The folowing text is taken from Follow the Drum, an exhibition catalogue published in 1988 by the National Army Museum (ISBN 0-901721-12-3), London. The text was written by Ian D Hook, former Drum Major of the Honourable Artillery Regiment, then curator at the National Army Museum, and now Keeper of the Essex Regiment Museum. The original publication was my first at the museum, and may still be available from the shop there. Please try and buy it for the whole illustrated text.
The Drum Major
It is probable that the function of the Drum Major, but not the appointment, has existed as long as there have been drummers. Originally, his role was that of senior drummer on parade, beating his own drum rather than leading with his familiar staff. Because each drummer paraded with his company, it was not until the 'band of musick' came into being that he was always required to march in front.
As a result of putting down his sticks to take up a staff, the Drum Major needed a distinctive cross-belt, as described in a military treatise of 1786; '... the loops on the Drum-major's Belt to be entirely on the left Side, as he should make a Cross of it with his Sword Belt, and carry his sticks constantly in the Loops, as a Badge of Office when on Duty', and the sticks '... should be of Ebony tipt with Silver, it being part of the Foppery to be allowed in his Appointments, for no other purpose, but merely shew.' [Bennett Cuthbertson, A System for the Compleat Interior Management and Oeconomy of a Battalion of Infantry, Dublin, 1768, p123-24]
References to the office of Drum Major appear as early as the 1590s, but the rank does not appear on regimental establishments of the early seventeenth century. During the Commonwealth, a particularly low period for the art of drumming, the appointment seems to have been lost. At the Restoration, only the Foot Guards, and later the Royal Artillery, appear to have had official blessing for a Drum Major. The marching regiments seem to have gone without an official Drum Major until 1810, although one existed in practice, when an extra sergeant was allowed to hold that position. Hitherto, the senior was always shown in returns in the Grenadier Company among the drummer and fifers with the suffix 'D.M.'. Between 1881 and 1928 the time-honoured title was abolished in favour of 'sergeant drummer' although the holder continued to enjoy the dress and privileges of a Staff Sergeant.
duties of the Drum Major are recorded as early as 1683;
It is also noted that: 'In some places he gets a third more of pay than other drummers.' [Sir James turner Pallas Armata 1683 cited by Francis Grose, Military Antiquities 2nd edn London, 1812 Vol.I,pp250-51.]
Responsibility, however, went with this extra renumeration, for 'when new Drums are issued, the Drum-major must be directed, to take them entirely to pieces, in order to examine, if every part is formed in a proper manner, both for Sound and Service, that all Defects (should there be any) may be made good, before they are delivered to the Drummers.' [Cuthbertson op cit p122]
It would appear, however, that it was the shortcomings of the drummers themselves that compelled the authorities to institute the office of Drum Major to regulate the beats on which the Army's movements depended.
A warrant appears to have been published in 1610, and re-issued by order of King Charles I in 1632, to enforce the accurate beating of the 'English March';
...And the march of this our English nation, so famous in all honourable achievements and glorious warres of this our kingdome, in forraigne parts (being by the approbation of strangers themselves, confest and acknowledged the best of all marches) was, through the negligence and carelessnesse of drummers, and by long discontinuance, so altered and changed from the antient gravitie and majestie thereof, as it was in danger utterly to have been lost and forgotten.
The warrant goes on to '...set down and ordaine the present establishment hereunder expressed, willing and commanding all drummers within our kingdom of England and principalitie of Wales, exactly and precisely to observe the same, as well in this our kingdom as abroad in the service of any forraigne prince or state, without any addition or alterations whatsoever.' [Grose op cit Vol.II, p45]
The duties of the drum major were not just musical. It became customary, certainly in some regiments of foot, for the Drum Major to bring the regimental colours from their stand in the officers' mess and hand them over to the ensigns on ceremonial occasions. Similarly, it was the task of the Drum Major or the drummers to case and uncase the colours and to attach a laurel wreath if the colours were paraded on the anniversary of a battle honour. These tasks would entail both liquid and financial compensation from the ensigns. It is probable that this association grew from 'forming square', when the colours and drummers would be enclosed in the centre behind musket and bayonet.
The Leading Staff
Staffs and batons have long been recognised as marks of office. The earliest Drum Majors' staffs bear a striking resemblance to those of beadles and footmen, having a very small head and thin shaft. Amongst the earliest in existence is that of the Honourable Artillery Company, presented by Sir Matthew Andrews in 1671. These staffs had the obvious practical application of clearing the way in front of a formed body of men.
The early staffs were plain, bearing a single title or device, but like so many articles used by the British Army, extra devices were added, and as battle honours were awarded from Gibraltar (1704-05) onwards, these too were engraved or placed on scrolls in the head or the shaft. In the late nineteenth century it became customary for senior officers to provide staffs at their own expense. These were naturally more ostentatious than those issued by the Army or used by the regiment quartered next door.
The Foot Guards continued, as in so many aspects of their dress and appointments, to use the issue item, a practice which they still maintain.
The staff is particularly useful for signalling commands to a Band or Corps of drums when their playing precludes verbal orders. As early as 1811 it was required that '...they should be attantive not to deviate in the most trifling degree from the time which will allow, within the minute, the exact number of steps prescribed by H M Regulations.' [Regulations For The Army 1811, cited by H G Farmer The Rise of Military Music, London, 1912, p74]
Whilst on the march the Drum Major assumed a steady pace by continued movements of the staff which he was required to turn '...with an easy air once round, so as to keep time, and plant it every fourth pace.'[Loc cit.] Here lies the origin of the distinctive 'stage walk' used by the Drum Major in slow and quick time on ceremonial occasions.
Drum Majors have always been gifted showmen, but have at the same timeset an example in turnout and bearing. Tricks performed with the staff have become part of the folklore of the Army. Stories of these feats are legion; for example, the Drum Major Cox of the Essex Regiment was famed in the 1930s for throwing his staff over the barrack gates at Warley and retrieving it on the other side without even breaking step. The addition of so many battle honours has meant that the modern staff is much heavier and harder to throw and spin than its earlier counterparts, but whilst officially frowned upon, the practice o throwing the staff was condoned, if not encouraged, by a battalion's officers away from the barrack square. Again the Foot Guards are an exception, in that it is considered disrespectful to the sovereign and undignified for a man appointed as state drummer to the monarch to toss or spin his badge of office. The Drum Majors of line regiments have shown fewer scruples, however, in performing the tricks within sight of Buckingham Palace.