Battlefield Communication Using Drums and Drumming

Battlefield communication using drums and drumming was an important military aspect of war, and this type of communication lasted well into the nineteenth century. During this time, the drum most popular among drummers was the ordinary drum that consisted of a wooden or brass cylinder with a skin head at either end, and described in the following way:

“The skins [on these drums] are lapped at their edges around a small hoop which encircles the cylinder, and a large hoop rests on this and presses it down in place. The large hoops at each end are connected by an endless cord, running through holes in their outer edges and zigzagging up and down the sides of the cylinder from hoop to hoop. Each loop of this cord is surrounded by a sliding leather brace, and by pushing these down, so as to draw the loops together, or up, so as to loosen them, the drum is tightened or slackened, and the clear, tense or harsh, loose notes produced.”[1]

Drums and Drumming

Related to America’s War of Independence, This illustration is a famous depiction from the 19th-century called “The Spirit of ’76” by Archibald Willard. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

It was stated in 1884:

“The drum was not used for drilling infantry to keep step until the middle of the eighteenth century, and the roll, such as we now know it, was only regulated some hundred years ago. The drummer’s art then became more difficult, and to perfect it regimental schools were established, the master of which was the drum major.”[2]

Once every beat was regulated it was only through “long practice” that perfection by a drummer was attained. Furthermore, to achieve this perfection with drums and drumming it was claimed that the drummer had to possess “a quick and nimble wrist.”[3] Drum beats were also regular in the number and the division of strokes that could be produced using the two sticks. Thus, one person noted that if all the drummers in the British Army were assembled together, they would all beat alike.

A young soldier in a feathered busby standing in a field, holding his drum after Bunbury. 1791. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Over the years there were many notable drummer boys adept with their drums and drumming. For instance, 7-year-old Nathan Futrell was said to be the youngest drummer boy in the American Revolutionary War and in 1793 13-year-old Joseph Bara was killed during the War in the Vendée and became such a hero his body was buried in the Panthéon along with other French national heroes. There was also a famous 19-year-old drummer named André Estienne in Napoleon Bonaparte‘s army at the Battle of the Bridge of Arcole in 1796. He became a hero after he led his battalion across a river while holding his drum over his head, and on reaching the far bank, beat the “charge,” resulting in the capture of the bridge and the rout of the Austrian army.

drums and drumming - drummer boys during Napoleon's time

Images of drummer boys during Napoleon Bonaparte’s time. Author’s collection.

Different drum beats and rolls came to signal different commands to the troops produced by the drums and drumming. In addition, various regulation beats included the following:

  • The Alarm, or Long Roll, gave notice of sudden danger so that every soldier would be in readiness for immediate duty.
  • The Assembly, or Troop, ordered the troops to repair to the place of rendezvous, or to their colors.
  • To Arms was the signal given for soldiers who were dispersed to repair to them.
  • Beat for Orders was a peculiar mixture of rolls, flams and single taps that were beat at the adjutant’s quarters for assembling all persons whose duty it was to receive “the orders of the day.”
  • The Church Call, also called “Beating the Bank,” was a beat to summon the soldiers of a regiment or garrison to church.
  • The Drummers’ Call was a beat to assemble the drummers at the head of the colors, or in quarters at the place where it was beaten.
  • The Flam was a beat made by the two sticks almost at the same instant on the head that could still be heard separately. It was used as a signal for various evolutions, maneuvers, and calls.
  • The General gave notice to the troops that they were to march.
  • Long March was a beat formerly used in England, on the sound of which the men clubbed their firelocks and claimed and used the liberty of talking all kinds of ribaldry.
  • The March served to command the soldiers to move; always with the left foot first.
  • The Parley, or Chamade, was a signal to demand a conference with the enemy.
  • Peas Upon a Trencher, or the Supper Call, was beaten to summon the soldiers to supper.
  • The Pioneer’s Call, known by the appellation of “Cuckolds come dig,” and dating back to the English civil war of Cromwell’s time. This was beaten in camp to summon the pioneers to work.
  • Police Call was used to summon soldiers to clean, or, as it was termed, “police” the camp. This was done every morning, just after Reveille.
  • The Preparation or The Preparative was a signal to make ready for firing.
  • The Retreat was a signal to draw off from the enemy. It likewise meant a beat in camp or garrison a little before sunset, at which time the gates were shut and the soldiers repaired to their barracks.
  • The Reveille was always beaten at the break of day and used to warn soldiers to rise and the sentinels to forbear challenging, and to give leave to the men to come out of their quarters.
  • Roast Beef of Old England was the call for the soldiers to come to dinner.
  • The Roll was a continuous rolling sound, without the least inequality or intermission. It was produced by giving two taps with the same stick and using each stick alternately. After two taps, the drummer was forced to raise his hand to the height of his shoulder. This resulted in the drummer making deliberate strokes and distinct notes, so that by degrees, the drummer beat a clear stroke and was taught to beat faster and faster, until he could produce a clear, prolonged, and perfect tremolo of the roll.
  • The Ruffle was a short roll of no more than five or six seconds’ duration. It involved a close and firm beat that decreased a little in force just before it concluded, which it did in an abrupt manner and with a strong “flam.”
  • The Sergeants’ Call was a beat for calling the sergeants together in the orderly-room or in camp, to the head of the colors.
  • Sick Call informed all invalids to repair to the surgeon for treatment and to be excused from duty if unfit for it. Supposedly, this call was the terror of skulkers and malingerers.
  • The Swell was the roll, beat occasionally so softly as scarcely to be heard, and then increasing to the utmost of the performer’s strength, only to die away again. It was a merely ornamental beat, and drummers were fond of practicing it, as the perfect rise and fall of the volume was regarded as the very finest art of drumming.
  • Tattoo or Tap-too was used to order all soldiers to retire to their quarters.
  • The Troop was beat before the new guards, etc., were about to march off from their assembly to relieve others from duty. It was also used at dress parades, when the band or drum-corps, marched playing some slow marching tune, from their position on the right of the battalion to the extreme left of the line, where they wheeled about, and changed music to a quickstep before returning to their post on the right.
  • The Warning Drum was a beat to give officers and soldiers enough time to assemble for their meals in camp or in their quarters.

Lithograph of a drummer carrying his instrument on his back; in a landscape setting with another drummer in the background. 1817-1818. Courtesy of the British Museum.

The beats produced by the drums and drumming also served as an accompaniment to the fife. A tap for each note played on the fife was called a Drag. The Double Drag consisted of two or three taps for each note. Besides these taps, drummers also talked of fancy taps that they created and squabbled over, sometimes teaching these taps to their students.


  • [1] The American Magazine, Volume 13, 1882, p. 95.
  • [2] “The Drum,” in The Bucks County Gazette, 28 Aug 1884, p. 4.
  • [3] Hunt, Charlotte Matilda, The Little World of Knowledge, Arranged Numerically, 1826, p. 114.

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