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The Last Post would be familiar to all Australians from an early age. It is played at every ANZAC Day ceremony by a bugler in an army uniform and frequently at funerals of soldiers and veterans.

Does the average civilian attendee understand the significance of this quasi musical interlude? Is it an entertainment piece that everyone expects to hear because it is always part of the programme like the hymn “Oh God our Help in Ages Past”?

The Last Post is one of the most ancient tools used by modern British founded armies and has its roots in the days of the Roman Empire when horns were used to play the hymn of the Goddess Diana and as signals to command troops on the battlefield. Even to this day, the French term for what we call e reveille is La Diana.

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Bugle calls were introduced into the British army by King George III as a standard means of signalling but The Last Post had its origins much earlier when British troops were stationed in the Netherlands and followed a much older Dutch custom called Taptoe. This custom was to signify that the beer taps had to be turned off.

Last Post was a trumpet or bugle call sounded each night to signify that the officer of the guard had completed his rounds of inspection and to inform the garrison that all was secure and that the sentries were at their posts. It was also a signal that all soldiers should be in their beds for the night.

The signal is commonly used for soldiers who are in barracks or otherwise garrisoned. It is not used in the field where it might be heard by an enemy. In bygone days before modern wireless communication it was common for battles to end at the close of day and to be resumed the next day if need be. The Last Post was sounded to signify the end of the day’s fighting and played so that wounded or otherwise separated soldiers could find their way back to camp by following the sound in the dark.

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It is also used at funerals and commemorative services throughout the British Commonwealth to symbolise that the duty of the dead is over and they can rest in peace hence it is always played on ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day, 11th November.

In the 1850’s there was often no music to be played when a soldier died in a foreign land so the Regimental Bugler was given the task of sounding Last Post over the grave as a standard procedure.

A British POW, Arthur Lane, played Last Post in Japanese POW camps and became known as “the musician of the dead”. He kept with him for the duration of his captivity, the names of all the prisoners whose funerals he had attended on a roll of toilet paper. He recorded over 3,000 names.

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Arthur Lane, from Stockport, performed the Last Post more than 3,000 times in three-and-a-half years as a prisoner of war. That is about 3 times a day. 

By far the most outstanding use of Last Post is at the Belgian city of Ypres, the site of horrendous battles in WW1 where the ANZACS covered themselves in glory. Ypres, which is called Ieper in Belgium, was a walled city. One of its entrances was the Menin Gate, a large structure where the names of over 18,000 soldiers who have no known grave are inscribed. The Last Post has been played there every night at 8.00 pm since 1928 until the present day with the exception of four years of Nazi occupation in WW2. It was then temporarily transferred to Brookwood Cemetery in England.

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Last Post plaque, Menin Gate, Ypres, Belgium. By Zeisterre CC BY-SA 3.0

On 9th July 2015 a tribute ceremony took place on the occasion of the 30,000th performance. The chief of the Ypres Fire Brigade, Rick Vanderkerckhove has played the bugle at this ceremony for over 30 years.

The Last Post is only played to music. There are no words.

 

Reveille, now played as part of a composite piece at ceremonies, has a different history. In the 1790’s Reveille was the second of 20 standard bugle calls used in the British army. In those days soldiers did not have wrist watches so Reveille was introduced to tell the troops it was time to get up. Reveille is a French word meaning “to wake again”. It is also used at funerals and ceremonies in conjunction with Last Post to signify awakening in a better world.

 

Reveille used in conjunction with Last Post at most ceremonies is actually an abridged version called Rouse. Reveille is actually a much longer piece of music with words in two verses. It is always played in full, without the words, at the Dawn Service. The Rouse used in conjunction with Last Post at funerals and dedication ceremonies is played after the completion of one minute’s silence and calls for the soldier’s spirit to rise and prepare for another day.

I can say from my own experience there is nothing more soothing than to lie in your barrack bed and hear the sounds of The Last Post and nothing brings on a moan or groan more than Reveille. The words of Reveille are not generally sung. I have never heard them myself but the khaki cuckoos have conjured up the opening words as “You can come to the cook house door boys. Come to the cook house door”. It is supposed to be a bright and cheerful wakeup call but I must say I have never noticed any brightness or cheerfulness in response to it. Never have been greeted by a sergeant major with a nice hot cup of tea either. Apart from my initial 98 day initial training stretch as a Nasho, most of my army career was spent sleeping in the bush pretending to be behind enemy lines. On courses held at air force bases one was woken up with a foghorn and on naval ships, by bells.

 

 

The US Army uses its own dedicating bugle calls known as Taps.Taps is derived from the same Dutch term, Taptoe but was accompanied by a three single drum beats signifying Lights Out hence the name “Taps” derived from the three taps of the drum.

 

The bugler missed a note because he was weeping. 

Taps is a bugle call, a signal, not a song and there are no lyrics.

Subsequent word adaptations have been created but none have been adopted by the military or the state.

It is probably best known to Australians when it was played at full length by Montgomery Clift in the film From Here to Eternity after Frank Sinatra was murdered by Ernest Borgnine. It is used in all military and state commemorative ceremonies in the USA. It is also known as Butterfields Lullaby after the name of the general who originally arranged it.

A moving rendition of " Butterfield's Lullaby on a guitar. 

This simple piece of music, the combined Last Post & Reveille, is a stirring tribute of remembrance by the civilian population and a soothing reminder of present and past military personnel of the bitter and harsher days when they went to war for the protection and preservation of our nation and its way of life. It needs no words. Its message lies in its sheer simplicity and sincerity.

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning.

Lest we forget

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