The History of "Wings"

This story was originally posted in 2004 on the Bob Dunsire Bagpipe Forum. The original can be found is at

Despite its title, this tune is the regimental march of the Corps of Royal Engineers of the British Army, as well as some affiliated Commonwealth units. It was originally composed for military brass bands and was transposed to the pipes probably in the late Victorian era and certainly prior to WWI. It dates from 1870.

We owe the existence of the tune to the unhappiness, back in 1869, of the Commandant of the Royal Engineer Establishment and the RE Band Committee with the existing RE quick-march. In response, Bandmaster William Newstead proposed a new march that he had composed, or perhaps more accurately arranged.

Newstead amalgamated two older tunes for his new march, one English, the other German. The origins of the English one, ‘The Path Across the Hills’ is unknown. It has been described as a ‘lilting march.’ The German melody was entitled ‘Flügel! Flügel!’ and was apparently a sentimental balled originally composed by a mid-Victorian lady who was inspired by the words of some German poet. The tune had been published many years before by a Bavarian, Friedrich Rücket, and translated by Percy Boyd, RE, under the title ‘Wings’.

The Corps of Royal Engineers accepted this new march for use on parades in 1870 or thereabouts. However, in 1889 the Commander-in-Chief of the corps noted with disapproval that the march was not the one to which the RE were entitled by tradition. He considered Wings ‘frivolous’ and ‘unmilitary’ and decreed that it was not to be played.

However, the tune was saved from musical oblivion by the direct intervention some thirteen years later of a famous Victorian soldier. In May 1902 Lieutenant General Viscount Kitchener of Khartoum, the Commander of the British Army, returned to the UK from the Boer War. On a visit to Chatham, England, where he had been a RE subaltern in 1871, he well remembered marching past reviewing stands on parade to ‘Wings’. Dismayed to find it no longer used, he made enquires and learned there was a strong demand among members of the Corps that 'Wings' be officially reinstated.

Lord Kitchener discussed the matter with the War Office, and then, in a letter dated 14 October 1902, with the authority of the Adjutant-General, he re-instated Wings as the official march of the Royal Engineers.

The music ‘Wings’, scored for military (brass) band, was published in 1903, copyright by Hawkes & Son of London, and William Newstead's arrangement of the RE quick-march regained its rightful place on the parade ground. Because of the close affiliation with the RE, Wings was also chosen as regimental march when the Royal Canadian Engineers (RCE) were formed in 1904 and later passed on to the CME Canadian Military Engineers (CME) when the RCE ceased to exist in 1998.

The date of transposition of the tune to the pipes is unknown, but it is known that it was being played by British (and likely British Commonwealth) army pipe bands well before WWI.