Sounding Retreat

The ceremony of Sounding or Beating Retreat has its origins as far back as the 16th Century when it was called Watch Setting.

The 'Retreat' is referred to in both the Rules of Ordynnances for Warre of 1544 and the Theorie and Practice of Modern Warres of 1598 where it is described as the occasion when the 'Drumme-Major of the Regiment' had to summon (by beat of the drum) those requested for the Watch. The ceremony sprang therefore from the practical necessities of war.

“half an hour before the gates are to be shut, which is generally at the setting of the sun, the drummers of the Port Guards are to go upon the ramparts and beat a Retreat to give notice to those without that the Gates are to be shut”


Until the 19th Century armies were reluctant to continue operations after nightfall. They would instead retire to a defensive position — usually a walled town — so as to prevent surprise attack and to retain control of the deployed troops. This resulted in a close link being established with the closure of town gates. In 1727 a work entitled Treaties of Military Discipline described the ceremony thus: “half an hour before the gates are to be shut, which is generally at the setting of the sun, the drummers of the Port Guards are to go upon the ramparts and beat a Retreat to give notice to those without that the Gates are to be shut”.

In the 17th and 18th Centuries there were few permanent barracks so it was the custom to billet soldiers in taverns or in the houses of the local population. During the reign of King William III it was recorded that the Orderly Officer, accompanied by a bugler or a drummer, would patrol through the town to warn soldiers to assemble at the town square or parade ground prior to their return to their billets as curfew time was approaching. Part of the Orderly Officer’s duty was to clear the local ale-houses and it is interesting to note that the word ‘Tattoo’ derives from the Dutch ‘doe den tap-toe’ or ‘Turn off the taps’.

At the parade ground the Roll would be called and the regimental flag lowered to the accompaniment of the Retreat call — a drum beat for the heavy infantry regiments or the sounding of a bugle call for the soldiers of the ‘Light Companies’. The troops would then disperse.

In the same century, 'Retreat' was described as being a ‘beat of drum at the firing of the evening gun at which the Drum-Major, with all the drums of the battalion, except those that are upon duty, beats from the camp Colours on the right to those on the left. This is to warn soldiers to forebear firing and the sentinels to challenge to break of day that reveille is beat’.

For The Rifles the use of the bugle rather than the drum to signal orders to the battalion has resulted in the term Sounding Retreat. Whatever the origins, the ceremony as we know it today is carried out on special occasions, and the simple beating of the drum or sounding of the bugle has been embellished to become a full ceremonial display. Its association with the setting sun is symbolised by the playing of the Evening Hymn and the lowering of the flags.

The Green Jacket, The Rifle and The Bugle

The 5th Battalion, The 60th (Royal American) Regiment (later The King’s Royal Rifle Corps) was the first British infantry regiment to be dressed in green and the Rifle Corps (later The Rifle Brigade) adopted a similar uniform from its formation. The purpose was both practical, representing the first camouflage required for the new open-order tactics, and is also symbolic. Both regiments were also armed with the rifle (the 60th Regiment with the Hompesch and The Rifle Corps with the Baker). The rifle was a more accurate and longer range weapon than the musket but was shorter and thus required a long sword-bayonet to compensate in close-quarter fighting. Thus developed the use of the abbreviated term of ‘sword’ instead of ‘sword-bayonet’ in rifle regiments and The Rifles of today. The introduction of the early rifles also led to a tradition of marksmanship, for in those early days Green Jackets were required to be the Army’s sharpshooters.

Open-order tactics, where individuals often found themselves beyond the range of both drumbeat and the human voice, called for a light and efficient means of signalling to control battlefield manoeuvres. The bugle provided the necessary communications and a complex system of calls was developed, still used today on ceremonial occasions, when bugles replace the drums of other infantry on parade.