Not Broken

“A Chelsea Pensioner” by JH Gardiner (1888 – 1952), a portrait hanging in the museum of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea. The ‘RH’ was founded by Charles II to look after old soldiers ‘broken by age and war’.

10 November 2019

By Tim Koch

To mark Remembrance Sunday on 10 November, Tim Koch has a ‘nothing to do with rowing’ post about a visit he recently made to some military veterans.

On Remembrance Sunday in the UK, the country solemnly remembers its war dead. However, that same grateful nation does not always properly look after the physical, mental and social needs of those of its military who served and survived. One very notable exception to this is the excellent care given to 300 veterans who live at a very special place in south west London.

In October, I was delighted to be invited to attend a Royal Armoured Corps (RAC) Church Service at the Royal Hospital Chelsea. The famous retirement and nursing home of the iconic veterans of the British Army, the ‘Chelsea Pensioners’ began in 1681 when King Charles II, responding to the need to look after poor and sick ex-soldiers, authorised the building of the Royal Hospital Chelsea. Although the ‘RH’ does have a magnificent new infirmary, the term ‘Hospital’ is used in the old sense, that of an almshouse, that is charitable housing provided to a particular community. It has accepted ex-servicewomen as ‘In-Pensioners’ since 2009.

A aerial view of the Royal Hospital and part of its grounds. Sited next to the Thames in Chelsea, it covers 66 acres of one of the most expensive and fashionable parts of London. Picture: www.chelsea-pensioners.co.uk

The RH’s official website www.chelsea-pensioners.co.uk has a good summary of the place and its purpose:

We offer excellent accommodation, comradeship and the highest standards of care in recognition of their loyal service to the nation. Any former soldier of the British Army over the age of 65, who is facing spending their advanced years alone, can apply for residence as an In-Pensioner.

Some 300 army veterans live at the Royal Hospital today, including those who have served in Korea, the Falkland Islands, Cyprus, Northern Ireland and World War II. Others may not have served in campaigns, but all understand what it means to be a soldier and the potential sacrifice that it entails.

The Royal Hospital is a Grade I and II listed site, a beautiful architectural legacy left to us by Charles II and Sir Christopher Wren. Maintenance of the site continues today with ongoing restoration work to ensure that this legacy lives on into the future.

The entrance to Figure Court from Royal Hospital Road. This central court is the oldest part of the Royal Hospital and building was started under the direction of Sir Christopher Wren in 1682.
Pensioners gather in the cloisters of Figure Court before a parade and inspection prior to the Royal Armoured Corps Church Service in the Royal Hospital’s Chapel.

On the Pensioner’s dress, the RH website says:

Chelsea Pensioners are encouraged to wear their uniforms; it is mandatory to wear the scarlet uniform when representing the Royal Hospital on a recognised visit or when on parade, such as the annual Founder’s Day parade in June. Otherwise within a two-mile radius of the Royal Hospital the blue day-to-day uniform is normally worn. The blue uniform is also worn at breakfast and lunch in the Great Hall. Most Chelsea Pensioners wear this throughout the day in and around the Royal Hospital, but Pensioners are permitted to wear their civilian clothes whenever they wish to dress down (usually in the evenings).

The gentleman third from the left in the picture above is wearing ‘Blues’. For more formal events, the famous scarlet coats are worn. On ceremonial occasions, the tricorn hat shown above is the required headgear, at other times it is the ‘shako’ such as the man in Blues is wearing.

Eyes front, chin up, chest out, shoulders back, stomach in.
Comradeship is as beneficial as any of the more formal care services provided.
They may be ‘pensioners’ but computers and mobile phones seem as commonplace at the Royal Hospital as anywhere else.
There are not many Pensioners left who are entitled to wear Second World War medals but WO2 Fred Andrews is one of them. The medal on his left is the Legion d’Honneur, awarded in 2014 by the Government of France to all surviving veterans of the liberation of their country in 1944.
Figure Court, the venue for the parade and inspection prior to the church service. The Latin inscription on the colonnade translates as ‘For the succour and relief of veterans broken by Age and War founded by Charles II enlarged by James II and completed by William and Mary in the Year of our Lord 1692’.
These gentlemen will be ‘on parade’ but are excused standing for long periods.
Possibly the world’s oldest ‘drummer boy’ stands in front of the statue of Charles II, the Hospital’s founder, depicted as a Roman general. The 2.3-metre brass statue was executed around 1680 and was originally gilded in bronze. It was subsequently re-gilded in 2002 to commemorate the Queen’s Golden Jubilee.
The parade was taken by the RH’s Quartermaster, Lt Col Nicky Mott (right).
The Royal Armoured Corps was created in 1939, taking all the cavalry regiments (by then mechanised) and the Royal Tank Regiment under its banner. On parade were In-Pensioners with connections to the RAC, serving representatives of the RAC Training Regiment, and representatives of component regiments’ ex-servicemen’s associations. Today, the RAC is divided into regiments which operate main battle tanks (Armour), those in reconnaissance vehicles (Armoured Cavalry), and those in Weapons Mount vehicles (Light Cavalry).
Lt Col Mott and the RAC Corps Sergeant Major, WO1 Scott Robinson, Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, inspect the parade.
A representative of the Royal Tank Regiment Association in conversation with Lt Col Mott.
The gentleman on the left wears parachutist’s ‘wings’ and he looks like he could still make a jump without any problems.
The dining hall, aka ‘The Great Hall’, is also by Sir Christopher Wren. The large mural at the far end of the Hall dates from about 1690 and shows Charles II on horseback with the Royal Hospital in the background.
Royal Tank Regiment Association standards and a Royal Dragoon Guards Association banner outside the chapel.
The Wren chapel of the Royal Hospital was completed in 1687. In the half dome is a painting of The Resurrection.
Gathering to enter the chapel for the RAC Church Service.
After the service, my host, John Walker of the Royal Dragoon Guards Association, took me to see a former member of his original regiment, the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, who is an ‘In-Pensioner’ at the Royal Hospital. Fred Andrews looks like he is in his 60s or 70s – but in fact he is 98. He is also shown in the above parade pictures in his scarlet uniform.
In Fred’s room is a picture of him by one of his grandchildren and a motto illustrating the attitude that keeps him young. However, Fred admits that he may be getting on a bit; he told me that last year he stopped going to the gym.
The museum at the Royal Hospital has interesting exhibits regarding the history of the place but most fascinating are the medals and cap badges belonging to RH Pensioners who have died.
Medals earned by a deceased In-Pensioner, ‘W Webb, Royal Artillery’, on display at the RH Museum.

I photographed Webb’s medals almost at random but, like all the other decorations on display in the museum, the four campaign awards, made smooth by repeated polishing and suspended from ribbons faded by much wearing, all have their own story. On the left is The Queen’s South Africa Medal awarded for service in South Africa during the Second Boer War from 11 October 1899 to 31 May 1902. The medal’s Wikipedia page states:

Poor logistics and disease, combined with having to fight against a disciplined and capable enemy of excellent horsemen and marksmen who perfected guerrilla warfare, made this a hard-won medal…

Notably, Webb’s medal has a bar for the Defence of Ladysmith. Boer forces surrounded the British garrison at Ladysmith in Natal for 118 days and more British soldiers died of disease than of wounds during the siege.

The next three medals are ‘Pip, Squeak and Wilfred’, the affectionate names given to the three First World War campaign medals, that is the 1914 Star or 1914 – 15 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal respectively. Webb has the rarer 1914 or ‘Mons’ Star, not the more common 1914 – 15 Star. This means that he was an ‘Old Contemptible’, one of the members of the small standing British Army that was sent to France on the outbreak of the war that was to be over by Christmas. The German Kaiser allegedly called them ‘a contemptible little army’ but the British Expeditionary Force adopted the insult as a badge of honour. The Mons Star was given to those who had served in France or Belgium between 5 August 1914 and 22 November 1914. The narrow horizontal bronze clasp sewn onto the ribbon and bearing those dates shows that Webb served under fire during that period. The website greatwar.co.uk says:

It should be remembered that recipients of this medal were responsible for assisting the French to hold back the German army while new recruits could be trained and equipped. Collectively, they fully deserve a great deal of honour for their part in the first sixteen weeks of the Great War. This included the battle of Mons, the retreat to the Seine, the battles of Le Cateau, the Marne, the Aisne and the first battle of Ypres.

Thus, after surviving service all over South Africa during the Boer War, Webb also managed to get through the entire 1914 – 1918 conflict alive. This was especially remarkable considering that many of the old professional regular army were dead by 1915. Clearly, Webb – and thousands more like him – more than earned their restful final days enjoying care and comradeship at the Royal Hospital Chelsea.

An early Remembrance Day poppy from the 1920s. It was made of cloth and strengthened with wire along the stem. Picture: Imperial War Museum (EPH 2313).

3 comments

  1. A very in-depth article about things we should know about but probably don’t. Thank you for such a good enlightenment, Tim.

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