It was my pleasure and privilege to play the Last Post and Reveille on Sunday not once, but twice.
The first time I played was for my church as we observed the silence at 11am with the rest of our country, and then later in the afternoon at a Service of Remembrance at the Angel Memorial in Boggart Hole Clough.
Each time made me think about the hundreds and thousands of times that the act of Remembrance has been observed in the 98 years since the first one in 1919, and the hundreds and thousands of times that the Last Post has been sounded at funeral services for fallen comrades around the globe who have died since their service days ended.
So what is it? What is the Last Post? And why is it played at Services of Remembrance and at funerals?
There is a long history associated with the Last Post which goes back to before the 17th Century where British troops were stationed in the Netherlands. The Dutch had a tradition of “taptoe” (which is where we get the word “tattoo” from), a custom that signalled the closing of the beer taps, which was a sign that the working day was over, and this was adopted by the British, where at the end of each day, as sentries were inspected and the military camps were made secure, a bugle call was sounded at each one to signal that the inspection was complete. Bugle calls were the easiest way to communicate orders, or to give information quickly and over a large distance. For example, Officers would be called to their posts by a particular call, the troops would be called to the mess tent for mealtimes with another call, they would be sent into battle with another set of calls.
And so, at the end of each day, the bugle call was used in order to tell the camp that the final inspections of the sentries was underway. Unsurprisingly, the first sentry post’s call was signalled with the “First Post”, recognisable to all who heard it. The call went along subsequently, ending with the last one, where the “Last Post” was sounded. This one was a longer bugle call and signalled the end of the working day for the camp. In battle situations, the Last Post was sounded at the end of a battle to signal to the wounded that fighting had ceased and to guide them to safety and rest.
The British also used the Last Post tradition in colonial times in North America, where it became “Taps” (to a different tune).
In recent times, the Last Post during Remembrance services has taken on a different meaning, and has two purposes. The first is to symbolically end the day, and the second is an implied summoning of the spirits of the fallen to the cenotaph.
The Last Post is always followed by a period of silence – usually two minutes – after which another call is heard, either “Rouse” or “Reveille”, which in military use is a signal for soldiers firstly to wake up, and then to get up.
All interesting stuff, and here’s my take on it.
Whereas the sounding of the Last Post during a Remembrance service is a symbolic ending of the day, when it is sounded at a funeral that can be taken to mean the symbolic ending of a life here on earth. If that is so, where does that leave us with the sounding of Rouse or Reveille after the period of silence? To me, I can’t help think that it is a reminder to us that once our lives here on earth are over, we will be woken in God’s presence at the end of days.
So there is a little potted history of the Last Post, and how it has been used over the years in different contexts. As its meaning has changed over the years and it continues to evolve, new generations will come to know it and bring their own interpretations to it. I just hope and pray that it will continue to be partnered with the Reveille too to remind us that one day, we will also rest in peace and rise in glory.