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Caring on the Home Front - Volunteer memories from World War Two

Stories » Youth and Cadets » John Smith

John Smith

In the band

John Smith’s friends convinced him to join St. John Ambulance. They promised a bugle band and parades. To his dismay, cadets meant not only learning about the bugle, but first aid as well. But after a shaky start, John’s participation in the band grew into a lifelong performance for St. John.

How did you become involved?

“All the dads were away, marching about and playing soldiers, and so I think everyone else thought they ought to as well. Everybody was in a uniform of some sort.

My friends said to me, ‘why don’t you come along to St. John?

I said, ‘What do you do?’

And they said, ‘oh well, bandaging, make beds.’

I didn’t think much of that at all. That wasn’t what I wanted to do at all. So I let that go for a bit. They kept on nagging me to join.

And then they said they’d got a band, a bugle band. That interested me. And that’s really why I joined. It wasn’t anything to do with being a Florence Nightingale. The thought was: marching through the street blowing a gas-pipe, making a noise.

And that’s what I did, that’s why I joined.”

How were you trained?

“You had to do a first aid exam like you do now. I know I failed. I got a dressing down by this chap who said, ‘If you don’t pull your socks up Smith, there’s plenty more sitting on the steps outside waiting to come in!’
More or less poked me as he said it. And I got cracking and passed the next time.

A 100 boys were there when I joined. They started this band. And the Officer thought—
we’d been going about three weeks—it was time we made a march through the street. So we formed up and marched through and it was so awful, and the adults…one or two adults were there watching, and they were so appalled by it, they all went home and resigned! It was absolutely awful! It wasn’t a tune or anything. Far too early. We had to have the County Commissioner come to try and sort the problem out.”

Any special memories?

j“With a bugle, it’s self-taught. You’ve only got to have someone with you who knows how to blow on a bit of pipe. And you get used to it, and then you can play it.

We did have flutes at one time. But that didn’t go down very well.

I know that I got put in the flute section when I first got there. And I didn’t like that. Decided that I would leave that night. And what I was going to do, as I went out the door, I was going to leave my flute on the table and never come back again. I wasn’t going to tell them I was leaving, I was just going to leave it on the table and go.

And when we got out in the room, the bugle band were out there, and some bloke looked at me, and he said, ‘swap ya?’
And we changed places and I’m still here and he’s gone.

Years and years and years ago.”


St. John Ambulance cadets wore uniforms but then, so did a lot of children during the Second World War. It seemed like ‘everyone was in uniform.’ The Sea Cadet Corps attracted would-be seamen. Sea cadets proved extremely popular, numbering 50,000 in 1942. The Admiralty paid for nautical-style uniforms, equipment, travel and training. In 1938 a retired member of the Royal Air Force formed the Air Defence Cadet Corps (ADCC). Teenage boys responded enthusiastically to the new corps and donned flight-suits to take part in aviation training. Find out more about cadet uniforms during the war.


The bugle is a simple brass instrument with no valves. It consists of a mouthpiece, tubing and a large flared bell. Different sounds are created by adjusting the shape of the lips. Bugles have a longstanding association with the military, where certain bugle calls sent messages or inherited deep symbolism for morning, night, life and death. Last Post, Reveille, and Taps all rely on the bugle.


Boys’ bugle bands during the Second World War resulted from the traditional partnership between military and music. A successful military band combines a mastery of drill with a powerful, stirring sound. British forces have included structured drum corps for centuries. One of the most famous, the King’s Regiment, has earned 183 Battle Honours and boasts 23 Victoria Cross recipients. Describing military bands in general in 1915, Rudyard Kipling said, ‘the magic and the compelling power is in them, and it makes men’s souls realise certain truths that their minds might doubt.’