Corps of Drums Society


Celebrating British Drum & Fife Music

1.      The Italian statesman, Machiavelli, required Lorenzo the Magnificent’s army to make use of trumpets flutes and drums in directing their wars via his 1521 treatise “Libro della arte della guerre”, wherein he stipulated that the infantry would obey the drum and fife and the cavalry, the trumpet. Over the years, many were the publications that followed prescribing duty calls for various instruments or the available marches.  They range from 1521, to India in 1942, to the great Prussian March catalogues or our Drummer’s Handbook of 1983.  Documents of this early period, though, are rare and oldest known fife and drum manuscript is, “Ein guettes feldgeschray schwaitzerisch” a Swiss Field Call, found in the Fundaziun Planta, (15th – 16th century documents in the Samedan Library near St.Moritz, in Switzerland. This fragment of a call was probably already ancient when the manuscript was compiled and its purpose is no longer known. Unusually in an early manuscript, both the drum and fife parts are written down. Eye-witness accounts of 1300s battles refer to Swiss use of, (cross-blown), fifes and drums to signal directions to their pikemen in battle.  Most fife and drum traditions trace back to the Swiss mercenaries of the early Renaissance.

2.      1507 saw the meeting of a feudal parliament, the Diet of Worms which was significant in the history of fifes and drums in European armies.  Surviving documents of the Diet tell us that for signals, a Landsknecht, (Swiss mercenary), Regiment had 21 drummers and 21 fifers. They would mass in the middle of the 4000 strong formation to be loud enough.  The Feldobrist (commander) required his Staff Drummer and Fifer to train these battlefield signallers, thus the Drum Major emerges in a staff rôle.  The “Tambourin-major”, was an appointment made, in 1651 by King Louis XIV of France a century-and-a-half later, as Britain’s, “Drum Major General”, also came later.

3.      It was Henry VIII who first introduced the fife to the English army after taking shelter amid a Landsknecht “hedgehog” of pikes at the Battle of the Spurs in 1513. His musical ear would have the Landsknechts’ massed fifes and drums directing battle. Up to 1513, British records shew no fifers in the infantry. Held at Kew these records were the work of Thomas Wolsey who was his almoner and, later, Cardinal and Chancellor of all England.  However, a company fifer and a drummer appear on the rolls for all subsequent campaigns of Henry VIII’s reign.  Thereafter, fifes appeared not only with the military but with any ad hoc music-making group from: “west-gallery” bands as music returned to the churches, to groups playing for maypole dances.  As soldiers quit the army, so they took their music with them, flute bands emerged in Ireland, (whence came many an army recruit, regardless of the origins of the regiment), all over England and Scotland and these, in time provided the music for the Scouts, for church youth groups, the Suffragettes and, eventually for cadet corps. This lusty way continued until well into the 1939-45 war; something perhaps well demonstrated by such bands having been formed by the Royal and Women’s Auxiliary Air Forces.

4.      The drum continued directing British infantry tactics until around 1800 when it began to be replaced by the bugle but, as being “in step” on the line of march also first emerged around this time, so fife and drum began to accompany troops when marching and that offered an entirely new function.  As it was the Drummers who undertook most bugle playing, their future was firm until the task as a, “musical bus” undertaken by the corps of drums, (as now the Drummers became known), eventually had them leading troops all over the world.  It will be no matter of surprise that in Scottish and Irish regiments the flute gradually gave way to the pipes.  All of this was largely the case until the immediate aftermath of World War 2 when, in the Cold War troops had, for protection, to be vehicle born.

5.      What this unseemly rush to modernity omits, however, is the augmentation of the fife, on their acceptance, by the hautbois, (oboes, “high woods). As a consequence, not only is the assembly of fife with drum Britain’s earliest truly military music but it also gave rise, at least in part, to the military band and, via soldier’s subsequent lives: pipes and drums, brass bands, dance bands and much else.  Further, before radio it was military and brass band concerts in the nation’s halls and bandstands that first let both classical and lighter pieces reach mass audiences.  The army’s fifes and drums are thus of a significance to Britain that may well be felt to be worthy of celebration.

Britain’s oldest military music is probably best regarded as a blend of the needs of the King’s court and what soldiers sang around campfires or in the castle guard-room. By the early 1500s we know that one drum and fife was authorised for every company of a hundred infantrymen. From this came the drum and flute band that remain equipped from government funds and which until the early 1900s was to be found on the strength of every infantry battalion. Now they are still on the strength of all battalions of Foot Guards and those of the English and Welsh Regiments of the Line. As a result, all music DUTY is primarily the task of the Corps of Drums (or “The Drums” as the flutes and drums are called by custom). Infantry pipers, Buglers and Drummers* became an essential “mode of transport” to the line of march;(*Drummer is the appointment of all in the corps of drums regardless of the instrument played. Drum Major too is an appointment rather than a rank but it is correct to address him as Drum Major and never “Sergeant, “Colour sergeant” or whatever!).

Scottish regiments had long enjoyed unofficial pipers going to war with clan chiefs and in 1854 saw six pipers authorised by the War Office for Highland Regiments, 1856 for the Scots guards and the 1900s for Lowland and Irish regiments around the turn into the 20th Century. Incidentally, in the 1500s drums were mainly used to signal the commanding officer’s tactical directions, (e.g. take ground to the left), and may just have cheered the men on the march too – and cheering the line of march remains the principal function of all military music.

From the early 1900’s there was a Drum and Flute band on the strength of every Infantry battalions. There is still today a Corps of Drums on the strength of all Guards and English and Welsh Line Infantry battalions, although the soldier of today has to combine his skill as a Drummer with designated duties as a Line Infantry Soldier.

The Duty of providing music became the task of the Corps of Drums, this has now been formalised into the ceremony of Beating Retreat, a pleasant event borne out of military necessity.

In due time the Military Band came into being but when the troops were on the march they were accompanied by the Drums some of the drummer boys being of a very tender age.

Some practical parts of the Drums duties have now passed into the ceremonial arena as have parts of the drum itself. The ropes seen to swing below the modern side drum were once used to carry it on one’s back when not in use. It is also of interest to note that whatever instrument they play within the Corps all members are classified as Drummers. The Drum Major is an appointment and not a Rank.

A notable exception to this is that the Royal Marine Corps of Drums is staffed by Buglers, this comes from their origins as the Royal Marine Light Infantry, which amalgamated with the Royal Marine Artillery. Next time you see the Royal Marines on parade in full dress note the difference in the Trouser stripe between the Corps of Drums and the Band!