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.
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.
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.
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….
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
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.
*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.