Music and Verse 

Music has been a part of military life from very early time. Long before airs and melodies were developed, musical sounds were used, and still are to this day, to convey messages and pass orders in the field and at sea. A writer of nearly two centuries ago expressed it this way: "Military musick, before the introduction of fire arms, served to animate the soldiers in battles and assaults of places, as well as for the purpose of signals for the different manoeuvres and duties in camp and garrison; wherefore it cannot be doubted but it was used in our antient armies."Footnote 1

The trumpet and fife, and horns of a wide variety of shapes and sizes, have come down from very remote times. But perhaps the instrument of greatest interest, and one that has been known to many primitive societies, is the drum. The number and variety of the messages conveyed by the drum beat have, through the centuries of human history, been limited only by the extent of man's ingenuity.

A military dictionary of the eighteenth century lists ten distinct drum beats, each of which was fully under stood by the soldier on the battle field.Footnote 2 Much depended on the drummer's skill and unflagging courage under fire in making those beats heard above the din of battle. Mention has been made elsewhere in this work about the beating of reveille, the retreat and the tattoo.

One drum beat that was well known to the soldier and civilian alike was the alarm, the beat to arms. On the last day of the year 1775, in the pre-dawn darkness on the ramparts of Quebec, an officer of the Royal Highland Emigrants saw suspicious lights. As it turned out, these lights, sighted intermittently through the falling snow, signalled the coming attack on Quebec by rebel forces from the American colonies. With the drums beating and the bells of the town ringing out the alarm the whole garrison were soon at their posts ready to repel the invaders.Footnote 3

Some twenty years after these events at Quebec, strange lights again brought a garrison out at the double. It was at Port Royal, Jamaica. The watch on deck in HMS Blonde, frigate, heard the drums ashore beating to arms. Three boats with armed landing parties were at once sent to assist the apparently beleaguered garrison. "The adventure produced much laughter at the expense of the piquet who had given the alarm...," for the mysterious lights above the town turned out to be clouds of fireflies!Footnote 4

Another long-time use of the drum, and the meaning is seen in the civilian expression of "drumming up business," was recruiting by beat of drum. In that troubled summer of 1775 in British North America, the Quebec Gazette of August 3 reported that a recruiting party had begun "beating up for volunteers" for the Royal Highland Emigrants, a regiment specially raised for the defence of Canada.Footnote 5 However, at times, volunteers did not come readily to band. The famous Secretary at the Admiralty, Samuel Pepys was, as he said, always anxious to avoid "offence to the country," particularly in times of peace, when he instructed recruiters "to invite seamen by beating of drums in the place usual" rather than compel them to serve in the Royal Navy. But in 1652 during the First Dutch War, at Sandwich, when beat of drum brought only one man, the press gang promptly went into action and "signed up" fourteen more.Footnote 6

Today, in the Canadian Forces, the term, "the drums," means a corps within a unit consisting of drums, fifes, and bugles or trumpets, or, in some units, "the pipes and drums" is the expression used, particularly in Scottish regiments. Often, the beats employed by the drums today, particularly in ceremonial situations, reflect the beats used in earlier times. The roll, depending on how it is rendered, may be reminiscent of the ruffles accorded flag officers on boarding a ship of war, or of the dreaded "hands to witness punishment." Then there was the call to church and the beat of the drum during foggy weather at sea. The "drums beating" is an important part of a unit's exercising its right of freedom of the city, just as the granting of permission to march out of a fortified place with drums beating was a mark of respect for a gallant foe by a generous victor. Such was the case when Fort Beauséjour by the Bay of Fundy was surrendered to a British amphibious force in 1755. An article of the instrument of capitulation stated: "The Commandant, staff officers in the (French) King's service, and the garrison of Beauséjour shall march out with their arms, baggage and drums beating" the honours of war.Footnote 7

A widely used drum beat, called the chamade, or the parley, was the means of communication between enemies prior to a flag of truce being sent to arrange, for example, a cease-fire to permit burial of the dead, or the evacuation of non-combatants. The drummers who beat the firing signals for the batteries of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia in 1745 beat the chamade asking General Pepperrell and Commodore Warren to hold their fire prior to drawing up the articles of surrender.Footnote 8

One use of the drum which is common to both ancient and modern times is the measured beat of marching in cadence, setting the pace and helping the troops to keep in step. In the days before personnel carriers, it was important that commanders be able to estimate accurately the time necessary for an army to cover a specific distance. Under ordinary field conditions, once the length of the step and the number of paces per minute were known, it was simple arithmetic for commanders to have their troops reach a certain fortified town or suitable campground in a given length of time. Also, the rhythm of the marching cadence has often kept tired troops going until their objective was reached. This has been particularly the case since the arrival of the military band and the music of the march.

A Canadian infantry sergeant has recorded an example of what band music can do for tired troops, especially where soldiering is based on a strong regimental spirit.

It was early June, 1900, and the capital of the Boer Republic, Pretoria, had fallen. The troops of the Empire had campaigned all the way from Cape Town. They were now about to enter the city the commander-in-chief himself taking the salute. The Canadian sergeant wrote:

It was the climax of the campaign, even if it was not the end of the war. I shall never forget that parade. Ragged and tanned, footsore and weary, dirty and gaunt, we trudged along the western road leading into the square. As we wheeled round the corner the band struck up "The Boys of the Old Brigade." I thought it was the sweetest music I had ever heard. We squared our shoulders, chucked out our chests, and put all the ginger we could into our step. I hope everyone else felt as much stirred up as I did; if so, they experienced a sensation they will not forget in many days. Out of a regiment of 1,150 men, we entered Pretoria with 438. We had marched 620 miles on scant rations since being brigaded on February 12th, had assisted in the capture of ten towns, had fought in ten general engagements and on many other days, and had stood shoulder to shoulder all through with British regiments of long and great tradition... It was one of those unique moments which only come to a man occasionally during a lifetime. It will never be forgotten. If anyone asks me what I consider the greatest occasion in my life, I say that it was when I marched past Lord Roberts in Pretoria, June 5th, 1900, with the Royal Canadian Regiment.Footnote 9

Band music not only lifts the spirit of weary troops on the march, it also minimizes the monotony and stiff-leggedness of having to stand still over long periods of time. During the Second World War, HMCS Cornwallis, on the shores of Annapolis Basin, was said to be the largest naval training establishment in the Commonwealth. Certainly, the fourteen thousand sailors and wrens at Sunday divisions on the parade square made an impressive sight. But it meant long periods of standing while the captain inspected the numerous divisions. However, once the band started to play, the effect was striking. There was a barely perceptible, yet very real, swaying of those thousands to the rhythm of the music, particularly to the strains of "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin." Footnote 10 Fatigue and boredom were forgotten.

Back to top

A musical tradition of long standing is associated with the departure of units on active service. In the past it was men marching down the road, or boarding troop trains and troop ships. Today, such departures are more likely to be by air. But, traditionally, a band was there to cheer them on their way. Such was the case of HMCS Magnificent in 1956 when she sailed from Halifax for service as headquarters ship at Port Said Egypt, in the United Nations Emergency Force. The official history states:

The carrier with 406 army personnel and supplies for UNEF slipped her lines on 29 December to the accompaniment of a rendition of "Auld Lang Syne" given fortissimo by three bands, HMCS Stadacona, the Royal Canadian Artillery and the pipes and drums of the Royal Highland Regiment of Canada (Black Watch).Footnote 11

There is one marching song inseparably linked with regiments leaving their station for distant parts. For over two centuries many a tear has been shed as the troops swung down the road to the tune, "The Girl I Left Behind Me."Footnote 12 Indeed, in many a garrison town, the local belles felt sorely neglected if the departing soldiers failed to make this final musical tribute.

In February, 1813, a detachment of the 104th Regiment of Foot, originally raised in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia as the New Brunswick Regiment of Fencible Infantry, was ordered overland from Fredericton to Quebec and Kingston. The United States had declared war the previous year. On the day of departure, the temperature was in the vicinity of twenty degrees below zero (fahrenheit). One soldier reported in his diary about the low spirits of himself and his companions until "our bugles struck up the merry air 'The Girls We Leave Behind Us."'Footnote 13

A musical instrument unique in its construction and sound, and profound in its influence on military affairs through the ages, is the bagpipe. Played in many lands and known as far back as Roman times, the bagpipe is a reed instrument having a leather bag as an air reservoir, enabling the piper to continue the melody white taking a breath.

Today, the bagpipe is recognized as the national instrument of the Scottish people and revered by transplanted Scots and others the world over whose hearts quicken at the skirl of the pipes.Footnote 14

The notes of the piper have brought mind's-eye pictures of the "hills of home" to many a lonely Canadian settler, to others, comfort in time of sorrow. In battle, on many a field, the piper has encouraged his comrades in the thick of the fight, sounding the charge, or onset, in the same tradition as Piper James Richardson, VC, of Victoria's 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish).

In October, 1916, in the attack on the "Regina Trench" in the Battle of Ancre Heights, the battalion was pinned down at the barbed wire defences by heavy machine gun fire. Piper Richardson, just eighteen years old, with complete disregard for his own safety strode up and down playing his pipes in the time-honoured way and so inspired the battalion that they stormed the wire and pressed on to their objective.Footnote 15

While military calls by drum and horn have been used since the earliest days of organized war operations, which pre-date written history, the military band as it is known today came from the continent to the British army in the mid-eighteenth century.Footnote 16 The use of the flute, drum and trumpet by troops on the march was known in medieval times, but it is evident that there was little coordination of effort music-wise. The main object seems to have been the production of the greatest possible amount of noise. This is to be seen in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, in "The Tale of the Knight."

Similarly, while the troubadours who wandered over the land and the minstrels who visited the great houses of Europe kept alive melodies that would otherwise have been lost they performed largely as individuals. The development of the multi-instrumented, musically co-ordinated band was dependant on the evolution of the instruments themselves, and this was a very slow process. So that while Louis XIV's court saw significant growth in this direction in the France of the seventeenth century it was the time of the conquest of Canada in the eighteenth century before regiments of the British army were beginning to produce regimental bands. Indeed, it was not until 1857 that the War Office removed the confusion in organization and musical procedures in British army bands, by the formation of the Royal Military School of Music at Kneller Hall, Twickenham, England.Footnote 17

In the Canadian Forces today there are more than 125 officially approved marches in use by units, commands and branches.Footnote 18 There are, of course, many duplications. For example eight Scottish regiments lay claim to the well known Scottish air, "The Highland Laddie," while five regiments march to "Bonnie Dundee," four to "Blue Bonnets over the Border," and three each to "A Hundred Pipers" and "The Piobaireachd of Donald Dhu." These and "March of the Cameron Men" give some idea of the strength of the Scottish tradition in the militia.

Some marches show the geographical region of the unit concerned, for example, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment's "The Banks of Newfoundland"; the Royal New Brunswick Regiment's, "The Old North Shore"; and "Red River Valley" of the Fort Garry Horse. The title of the march of the Rocky Mountain Rangers comes from the site of the regimental headquarters at Kamloops, meaning "The Meeting of the Waters," the confluence of the North and South Thompson Rivers in British Columbia.

The quick march of Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry shows the regiment's First World War origin, the musical score being a medley of "Has Anyone Seen the Colonel," "Tipperary," and "Madamoiselle from Armentières," while the old song, "Vive la Canadienne," is most appropriate for the Royal 22e Régiment. Four of the older regiments march proudly to the tune "British Grenadiers."

It is said that music seals friendship. Certainly the march in common is one of the ties which has so successfully bound regiments in alliance, often over a period of many years. Because of the long, proud record of many British regiments, the Canadian units with which they are allied have been honoured by being invited to march to the music of the older regiments. An example is the march, "The Buffs," of the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada, allied with the Queen's Own Buffs, the Royal Kent Regiment. Some will recall the stirring lines telling of the lone soldier of magnificent courage, awaiting barbaric execution rather than be broken by his captors, as given in Sir Francis Doyle's The Private of the Buffs.

Back to top

Three regiments of the militia — the Elgin Regiment, the British Columbia Regiment (Duke of Connaught's Own), and the Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment — have the same quick march, "I'm Ninety-Five." The tune has an interesting origin. In 1816, the 95th Regiment of Foot, in recognition of its outstanding service in battle, was removed from the list of numbered line regiments and given the title, the Rifle Brigade. But the unit's marching song continued to be "I'm Ninety-Five." The three-stanza lyric, of a comic strain, followed re-arrangement of the music into a proper march. Once Queen Victoria showed her enthusiastic approval, the tune grew steadily in popular esteem, so much so that other units, not necessarily rifle regiments, adopted it.Footnote 19

One mark of a good marching song is the combination of a relaxed, swinging tempo and that hard-to-define quality of a tune that immediately lifts the spirit. Such is the march of Lord Strathcona's Horse (Royal Canadians), "Soldiers of the Queen." It was written at the close of Queen Victoria's reign and enjoyed great popularity.Footnote 20

An example of a very old tune used as a quick march in the Canadian Forces today, is that of the 1st Canadian Signal Regiment, "Begone, Dull Care." As a march it originated in the Royal Corps of Signals, but as a tune it dates from 1687 when it was known as "The Buck's Delight."

Begone, dull Care! I prythee begone from me!
Begone, dull Care! You and I shall never agree.Footnote 21

"Ça Ira," the regimental march of the Royal Montreal Regiment, is of considerable antiquity and, at first glance, a curious choice of tune for one of the queen's loyal regiments. Blood thirsty and revolutionary, its selection represents one of those odd twists of human nature.

In the Napoleonic Wars it was not unusual for bands of British regiments to play French revolutionary tunes in derision, such as "Ça Ira" ("It will succeed") and "Marche des Marseillois," interspersed with "Rule Britannia" and "The British Grenadiers," a form of psychological warfare.Footnote 22 At Famars, in 1793, the 14th Regiment of Foot was repulsed by the fanatical revolutionary soldiers of France. But once regrouped, the commander of the 14th ordered the band to strike up "Ça Ira" and with the blood-curdling notes of the tune that had accompanied the nobility of France to the guillotine, ringing in the ears of the 14th, the regiment swept on to victory.Footnote 23

The 14th Regiment of Foot with great zest took "Ça Ira" for their own march, and later became the West Yorkshire Regiment (the Prince of Wales Own). The Royal Montreal Regiment, which perpetuates the 14th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force of 1914-18, has been allied with the West Yorkshires for more than half a century. And that is why "Ça Ira" is heard in the streets of Montreal.

Since the unification of the forces in 1968, some formations have disappeared and new ones have been established. This in turn bas provided an opportunity for new marches to be composed and adopted. For example, the official march for all Service battalions, "Duty Above All," composed by Captain B.G.M. Bogisch, was approved in 1973. The well known "CA-NA-DA," written by Bobby Gimby in the year of the centenary of Confederation, 1967, was re-arranged by Major J.F. Pierret and approved as the regimental march of the Canadian Airborne Regiment in 1974. The communications and electronics branch has for its quick march "The Mercury March," composed and arranged by Captain A.C. Furey, and officially approved in 1975.

Most of the marches used in the Canadian Forces today belong to the army, and their richness in variety and tradition is the result of the decentralizing effect of the former corps system and the presently retained regimental system. Quite different is the heritage of the naval and air forces. Each had, before unification, a single service organization and concept in which identities and loyalties were not focused primarily on units but rather on the Royal Canadian Navy and the Royal Canadian Air Force, respectively. This is still reflected in the marches of sailor and airmen today.

"Heart of Oak" is the quick march of the naval operations branch and maritime command. The words commencing "Come cheer up, my lads, 'tis to glory we steer," were written by David Garrick and set to the music composed by William Boyce. It was first heard on the London stage in a production called "Harlequin's Invasion," in celebration of the "Years of Victories" (Minden, Quiberon Bay, and Quebec), 1759.Footnote 24

Similarly, all airmen in the Canadian Forces march to a single tune, "RCAF March Past." This musical score, known in Britain as "The Royal Air Force March Past," was written originally by Sir Walford Davies shortly after the formation of the RAF in 1918, and later was re-arranged and altered by Sir George Dyson.Footnote 25 It was in 1943, when the RCAF was so heavily engaged in the air war over Britain and Germany that permission was granted for the RCAF to use the march and, today, "RCAF March Past" continues to be the quick march of the air operation branch and air command. Footnote 26

Article II of the 1757 edition of Regulations and Instructions Relating to His Majesty's Service at Sea laid down that:

The Commanders of His Majesty's Ships are to take care, that Divine Service be performed twice a Day on Board, according to the Liturgy of the Church of England, and a Sermon preached on Sundays, unless bad Weather, or other extraordinary accidents, prevent it.

Things have changed since that day. Owing to many factors, including the five-day week and the family-oriented nature of Service routines in peace time; the three-shift system on operational bases; the current trend of the majority of single personnel living off-base; and the general decline of religious observances in civilian life; divine service in the Canadian Forces is reduced largely to small voluntary attendance, or selected personnel required to attend for a special occasion. However, it is worth noting that in operational situations such as exercises in the Arctic or on United Nations service abroad there is a good voluntary turn-out. Certainly, in HMC ships at sea, where there is no way of avoiding the round-the-clock watch system, seven days a week, attendance at divine service, though voluntary unless accompanied by Sunday divisions and captain's inspection, is still normal routine. At such a service on board ship, the Naval Hymn is invariably part of the worship and is sung with spirit as it has been for over a hundred years. "Eternal Father" was written by William Whiting, a clergyman, in 1860 after passing through a fierce gale on passage through the Mediterranean Sea. It was set to the tune "Melita" by John B. Dykes in 1861.

The Naval Hymn

Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd'st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep:
O hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in peril on the sea.

O Christ, whose voice the waters heard,
And hushed their raging at Thy word,
Who walkedst on the foaming deep,
And calm amid the Storm didst sleep:
O hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in peril on the sea.

O Holy Spirit, who didst brood
Upon the waters dark and rude,
And bid their angry tumult cease,
And give, for wild confusion, peace:
O hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in peril on the sea.

O Trinity of love and power,
Our brethren shield in danger's hour;
From rock and tempest, fire and foe,
Protect them wheresoe'er they go:
Thus evermore shall rise to Thee
Glad hymns of praise from land and sea.Footnote 27

Back to top

Interestingly enough, this composition, in this case called "The Navy Hymn," was adopted by the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, in 1879, and so has been in use there for nearly a century.Footnote 28

Also traditional to divine service on board HMC ships is the Naval Prayer, the beautiful language of which has remained unchanged these 300 years. It was published in the Book of Common Prayer in 1662, shortly after the Restoration of King Charles II.

The Naval Prayer

O Eternal Lord God, who alone spreadest out the heavens, and rulest the raging of the sea; who has compassed the waters with bounds until day and night come to an end; be pleased to receive into thy almighty and most gracious protection the persons of us thy servants, and the Fleet in which we serve. Preserve us from the danger of the sea, and from the violence of the enemy; that we may be a safeguard unto our most gracious Sovereign Lady, Queen Elizabeth, and her Dominions, and a security for such as pass on the seas upon their lawful occasions; that the inhabitants of our Empire may in peace and quietness serve thee our God; and that we may return in safety to enjoy the blessings of the land, with the fruits of our labours, and with a thankful remembrance of thy mercies to praise and glorify thy holy name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen Footnote 29

Church service in the air force usually includes the hymn, "O Thou within whose sure control." The words were written for "travellers by air" by Kathryn Munro in 1928 and set to the same tune as "The Naval Hymn," "Melita," composed by John B. Dykes in 1861.Footnote 30

O Thou within whose sure control
The surging planets onward roll,
Whose everlasting arms embrace
The sons of every clime and race:
Hear Thou, O Lord, a nation's prayer
For these Thy children of the air!

Thou at the impulse of whose will
A troubled Galilee grew still,
Thy chart and compass shall provide
Deliverance from storm and tide:
Hear Thou, O Lord, a nation's prayer
For these Thy rangers of the air!

Across the ocean, dread and deep,
Above the forest's lonely sweep,
Or when through serried clouds they rise
And hidden are from mortal eyes;
Hear Thou, O Lord, a nation's prayer
For Thy crusaders of the air!

Uphold their shining argosies
Upon the vast ethereal sea;
Encompass Thou their valiant wings
In all their brave adventurings:
Hear Thou, O Lord, a nation's prayer
For these Thy children of the air!

Many regiments have over the years devised their own distinctive order of service on church parade, including a regimental prayer. Typical is that of the 8th Canadian Hussars (Princess Louise's), written expressly for the regiment by the Bishop of Fredericton, the Right Reverend Harold L. Nutter, in 1972.Footnote 31

Almighty God, who has revealed thyself in mercy and justice, we pray that our service to Queen and country may always be characterized by those qualities.

Keep all who serve in this Regiment loyal to Thee and to those with whom they serve. Shelter them in the day of battle, and ever keep them safe from all evil.

We remember before Thee with thanksgiving the courage and fellowship of those who have died in the cause of righteousness and peace, and all those who have shared with us in the life of this Regiment.

We pray that we may be guided always to serve as seeing Thee who art invisible:

Through Jesus Christ Our Lord


The Regimental Collect of the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada was prepared for the regiment by Honourary Major F.H. Wilkinson, Bishop of Toronto.Footnote 32

O God, whose servant David put off his armour the better to prevail against his enemy, grant, we beseech thee, that we, thy servants of the Queen's Own, who were chosen of old to obey with speed and to fight unburdened, may lay aside every weight and every besetting sin and run with patience the race that is set before us by Jesus Christ our Lord, and  this we ask for His Name's sake.


Finally, there is a piece of poetry which in three decades has become almost a legend. The sonnet, "High Flight," was written by a nineteen-year old pilot officer of the Royal Canadian Air Force just months before he was killed in 1941.

John Gillespie Magee, Jr., (1922-1941) was born of American parents in China and received some of his education at Rugby in England. In 1940, he crossed the border to "do his bit" with the RCAF. He received his "wings" in June, 1941, and, shortly after, joined 412th Squadron. He flew several operational missions in his Spitfire fighter. Four days after Pearl Harbour, on 11 December 1941 Pilot Officer Magee, while flying through cloud during a convoy patrol, was killed in collision with another aircraft.Footnote 33

In language reminiscent of Francis Thompson's "The Hound of Heaven," Magee expressed the exhilarating, boundless sense of spiritual freedom and awe on escaping the earth to soar high across the great dome that is the sky.

High Flight

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee

Back to top

Back to top

Report a problem or mistake on this page
Please select all that apply:

Thank you for your help!

You will not receive a reply. For enquiries, contact us.

Date modified: