The tune has only five notes throughout, yet most people will recognize it by the time they hear the second one — a G half-note that follows the opening C quarter-note — an open fifth.
As written, the music is in quick time, but it’s usually played much more slowly and solemnly. And that second note, the G, tied to another, shorter G that follows it, should last three times as long as the opening C. Except it doesn’t. Most musicians hold it even longer, to allow the mournfulness and remembrance to fill and colour the note. When RCMP pipe band bugler Charles Armstrong performs it, the G is 10 times as long as the C.
It makes this promise: We will not forget.
“It’s a very powerful tune,” says Armstrong, a retired accountant who has been a member of the RCMP band for eight years, as both piper and bugler, and has performed the Last Post scores of times at ceremonies in Canada, Holland, Hong Kong and the U.S. Additionally, in the mid to late 1960s, he was the Fort Henry Guard, in Kingston, where he played the Last Post hundreds of times.
The song, he says, takes listeners back in time, “to people who have gone before you, to Remembrance Days you’ve taken part in. You can feel the cold November breezes blowing. It all hits you when you hear the first two notes. That’s all most people need to hear, and then you start that journey through your mind.”
The Last Post started its life not in the cemeteries and cenotaphs of the war dead, but in British military camps and battlegrounds where, beginning in the 1790s when it was first published and played, the tune was just one of many calls that guided soldiers, who had no means of telling time, through their days. Typically played on a B-flat bugle (although sometimes on an E-flat cavalry trumpet), the camp calls indicated when to wake up, when to eat, when to assemble in formation, when church services began, when mail or pay was being distributed, and numerous other activities. On the field of battle, they instructed soldiers when to go forward, left, right or retreat, when to commence fire and when to cease, when to trot, gallop and when to lie down.
Historically played at 10 p.m. from May to the end of September, and at 9 p.m. during the rest of the year, the Last Post told soldiers that the day was done and the camp was secure for the night. For soldiers outside camp, especially those on the field of battle, it signalled the end of fighting, and those who were wounded or separated from their units were to follow its notes to return to safety. It was typically the second-last call of the day: Lights Out, a call comprised of the Last Post’s two opening notes, played twice, was the day’s final call.
Today, the Last Post is associated almost exclusively with military funerals and Remembrance Day ceremonies. Where once it called soldiers home, to rest, on a daily basis, it now calls them home to their final resting place, a dramatic and symbolic use of the tune. It’s an emotional occasion for both listeners and buglers.
“The feeling when you’re standing there,” says Armstrong, “is much bigger than the event you’re playing for at that time. In my mind, I’m calling them. I’m speaking to them, to all of them, the living and the dead, and telling them we still care, that we haven’t forgotten them.
“If I think about it too much,” he adds, “I can’t play.” In 2015, he says, when he performed the Last Post in a military cemetery in Holland, he spent some time walking among the headstones beforehand. “And at one point I said ‘I can’t do this. I can’t read any more names. They’re all 18 or 19 years old.’”
That shift from a daily call to a forlorn cry for the dead started in the mid 1800s when British military band members, at the time civilians, did not accompany their regiments overseas. As a result, when a soldier died, the task of playing music at his funeral was assigned to the regimental bugler. Of the bugle’s numerous military calls, the Last Post was the obvious choice to accompany the fallen home.
The first known occasion of it being played at a soldier’s funeral was in 1853, in Quebec, at the burial of a member of the 71st Regiment (Highland) Light Infantry. Reverend W.B. Clark wrote in a letter home to Scotland: “When the coffin was deposited in the grave, the Last Post was played between every volley that was fired over it. There is something touching and appropriate in this. The Last Post is the call that is played at night after all the soldiers are supposed to be in their rooms. And when the soldier is placed in his long home, what music so appropriate as the Last Post. But there is a day coming when tones of a trumpet more solemn will be heard, and a reveille will be sounded which will not fail to rouse every sleeper.”
It was 18 years before the first known account of the Last Post being played at a funeral in Britain was published, but by the 1880s the practice was becoming increasingly common — the Last Post, followed by a moment of prayer, and then Reveille — the morning’s first call — or, more recently, Rouse, to symbolize the soul’s rebirth into eternity.
It wasn’t until the First World War, however, during which more than 1.1 million British Imperial Forces personnel were killed — including almost 65,000 Canadians — that the Last Post seeped into popular civilian culture by virtue of its sheer ubiquity.
When Armstrong plays at a ceremony, he makes a point of not looking at those in attendance, lest their reactions affect his performance. “The older people, ones who have been through the wars, can come close to choking up, and if you’re playing for a family where someone has just died, the tension is raw.”
For the past 90 years, meanwhile, except for four years of German occupation during the Second World War, traffic is briefly halted at 8 p.m. at the Menin Gate, in Ypres, Belgium, and the Last Post is played to commemorate the British Empire’s war dead in the Battle of Ypres.
“The Last Post is a tie to the past,” says Armstrong, who practises the piece at least twice a day at home. “It’s a tie to our history. It’s a tie to all those who have gone before. And bit by bit, the things that tie us to our past, the things that tie us to our history, are starting to vanish.
“So I treat each time that I get the chance to play the Last Post as a very special occasion, and I’m just so proud to have the chance to play it, because it’s part of where we came from.”
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