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Soldiers: Fighting Man's Life, 1901-2001
by Philip Ziegler

Prologue [pp. 3-6]

It is a minute before eleven on the morning of 8 June 2000. Christopher Wren's great Figure Court, at the heart of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, is crowded for the prime event of the Hospital's year, the Founder's Day Parade. Its founder was King Charles II, the year of its foundation 1682. Legend claims that Charles II was acting on the prompting of his mistress, Nell Gwyn: there is no evidence whatsoever to validate this thesis, but equally nothing to disprove it. It sounds the sort of thing she might have done. Wherever the original impulse may have come from, the King was inspired largely by the creation of his brother monarch, Louis XIV, the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris. "Invalides", of course has as much to do with invalids as "Hospital" has to do with hospital. Both kings wished to provide a hostel where veteran soldiers could find a secure home in their declining years.

The Founder's Day Parade commemorates Charles II's inglorious escape after the Battle of Worcester as well as his restoration to the throne nine years later. One of the more celebrated incidents in his flight from Worcester occurred when he avoided capture by hiding up an oak tree at Boscobel House, some twenty-five miles from the
battlefield -- hence the designation of his birthday, 29 May, as Oak-apple Day and the fact that, before the Parade, every participant is presented with a sprig of oak leaves. Grinling Gibbons' statue of Charles II in the centre of the Figure Court emerges from a carapace of oak-tree branches to survey with mild surprise the scene around him. What the King's statue witnesses could hardly be more colourful.

The plumes of the Governor and Lieutenant-Governor, the Fanfare Trumpeters of the Royal Military School of Music, the band of the Scots Guards, the solitary piper from the 1st Battalion of the Highlanders, the In-Pensioners themselves, splendid in scarlet coats and ceremonial tricorn hats, in their rich pageantry evoke everything that is most memorable about Britain's military and imperial past. Or, to look at it another way, a bunch of superannuated poseurs are poncing around in fancy dress, trying to recapture lost glories that were spurious at the best of times and are entirely irrelevant today. The dichotomy apparent in those points of view is one of the more potent elements in the book that follows.

Eleven o'clock, and the great wooden doors open into the Octagon Porch, a noble space between chapel and Great Hall where trophies captured in battle hang from the walls. As a fanfare sounds from the trumpeters standing on the roof above Wren's colonnade, the Duke of Kent, who is Reviewing Officer for the day, enters the Figure Court. The two hundred or so Pensioners who are fit to take part in the Parade stand as rigidly to attention as their age permits, another hundred sit and watch from the fringes of the court, a handful are too ill or elderly to be present. Attendance at the Founder's Day Parade is the only obligation laid upon Pensioners, otherwise they can come and go as they like; take part in the innumerable activities which the Hospital offers them if they feel the inclination, or abstain if they prefer to. If they are in the Hospital then they must be dressed and out of their panelled cubicle -- their berth, as it is called -- by half past seven in the morning, but this stipulation is only made because it is the easiest way to ensure that everyone has survived the night. The Royal Hospital is an Army establishment, it is run on military lines, but no attempt is made to impose strict discipline upon the inmates. The good order that prevails reigns at their own wish and by their own doing; the authorities have no sanctions to enforce their rules except the ultimate one of expulsion. It is a sanction that is most rarely and reluctantly invoked.

Ten minutes past eleven, and the Duke of Kent has begun his inspection of the Pensioners. One of the men in front of whom he passes fought at Passchendaele in 1918; almost all of them played a part in the Second World War, and one of the youngest was involved in the Falklands -- though as a Merchant Navy man. Between them the Pensioners can boast almost ten thousand years of military service. They have served in more than seventy countries, with Northern Ireland thrown in as an extra. The medals that they wear reflect the extraordinary variety of their experience: forty-six Africa Stars, thirty-five Burma Stars, sixteen Pacific Stars, thirteen General Service Medals Borneo, a Polar Medal, a Légion d'honneur, a Polish Cross of Monte Cristo . . . The Pensioners have been on parade for a long time now. Even among those who are standing to attention rather than sitting to the side the average age is nearly eighty. It is hot in the midday sun; their ordeal is not yet over, but nobody faints, nobody even wavers.

Twenty-five minutes past eleven. The Adjutant calls the Pensioners to attention; the climax of the Parade is near. "The In-Pensioners Royal Hospital will march past." As the band plays "The Boys of the Old Brigade" the first of the four companies of Pensioners responds to the order "By the left -- quick -- march!" by breaking into what must be the slowest quick march to be witnessed on any parade ground in the British Isles. Some of the Pensioners have pot bellies, few stand as upright as once they did, the drill lacks some of the punch and precision of former years, but there is not one of them who does not take pride in the reputation of the Royal Hospital and of the Army in which he once served and is not resolved to do all he can to reflect credit on them. Behind the marching ranks six Pensioners in electrically powered wheel chairs in their turn pass and salute the Duke of Kent. They suffer from a wide range of afflictions, but in almost every case the ravages of war have played a part in making it impossible for them to march with the others. Their presence is a silent reminder of the many thousands of soldiers who would have been eligible to end their days in the Royal Hospital -- but who were deprived of the opportunity by their death in battle.

Twenty-five minutes to twelve. Once more the Pensioners are called to attention. Now the Governor takes over. "In-Pensioners Royal Hospital -- remove Head-dress." Three cheers are given for "Our Pious Founder King Charles the Second" -- a curious adjective to apply to somebody who possessed many qualities but must have been among the more impious of British monarchs -- for the Queen and for the Duke of Kent. The Pensioners wave their hats in the air and cheer with remarkable lustiness, encouraged, perhaps, by the thought that their test is over for another year. The parade is dismissed and with relief the Pensioners shuffle off to relax with friends and families.

Among them are Albert Alexandre of the Guernsey Light Infantry and the Royal Artillery; Archibald Harrington of the Queen's Royal Regiment and the Royal Artillery; Fernley Small of the Northamptonshire Regiment; Thomas Parnell of the Duke of Lancaster's Own Yeomanry and the 10th Royal Hussars; Douglas Wright of the Special Boat Squadron and the Grenadier Guards; Leonard Pearson of the Royal Engineers; Arthur Jeffery of the Devonshire Regiment; James Fergus of the Black Watch and the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, and Alwyn Holmes of the Royal Army Service Corps.

SOURCE: Soldiers : Fighting Men's Lives, 1901-2001 / by Philip Ziegler.
Copyright 2001 PS and MC Ziegler.
Publisher: Penguin Putnam Plume, New York NY 10014, 2003.
ISBN 0-452-28409-0. 331+ pp.


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