World War I Military Bugle
Written by Chris Rapley, Assistant Curator Accoutrements & Social History
Sometimes a terrible twist of fate can transform an ordinary object into something extraordinary. I have the privileged position of caring for the National Army Museum’s Accoutrement and Social History Collection, a fantastic collection that numbers into many thousands of military artefacts. Amongst the pieces there are a number of objects that portray the violence of war and even some whose owners met a violent death.
Nestled in a box in my store, securely cared for in a foam carved mount, is a bugle that is unremarkable in its design and construction. It is a standard military pattern – there are a few others on a shelf nearby. What makes this bugle special are the bullet holes which have torn its metal, simultaneously ruining it for further use and rendering it a truly remarkable object.
This bugle belonged to George Bissett, who was twenty-years old when he landed at ANZAC Cove on the evening of April 25, 1915. Bissett, who hailed from Taranaki, did not spend long at Gallipoli; on April 27 he was killed in action. I don’t know the exact details of his death but the commander of the Wellington Battalion, William Malone, makes special mention of Bissett in the May 4 entry in his diary. He comments on the men he cannot bury between the front lines and refers to the ‘bugler lad’ Bissett lying ‘with his bugle on his back face downwards, shot in his tracks’.
On May 24, Malone writes that Bissett was finally buried during a short armistice. That means that he lay out in the elements for nearly a month. I can’t imagine the sort of state Bissett was in by the time they got to him. Malone commented that it was a ‘desecration of the human body to leave it shot up, and unburied for so long’.
And while Bissett was dead in no man’s land this bugle was with him. Somewhere in that time it acquired the two bullet holes that give it its distinctive scars. Perhaps they happened the instant Bissett was killed, there’s simply no way of knowing, but the terrible impact on the metal gives a small insight into what bullets must do to flesh and bone. The wounds his bugle still carries must have been similar to those that ended Bissett’s life.
But basically this is just background; the thing which always strikes me about Bissett’s bugle is that it needs no label or explanation. To hear the story behind it simply confirms what the object already tells you; the owner of this bugle did not make it home. For me it is an object that strips away the projections of national character building and distils Gallipoli – and any conflict – down to personal tragedy. It is a personal possession ripped apart by war, just like thousands of individuals and families.
When I am close to this bugle it silently speaks to me in a way that other objects cannot. It doesn’t talk to me about bravery; it tells me about death, grief, and of families wondering how their boy is faring on the other side of the world. It makes me ponder how Adam and Alice Bissett felt when they heard they had lost their son.
Who would think a humble bugle could carry such power?
Check out our Blog for the stories behind some of our other interesting museum artefacts.