THE BAND IN BATTLE

by Staff Sergeant Michael Chiaro

     Any GFG member who has marched a parade in the last five or six years should be more than familiar with that perennial drum cadence with which we all keep in step. In fact, most members have had this cadence literally drummed into their memory, but how many members are aware of the military history and tradition based in this cadence? Who is aware that the first strain of the cadence is a variation on the current Army field cadence, the second strain is an excerpt from the Confederate Call-to-Charge, and the third strain is a mutation of an old colonial fife and drum cadence? This heritage demonstrates how drummers, as well as buglers and military bands in general, have long played a vital role in daily military life.

     Although infantry calls have traditionally been relayed by drummers, and cavalry calls by buglers, history is full of examples where full military bands participated in leading troops into battle.

     In the Battle of Gettysburg (3 July 1863), Confederate regimental bands stationed in the trees played stirring martial music for Gen. George Pickett's men as they charged disastrously across a mile-long field to attack Meade's Union forces. The same bands greeted them with "Nearer My God To Thee" when they staggered back defeated. Similarly, a full band (not just the drummers) lead the Confederate charge at Antietam (17 September 1862) and kept the momentum going despite several bandsmen being wounded. Union bands also were quick to perform their duty bravely in the midst of battle, successfully rallying troops during the Battle of Williamsburg (5 May 1862) and also at Chancellorsville (3 May 1863).

     LTC George Custer used his mounted band of the Seventh Cavalry during several battle campaigns. Playing "Gary Owen" the band led Custer's charge at the Washita River in 1868 and again at the Yellowstone River in 1873. This association with the cavalry is the reason that to this day, the GFG band plays the "Gary Owen" march for the visiting First Company Governor's Horse Guard.

     During WW II, many band members distinguished themselves, not with their musicianship but rather with their marksmanship. The 82nd Airborne Division Band was unexpectedly caught in the Battle of the Bulge after being sent to the Ardennes for R&R. With the 82nd front line severely depleted, the band was issued rifles and joined the battle. The band helped stop the advance of two German Infantry Divisions and a Panzer Division.

     An unusual example of a military band actually defeating an enemy simply by playing music occurred during Vietnam in the "Thunder Road" incident. This road was critical to the First Infantry Division but was under control of an NVA regiment located less than a mile away. Major Gen. John Hay ordered his band to march up the road playing the Colonel Bogey march. The enemy, confused by this action, believed a major American advance was occurring and immediately withdrew from the area. The band achieved a remarkable combat objective without ever firing a shot.

     It is clear from these examples that a military band's value far exceeds its role as mere entertainment. The value of the military band was summarized well by Rudyard Kipling when he wrote, "A wise and sympathetic bandmaster can lift a battalion out of depression, cheer it in sickness, and steady it in times of almost unendurable stress. Even just a few drums and fifes in the battalion means at least five extra miles in a route march."

     With this in mind, think about the value our band adds to our Company. The next time you hear that familiar GFG drum cadence, or the full band blasting "Military Escort", think about the musical link to our military heritage and the contributions bandsmen have made throughout military history.

February 22, 2004

This article was originally printed in "Battalion Review"
Used with permission

 

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