Military traditions are the bedrock of the Army’s way of life; an umbilical cord linking it to its roots. Traditions have a historical background and their adherence in various regiments and corps creates the necessary camaraderie and binding glue so important for men in arms. Some traditions and customs have a universal appeal and are embraced across the entire Army. Often their origin is forgotten or mired in half-truths and conjecture. One such tradition with widespread usage and of great poignancy is playing of the ‘Last Post’.
This unique piece of music only 25 bars long is played without valves or keys on a stubby instrument called the Bugle. The bugler has to practice hard to master the soulful melody which even now makes eyes moist of even battle hardened macho soldiers. The Last Post is most remembered for being played as a mark of respect to a fallen solider. It implies that the solider’s duty is done and it is time for him to rest in eternal peace!
The origins of this tradition date back to the 17th Century when the British Army was deployed in the Netherlands. Later, it came to be used by duty officers doing the rounds at last light. The duty officer used to walk from sentry post to sentry post and after checking alertness and other sundry checkpoints a few notes of the bugle call were played to signify that troops could stand down and prepare to rest. The final and ending notes signified the end of the rounds, and was a signal for all to bed down and rest for the night. Later on, the same call started being played at military funerals and remembrance days to salute departed comrades. There is still an unresolved mystery on the musician who composed the original music score. Some think it is a British composer and others feel it might be a Dutch musician.
A very romantic anecdote which attributes this music to a young confederate medical officer of the American Civil war appears prima facie to be untrue and not rooted in reality. The touching story recounts how a father and son were fighting on opposite sides in the civil war. The son died and the distraught father requested the unionists to allow him a proper military funeral. The same was denied but a simple ceremony was permitted. On the body of dead but amateur musician was found a music sheet which was then played by a lone musician as a mark of respect. This musical score, it is stated is the original rendition of last post. While the story has all the romantic ingredients and pathos associated with it, objective research does not support this belief held by many Americans. Notwithstanding the same, the Last Post is still one of the most haunting and touching melodies a solider ever hears.