It’s a tune instantly recognizable by anglophiles the world over, and one that when played on the fife and drum likely would have sent shivers down the spine of colonial minutemen. It’s “The British Grenadiers” and since the early 18th Century has been the de facto theme song for English redcoats as they marched steadily into battle.
The song is derived from a 17th Century ditty entitled “the New Bath”. Some historians have suggested that “The British Grenadiers” also might a crib of a Dutch tune called “March of the Young Prince of Friesland”.
The tune was first introduced into the English army during the reign of William III and was originally called the “Grenadeer’s March” <sic> in 1706.
Sheet music and lyrics were printed in Great Britain in the 1750s, at which point the song became quite popular with the wider public.
In its heyday, British military musicians would have played the tune to signal troops to advance. It would have been heard during the Seven Years War, the American Revolution and the Napoleonic War. But its popularity didn’t end with the age of the horse and musket. It lived on as a ceremonial piece for the next 150 years.
During Operation Market Garden in the Second World War, members of the British airborne reportedly played an improvised version of the song on a flute, using helmets as makeshift drums.
Today it is played during the ceremonial Horse Guard Parade in the UK.
Most would know the tune as it frequently appears in historical films and other period pieces, most notably when the British military appears.
To hear a version of British Grenadiers in the masterful Stanley Kubrick film Barry Lyndon, click here.
For a slightly different rendition of it in the woefully jingoistic 2000 film The Patriot, click here.
Another version can be heard in the all-but-forgotten 1985 Al Pacino and Donald Sutherland film Revolution. Click here to listen — the song begins about 60 seconds into the clip.
It also is used in the 1985 film Empire of the Sun. Click here to listen and scroll to the 3:05 mark in the clip.
Other places to hear the British Grenadiers:
The fife and drum corps at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia recorded it and have made it available on CD.
Currently there are six full CDs including renditions of the British Grenadiers played by brass bands, fife and drum corps and even symphony orchestras on iTunes and as many as 10 different versions are available as single-song downloads performed by everyone from the U.S. Army Strings and the Cheshire Regimental Band to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Jubilee Singers.