A Short Introduction to the History of Military Music

This article was written by Colin Dean, a recognised authority on Military Music.

For more information on publications which Colin has written or edited, click on the "Merchandise" button.

Much of military music's origins lie in roles not dissimilar to those now carried out by the Royal Corps of Signals and the humble wrist-watch. wp1a7b0900_0f.jpg Long before today s high-tech battlefield communications systems even became science-fiction, signalling in camp and in the field was carried out by the beating or drums or the sounding of trumpets or bugles.

A soldiers day was regulated by music telling him when to get up (Reveille), when to eat (e.g. Officers Dinner), when to be on parade (Warning for Parade) or when to retire to bed (Lights Out). This music duty is traditionally the task of the Corps of Drums (drums and flutes) which remain on the strength of battalions of Foot Guards and most English and Welsh Infantry Regiments. Their role, encompassed in ceremonies such as Retreat, Tattoo and Trooping the Colour, remains an important aspect of our nation’s heritage and, whilst today carried out largely for ceremonial purposes, has its origins in the practical necessities of soldiering.

wpabb7f896_0f.jpg The military band evolved primarily as an enhancement to ceremonial and for the entertainment of the soldiers. From 1670-1750  hautboys (French: high-woods or oboes) began to be added to the drums and fifes, and other instruments emerged over the years to form the military band as we know it today.

 Bands were originally held on an unofficial basis, paid for by the officers of the regiment, but were eventually added to the establishment. The Foot Guards maintained regimental bands permanently stationed in London but cavalry regiments and infantry battalions each had their own band which would normally accompany their parent unit wherever in the world it was serving. In addition, the Royal Artillery (Woolwich) Band (formed in 1762) and the Royal Engineers Band (formed in 1855) enjoyed great reputations and similar status to the Foot Guards as well as performing as full orchestras.

wp271f2113_0f.jpg Scottish regiments had long enjoyed unofficial pipers going to battle with clan chiefs but six pipers were authorised by the War Office for Highland Regiments in 1854, for the Scots Guards in 1856 and for Lowland and Irish Regiments in the 1900s. Today the Pipes and Drums are a source of great pride to the Scots, Irish and Gurkha battalions and can also be found in some regiments of the Royal Armoured Corps. The duty piper may replace the calls of the drummer/bugler with duty tunes which vary between regiments but might include such as  Brose and Butter to signify Dinner,  Jenny s Bawbee (Polly put the Kettle On) for Tea, and  Sleep Dearie Sleep for Lights Out.


wpe8658f89_0f.jpg Cavalry and Artillery signalled battle calls on the bugle but in barracks, camp or quarters, used the E-Flat cavalry trumpet.Trumpets and kettledrums have long been used to announce the arrival of royalty or other distinguished personages, notably when King Charles II returned to London to restore the monarchy in 1660.

In 1947, the Royal Artillery Mounted, Portsmouth and Salisbury Plain bands, along with the bands of six of the larger Corps, were granted the status of staff bands, most of which were based at permanent locations.


The axe began to fall in 1984 when four staff bands were disbanded and the establishments of the remaining bands considerably reduced. This particularly hit the regimental and battalion bands which were reduced to just 21 bandsmen. Many of these bands continued to maintain high standards and a great deal of ingenuity was shown by the bandmasters, but in practice the bands were often under strength and considerable difficulties were encountered. Most of the infantry regiments which then had three battalions instead opted for two bands of 35 bandsmen but this effectively signalled the beginning of the end of the traditional regimental bands.

A further round of cuts (known as  Options for Change ) took effect in the early 1990s and the planned reduction on army musicians meant that it would no longer be possible to retain regimental/battalion bands. The Royal Armoured Corps was reduced to four bands serving the regiments of Dragoon Guards, Hussars and Light Dragoons, Royal Lancers and The Royal Tank Regiment, but these have since reduced to just two. In the Infantry of the Line, each Division (less the Light Division) was allocated two bands, since reduced to just one.

A list of the bands today can be viewed at www.army.mod.uk/music

wpb4808ffa_0f.jpg The Bands of the Royal Marines are distinctive in always being led on parade by their immaculate Corps of Drums, as well as doubling in an orchestral role. Music has long played a part in daily life aboard ship, with the singing of sea shanties and the ship's fiddler relieving the tedium of a long voyage. As long ago as the days of Drake and Hawkins, the drummer's rhythm would advise the changing watches or be used to "beat to action". Ships' bands came to develop from this. Small bands were provided since 1903 for each large ship or Royal Navy shore establishment, and the older bands were permanently located with the Royal Marines Divisions at Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth. These two distinct branches were merged in 1950 and, like the army, the number of bands has been progressively reduced to the following:

The Band of the Royal Marines Portsmouth

The Band of the Royal Marines Plymouth

The Band of the Royal Marines Collingwood

The Band of the Royal Marines Scotland

The Band of the Royal Marines Commando Training Centre Royal Marines

wp33e0cb6d_0f.jpg In the Royal Air Force, the Central Band and College Band were formed on 1st April 1920, based at Uxbridge and Cranwell respectively. At one time the service had ten established bands but things have now gone full circle and there are once again just the bands at Uxbridge and Cranwell, albeit with two bands at the latter location.

The Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall

wpaa5c7df9.jpg The Military Music Class opened its doors at Kneller Hall, Twickenham, on 3rd March 1857 and it received its Royal title thirty years later. The School was founded on the initiative of HRH The Duke of Cambridge, a cousin of Queen Victoria and Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, to train bandsmen and, in particular, Bandmasters to replace the hired civilians hitherto employed.
The popular story is that this came about as a result of an embarrassing incident witnessed by the Duke who was present as Commander of the 1st Division (Brigade of Guards and Highlanders) during a Review at Scutari in the Crimea to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Birthday in 1854 when the massed bands, not accustomed to playing together, played the National Anthem in a variety of keys and arrangements. Whether this was the real reason will forever remain conjecture but two contemporary sources confirm that the rendition in question left much to be desired:
The Times’ war correspondent, W.H. Russell witnessed the review and wrote “They were received by the bands of all the regiments striking up God Save the Queen but not with the unanimity which would have been desirable in order to give a perfect effect to the noble strains of our national anthem”.
In addition, Lt. Col. Calthorpe published his recollections under the title ‘Letters from Headquarters’ and included: “Lord Raglan and an immense staff came to the ground; then followed three cheers from the troops, but all the bands playing in different keys God Save the Queen spoilt the effect it would otherwise have had”.
At one time the School had as many as 250 Students and Pupils under training but numbers have now considerably reduced in line with the number of army bands.


The early bandmasters were civilians, often Germans, hired by the officers but they tended to disappear once a regiment had received orders to proceed overseas. The founding of The Royal Military School of Music in 1857 meant that the army was able to train its own bandmasters, who initially held the rank of Sergeant.
The rank of Warrant Officer was introduced in 1881 and all bandmasters who had passed the relevant Kneller Hall examinations, were promoted to that rank. In 1914 the rank of Warrant Officer was divided into two classes, bandmasters becoming Warrant Officers Class One, the rank they hold today.
Prior to 1994 bandmasters commanded regimental bands in the cavalry and battalion bands in the infantry but the reorganisation saw their role change to that of training officer and deputy conductor.

Directors of Music

The first bandmaster to be commissioned was Lieutenant Dan Godfrey, Bandmaster of the Grenadier Guards for a remarkable 40 years from 1856 to 1896, as a personal gift from Queen Victoria as part of the honours for her Golden Jubilee in 1887. In 1898 the Queen wrote to the War Office pointing out the inequity of bandmasters not being able to be commissioned and suggesting three who she felt particularly warranted the honour: Mr. Charles Godfrey of the Royal Horse Guards, Cavaliere Ladislao Zavertal of the Royal Artillery and Mr. George Miller of the Royal Marine Light Infantry Portsmouth Division. Her Majesty’s request was, of course, swiftly granted.
Four further bandmasters were subsequently commissioned in this way (i.e. as personal appointments, seemingly following the Sovereign’s recommendation) and they became known as Directors of Music in 1914 to distinguish them from Warrant Officer Bandmasters.
In 1919 it was decided that the three bands of the Household Cavalry, the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers Bands and the five bands of the Foot Guards should in future be led by Directors of Music and the incumbent bandmasters were commissioned. The Director of Music at Kneller Hall was originally a civilian appointment in what was largely a teaching role, the first soldier being appointed in 1890 as a commissioned officer.
This meant that from 1919 there was a total of eleven Director of Music posts, which reduced to ten in 1922 on the amalgamation of the 1st and 2nd Life Guards. As most of the incumbents would normally hold the post for twenty years or more it can be seen that opportunities for bandmasters to be promoted to commissioned rank were few, particularly bearing in mind that there were around 150 bandmasters at that time. The advanced musical qualification ‘psm’ (Passed School of Music) was therefore introduced by Kneller Hall to help identify those bandmasters of particular talent and this examination became the requirement for a commission until quite recently.
The number of Director of Music appointment expanded considerably from 1947 with the creation of a number of staff bands, while the 1970s saw the appointment of Divisional Directors of Music in the Infantry.
Following the reorganisation in 1994 all regular army bands are now led by a Director of Music, while a number of staff appointments have been created, most of which are based at Kneller Hall.
The Drum Major commands a Corps of Drums and is responsible for its musical standard as well as leading it on parade. Where a Band and Corps of Drums parade together the Drum Major leads and takes command, irrespective of the rank held by members of the band.
It has become the custom in Staff Bands and, since 1994 in most Infantry Bands, for a member of the band, although not a Drum Major in the traditional sense, to be given that appointment to lead the band on parade.
Drum Majors in the Foot Guards are appointed as Household Drummers by Royal Warrant and, in this respect, wear State Clothing in the presence of Royalty and on certain Royal Anniversaries.
In Scots, Irish and Gurkha regiments the Pipes and Drums will normally have both a Pipe Major and a Drum Major.
The Rifles and The Brigade of Gurkhas have Bugle Majors instead of Drum Majors.

Regimental Marches

All regiments and corps in the British Army have their own Regimental (or Corps) March which serve to identify them and as an outward sign of regimental pride and identity.
In days of yore many regiments marched past to a tune that happened to be a favourite of the commanding officer of the day (or perhaps a favourite of his wife!) and this would change from time to time as personalities changed. However, many of the marches selected will have been played by the regiment for many years and in a number of cases, the reasons for their adoption have been lost in the mists of time.
wpe4628a55_0f.jpg Perhaps the best regimental marches are those based on folk songs from the regiment’s county, for example, the Royal Lincolnshire Regiment marched past to ‘The Lincolnshire Poacher’ and The Wiltshire Regiment to a wonderfully titled folk tune called ‘The Vly (Fly) Be on the Turnip’. Others were adapted from the opera or popular songs of the day and in the case of the 14th Foot, their march was gained in battle. This remarkable occurrence came at Famars in 1793 when the 14th were struggling against the French Army who were being spurred on by their musicians playing a revolutionary tune called Ca Ira. The Commanding Officer turned to his musicians and ordered them to also play Ca Ira adding that they would “Beat them to their own damned tune”. The tide of battle turned as a result, with the French being defeated. After the battle the Duke of York (Commanding the British Forces) ordered that the regiment should play Ca Ira in future as its quick march. Following amalgamations it is now the march of The Yorkshire Regiment.
In the 1880s the War Office ordered all Cavalry regiments to choose a Regimental Slow March, and all Infantry regiments a Regimental Quick March, to be submitted for their approval and for publication, thus making them available to all bands for playing on appropriate occasions. In order to ensure a degree of consistency, the War Office commissioned three musicians to make the arrangements for publication:
Charles William Hewitt (1848-1909), Bandmaster of the 35th Foot, later the Royal Sussex Regiment. Jacob Adam Kappey (1826-1906), Originally a bandsman in the German army, Bandmaster of the 89th Foot (later 2nd Bn. The Royal Irish Fusiliers (Princess Victoria’s)) and the Royal Marine Light Infantry (Chatham Division). Michael J. Retford (1853-?), a musician in the 98th (The Prince of Wales’s) Regiment of Foot and later, the Band of the Coldstream Guards.
A number of these marches are still in use today, although most of the regiments have since been amalgamated. This could mean that two or more existing marches were combined, a new march may have been specially written or perhaps a tune previously used by both regiments was adopted.
After the Second World War, a number of the smaller Corps acquired their own marches, most of which were arranged by Major George Stunell, Bandmaster of the 1st Bn. Suffolk Regiment, School Bandmaster at Kneller Hall and Director of Music at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst.
The Kneller Hall School March was written by Lieutenant-Colonel Meredith Roberts in 1950 when he was the Director of Music of the School. It is based on two tunes, Blow Away the Morning Dew (said to have been chosen because of the dew on the grass during early morning practice; it is also familiar as having been used by Vaughan Williams in his Folk Song Suite) and Near London Town (because it is). Prior to this, Rule, Britannia! had been used to end concerts and as the school’s march-past.
The Corps of Army Music March, Minstrel Boy, was adopted in 2001 following a competition open to all members of the Corps. The winning entry was written by Major Denis Burton and combines the well-known drinking song, Come Landlord Fill the Flowing Bowl, and the Minstrel Boy, an ancient Irish air called The Moreen, with words written by Thomas Moore (1779-1852).
The Royal Navy march past to "Hearts of Oak" and the Royal Marines to "A Life on the Ocean Wave" although within the senior service a number of units such as the Fleet Air Arm and Submarine Service have their own marches, as do the Royal Marines Commandos.
The Royal Air Force March Past was composed by their first organising Director of Music, Sir Walford Davis and, again, units within the service have their own marches in addition.
Amongst the most prolific British march composers are:
Kenneth J. Alford (1880-1945) – the pen name of Major Frederick Joseph Ricketts, one time Bandmaster of 2nd Bn. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (Princess Louise’s) and Director of Music of the Royal Marines Plymouth Division. His marches include Colonel Bogey, The Standard of St. George and The Great Little Army.
Thomas Bidgood (1858-1925) – Bandmaster of the 4th Volunteer Bn. The Essex Regiment and also directed the Beckton Gas, Light and Coke Company band. Marches include: Sons of the Brave, British Legion and Heroes of the Flag.
Captain Denis Plater (1895-1952) – Bandmaster of 1st Bn. The Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and the Royal Tank Regiment, Director of Music to the Corps of Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. Marches include: Light Infantry, Fear Naught and The March of the King’s Men.
Leo Stanley (1884-1967) – the pen name of Randolph Robjent Ricketts, brother of Kenneth Alford. He was bandmaster of 2nd Bn. The Essex Regiment and on retirement from the army became the civilian bandmaster of the Royal Corps of Signals. Marches include The Contemptibles, Alamein and The Pompadours.
Arnold Steck – pen name of Major Leslie Statham (1905-1974). He served as Bandmaster of 2nd Bn. The Manchester Regiment, and Director of Music of The Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and the Welsh Guards. Marches include Birdcage Walk, Drum Majorette and Royal Review.
Major Alf Young (1900-1975) – Bandmaster of 2nd Bn. The Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry and the Royal Army Service Corps and Director of Music of the Corps of Royal Engineers, latterly becoming Professor of Instrumentation at Kneller Hall. Many of his marches were composed under the pen name Earl Brigham – they include: Colchester Castle, Boot and Saddles and Royal Standard.
Anyone who has played in a British military band will be familiar with the expressions ‘arr. Godfrey’ and ‘arr. Winterbottom’ appearing on numerous scores, particularly for transcriptions from the classical repertoire, but how many know of the great musical dynasties they represent, perhaps being the military band equivalents of the Bachs and Strausses?
Charles Godfrey (1790-1863) was Bandmaster of the Coldstream Guards from 1834 until his death in 1863. Three of his sons were to dominate the Guards bands for the latter part of the nineteenth century:
Lieutenant Daniel Godfrey MVO (1831-1903) was Bandmaster of the Grenadier Guards for forty years from 1856 to 1896. His greatest legacy must surely be his arrangement of themes from Meyerbeer’s opera ’Les Huguenots’, played annually at the Queen’s Birthday Parade. His son, Sir Dan Godfrey, founded the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.
Adolphus Frederick (Fred) Godfrey (1837-1882) succeeded his father as Bandmaster of the Coldstream Guards, serving until 1880, with father and son holding the position for a total of 55 years.
Lieutenant Charles Godfrey MVO (1839-1919) was bandmaster of the Scots Fusilier Guards from 1859 when he transferred to the Royal Horse Guards (The Blues). His commission in 1898 was the result of a direct intervention by Queen Victoria ‘On account of his long service and being Master of a very fine Band in one of the Household Cavalry regiments’.
The Winterbottom family dominated the Royal Marines bands during the late nineteenth century in the same way as the Godfreys did in the Guards and the transcriptions of music from the classics made by William and Frank continue to form part an important part of the band repertoire to this day.
William Winterbottom was Bandmaster of the Royal Marine Light Infantry Woolwich Division and later the Plymouth Division, transferring in 1872 to the 2nd Life Guards.
Frank Winterbottom was Bandmaster of the Royal Marine Light Infantry Plymouth Division from 1890 until 1910.
Three other member of the family, Williams’s brothers, were Thomas Winterbottom, Master of the Band of the RMLI Plymouth Division 1851-1869, Henry Winterbottom, Master of the Band RMLI Woolwich Division 1854-1856 and John Winterbottom, Bandmaster of the Royal Marine Artillery 1870-1892.
In more recent time, ‘arr. Duthoit’ and ‘arr. Sharpe’ have become similarly familiar:
James William Duthoit (1885-196?) was Bandmaster of 2nd Bn. The South Staffordshire Regiment from 1923 until 1929, after which he served as Professor of Instrumentation at Kneller Hall until 1959. Generally known as ‘Dusty’ he produced countless arrangements for military band, some of them written under the pen name of W.J. Dawson including the ITMA arrangements.
Lieutenant-Colonel Trevor Sharpe, LVO, OBE (1921- ) was Director of Music of the Coldstream Guards (1963-1974) and of The Royal Military School of Music (1974-1978) after which he remained at Kneller Hall as Professor of Instrumentation.

Drum Majors

Military Bands


wpe7b08a9e_0f.jpg All cavalry regiments had a mounted band up until the 1930s, led by a drum horse which was very much the pride of the regiment. In addition all bandsmen were required to act as Trumpeters and take their turn in sounding the routine calls in barracks.

The Central Band of the Royal Air Force

The Band of the Royal Air Force College

The Band of the Royal Air Force Regiment

March Composers