Customs, traditions of remembrance

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Thomas J. Finneran
  • Commander, 95th Reconnaissance Squadron
As I sat at my son's gymnastics training in Ipswich, England, Alex, one of the 14-year-old gymnasts, and Maria, the mother of one of the other boys, were talking about the Remembrance Day ceremony at Alex's school that day. Remembrance Day is very similar to Veteran's Day in the United States. They knew I am in the U.S. Air Force, so they asked me why a bugler played a song before the two minutes of silence and what song the bugler played.

The bugle tunes and customs are a little different here in England than they are in the States, so I wasn't really sure of the answer. While reflecting on this question, I realized that sadly, I did not know where some of our military customs and traditions originated that honor those who fought in our nations' wars, and particularly honor those that made the ultimate sacrifice.

Therefore, I set off to conduct a bit of research to find out where a few of the most sacred military traditions in both the British and American armed forces started, and why they are still so important in our services today.

One of the first questions I needed to answer was, "What was the bugle song played before the two minutes of silence?" Before getting to that question, however, I suppose I need to first explain the United Kingdom tradition of two minutes of silence.

At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, World War I ended. Throughout the United Kingdom, at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11 every year, everyone -- and I really do mean everyone -- observes two minutes of silence to remember all those men lost in World War I, as well as those men and women lost in wars since The Great War. This moment of silence also is repeated on the Sunday of Remembrance Day weekend at 11 a.m. in stores, on football pitches and on the radio and "telly" -- everything stops for two minutes of silence.

The idea remembering in silence is credited to an Australian journalist, Edward George Honey, who appealed for a five-minute silence to celebrate the anniversary of the end of World War I. King George V liked the idea, but decided on a shorter two-minute silence.

On Nov. 7, 1919, the King decreed that the country would observe two minutes of silence at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, the day and time the Armistice came into force, and citizens throughout the United Kingdom proudly honor that tradition every year. It is truly very moving to witness. So now that we know where the moment of silence originated, we can get to the bugle call.

Assuming the ceremony at Alex's school was similar to the Remembrance Day Sunday service I attended, the bugle tune that was played before the two minutes of silence is titled the "Last Post." In the British Army as well as the American military, "Reveille" signals the start of a soldier's day and in the United Kingdom, "Last Post" signals the day's end. In the United States, "Taps" signals the end of the day.

It is believed that the "Last Post" was actually part of a routine known as "tattoo" in the British Army from the 17th century. During the evening, a duty officer would check on the sentry posts and round up off-duty soldiers to send them to bed. The duty officer was accompanied by one or more musicians, including a drummer. The "first post" sounded when the duty officer started his rounds and drum beats were played as he moved from post to post to signal it was time to rest, or that it was time to quit the pubs. In fact, "tattoo" is a derived from "doe den tap toe," Dutch for "turn off the taps," which is also where the American title of "Taps" originates. Another bugle call was sounded when the duty officer completed his rounds, or he reached the "last post." This call signaled to the troops that all night sentries were in position and that all other soldiers should retire for the evening.

"Last Post" was incorporated into funeral and memorial services as a final farewell and to symbolize the end of duty for the fallen soldier and as a sign that he could now rest in peace. The bugle call of "Last Post" during Remembrance Day ceremonies is to honor those who have fallen silent now that their duties, and life, have come to an end.

Much like the story of the "Last Post," "Taps" also has its roots in a bugle call signaling the end of the day. During the American Civil War in July 1862, Brig. Gen. Daniel Butterfield, commander of the 3d Brigade, 1st Division, V Army Corps, Army of the Potomac, changed around the notes and arrangement of another bugle call, "Scott Tattoo," to create the bugle call we know today as "Taps." He thought the regular bugle call for lights out was too formal, so he changed it to something more pleasing. The brigade's bugler, Private Oliver Willcox Norton, wrote that once he played "Taps" that evening, other brigades in the Union and Confederate Army adopted the song to signal the end of the day. Today, "Taps" signals the end of the day on nearly all stateside military bases.

"Taps" and the "Last Post" are both used in military funerals and memorial ceremonies in the United Kingdom and the United States to honor those who have fought and died that we and our allies might be free.

When General Butterfield composed "Taps," it was simply the music for the bugle with no words. Later, Horace Lorenzo Trim added some lyrics, and other unnamed individuals added even more verses to his lyrics. At the Remembrance Day Sunday service I attended, the Beaver Scouts concluded the service singing two verses of "Taps." The words the Scouts sang truly capture the sacrifice of those who have gone before us:

"Day is done, gone the sun, from the hills, from the lake, from the skies. All is well, safely rest, God is nigh.
Go to sleep, peaceful sleep, may the soldier or sailor, God keep. On the land or the deep, safe in sleep."

Through the questioning of Alex and Maria, I learned something about the military customs and traditions of remembrance in the United Kingdom and the United States.

We must never forget our veterans who fought for our freedoms in the World Wars of the past, the current conflicts of today, and the wars in between. The words we repeat at the end of the Ode of Remembrance in England remind us of our duty: "We will remember them."

As men and women serving in uniform, we should all take time to learn about the significance of our remembrance traditions and other customs and traditions in our services. After all, if we do not know where we came from and know what trail those who came before us blazed, we will never be able to chart properly where we are going in the future.