History of Military Tattoos

Up Park Camp is the spectacular home of the world-famous Jamaican Military Tattoo.

Historically, the term “Tattoo” dates back to the 17th century when the British Army was fighting in the low countries of Belgium and the Netherlands. The Dutch phrase “doe den tap toe” which means “turn off the taps”, was communicated by drum beat (and later by bugle call), as a warning to inn keepers to turn off the beer taps and for soldiers to return to their barracks for the night.

The tradition of including a hymn in the closing stages of the ceremony arose first in the armies of Imperial and Czarist Russia, where the soldiers, conscripted virtually for life from the deeply pious peasantry, used to sing a chorale after Tattoo was over. The custom spread to the Catholic armies of Austria, and the predominantly Lutheran army of Prussia, where the Tattoo ceremony was developed into an impressive torchlight parade. In the 19th Century, displays by massed bands became popular in Britain and these, following Continental practice, came to include an evening hymn, often “Abide With Me”. Certain of the old Regiments of the British Army, notably the Royal Scots Fusiliers, kept up the custom by playing a hymn between the two bugle calls which mark the beginning and the close of the Tattoo period.

After the First World War, the ceremony of Tattoo was developed to include the military displays with which the name is now associated, but which have no connection, apart from the music, with the original function of the ceremony.

1st Regiment of Foot Guards: Grenadier Drummer & Soldier

The first Tattoo in Jamaica was held from February 16 to 21, 1933 at the Polo Ground in Up Park Camp. This event was inspired by the world-famous Aldershot Tattoo in England, which was first held in 1923 and repeated there annually until 1939.

By all accounts, the Jamaica Tattoo of 1933 was the most spectacular event ever witnessed in the country, up to that time, taking place at night under the bright glare of the same searchlights used annually at Aldershot, which were shipped from England especially for the show.

Over one thousand performers and support staff took part, including the Massed Bands consisting of the Drums of the 1st Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers, the Jamaica Military Band, and the Drums of the Kingston Infantry Volunteers, with detachments representing the various arms of the Empire’s defence.

These were the Royal Canadian Navy, The Royal Marines, the Northumberland Fusiliers and the Kingston Infantry Volunteers who represented the Colonial Forces of the Empire. Among the Guards of Honour which assembled for the grand climax were members of the old West India Regiment with their colours.

Other performers of the three-and-a-half-hour show were the Kingston Fire Brigade which demonstrated a Fire Call, the Diocesan Choir conducted by George Goode, Boy Scout Troops, and local performers including singer W. Spooner, the great Cupidon, and entertainer Kid Harold who led the community singing during the interval between acts.

The programme entailed the ceremony of Retreat, march of the Massed Bands, physical training display, a mock battle, lantern march, singing of Sea Chanties by the Royal Navy, and a grand assembly and finale. The highlight of the pageant was undoubtedly the re-enactment of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in 1812, with a great firework display and lighting effects on the specially constructed set representing Moscow on fire.

According to the Daily Gleaner of February 17, 1933, . . . “the – burning of Moscow, the red glare, the rolling smoke of the burning city the rockets and stars soaring and bursting in dazzling colours against the deep tropic night, in front the dark figures of the Band, while slowly and sadly the strains of Tschaikowsky’s 1812 rise and fade away into the distance, bring vividly to mind the tragic retreat of Napoleon’s armies from the burning city.

The sounding of the “Last Post” by the Massed Buglers and the singing of the Evening Hymn, “Abide With Me”, ended the nightly programme. A special Thanksgiving Service was held on Sunday Febru┬Čary 19, in aid of Naval, Military and Civil Charities.

The 1933 Naval and Military Tattoo was held at a significant time for the British Empire, just after the momentous Conference of Ottawa was concluded and celebrated and commemorated great events in Empire history. Presiding Officers at the Tattoo each night were headed by His Excellency Sir Ransford Slater, Captain-General and Governor-in-Chief of Jamaica, and Lady Slater.

Special guests at the first night’s performance were the Governor of Bahamas Captain the Honourable B.E.H. Clifford and Mrs. Clifford, who paid a three-day visit to witness the Tattoo.

Lieutenant-Colonel P.H. Hansen, VC, MC, DSO originated the idea of the Tattoo and directed its operations. Mention should be made of the “gentlemen riders and other gentlemen of Kingston” who volunteered to act as rebels in the mock battle, Captain A. DePass, MC, the pilot of the lone aircraft used in the ‘battle’, and Mr. Constantine who drove the “well camouflaged tank”.

While there was a combined services display held in 1943, it was not generally regarded as a Tattoo but cannot go disregarded. The second Jamaica Tattoo which was held twenty years after the first again coincided with a momentous event in the British Empire, namely the coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.

In fact this event was called the Jamaica Coronation Tattoo, and opened the very night that the Queen was crowned, June 2, 1953. Again, also, the Tattoo proved to be the Island’s biggest-ever show to date and had to be staged on six nights instead of the five originally arranged, in order to accommodate the large crowds that came to watch.

At the first dress rehearsal, over 9,000 spectators turned out instead of the expected 1,500, despite arrangements for only school children and a selected audience to be present. According to the Daily Gleaner of June 4, 1953, 15,000 spectators saw the opening and had the “biggest thrill of all as they watched 20 men of the Jamaica Battalion at drill.”