Limbering Up

The then Princess Elizabeth at Henley Royal Regatta in 1946. This is the tenuous rowing link so I can use HTBS to write about my non-rowing day out and post some nice pictures.

24 April 2017

Tim Koch writes from London:

Queen Elizabeth II has had many unusual experiences in her life, but having had 181 birthdays must be a unique achievement. However, this seemingly impossible number has been reached only because, since 1748 the British Monarch has had two birthdays, one on the anniversary of the day that they were born, and an ‘official’ one in June (when the weather is more suitable for outdoor celebrations). The Queen’s 91st ‘real’ birthday was on 21 April and, in honour of the occasion, a 41-gun salute was fired from London’s Hyde Park and a 62-gun salute was fired from the Tower Of London. I went along to witness the salute in the park.

Gun salutes in Hyde Park and Green Park are carried out by The King’s Troop, Royal Horse Artillery. This is a ceremonial unit composed of ‘real soldiers’, members of the British Army’s Royal Regiment of Artillery, who drive teams of six horses pulling each of six First World War-era 13-pounder field guns. Its duties include the firing of salutes on royal anniversaries and state occasions, and providing a gun carriage and team of black horses for state and military funerals. The King’s Troop was formed after the Second World War, following the mechanisation of the last batteries of horse-drawn artillery, when King George VI wanted a troop of horse artillery to be retained to take part in great state ceremonies.

Waiting to start

Major Erica Bridge (left) led the King’s Troop for two years between 2006 and 2008 with 120 horses and 168 officers and gunners under her command. For the 2017 Queen’s Birthday Salute, she was back in charge for the day.
Some wonderful pieces of ‘horse furniture’. As the Royal Artillery has served in virtually every campaign that the British Army has ever undertaken, it has only one battle honour, ‘Ubique’ (pronounced ‘You-Bee-Kway’) which means ‘Everywhere’.
A King’s Troop officer. My pictures give the impression that women, first admitted in 1996, form most of the unit – in fact they make up one-third.
The uniform and fur cap were inspired by the dress of the Hungarian light cavalrymen known as Hussars. The cap is known as a busby, a name wrongly sometimes given to the tall bearskin ‘caps’ of the Foot Guards. Originally, the end of the red cloth bag was attached to the right shoulder as a (perhaps wishful) defence against sabre cuts.
The 13-pounder field gun entered service in 1904 as a rapid-firing and highly-mobile weapon. However, during the First World War it proved too light to be effective against prepared trench positions. On the saddle, the other weapon pictured here is the 1908 Pattern Cavalry Trooper’s Sword, the last sword to be issued to British mounted units.

Moving into position

The six gun crews enter the park from the north and line up east – west along the edge.
Each gun is attached to a limber, a cart in which the shells are carried. This is pulled by six horses in three pairs. The harness was designed with no girth, so if a horse was killed, it would simply fall out of the tack, allowing the others to continue. The whole unit is 54 feet long and there are seven gunners in each crew.
The command is given for the riders and gun crews to turn to the south and gallop (or perhaps canter, I do not know much about horse gaits) line abreast to the firing positions just opposite the Dorchester Hotel. Major Bridge leads the way.
Forward the Guns!
A Royal Park is temporarily turned into a Field of Battle.

The 750-metre ‘charge’, if that is the correct term, was a great thing to experience. From a distance, there is first the faint but increasing thunder of hooves and the rumble of the wheeled guns and limbers. As they get closer, this sound is joined by the distinctive jangle of tack, medals, swords, spurs and artillery parts, this composite of sound punctuated by the stirring call of a bugle. Very quickly, the full effect of more than sixty 1000 pound horses breathing heavily and six one-and-half ton guns moving at great speed is upon you. In the background, a military band is playing some jingoistic tune. I was probably not the only observer who, at that at point, would have enthusiastically accepted an offer from Lord Raglan to accompany the Light Brigade on a one way trip down a long Crimean valley (I should point out that members of the King’s Troop will tell you vehemently that they are not a cavalry unit).

The thunder and the rumble passes.
The guns are in place. Five of each crew stay…
… while two of each crew take the limber and the horses to the rear.

Ready…

The Gurkha band added to the slightly Imperial atmosphere of the whole occasion. The famously tough and fearless Nepalese hillmen have served Britain and her army since 1815 (though the British government has not always shown adequate gratitude).
A Gurkha bandsman observes the crews standing by their guns.
VIPs and veteran and serving soldiers gathered for the occasion. On the left is a captain in the Welsh Guards. With a chicken on his head is Major General Ben Bathurst, General Officer Commanding London District. The gentleman in the bowler hat wears a Brigade of Guards tie (unseen here). On the right is a major in the Royal Artillery.
Critical eyes.
12.00 noon. The command to begin the salute is given.

Fire!

Each of the six guns booms in turn until 41 shells are discharged. As the gunner demonstrates, nothing quite prepares you for the sound.
I suppose that cordite in not used in modern shells, but there was soon a distinctive smell in the air of what I imagine the propellent smelt like.
When the guns had finished firing, the call went, ‘prepare to limber up’…
…and the horses and limbers raced back and attached the guns in readiness to move to the rear.
Back to barracks – and stables.

One comment

  1. Wait there is more birthdates… whereas Saturday, 10 June is the date of celebration for the Monarch of the UK, the birthday of Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, Queen of Australia and Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, is celebrated on Monday 12 June in most states of Australia, with Western Australia celebrating on 25 September and Queensland on 2 October.

    But then our Kiwi friends celebrate the birthday on Monday, 5 June. How exhausting!

    Our past Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, once said: “I did but see her passing by, and yet I love her till I die.”

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