle notes available. This is relatively rare, with almost all other calls and marches still in use today only including the other four. It also appears to have been perfectly tailored for its contemporary role as a melancholy, reflective piece for ceremonial usage; but in fact the Last Post has a long and proud history of its own.
The origins of the Last Post can be traced as far back as the sixteenth century, or 1544 to be more precise. At this time it was used for posting guards in the Tower of London, and had no specific title. The official War Office version was set out in 1798, as part of "Setting the Watch". It was with the emergence of the tradition of the "Tattoo" in the British Army in the 17th century that the Last Post took its place in the greater scheme of things with the various other calls (such as the early-morning "Reveille", more correctly known as the "Rouse"). The word "Tattoo" in this context derives its origins from the Dutch "doe den tap toe", meaning "turn off the taps", which was apparently the call given in many Dutch pubs, upon hearing the drum beats of the Tattoo, when English soldiers were stationed in the towns of Holland and Flanders during the campaigns there in the 1690s. The American practice of "Taps" is also said to have originated with this.
The Tattoo began in the evening, as all sentry positions had to be checked and all off-duty soldiers in the area returned to their billets. This task was performed by the Duty Officer, and he was accompanied by at least one musician. A bugle and a drum was required; if one man could play both, so much the better - this is why today drummers and buglers are often one and the same, although what they are actually called varies (the Royal Marine bands of the UK, for example, have "buglers" - arguably the best in the world - who perform both tasks). A bugle call, the First Post, was sounded at the beginning of the officer's rounds, and a drum was played as the party proceeded around the various sentry posts. When the last one was reached, another bugle call was sounded, the Last Post, signalling that all sentries were alert and that it was the very end of the day.
Lastly, there have even been words written to accompany this call. I have not come across this in the UK ever before, and assume the origin of the words is Australian because only their websites list them. Whether the words are actually ever used along with the bugle is unknown to me, although I suspect that it would ruin the effect at a solemn occasion somewhat, and personally doubt it. The words are as follows:
Come home! Come home! The last post is sounding
for you to hear. All good soldiers know very well there
is nothing to fear while they do what is right, and forget
all the worries they have met in their duties through the
year. A soldier cannot always be great, but he can be a
gentleman and he can be a right good pal to his comrades in
his squad. So all you soldiers listen to this – Deal fair by all
and you’ll never be amiss.
Be Brave! Be Just! Be Honest and True Men!
Having analysed these "lyrics", I can say that they do indeed fit the tune of the Last Post. However, the musical result of combining the above words with a bugle playing would quite probably not be anywhere near as effective as a solo bugle. Some parts of the tune are quite fast, for example, and the drawing out of the very last word on that famous last E note (the very same note that the Reveille/Rouse starts on, following the two-minute silence, by the way) does not seem appropriate.
Anyway, the Last Post remains a poignant and moving reminder, and a fitting symbol to deceased servicemen/-women that their duty is ended and that they can Rest in Peace.
7 years of playing the bugle; inc. 4 years of sounding the Last Post at funerals etc
The sheet music for the Last Post can be seen here: