British Monarchist League
 
Part One In A Series of Essays
By:
Thomas J. Muscatello-DeLacroix Mills 
Secretary General, the British Monarchist League

To the outside world, Britain has long been identified by its cultural heritage along with the royal events that symbolise and exemplify the power and majesty of Britain’s people as represented by the crown. Unlike most republics that have a national day of celebration such as France (Bastille Day) and America (Independence Day), Britain has many different occasions that bring our people together in times of celebration such as Coronations, Royal Weddings, and milestone occasions worthy of national celebration. Despite the infrequent and sometimes lengthy time that passes between such celebratory occasions, there are  several Royal events that are held on an annual basis within the Royal calendar, that act as national days of unity and celebration here at home. Whilst there are several events during the royal “season” each year, Britons from all regions of our glorious union can partake in a wide array of historically important and culturally pertinent events, in which we are able to gather and celebrate what it means to be British several times a year, and not just on one calendar day like in so many other nations. As the London “Royal” season enters its height during the month of June (with the most royal events taking place in such a small amount of time), three defining royal events that are held annually (The Beating Retreat, Trooping the Colour, and the Garter Ceremony and Procession), are perfect opportunities to explore the meaning behind what it means to be symbolically, as well as traditionally British. In this three part essay series, each aforementioned royal event will be explored in great detail to bring together what it means to be identified by such events, the symbolism behind the events, and what these events mean in, and to a modern Britain. As long as we have been bound by our glorious union, and even before, Britain has always been known to have a unique blend of the past with the present by intertwining the best of our cultural traditions and heritage whilst moving forward with the modern times. Even today we have a defining way of life (unlike most of our European counterparts) that bows to our culturally rich heritage while progressing in a rapidly changing and modern global community, and it is this anchor to who we are, that keeps us grounded and firmly identified as a people in an ever increasing generic union of homogenous nations.

Two of our most defining royal events, Trooping the Colour and the Beating Retreat, are two ceremonies that illustrate the discipline and traditions that have made the Guards Division of the British Army one of the most respected military divisions in the world, for as long as they have served and protected their sovereign. In the past, the unique events were a routine practise that ensured the efficiency and control of large bodies of men in an era when the modern conveniences of such technologies as mobile communications were not yet developed. Though these ceremonies may appear to have no place in our modern army, they serve as a useful reminder to Guardsmen everywhere that they belong to an elite division with a distinguished record that extends across many centuries.

The Beating Retreat

Each year on the second Wednesday and Thursday of June (directly before the second Saturday of the month which is Trooping the Colour), the Beating retreat takes place in the heart of London on Horse Guards Parade. Not only is the Beating Retreat of historical importance, but so is the venue of Horse Guards Parade which sets the stage for both the Beating Retreat and Trooping the Colour respectively. Horse Guards Parade is a large parade ground off Whitehall in central London which was formerly the site of the Palace of Whitehall's tiltyard, where tournaments were held in the time of Henry VIII. The venue was also the scene of annual birthday celebrations of Queen Elizabeth I. The area has been used for a variety of reviews, parades and other ceremonies since the 17th century, but in more recent times Horse Guards was the Headquarters of the British Army, and also where The Duke of Wellington was based when he was Commander-in-Chief of the British Army. The current General Officer Commanding the London District still occupies the same office and uses the same desk. The Duke of Wellington also had living quarters within the building, which today are used as offices. The parade ground itself is open on the west side, where it faces Horse Guards Road and St. James's Park. It is flanked on the north by the Old Admiralty and the Admiralty Citadel, on the east by William Kent's Horse Guards — formerly the headquarters of the British Army — and on the south by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the rear garden wall of 10 Downing Street, the official residence of the Prime Minister. On this historically and culturally important venue, the Beating Retreat is given added prestige to its yearly ceremony on Horse Guards Parade. With the colourfully illuminated backdrop of the surrounding buildings, the parade grounds provide a sight unparalleled in beauty and history to an evening of British pomp and pageantry that is unmatched by any other.

The Beating Retreat itself is a military ceremony dating back to 16th century England, when it was used as a signal to recall troops to barracks at the end of the day. With great explanation of the Beating Retreat by WG Cubbitt CBE, Major General Commanding the Household Division, during campaigns it was often difficult to gather troops together after a day’s fighting. Beating Retreat provided a signal to regroup, enabling a unit to be led as a single body to a safe encampment. Originally it was known as “Watch Setting”, and was initiated at sunset by the firing of a single round from the evening gun.  Beating Retreat is similar to another British Army end-of-the day ceremony dating from the 17th century. The term appears to have been coined when the British Army was fighting in Belgium and the Netherlands. The order was “Ye Retrette to beatre att nine att night and take it from ye guard”. In an order from the army of King James II (James VII of Scotland) which was dated to 18 June 1690, saw his drums beating an order for his troops to retreat and a later order, from William III in 1694 read, "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".

By 1727, Beating Retreat was a standard practise in the British Army. The order was described as follows: “Half an hour before the setting of the sun, the Drummers and Port-Guards are to go upon the ramparts and Beat Retreat to give notice to those without that the gates are to be shut. The Drummers will not take more than quarter of an hour to Beat Retreat.” Drummers from the garrison were sent out into the towns at 21:30 each evening to inform the soldiers that it was time to return to barracks. The process was also referred to as “Doe den tap toe” because it encouraged inn keepers to turn off their ale taps and send soldiers home for the night. Drummers would continue to play until curfew was sounded at 22:00. As the nature of battle changed, the need to Beat or Sound Retreat in the traditional way lessened and the practise became more of a military spectacle than an operational necessity. Traditionally, the practise of Beating Retreat also included the playing of first post by a bugler, a routine bugle call denoting the positioning of sentries. Although the first post is no longer sounded, the posting of sentries each night when on active duty is something that today remains of paramount military importance. The current version of the Beating Retreat performed yearly on Horse Guards Parade represents the 18th century Beating Retreat. It denotes the end of the working day and heralds mounting of the Guard for the night. The ceremony itself evokes a sense of tradition, pride, and ceremony that marks a continuing excellence of standards established many generations ago.

Since the 1990’s the Beating Retreat has taken place on Horse Guards Parade, and for the first time ever, a foreign band was allowed to play at the Beating Retreat on 5 June, 2008. This honoured band was that of the 1st Battalion Royal Malay Regiment, who had been helping to guard London, by mounting guards at the palaces. Amongst their performance pieces were arrangements of number of well known pieces from stage and film. Since then, each year a different band is typically invited to share the parade grounds to show off their skills in marching and playing order alongside our own British Divisions. The Beating Retreat is performed by several military bands included the Massed bands of the Foot Guards, and the Mounted Bands of the Household Cavalry, as well as other performances which change each year. In 2008, the other performances were made by the Band of the Royal Malay Regiment, the Pipes and Drums of the Scots Guards, and the mounted Fanfare Trumpets and Timpani Drummers. Each year, the Massed Bands perform some ceremonial form of the retreat and it is often used as a proving test for new band members as well as a practice for difficult drill moves such as the Spin Wheel. The ceremonies generally involve the marching of the bands, the firing of cannons and other decorative presentations. This years’ Beating Retreat included the United States Europe Army Band and Chorus which was a first for Horse Guards Parade.

At precisely 21:00 on Thursday 9 June, 2011, the Beating Retreat commenced with the arrival of H.R.H. Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. The evening before, the Beating Retreat took place in the presence of His Excellency Louis B. Susman, United States Ambassador to London. This year’s ceremony (which is open to all members of the public) was executed by Her Majesty’s Mounted Bands, Trumpeters, Massed Bands, Corps of Drums, and Pipes and Drums of the Household Division, along with the United States Army Europe Band. As the Duke of Edinburgh processed to the covered dais to the sounds of the Warning Fanfare to take the royal salute, the cool breeze moved the trees of St. James’s park ever so gently as the sun began descending behind the heavy clouds of the night time sky. As the Royal Salute was taken and our National Anthem “God Save The Queen” sounded, the stage was set for an evening of unmatched pomp and pageantry which simply cannot be replicated anywhere else in the world. The evening started out in special sentiment, knowing that H.R.H. The Duke of Edinburgh would be celebrating his landmark 90th Birthday the next day. The music started in faint manner as the entrance of the Mounted bands commenced.

As they drew nearer and nearer, eventually onto the Parade and in sight of the anxious crowd, the lights seemed to intensify in bold patriotic colours, illuminating the Admiralty and Horse Guards buildings as well as the Guard Memorial itself. The music started to grow bold and ever so loud, as the Massed Mounted bands and Trumpeters of the Household Cavalry gave way to the Musical Drive of the King’s Troop, Royal Horse Artillery.  The commentary provided by Colonel Alasdair Hutton ODE TD, quickened the pace as the King’s Troop quickened pace to set their cannons and prepared to fire. The musical choices of the Royal Artillery Slow March (Attributed to H.R.H. The Duchess of Kent) and Bonnie Dundee provided a musical interlude not soon to be forgotten. Instantaneously the music began to crescendo, and the Colonel’s voice peaked as one by one the cannons sounded. The sound of the guns along with the drowned sounds of the military music created and eerie feeling to accompany the sight of illuminated smoke, and the smell of a symbolic battle that had just begun. Rounding out their highly energetic and aggressive programme, the King’s Troop, Royal Horse Artillery had departed just as fast as they had arrived similar to ghost riders in the night, having appeared and faded away as apparitions while leaving the Massed Bands of the Household Cavalry and the Corps of Drums in the lingering smog of the cannons fire.

Before one could realise how much time had passed during this exciting and addictive event of phenomenal musical and military spectacle, the sounds of the Post Horn Gallop (Koenig) and Grandioso (Seitz) were fading away to the musical enjoyment of not only The Drum Major General (Crisford), and Drummers of the Queen (Hall), but a plethora of many other pieces before the venue seemed to change from the traditional British marches and military drills of our own beloved guard to a highly paced and lighter feel of the United States Army Europe Band and Chorus. Entering the Parade in a very dignified and formal way, the Americans beamed with pride and honour, showing just how excited they were to be invited to Horse Guards Parade to the musical interlude of National Emblem (Bagley). As the formality continued and the Band twisted and turned in amasing military show, the American contingent divided into two parts as the air sounded of WWII boogie woogie. A musical montage of In the Mood, Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy and Sing Sing Sing transformed the mood of the Parade into a highly energetic musical revue complete with swing dancers and an “Andrews Sister-esque” trio of beautiful female singers. The atmosphere was electric; the crowd was cheering, clapping, some standing on their feet, and others dancing in their seats, as both the singing and dancing was brilliant. It was truly a first for Horse Guards Parade, as it was for the Americans who had come to London.

The flavour of the music by our own Guard, the military maneuvers and the very pomp and pageantry that defines us, combined together with the razzle dazzle spectacle of the Americans, was only the half-way point leading up to the second half of one of the most amasing shows London has seen. After the United States Army Band and Chorus finished their spot with The Stars and Stripes Forever (Sousa), they exited the parade in favour of Her Majesty’s Pipes and Drums who regaled the Parade with the musical tales of Morag of Dunvegan (Slattery), Queen Elizabeth’s March (Ross), The Steamboat (Tchaikovsky) and many more. Upon the end of the relaxing regalement of the Pipes and Drums, Her Majesty’s Drummer performed the retreats, which lead the way to the Massed Bands of the Guards Division. The familiar music of Harry Potter (Williams) transformed the atmosphere and mood of the Parade into the whimsical feeling that is evoked by the score of Harry Potter films. The mystery and awe of not just the Beating Retreat, but the buildings surrounding, and the Parade itself was brought to life in the Music performed by the Massed Bands, as it was truly an evening culminating in one of the most patriotic finales that Horse Guards, or the nation has ever witnessed. As the Finale of this spectacular evening commenced Staff Sergeant Linda Wolf of the United States Army Europe Chorus, and Lance Sergeant James Scott of the Coldstream Guards teamed up in singing the amasing and emotionally moving duet, “When you are a soldier” composed by Chapman & Keen.  Continuing on a patriotic tone, Sergeant John Norwood of the Scots Guards performed “Coming Home-Return of the Scottish Warrior” by Browning. This piece was a musical story about the trials of a Scottish soldier during war and returning home to the United Kingdom, his country and what it meant to serve his nation, and to return home to it. It was a very touching, moving, and inspiring piece that did not leave many dry eyes in the crowd. The song was ever so powerful and truly touching, which brought a lot of sentiment to our Union that comprises Great Britain, along with what it means for our soldiers in uniform to fight for the nation we call the United Kingdom. 

As the crowds were silenced and brought to tears in a patriotic and moving finale, the evening culminated in a plethora of emotion and sentiment that represented the symbolic meaning of the words “for Crown and County”. Standing again to the Solo Piper of the Scots Guard, the crowd sang loud our National Anthem with pride, word for word, with emotion and heart. After an evening of emotional ups and downs, along with the symbolism of our great union together with what it means for the men in women in uniform to serve our nation, the march off sounded to Hands Across the Sea (Sousa) and When the Guards are on Parade (Nicholls). These two songs which brought about the end to a wonderful evening of British pomp and pageantry, mixed together with the cool reflections and sounds of the American war effort, which outlined an explicit reference to the unity not only between our own Guard Divisions and our nation, but the unity between the United Kingdom and The United States as a lasting and strong bond between two nations and their peoples.

The Beating Retreat of 2011 was truly a sight to see and a musical programme to hear. The content of the ceremony was truly an enlightenment of the senses, and a treasure of emotion that was filled with the symbolism of what makes Britain so very special in the eyes of the international community. It was an evening to reflect on those serving our nation, our rich culture and history, and the very things that celebrate the best that Britain was, is, and will be in the future. By continuing such ceremonies and events which are open for the public to attend, we are able to carry our past into the future and continue to strengthen the special ways that make us unique in how we are identified by the very special recipe of past and present which makes us who we are as one people, and one nation under our crown. The Beating Retreat can be attended twice yearly, in which admission is by ticket only. Information about the Beating Retreat and the purchasing of tickets can be done by telephone on the card line at 020 7839 5323 between 9:00-16:00 on weekdays.
Picture
Horse Guards Parade, London
In the next series of this essay (Part Two in a series), the Regiments that are on Parade for both the Beating Retreat and Trooping the Colour will be explored, as will the event of Trooping the Colour, the Queen’s Birthday Parade itself. 
 


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