Origins of 'Beating Retreat'

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Lt Gen Sir Timothy Creasey, accompanied by the CO 2 R IRISH (Rangers), Lt Col R N Wheeler, at a Beating Retreat in Tidworth.

Orders from James II’s army, dated 18 June 1690, directed drums to beat a retreat at night and, in 1694, William III’s army also ordered:

'The Drum Major and Drummers of the Regiment which gives a Captain of the Main Guard are to beat the Retreat through the large street, or as may be ordered. They are to be answered by all the Drummers of the guards, and by four Drummers of each Regiment in their respective Quarters.'

The origin of today's Beating Retreat ceremony lies in two evening routines carried out by our forebears when the daily routine of military life was signalled by the drum and bugle.

The first routine occurred at sunset when an evening gun was fired, soldiers withdrew into fortified camps or cities, locked the gates, and, as the sun set, lowered their flags for the night. This was 'Retreat'. The calls sounded to order this routine were beaten by drummers. The companies would retreat into the fortification with bugles or trumpets blowing to warn the guards on the ramparts of their approach. Often, as the companies marched in, the band would be playing to entertain those inside the fort.

The band's music would end with an evening hymn followed by the national anthem. This became known as the 'Tattoo', a word that is said to originate from campaigns in the Low Countries in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century when, at sunset, a lone drummer marched through the streets of the town to beat out 'Taptoo'. The title of this drum call is believed to be from an antiquated, and probably corrupted phrase (perhaps Flemish/Dutch) 'doe den tap toe', meaning 'turn off the taps' - the order for the tavern owners to stop serving ale, close for the night, and for all soldiers to stop drinking, muster and march back to their lines or billets.

The second routine followed at or near dusk when the night watch was set. The guards were inspected, especially when a senior officer was present, and then 'Rounds' were conducted to post the sentries with drum or bugle calls. The calls indicated which was the 'First Post' and finally, when the 'Last Post' sentry was in place. The last call of the day sounded by the camp bugler, before he blew reveille the following morning, was - 'Lights Out'.

These original ceremonies have evolved to become what is now a musical pageant that is the closing element of the Commanding Officer's formal evening where he invites guests to the Officers Mess followed by Beating Retreat. Hosts and guests will usually wear civilian dress. The close of the performance is marked by the musical arrangement known as 'Sunset', and as it plays, the Union Flag, and others flying, are lowered. The senior military or civilian guest will then be invited to mount a dais to take the Band's salute as they march off at the end of the ceremony (see image at top right).