Percussion has been used on the battle field for a very long time not only to control the marching pace of soldiers but also to pass commands and create fear in the opposing army. Apparently the Europeans learned about drums as a military technique during the Crusades when Saladin used military bands. The crusaders found them somewhat off-putting and recorded as much in their chronicles. The Ottomans are known to have continued the tradition. Kettle drums found their way to Spain which was part of the Ottoman empire until the fifteenth century.
A look at the accounts reveals that Edward I and Edward III had drummers on their payrolls. Not only did they use their drummers on the battle field but they used the drum to indicate that they were about to arrive – fanfare like.
The tabor was a medieval drum which is derived from the French word tambour. It could be played one handed. It’s modern equivalent is the snare drum. By the eighteenth century the fife had entered the equation although we do still tend to think of the underage drummer boy. Ultimately the drum would be replaced by the bugle for passing commands. It should be added that the Saracens had used a form of bugle to signal the start of battle. It was noted by chroniclers in 1191. However, the drum and ‘to follow the drum’ had become synonymous with the army. Regimental drums were almost as important as their colours.
Meanwhile it turns out that bagpipes have long been classified as a weapon of war. Essentially in the aftermath of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion James Reid declared that he had never borne arms for Bonnie Prince Charlie – he’d only played the bagpipes. At which point the court sitting in York constituted the bagpipes a weapon of war and hanged Reid. The law was finally revoked in 1996 in a dispute over whether it was lawful to play the pipes on common land or not.
Rather than 12 pipers it seems appropriate to finish 2018 with reference to the 2500 pipers from Britain and the Commonwealth nations who served in the trenches during World War One. These men received an extra penny a day to be the first over the top into no man’s land. They were unarmed aside from their pipes. Half of them were killed as they strode into the mud, slaughter and machine gun fire.
The Flowers of the Forest was written as a lament after the Battle of Flodden in 1513. Its words remain appropriate to these brave men:
The Flowers of the Forest, that foucht aye the foremost,
The prime o’ our land are cauld in the clay.
We’ll hae nae mair lilting, at the yowe-milking,
Women and bairns are dowie and wae.
Sighing and moaning, on ilka green loaning,
The Flowers of the forest are all wede away.
Blades, James. Percussion Instruments and their history.