“Beating Retreat” has it’s origins in the 16th Century when it was used as a signal to recall troops to barracks at the end of the day. During campaigns, it was often difficult to gather troops together after a day’s fighting. Beating Retreat provided a signal to regroup, enabling a unit to be led as a single body to a safe encampment. By 1727 Beating Retreat was a standard practice in the British Army. The order was described as follows:“Half an hour before the setting sun, the Drummers and Port Guards are to go upon the ramparts and Beat Retreat to give notice to those without that the gates are to be shut. The Drummers will not take more than a quarter of an hour to Beat Retreat.
The drum was the earliest method for passing orders to troops. These drum beating were later enhanced by the addition of fifes (or flutes) and the custom developed for Retreat to be signalled by the playing of marches with a ¾ time signature. After the Napoleonic wars bugle calls began to supersede the“ Drum & Flute Duty” as the sound carried over a much greater distance.
Sounding Retreat has therefore always been the duty of the Buglers (or in the case of Beating Retreat – the Corps of Drums), with the addition of the military bans being purely an enhancement to the ceremony, albeit a magnificent one, to entertain guests and spectators.