…the non-commissioned officer in charge of the escort steps forward and, amid a silence almost to be felt, with a sharp knife divests the prisoner of all military distinctions in the form of medals, badges, buttons, &c.
The Age, Melbourne, Australia, 8 March 1930
By Montague Norman
Some gave them white bread,
and some gave them brown,
Some gave them plum cake,
and drumm'd them out of town.
How many reading or hearing the words of the old nursery rhyme ever give a thought to the meaning of those contained in the second portion of the last line? Few of us, I'm sure, and yet there is a very interesting meaning to them. Without any doubt, Lewis Carroll, when penning "Alice's Adventures Through the Looking Glass," knew all about them, for we see in the older editions of this classic of our childhood a picture of Alice holding her ears against the din created by phantom sticks in the air all around her. And to military custom we may turn for an explanation.
Some sixty or seventy years ago the British Army recorded amongst the list of authorised punishments for certain crimes under its jurisdiction that of being "discharged—with ignominy." This sentence was carried out, where awarded, with full military honors—or, rather, dishonors, the delinquent soldier being literally "drummed out" of his regiment.
During the war, as a member of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, I was on one occasion posted to the reserve battalion of the regiment at its depot at Parkhurst Barracks, Isle of Wight. Curiously enough, it was at these barracks that almost the last case of "drumming out" took place. At that time, somewhere in the sixties or seventies, the barracks were the depot of the North Devon Regiment. With a first-hand knowledge of the locality, it is easy for me to reconstruct the scene depicting the last act in the regimental life of the degraded soldier.
Picture the gravelled parade ground, some one hundred and fifty yards across, and bounded in the front, as we stand in the roadway, by a high iron picket and stone pillar fence, and on the other three sides the barrack buildings, with the officers' mess and quarters on the right. Drawn up on parade is the battalion, forming three sides of a hollow square, the fourth side being peopled by the prisoner and escort, the colonel and the adjutant, and finally the battalion fife and drum band. A brisk command brings all ranks stiffly to attention, and no sound is heard save the voice of the adjutant as he reads loudly in a clear voice the details of the crime of which the prisoner has been found guilty and the sentence awarded him by the court-martial by which he has been tried—"to be discharged—with ignominy."
The reading of the sentence concluded, the non-commissioned officer in charge of the escort steps forward and, amid a silence almost to be felt, with a sharp knife divests the prisoner of all military distinctions in the form of medals, badges, buttons, &c. One by one they are cut off, and one by one thrown in the dust, until at last the culprit stands, divested even of support for his nether garments, and gripping tightly to tunic and trousers to keep them in place. Follows the pinning of these garments, and the N.C.O. stands back, ready for the next scene in the drama of shame. The battalion is formed into two ranks, the prisoner handcuffed, and the actual drumming-out commences. Out steps the smallest drummer boy in the band, holding a rope with a running noose in his hand. This he slips around the neck of the degraded man, and, led by the drums and fifes shrilling the Rogue's March, a piece of music written especially for just such an occasion, a procession is formed, which marches from the right of the line to the left and back again, between the ranks.
The march concluded, and every man having had a good look at his erstwhile companion, the procession now directs its steps to the main gate, which opens on Cowes-Newport road. Here the band wheels to the right to permit of the little drummer performing his last rites—the removal of the rope and the hearty kick to help the departing man on his way to—the arms of the civil authorities, who dispose of him as they see fit, usually by a term of imprisonment.
And thus did the British army, in the "good old days" of sixty or seventy years ago, "drum out" and rid itself of a member who might prove himself an undesirable constituent of her majesty's forces.