One of the most interesting chapters in the history of drums is largely forgotten today - the various duties performed by military drummers in the past.

 One of the most interesting chapters in the history of drums is largely forgotten today - the various duties performed by military drummers in the past.

In times of peace, it was the drummer's responsibility to beat the 'tattoo' at sunset in the town streets - a signal to publicans to stop serving ale to soldiers and bid them drink up so they could get back to camp in time for curfew.

Drummers also played a crucial role in introducing new blood into the army - in the town square, the drummer would demonstrate his prowess on the side drum - literally 'drumming up' new recruits. Many a young lad lived to rue the day he allowed himself to be seduced by the glamour of the drum into believing the recruiting officer's promises...

In times of war, in the thick of battle, drummers would relay the Colonel's orders to the troops - each 'beat' having a specific meaning which had been endlessly 'drummed into' the soldiers in training. When the chaos and noise around them rendered the Colonel's shouts ineffective, the beat of the massed drums indicated when they should regroup, advance, make ready, engage battle, retreat.

One of the more interesting functions of the drummer was to 'parley' with the other side - he would be sent as a go-between across enemy lines - to negotiate terms, arrange and pay ransoms, offer or accept terms of surrender, to deliver and bring back any hostages or prisoners who were to be exchanged.

Equipped with a small drum for lightness, and with written confirmation of his message attached to his hat, the drummer would approach the enemy camp and stop a musket shot's distance from the gates.

The sound of the 'parley' beaten on his drum was a signal of readiness to trade terms, and a party would come out to lead him, blind-fold, inside the camp to the General's pavilion.

His hidden adgenda to find out as much as he could about enemy numbers and the layout and disposition and any potential weakness of the camp was no secret to the adversaries, and anyone caught speaking to him out of line could reckon with the severest punishment. According to Robert Ward's Articles of War, Number VIII, 'Speaking With The Enemies' Messengers': 'None shall speak with a Drum or Trumpet or any other sent by the Enemy without order upon pain of punishment at discretion.'

Likewise, he had to be on his mettle not to divulge any information - the enemy would often ply him with drinks in the hope of loosening his tongue.

Parleying was obviously a delicate and dangerous undertaking and required skills of the drummer above and beyond musicality and mastery of the technique required to beat complex rhythms on the side drum. Discretion was required, tact, diplomacy, negotiation, sobriety, the ability to read and write, knowledge of foreign languages - skills not commonly found among rank and file soldiers in those days.

Parleying was manifestly a dangerous undertaking. The drummer who entered the enemy camp displaying any lack of confidence, or faltering in his delivery, or indadvertently insulting the enemy, could rightly fear for his safety.

The other extreme was also best avoided.

On Friday August 15 1645, at the height of the English Civil War, the royalist Governor of Sherborne Castle dispatched a drummer at 2 o'clock in the morning with the message he was willing to surrender on honourable terms.

Sir Thomas Fairfax, Captain General of all the Parliamentary Forces In England, could scarcely conceal his temper.

He dispatched his own drummer to offer no terms but quarter, and that should not be expected unless he surrender speedily...The over-confident manner of Fairfax's drummer in delivering this message so incensed the Governor that he almost hanged the fellow on the spot.

The drummer, however, lived to tell another tale. The episode ended badly for Sherborne Castle.

In the words of Anne Finch, after the end of that terrible conflict:

"Trail all your pikes, dispirit every drum,
March in long procession from afar
Ye silent, ye dejected men of war!
Be still the hautboys, let the flute be dumb!"

With acknowledgement to:

Hugh Barty-King
'The Drum - A Royal Tournament Tribute to the Military Drum' 1988
ISBN 0 9513588 0 4

About The Author

Charles Armstrong

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