22 May 2017
Tim Koch produces another ‘nothing to do with rowing’ post on the grounds that those who are interested in rowing history tend to like military history as well.
Remembrance and memorial parades of past and serving military stir many emotions, both among those taking part and among those perpetual civilians looking on. On the one hand, they are a show of the ‘glamorous’ side of soldiering: the bands, the comradeship and the medals. On the other, their purpose is to remember people who died, usually in their youth, and never yet in a ‘war to end all wars’.
On Sunday, 14 May, I attended ‘Cavalry Sunday’, a memorial parade that is as poignant as any in its remembering of those killed in conflicts past – but which has a unique aspect to its ceremonial. The Combined Cavalry Old Comrades Association Parade and Memorial Service is held on a Sunday in May every year when former members of British cavalry regiments march past the Cavalry Memorial in Hyde Park and then hold a short service, also attended by family and friends. Many of those parading carry furled umbrellas held in a particular way (sword substitutes perhaps), and wear bowler hats (U.S.: derbys), the stereotypical British headgear that is rarely seen nowadays. Officially, the dress is simply lounge suits with medals and decorations.
The traditional self-image of cavalry regiments in the British Army was encapsulated a long time ago by a Victorian witticism: What is the role of the cavalry on the battlefield? Answer: To lend tone to what otherwise would be a mere vulgar brawl. The regimental names of the ‘Donkey Wallopers’ (as they are known to the other branches of the army), such as Lancers, Hussars and Dragoons, certainly conjure a romantic image, even if their horses have long been replaced by tanks and armoured vehicles for active service (though strangely, even in 2015, the British Army had more horses, 485, then Challenger 2 Main Battle Tanks, 227). Historically, this ‘tone’ has largely been generated by the fact that cavalry officers were disproportionately former public (U.S.: prep) schoolboys from wealthy and/or aristocratic backgrounds, and some officers would have family connections to a particular regiment going back generations. There were also ‘circles within circles’, most cavalry regiments may have been grand, but some were grander than others. The Household Cavalry, part of the Queen’s official bodyguard, was notable in this respect.
Although I am writing in the past tense, perhaps I should not, there are those who hold that attempts in the last few years to democratise officer recruitment in the cavalry have only been partly successful. While I am not really qualified to comment, I can see that relying too much on the traditional ‘officer class’ to produce the best leaders of men and women is not a sensible idea – but I think it is also important not to lose each units’ very individual esprit de corps during the process of reform, as this is one of the great strengths of the British Army regimental system. Ultimately, I cannot imagine that the two are mutually exclusive.
The Life Guards
The Blues and Royals (Royal Horse Guards and 1st Dragoons)
In 2007, Prince William and Prince Harry marched as members of the Blues and Royals.
1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards
The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards (Carabiniers and Greys)
The Queen’s Royal Hussars (The Queen’s Own and Royal Irish)
I’m a soldier in the Queen’s Army,
I’m a galloping Queen’s Hussar,
I’ve sailed the ocean wide and blue,
I’m a chap who knows a thing or two,
Been in many a tight corner,
Shown the enemy who we are,
I can ride a horse, Go on a spree,
Or sing a comic song,
And that denotes a Queen’s Hussar.
The Royal Lancers (Queen Elizabeth’s Own)
The Royal Lancers’ ‘Death or Glory’ badge or ‘motto’ is an uncharacteristically fierce piece of British Army heraldry. Its origins are with the 17th Lancers who were one of the regiments that led the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854.
The King’s Royal Hussars
The Royal Yeomanry
The Service of Remembrance
Most British men have never served in the military and, for some, occasions such as Cavalry Sunday add to the feeling noted by Dr Johnson that ‘Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier…’ This even applies to those of us who are fairly certain that they would not have enjoyed the military experience, and who are mindful of the fact that there has been only two years since 1945 (1968 and 2016) without the death of a British serviceman on operations.
My apologies to those units that were on parade but not pictured.