How Did Soldiers Communicate Before Radios and Walkie-Talkies?

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The military has been using musical instruments for strategic purposes ever since Joshua made those walls at Jericho come a-tumblin’ down. The melodies were multi-purpose: They kept troops informed, and inspired them while simultaneously intimidating the enemy. The ancient Greek and Roman armies used percussion and brass instruments (including precursors to the trumpet and tuba) to convey information both at camp and while on the march. But it is actually the French who gave us most of the traditional bugle calls that are still used today.

The first authenticated instance of a command being given via trumpet call was in 1214, when Philip Augustus of France defeated Otto IV of Germany at the Battle of Bouvines. The signal blown by his trumpeters was “Carga, Carga,” which today is known as “Charge.” By the early 1500s, certain bugle calls had become standard and were being used by the British and German armies. In 1614, Cesare Bendinelli of Verona, Italy, published a book detailing the standard bugle calls and how to play them. General George Custer once recounted that the bugle “told us when to eat, to sleep, to march, and to go to church.” Even the regimental horses learned the various signals and would automatically return from their morning grazing and fall into formation when “Recall” was trumpeted.

Some of the traditional calls that are still used by the military today are also recognizable to civilians, including “First Call,” which was originally blasted at about 4:45am as a signal for soldiers to rise and shine. Today it is most commonly heard as the “call to post” at horse races.