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Drumming in the Civil War
Published by SiteBoss on 2004/4/5 (501 reads)
The drums were the voice of the regiment and in particular, that of the commanding officer’s orders. This article discusses the role and importance of the drummers to the C17th armies.

Rear view of an early to mid C17th drummer,
painted on a delft tile, probably Dutch In origin.
From the author’s collection.

Drumming in the Civil War

by Howard Giles

The drums were the voice of the regiment and in particular, that of the commanding officer’s orders, so in many respects the C17th equivalent of the walkie-talkie. In the noise and chaos of a battlefield environment, the human voice could not carry far, but the deep resonance of the big field drums carried by every company of foote certainly did.

Drums did not just beat out the marching pace, they relayed every order of import on the battlefield through the “Calls of Warre”, regulating company and regimental movements and tactics. Drummers were generally experienced soldiers (not boys as in later armies) and were considered “officers” of the regiment, usually holding the rank of sergeant or corporal, so outranking the rank and file soldiers. Drummers had to be reliable, steady men - if they ran away the cohesion of the regiment would be fatally compromised - and preferably could speak a foreign language to assist them in their other roles of envoy and (assuming they could get away with it), spying on the enemy’s camp whilst delivering a message or receiving a reply.

It was considered very bad form to kill a drummer beating a parlay, not being strictly considered as a combatant, but on the battlefield, a volley of musketry could hit the musicians just as easily as anyone else.

There is little evidence to suggest if there was any set “uniform” for drummers - probably not. A soldier’s coat would most likely be worn, or perhaps a more fancy one paid for by the colonel. “Reverse colours” in English armies seems to be a later concept. However, it’s probable that drummers tried to look a little more “upmarket” than the common soldiers in order to demonstrate their higher status. Drums were worn quite high up on the left side, suspended by a scarf (sash) or leather belt over the right shoulder. A soldier’s sword was worn, usually on the left as per other soldiers, but as at least one contemporary illustration shows, sometimes on the right (as it is very difficult to draw a sword worn on the left, because the drum gets in the way). There again, as a drummer was supposed to be a musician rather than combatant, if he was forced to draw his sword in combat, the regiment was probably in serious trouble.

A number of C17th drums survive around Europe, and they are generally very similar in design, construction and decoration. Between 20” and 22” in diameter, they could be up to 25” deep so small drums either were not used, have not survived or have not been identified as military. They were wooden shelled and hooped, with a calf-skin (sometimes goat skin) top (the batter head) and thinner bottom (the snare head). The heads were tensioned with ropes threaded through the hoops with a gut snare adding an impressive “buzzing” sound, especially when heard from behind. The shell always had a small hole in it, presumably for ventilation, and was usually of oak with brass pin decoration. Some shells may have been painted with coats of arms in the case of those raised by gentlemen or royalty, (although surviving examples may have been painted long after, as surviving drums were often reused) although most appear to be plain and oiled. Hoops were usually painted in various designs (plain, “dog tooth” or patterned).

Drums were stationed with the Pike division, usually 2 to a company. There were “Calls of Warre” for just about everything in camp, on the march and in battle, augmenting (or even replacing) verbal commands. The most important (and absolute minimum needed to control a company of soldiers) were as follows;

The Voluntary: In effect, this means “get ready” (in particular, for the next order). The pikes would come to the (upright) Advance position, musketeers would Give rest to their muskets, and the next order (for example, “The Company will prepare to march by Column of Divisions”) would follow.

The Call: “The Assembly” – the troops stand by their colours in their ranks and files. Used in camp and for example, for reforming the regiment if disordered on the battlefield after an attack.

The March: There were many marches, and each nation tended to have its own, eg English, Scots, French, German. The English March is well documented, simple in form and frankly rather boring. Drummers however were famous (or in King Charles’ eyes, notorious) for adding “twiddly bits” to make the tunes more challenging and lively. Charles even went so far as to try to ban these popular “flourishes”, an interesting insight into his character. One could speculate that if this was achieved, Parliamentarian musicians perhaps had more fun than their Royalist counterparts, so just another reason for turning the (quite erroneous) Victorian myth of “dour Roundheads” on its head.

Reenactor Andy Munro
as Fairfax Battalia drummer

The Troop: This was used when the troops came close to the enemy and needed to “draw in” their order (for example, when inevitably strung out on the march, or on the final advance to contact). The pikemen would come to the Advance, all ranks close up and following the order (verbal or by sign) to “Reform the Battalia”, the troops would (hopefully smoothly) move from column into line of battle.

The Battaile: In effect, the “Charge”, a sometimes complex set of movements encompassing the pikemen “Charging their pikes” in a horizontal position and attacking the enemy, the musketeers firing, reloading and if necessary, “falling on” with clubbed muskets.

The Retreat: Not a disorderly retreat, but a careful retirement, supposedly in step, backwards and facing the enemy, to reform. Followed by The Halt.

Research has uncovered many more orders, including the Preparative, the Parlay & the Allarum, but much research still remains to be published. Whether all the soldiers knew all the calls is speculative - but as long as the officers and senior NCOs did, the system would have worked. The study of the Calls of Warre, based on recently discovered information, is still in its infancy, but in time should provide a fascinating insight into the world of the C17th military.

On the march, fifes, played by musicians privately hired by the Colonel, often accompanied the drums. The fifers were not soldiers and had no tactical role, but from re-enacting experience there is no doubting that the shrill noise of the fifes playing alongside the drums would lift soldiers’ spirits and encourage them to march jauntily, especially through towns where the measured step and martial air of the troops could suitably impress the inhabitants. Indeed, fifes and deeply resonating drums (sounding very different to modern drums) can have a truly mesmeric effect on the soldiers and all who hear them.


Howard is indebted to the invaluable original research (still ongoing) of James Bisgood and Alison Clayton of the Fairfax Battalia. The above article was written drawing on this groundbreaking research material and personal experience in recreating the role of a C17th military drummer.

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