The Drummer Boy fiction

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Re: The Drummer Boy fiction

Postby grumpy » 08 Jan 2012 15:46

A bit of thread drift here.

My opening stance was that [I summarise] a good deal of nonsense was spouted regarding slaughtered drumer boys.

Some facts, from Pay warrant 1870, and QVR 1873.boys to be recruited for drummers, band etc. between age 14 and 16, and to be brought on to adult establishment at 17.

one boy per 100 adults.

Boy pay 10d per day, private pay 1/2d includes band, drummer pay 1/3-.

drummers not classed as rank and file [private, l-Cpl. Cpl, band etc], accounted separately in estabs, and 2 per company or 16 in a full-strength battalion.

drummers were "appointed", wore an embellished tunic for full dress, and a drum badge upper right sleeve in garish blue/yellow/white on the frock.

To summarise: there were not [should not have been] many boys present. Some might have been appointed drummers, would certainly have wanted to be for the big pay rise, but competition for a place in the paid 16 appointments might be expected to be keen. There is reasonable evidence of boys in the band however. There is anecdotal evidence of small persons being disembowelled etc, and a few might have been drummers.

The Victorian fixation with romanticised drummer boys has a lot to answer for.

As recently as 1914 it was legitimate and permitted to take boys appointed drummers on active service [Mobilisation regs 1914].

Hope these facts may inform the debate.
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Re: The Drummer Boy fiction

Postby jf42 » 08 Jan 2012 23:47

There seems to be some confusion here about who is debunking what.

The questions arising from ‘drummer boys’ of the 24th who died at Isandlwana are threefold: the number of boy soldiers who died and their military role, how their bodies were treated after death and the influence of those first two factors on future policy regarding boy soldiers being sent on active service.That last question seems to have been effectively dealt with already.

Obviously, to question how many boys died, and whether their bodies were mutilated, given the contradictory nature of the accounts recorded at the time, is neither myth-making nor speculation. Nor, I would suggest, is such scepticism the result of a desire to mislead; far less is it due to any lack of respect for those who fell. Surely, it is born rather of a wish to clarify the facts in the interests of historical accuracy. Military history abounds with myths and ripping yarns that may appropriate to the mess table or the campfire but which really have no place in serious historical research, the purpose of which is to establish by methodical enquiry as accurate an account of past events as the available evidence allows.

In the case of the butchered drummer boys, there seems to be a fair amount of hearsay and rumour but a lack of reliable, contemporary eye-witness evidence. I read that Lieut Maxwell of the 2/3rd NNC recorded: We fell in without sound of the bugle just as the first glimpse of daylight was showing-and were all out of camp on the road to Rorke's Drift before objects could be distinctly seen. I mention this because on the way I heard some terrible stories about mutilated bodies. These were invented for the occasion, as it was impossible for those who told the yarns to have distinguished anything in the night it being exceptionally dark.........'


Chelmsford's force arrived at the scene of the disaster after dark and was ordered to strike camp before dawn so that the troops should not see the aftermath of the Zulu destruction of the British camp. Some troops in the rearguard must have seen the carnage but, in any case, no account specifies more than two boys whose bodies bore evidence of possible cruel treatment

T.H. Makin's journal account (quoted above), dating from May 1879, refers to three boys, one of whom is described as ‘a little drummer boy’. We know the youngest drummers who died, Reardon and Jones, were both 18 years old. Makin’s account continues: “We came across a large wooden structure like a double scaffold, where two other boys had been hung up by their hands to the hooks and as they had decomposed, their bodies had fallen to the ground where they lay.”

Makin’s report of mutilation or torture based on unburied bodies seen five months after the battle cannot be taken as conclusive evidence. His description of the dead drummer's body must be read in that context. As the bodies were all reportedly stripped, identifying remains as as those of a drummer could only be made from the proximity of a drum, as in Makin's account. Identifying remains as those of a boy would have to be made from stature alone and, again, that might be difficult when the body was skeletal. It is also possible that rumours which had been circulating from the earliest days after the defeat influenced interpretation of what was found.

Samuel Jones of the Newcastle Mounted Rifles: writing fifty years after the event, recalled seeing something similar- although differing in significant detail.: “One sight, a most gruesome one, I shall never forget. Two lads, presumably two little drummer boys of the 26th [i.e. 24th] Regiment, had been hung up by butcher hooks which had been jabbed under their chins, then they were disembowelled.”

Jones' account is echoed by Drummer W. Sweeney of the 2/24th writing on April 29th, 1879. He says:
‘Two drummers, Anderson and Holmes, and five little boys of the band about fourteen years of age. They butchered most awfully indeed. One little chap named M’Every, they hung up by the chin to a hook’

Sweeney's account may be hearsay but given that he was a Drummer himself, one might expect him to be a reliable witness as to the victims. However, neither Anderson, who had indeed trained as a drummer, or Holmes were among the 12 drummers listed killed. Moreover, no-one among the drummers of the 24th who died was named M’Every.

Drummer Adams, W. H. 2003 was aged 19 when killed
Drummer Andrews, C. 267 was aged 23 when killed
Drummer Dibden, G. 1786 was aged 22 when killed
Drummer Haynes, Jno. 542 ( Pte. on the roll) was aged 18 when killed
Drummer Osmond, C. 1226 ( G. on despatch ) was aged 31 when killed
Drummer Orlopp, J. F. 2 was aged 19 when killed
Drummer Perkins, T. 1-24/1 was aged 36 when killed
Drummer Reardon, T. 501 was aged 18 when killed
Drummer Stansfield, S. 114 was aged 22 when killed
Drummer Thompson, Jno. 1787 was aged 21 when killed
Drummer Wolfendale, A. 2004 was aged 19 when killed
Drummer Wolfendale, J. 1399 was aged 26 when killed

Our colleague,"Isandlwana" has cited the names of five Boys serving with the 24th who died on 22nd January, 1879:

Joseph S McEwan (16),
Daniel Gordon (17),
James Gurney (16).
Thomas Harrington (age unknown)
Robert Richards (age unknown).

Perhaps Drummer Sweeney was thinking of Joseph McEwan (who may have been the youngest British casualty).

We know that twelve Drummers between 18 and 36 died at Isandlwana (Four*[edited] of them under 20) together with five Boys aged between 16 and 17; none likely to be younger than 14. (We are also told of a young civilian who died, Green- the servant of Surgeon Shepherd, and Trooper Jackson (16) who was with the Natal Carbineers).

So we know there were youths, some not fully grown, in the ranks of the 24th and that at least ten of those young men died on 22nd January, 1879.

Best anecdotal evidence suggests that the bodies of two of those youths, whether drummers or boys, may have been found under circumstances that suggested at best ritual post-mortem mutilation, at worst a brutal execution.

There is nothing about those facts about which one can feel complacent but for me, however, the key question remains: what exactly is the issue here?

-That young men serving with a British Regiment of Foot were exposed to the horrors of close combat with an relentless enemy who gave no quarter to a defeated enemy and practiced ritual mutilation of the dead and dying?

-That the Zulus made no distinction between adult man and youth in the ranks of their defeated enemy?

-That some Zulus may have singled out a handful of the youngest, arguably weakest, of the vanquished and subjected them, when defenceless, to a deliberately cruel death?

That last could have happened. It may have not.

Given the nature of the evidence, it seems proper that the possibility of the latter should be subjected to scrutiny before the former is asserted as fact.

There is an interesting discussion of the subject here:
http://www.1879zuluwar.com/t3760p30-isa ... ummer+boys

and some useful points here:
http://www.1879zuluwar.com/t405-isandlw ... ummer+boys
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Re: The Drummer Boy fiction

Postby Sawubona » 09 Jan 2012 03:14

Pardon the ignorance of a Yank, but the their ages at their demise were arrived at by adding the ages they claimed to be upon their attestation plus the years they served before they died?

Is there any evidence to suggest that the Zulu were capable of post-mortem mutilation or even of torture of live captives? For some reason the name Rubenheim (sp?) comes to mind ...
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Re: The Drummer Boy fiction

Postby grumpy » 09 Jan 2012 11:58

my essential point was that "a good deal of nonsense was spouted regarding slaughtered drummer boys".

jf42 has presented an excellent summary ...... as I said earlier, my researches are in the attic, and must wait another day before being dusted off.

The site recommended above has been declared unsafe by my security, so I have not ventured further.
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Re: The Drummer Boy fiction

Postby jf42 » 09 Jan 2012 13:18

My apologies. Some of the advertising was a little dubious but my Mac was complacent about overall quality. I have cut and pasted the best posts, if you are interested.
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Re: The Drummer Boy fiction

Postby grumpy » 09 Jan 2012 14:56

thank you, definitely interested!
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Re: The Drummer Boy fiction

Postby Frogsmile » 12 Jan 2012 00:09

Just to put my 2 pennorth in, I have no doubt, based upon my reading, study over many years and close relations (at one time) with the museum of the 24th / SWB at Brecon, that there were 'boy' soldiers at Isandlwana, as summarised very clearly by jf42. It was no "myth", it was a matter of fact.

I hope that Mike Snook will not mind me also referring members to a short piece he wrote about units who were at the battle here: http://www.empressminiatures.com/BritishForces.pdf
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Re: The Drummer Boy fiction

Postby Keith Smith » 12 Jan 2012 00:55

For those who might care to read it, I have placed a copy of my paper, The Boys in the Band, in the Members' Papers and Research category. Please note that this paper is copyright but may be quoted, at least in part, for the purpose of research, with the appropriate acknowledgement.

Might I also, at the risk of flagellation, suggest that Donald Morris is not infallible and recent scholarship has looked past his skillful writing and found many of his statements to be incorrect. In a paper written in 2003 on the discovery of the Zulu impi which precipitated the battle of Isandlwana, I wrote of Morris' description of that event: 'The prose is perfect and the drama exemplary, but how much of it is substantiated by the evidence? Precious little, to be brutally frank.'

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Re: The Drummer Boy fiction

Postby jf42 » 12 Jan 2012 03:48

Thank you for posting that very thorough analysis. In particular, the data I cited in my earlier post re: ages of drummers and boys who were killed should be read in conjunction with the information collected in Keith Smith's article.
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Re: The Drummer Boy fiction

Postby jf42 » 12 Jan 2012 04:16

As a postscript, there is a note in Mike Snook's article cited by Frogsmile which touches on a question that occurred to me some time ago: "There were also one or two ‘drummers’ per company, who drummed on parade but actually bugled in the field."

Given that in the infantry drum calls had been superseded by the use of bugle calls to transmit commands, what was the purpose of taking drums on campaign? Was it simply that should there be a need for military music, the rhythm section would be able to play their part? If the band did bring their instruments as well, would all musical equipment have been carried in regimental transport?
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Re: The Drummer Boy fiction

Postby grumpy » 12 Jan 2012 10:48

Good point. I think there was, in a tactical and indeed strategical sense, no need for the Corps of Drums to parade en masse on active service in 1879, and little or no need for the 2 drummers per company to play drum calls.

However, as recently as 1917/8, The War the Infantry Knew [2RWF] describes the reintroduction of their Drums parading and sounding on the Western Front as a means of reinforcing discipline and morale.

There is also the point that, as Colours ceased to be taken on campaign well before the Great War, the Drums provided a focal point for ceremonial, especially [and traditionally] religious observance.

Readers will not need reminding that a trained drummer was proficient on drum, bugle and fie [flute etc].

As for musical instruments in the transport, highly likely ....... look at photos of officers at ease in the field, cutlery, napery all present. [On BAOR exercises 1970 -90 I was customarily regaled with fresh-baked army bread on the North German Plain, sometimes with respirator at the ready!]
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Re: The Drummer Boy fiction

Postby Frogsmile » 12 Jan 2012 11:57

jf42 wrote:
Given that in the infantry drum calls had been superseded by the use of bugle calls to transmit commands, what was the purpose of taking drums on campaign? Was it simply that should there be a need for military music, the rhythm section would be able to play their part? If the band did bring their instruments as well, would all musical equipment have been carried in regimental transport?


I would wish to reinforce what Grumpy has said (in his last post in this thread), but also your own surmising was pretty much spot on.

It is often forgotten that the Corps of drums was (and still is) a military musical ensemble in itself (albeit a relatively limited one) and could and did produce musik (sic) sufficient for any parade. Its existence pre-dated military bands (which were eventually emulated from those abroad) and there are some excellent recordings of drum and fyfe (sic) music (most notably from the Foot Guards) that upon listening immediately casts one back to the early 1800s.

In practice they complemented the band, but whereas the band travelled separately and as part of the battalion rear echelons, drummers were part of the fighting echelons and were invariably forward where they could be utilised by sub-unit commanders as todays radio operators would be (to transmit commands - but also to mark out the activities of the day), or when the opportunity arose gathered together to play morale raising music, or accompany a battalion parade, or lead into camp after lengthy marches (usually having gone ahead with the cooks and QM and meeting the battalion a short distance from camp). The drums were also generally piled for a regimental religious ('drumhead') service before the battalion went into action.

I can only comment from personal experience up until 1984, but certainly in that time the drums were always packed and carried in regimental transport at 'first line' (albeit of lesser priority than water, rations and ammunition), which was not so in the case of the band's instruments.

Photos of some Victorian "myths" are enclosed. I have many others, but am unable to get them small enough to post.
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Re: The Drummer Boy fiction

Postby Sawubona » 12 Jan 2012 14:24

And from one of my favorite Kipling short stories, " Drums of the Fore and Aft":

"Which homily brings me directly to a brace of the most finished little fiends that ever banged drum or tootled fife in the Band of a British Regiment. They ended their sinful career by open and flagrant mutiny and were shot for it. Their names were Jakin and Lew - Piggy Lew and they were bold, bad drummer-boys, both of them frequently birched by the Drum-Major of the Fore and Aft. - Jakin was a stunted child of fourteen, and Lew was about the same age."
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Re: The Drummer Boy fiction

Postby jf42 » 12 Jan 2012 15:29

An Illustrated London News depiction of British infantry on the road to Ulundi. Look to the right hand end of the front rank at the head of the column.
1879 On the road to Ulundi (ILN).jpg
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It seems to me that the 'myth' being questioned is not whether there were young or boy soldiers on the strength but whether they were singled out by the Zulus for treatment that was barbaric in the eyes of Europeans, a rumour that was framed in the sentimental formula of 'little drummer boys'. We know that none of the drummers killed was younger than eighteen.

Certainly, a couple of the diminutive figures on Frogsmile's selection of photographs look younger than fourteen. The Coldstream lad looks smaller because of the extreme height of his companion. Thinking aloud: It would seem all were photographed on home stations, three of them Northumberland Fusiliers, I think. Does that have any significance? Would the possibility of their being attached to Volunteer or Territorial battalions explain the apparent youth of some? Do we know for sure they were all on the strength? Otherwise, what explanation would there be for someone as young as the clarinetist?
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Re: The Drummer Boy fiction

Postby Frogsmile » 13 Jan 2012 13:19

jf42 wrote:An Illustrated London News depiction of British infantry on the Road to Ulundi. Look to the right hand end of the front rank at the head of the column.
The attachment 1879 On the road to Ulundi (ILN).jpg is no longer available


It seems to me that the 'myth' being questioned is not whether there were young or boy soldiers on the strength but whether they were singled out by the Zulus for treatment that was barbaric in the eyes of Europeans, a rumour that was framed in the sentimental formula of 'little drummer boys'. We know that none of the drummers killed was younger than eighteen.

Certainly, a couple of the diminutive figures on Frogsmile's selection of photographs look younger than fourteen. The Coldstream lad looks smaller because of the extreme height of his companion. Thinking aloud: It would seem all were photographed on home stations, three of them Northumberland Fusiliers, I think. Does that have any significance? Would the possibility of their being attached to Volunteer or Territorial battalions explain the apparent youth of some? Do we know for sure they were all on the strength? Otherwise, what explanation would there be for someone as young as the clarinetist?


I take your point about the treatment by the Zulus of the slaughtered at Isandlwana and am not of the view that the boy drummers (x5) were singled out for even more brutal treatment than that normally meted out to defeated enemies as part of Zulu culture. My response was really in relation to what I perceived as a dismissive attitude to the existence of boy soldiers at all. This is not the first time that such a subject has been raised both by this forum and others, and for anyone who has served in the British Army the constant doubters can be galling. That there were boy soldiers is a matter of fact and not some Victorian romantic fiction. Indeed the recruitment of boys goes back before the Victorian era and it is purely the prevalence of photography during the era, together with a more omnipresent emerging media (press) that has tended to focus upon that period. On page one of this thread Liz posted a link with the intent of conjoining the issues concerned and I hope she will not mind me reposting it here: viewtopic.php?f=27&t=1089 It contains significant information on the ages of various boys known to have enlisted.

The age of boy soldiers was, in the latter part of our period, between 14 and 18, at which point the status of adult soldier was reached (since the first legislation introducing obligatory schooling the minimum age has always been tied to the statutory school leaving age). As birth records were less efficient at that time (especially for the poor) a false attestation of age was quite common during the enlistment of boys and quite a number were in reality under 14. Where boys were the sons of serving soldiers (as a lot were) I also believe that there were probably cases of a Nelsonian blind eye being turned where age could (conveniently) not be proved.

Concerning my photos, all are Regulars and neither Volunteers nor Territorials, as evinced by both their uniforms and units (e.g. no Austrian knots on cuffs and the Guards had none but Regulars anyway). In the case of the clarinettist, he is a band boy of the 1st Bn DWR in 1885. The Northumberland Fusiliers Drum Major and Drummer Boy shows 3079 Drum Major Walter Casey and Drummer C. Head, both of the 2nd Bn, Northumberland Fusiliers taken 1903. Casey himself had enlisted as a boy in 1891 and eventually went on to become a/S.M.(later RSM) 1/7th Bn, N.F.(T.F.), taking the battalion to France in April 1915. He was later commissioned into the H.L.I. from which he eventually retired (courtesy Graham Stewart).

As regards your comment on Home Service, I enclose a photo of Drum Major Sergeant D. Gaten (6'4" tall) & Boy Jones (3'8" tall - note his arm badge), 2nd Bn The South Lancashire Regiment, Kamptee, India, 1897. Photo from "The Regiment", issue 49 (The Queen's Lancashire Regiment Part II: 1881 2000).

I also enclose Queen's Regulations 1895 - Section VII, Para 177 (courtesy Graham Stewart).
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