When The Band Begins To Play

Winston Churchill pictured in 1895, newly gazetted to the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars. Lord Wolseley, one of the Victorian army’s most influential generals, held that ‘The better you dress a soldier, the more highly he will be thought of by women, and consequently by himself.’ Churchill never lacked confidence, but sporting a splendid cavalry uniform probably increased his self-belief even more.

17 May 2019

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch is ashamed to follow Socrates.

This is one of HTBS’s ‘Nothing To Do With Rowing’ pieces, posted simply on the grounds that those interested in rowing’s chronicles tend to be intrigued by military history as well. On Sunday, 12 May, I made a return visit to The Combined Cavalry Old Comrades Association Parade and Memorial Service in London’s Hyde Park, an annual event which honours British and Commonwealth cavalrymen killed in action and which has some unique aspects to its ceremonial.

Despite the best efforts of historians, artists, authors, film makers, musicians, poets and particularly of former and serving military men, soldiering and war are often thought of as glamorous and exciting, even by those of us who think that they are clever enough to know better. In one of my favourite quotes, the 18-century man of letters, Dr Johnson, famously summed up the result of this guilty mindset on many of us who have never been in uniform:

Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier…. No, Sir; were Socrates and Charles the Twelfth of Sweden both present in any company, and Socrates to say, ‘Follow me, and hear a lecture on philosophy;’ and Charles, laying his hand on his sword, to say, ‘Follow me, and dethrone the Czar’ a man would be ashamed to follow Socrates. Sir, the impression is universal; yet it is strange.

“Scotland Forever!” by Lady Butler. The Royal Scots Greys at Waterloo in 1815. Although inaccurate in many ways, this painting is often considered an iconic representation of heroism, so much so that during the First World War the Germans used this picture in their propaganda – with the Scots Greys transformed into Prussian cavalry.

Historically, the greatest unintentional perpetrators of this image of warfare have been the epitome of military glamour, the mounted cavalry. Even today, when camouflage has replaced colour and armour has replaced equine for battlefield use, the cavalry still cuts a dash, particularly on parade grounds, in mess halls and in ballrooms. As one officer of the former 14th/20th King’s Hussars wrote in the Daily Telegraph in 2004:

Dressing up in historic, dashing kit at military balls and parties gives the wearer a distinct sartorial advantage over those from less fashionable bits of the Army. High-collared jackets worn over waistcoats adorned with gold frogging, and spray-on tight crimson (trousers) with twin primrose stripes… trapped over boots with jingly spurs could cause knicker elastic to snap at twenty paces.

No comment.

“Punch” magazine, 1892.

In the past, the cavalry’s splendid uniforms, fine horses and terrifying battlefield charges combined to form a romantic image, one most famously encapsulated by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, in his 1854 poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade. Ironically, while Tennyson’s six stanzas have done much to promote the allure of war and soldiering, it is actually about a military blunder, and parts at least could be considered anti-war. During the Crimean War in 1854, a misunderstood order led to the cavalry units of the Light Brigade charging into a valley that had Russian cannon aimed at them on both sides. The poem’s second verse devastatingly sums up the soldier’s lot throughout history: not to question even a clearly suicidal order.

Forward, the Light Brigade!’
Was there a man dismay’d ?
Not tho’ the soldier knew
Some one had blunder’d:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die…. 

Forty years after the publication of The Charge of the Light Brigade, Rudyard Kipling used it to draw attention to the paradoxical relationship that civilians have with the military; they support ‘the boys’ in time of war, but do little for them after their service, a situation that continues today. In 1891, Kipling wrote The Last of the Light Brigade, focusing on the hardships suffered in old age by ex-troopers of the Crimean War:

There were thirty million English who talked of England’s might,
There were twenty broken troopers who lacked a bed for the night.
They had neither food nor money, they had neither service nor trade;
They were only shiftless soldiers, the last of the Light Brigade.

A rather heroic representation of a wounded Crimean War cavalryman. Sergeant John Breese served with the 11th (Prince Albert’s Own) Hussars and lost his arm at the Battle of Inkerman. The stylish Breese appears to be more proud of his lost limb than of his campaign medals.

In Tommy (1892), Kipling also contrasts the attitude that civilians have towards the British soldier (‘Tommy Atkins’, though a term perhaps applied more to infantrymen than to cavalrymen) during peace to that during war. When a soldier is refused service in a pub for being a ‘redcoat’, he laments:

O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, go away”;
But it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play,
The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
O it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play.

Kipling’s Tommy points out yet another unchanging aspect of the way the military is often mistreated, that is by politicians sending them to war poorly equipped:

Yes, makin’ mock o’ uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an’ they’re starvation cheap….

While Kipling was clearly critical of the way the British often treated their military, I am not sure that he would have approved of the common modern idea of regarding everyone who ever wore a uniform as ‘a hero’. My Father played his small part in the defeat of Nazism, but I am sure would have been nonplused if anyone had granted him the epithet ‘hero’. He, his contemporaries and their fathers all served in the military; they knew what a hero was and was not and they reserved the term for those very few who voluntarily ‘rode to the sound of guns’. Again, Kipling’s Tommy is astute:

We aren’t no thin red ‘eroes*, nor we aren’t no blackguards too,
But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you….

Just outside Hyde Park is this statue of the Duke of Wellington (1769 – 1852) astride his horse, Copenhagen. In the background is the Wellington Arch. Although also an influential politician, his victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 put him in the first rank of Britain’s military heroes. He served in two regiments of Light Dragoons, the 12th and later the 18th.

Like most such events, the Combined Cavalry Old Comrades Association Parade contained a few ‘eroes (as some of the medals testified) and possibly one or two blackguards (though no one offered me any cheap regimental silver), but most of those marching were, no doubt, like most soldiers, somewhere in between. Where the Parade is perhaps not typical of other such events is that it contains a disproportionate number of officers and also that it is made up of a mix of current and former servicemen, all in civilian clothes. Officially, the dress is simply ‘lounge suits with medals and decorations’ but, according to the Facebook page of the Army’s Headquarters, London District:

The traditional dress of bowler hat, suit and tie, while carrying a furled umbrella was the accepted walking out dress in 1920s London when the annual parade started. Even today Household Division Officers are expected to dress like this when on duty out of uniform in the capital. Although now a stereotype of the English gentleman, the bowler hat was what the working classes wore in the 19th century and was the hat of choice for working horsemen, like our cavalrymen today. (Unlike a top hat) not only does it afford protection from low lying branches but does not blow off in the wind. The umbrellas are carried not in case of rain but carried in place of a sword or pace stick. (When the late Queen Mother) took the Salute on a particularly wet parade she insisted the umbrellas remained firmly furled as a reminder to all that these were soldiers marching.

Gathering for the Parade

Past and present cavalrymen and women, plus friends and family meet on the Broad Walk in London’s Hyde Park on a glorious spring day.
Smart on the left, elegant on the right.
The regimental association banner-bearer for the 1st, The Queen’s Dragoon Guards, nicknamed ‘The Welsh Cavalry’.
A gentleman sporting a Royal Dragoon Guards tie receives assistance with his medals.
John Walker, Chairman of the Oxford and District Royal Dragoon Guards Association, with some of the army cadets who are attached to the regiment. It was due to John’s kindness that I had privileged access to the event.
A piper from The Queen’s Royal Hussars (The Queen’s Own and Royal Irish). The kilts worn by Irish pipe bands are based on the traditional Scottish garment but are in a single colour, this one saffron. George II absolved the officers of a constituent regiment, the 3rd Hussars, from drinking the loyal toast as their loyalty was ‘beyond question’. Further, during the playing of the national anthem in the mess, they pointedly remain seated and talking throughout. This privilege has been reaffirmed by monarchs through consequent amalgamations.
Comrades from the Queen’s Royal Hussars.
The regimental association banner-bearer and wreath-bearer of the Royal Dragoon Guards Association.
HRH The Prince of Wales (Prince Charles, heir to the throne) took the salute as he is Colonel-in-Chief of this year’s sponsoring regiment, 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards. Here, he is greeted on his arrival by Lieutenant-General Sir William Rollo, President of the Combined Cavalry Old Comrades Association.
The Prince is presented to representatives of some Commonwealth countries, those from Canada and Australia being serving soldiers. When the Cavalry Memorial was unveiled in 1924, it was known as the Cavalry of the Empire Memorial.

On Parade 

This year’s sponsoring regiment, 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards, lead with the Old Comrades banner. This was the 95th Combined Cavalry Old Comrades Parade.
The Household Cavalry, the Life Guards in red and the Blues and Royals in blue.
The Life Guards. Civilian hats are removed when passing the saluting base and memorial.
The Blues and Royals (Royal Horse Guards and 1st Dragoons).
1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards.
The banner of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards (Carabiniers and Greys) is topped with a representation of the French Imperial Eagle that the Royal Scots Greys captured at Waterloo in 1815. The eagle also forms the cap badge which is always worn with a black backing in mourning for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, who was Colonel-in-Chief of the Royal Scots Greys at the time of his execution.
The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.
The Royal Dragoon Guards.
The Royal Dragoon Guards replace their hats after passing the saluting base.
The wreath and banner of the Queen’s Royal Hussars (The Queen’s Own and Royal Irish).
The Queen’s Royal Hussars are the only regiment to sing their regimental quick march as they pass the saluting base.

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.

Members of the Queen’s Royal Hussar demonstrate two versions of women’s headdress. Second from the right is a lady’s simple and elegant pillbox hat, while the woman on the far left wears a bowler. Although now thought of as a man’s hat, the bowler was once commonly worn by women while hunting on horseback.
The banner of the Royal Lancers (Queen Elizabeths’ Own). The Regimental Cap Badge is referred to as the ‘Motto’ and stands for ‘Death or Glory’.
Royal Lancers including (in the scarlet coat) a ‘Chelsea Pensioner’, a resident of the retirement home housing 300 former members of the British Army located in Chelsea, London. It was founded by Charles II in 1682.
The King’s Royal Hussars. The gentleman second from the back wears two things unique to the regiment; crimson trousers and a brown beret.
The Light Dragoons were led by some stylish senior men at the front…
Some smart young Light Dragoons were in the middle ranks….
However, the rear of the Light Dragoons contingent contained an interesting idea of what was suitable dress for the parade. To be fair to the young trooper, I have found that such rebels sometimes prove themselves to be quite useful in a crisis.
The Royal Yeomanry. ‘Yeomanry’ are reserve cavalry, they originated with the volunteer units that sprang up due to the fear of invasion by Napoleon. A yeoman was a person of respectable standing, one social rank below a gentleman, and the yeomanry was initially a rural force that provided their own horses and was recruited mainly from landholders and tenant farmers.
The Royal Wessex Yeomanry.
The Queen’s Own Yeomanry.
The Queen’s Own Yeomanry: Giving the command ‘eyes front’ after passing the saluting base.
The Scottish and North Irish Yeomanry and the Middlesex Yeomanry bring up the rear of the parade, followed by representatives of Combined Cadet Forces affiliated to cavalry regiments.
The Parade almost over, the regimental wreath bearers are now in place around the Cavalry Memorial, all waiting for Prince Charles to lay the first wreath, that on behalf of the Old Comrades Association.
Prince Charles symbolically lays the Old Comrades’ wreath.
A brief period of levity between the solemn duties as the dignitaries make their way to the nearby Memorial Service.
The Memorial Service conducted from the Hyde Park Bandstand.
Men of the Royal Lancers reflect during the memorial service. Their campaign medals include ones for service in Afghanistan, Iraq, Balkans, Bosnia and Cyprus.

*During the Crimean War, WH Russell, the war correspondent of The Times, wrote that he could see nothing between the advancing Russians and the British base at Balaklava but the ‘thin red streak tipped with a line of steel’, a reference to the red-jacketed 93rd (Sutherland Highlanders) with their bayonets fixed. Popularly condensed into ‘the thin red line’, the phrase became a symbol of British soldiers’ traditional discipline in battle but it is also used to refer to the fragile barrier that Britain’s small professional army presents to possible enemies.


  1. My dad used to reckon that when the Gloucestershire Hussars, a militia regiment, mechanised in the 1930s, the unofficial regimental motto went from “Make love and run” to “screw and bolt”.

    Don’t know how true this really was.


    Richard Steed

    On Fri, May 17, 2019 at 6:03 AM Hear The Boat Sing wrote:

    > gbuckhorn posted: ” 17 May 2019 By Tim Koch Tim Koch is ashamed to follow > Socrates. This is one of HTBS’s ‘Nothing To Do With Rowing’ pieces, posted > simply on the grounds that those interested in rowing’s chronicles tend to > be intrigued by military history as we” >

    • All those uniforms: is there any sport other than rowing that so relishes its “uniforms”, proudly displaying affiliation with its “units”? I think not. And maybe Lord Wolseley’s remark also applies to oarsmen in their club colors: ‘The better you dress a soldier, the more highly he will be thought of by women, and consequently by himself.’ Decades ago in Heidelberg, a college girl with a group on tour from the States looked at my necktie and said: “Oh, you rowed for Harvard,” and smiled.

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